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Women with Big Dogs (and infertility)

My husband and I were turning thirty. We'd been married for five years or so and the families had the grandchild bug bad. Both of our sisters had recently presented the Most Perfect Precious little baby girls ever born, and our parents figured, based on our niece's extreme level of adorable and intelligent, that their children (meaning us) were capable of producing wonderful babies, the best kind of baby: the sort who does cute and then goes home with their parents. Everyone loves a child whose diaper, feeding, and crying all night is not their problem.

Until you actually become a parent, you really have no idea how much work the care and feeding of a baby will seem like to you. Every parent has a big job ahead of him and her, but some of us are lazier and more self-indulgent than others.

But you never know that, really, before.

So, one day, after caring for our two nieces---at the same time---we figured we were ready for kids.

What's the saying? God laughs at those who make plans. Well, His stomach must have been awfully sore at each and every thought of us.

Let's have a baby, we said to each other, rather smugly and self-congratulatorily.

This is how it works, and I know this is fact because the very gruff and red-faced assistant football coach told me so in high school health class (as if we hadn't wondered about sex well before that sophomore year): if you have sex, you get pregnant.

Just like that.

Barring getting pregnant, you get a disease, a terrible one that makes all your limbs fall off and your brain rot---after you go crazy because you aren't emotionally ready. Or God smites you with a bolt of lightning or a crazed mask wearing killer gets you while you are creeping, in a short t-shirt, down a darkened hallway.

And you should hope for one of the last two cases because having a baby as a teen or getting a sexually transmitted disease as a teen is the very worst thing that could ever happen to you in your life and your entire life is down the toilet, forevermore. Caw Caw.

It should be no wonder, then, that an entire generation of people waited until 35 on average to have children, if they escaped the Health Ed Coach's Curse, that is.

We all understood, from our divorced Boomer parents and our teachers, that becoming a parent ruins your life in horrible, horrible ways.

Nevertheless, as we transitioned from the "Teen, Take 2" Twenties into the "It's About Damn Time You Two Settled Down and Grew Up" Thirties, we forgot those lessons in the face of the beautiful reality of parenthood.

We wanted in to the club.

Unfortunately, our application? Was denied.

After the first year of Trying To Conceive (this is the official title of that phase, I know because iVillage says so)---arguably my husband's favorite part of our marriage ever---we started thinking, umm, maybe the coach got it wrong.

Meanwhile, everyone around us wondered if we got it wrong.

"How are you doing it?" someone asked me once. "Maybe you're doing it wrong," someone else said to me.

I'm not kidding. I am completely incapable of making up the ridiculous on the fly.

Then other people told us we needed to relax, take a vacation, quit thinking about it, use a pillow, and other graphic suggestions that really? I have a right to not know they know.

Infertility gave us our first inkling that parenting may not necessarily take a village, but the village doesn't know that. They all think it's all their business.

Infertility also gave us the skill of positive redirection. My husband and I both became workaholics. By God, maybe I couldn't produce a baby but I would produce three of the top ten bestsellers for my publishing company that year. My husband decided to become a bi-continent worker.

And we got a dog.

A puppy, actually. A round, roly, lovely chocolate Lab puppy.

As we waited for our puppy to reach the magical "ready to be adopted" age, we shared with family and friends that we'd have a dog soon. We were so happy to have good news to share, about an expectant event. Our friends and family were so happy to have good news to express joy over, about an expectant event. We were very pleased with ourselves, and everyone relished the break in the "no news is bad news" phase we'd been loitering for a few years too long.

Except one person: my friend Cate was appalled.

"Tell me you did not get that dog in place of a child," she said.

"Don't all people get pets in place of children?" I asked, "I mean, in suburban middle-class America, where dogs just are, versus other places where they have an actual function other than sponge to soak up family's affection and spoiling?"

"We're going to the lake," Cate said, "You need to see what life with a dog really is."

Cate meant Lake Winnapausakee, otherwise known as Golden Pond. We'd spend a nice long weekend enjoying the beauty of the lake and soaking up sun, but first, we had to drop by her in-laws for a visit.

As Cate's little station wagon---her two dogs in the back, my husband in the middle, and me up front---jounced along the unpaved long drive to the house, Cate said, "Okay, we need to get our stories straight."

"Our stories?" I asked.

"Yes, how we met," she said.

"Umm, we met in the infertility group," I said.

"Yes, but we can never, ever say that," Cate said.

Cate was openly gay, living in a long-term committed relationship with her partner. They were both honest with their families, friends, neighbors, and everyone who knew them.

But we had to hide our infertility.

She was willing to let everyone know about her homosexuality, with pride.

But infertility? Needed to stay a dirty little secret.

That's what it was.

And that's how it felt.

Like a secret shame.

Shame and dirty little secrets lead to lies.

So we lied. I'm a horrible, horrible liar. I blushed, stammered and nearly blew it. But we got our "story" straight.

No pun intended.

But it's a fact: the infertile are defective.

We are also screwed.

No pun intended.

After the second year of infertility, when the doctor said something about anovulatory, I had this flash where I thought, "Oh, my gosh, all that wasted opportunity!" I thought back on high school and college. Then I thought about the bottom line. "Oh NO! All that money spent on birth control! I could have a second house in the mountains of France by now!"

We are also the ones who break all the comfortable little maxims.

This makes people angry at us, at least I think so. People don't like to be troubled with other people's troubles, other people's long-term grief. They don't like it when bad things happen to good people because it makes them ask too many questions of themselves and their beliefs. They don't like long-term support. They get impatient for you to wrap up your problem and tie it off with a nice bow, stick a card on it that says "Finally Finished! And moving on, back to Normal!"

Before that though, they get impatient and angry with you. You can tell when people hit this state because they start with pat answers to you when you talk to them.

"Maybe it's not meant to be."
"God must have another plan for you."
"There are millions of children who need good homes, you should foster or adopt."
"You should get a dog."

Sometimes it takes people five minutes, other times they can hang in for years, but then drop off.

In the end, though, we got lucky. We lived in Massachusetts, which happens to be a state that believes access to health care, for any and all health woes, is a right. The great and mighty Commonwealth of Massachusetts provided us full access to the highest quality reproductive endocrinology available.

That's why I say my daughters were gifted to us by the state of Massachusetts.

People always want to hear my birth story. Less and less now, as the kids are older, but it still comes up.

It's sort of like people wanting to know how my husband and I met. It's a cute story: we met in our astronomy class the first semester of my freshman year of college.

That's just a pat one-liner. the real story is much more complicated (and in my mind, more entertaining, because it involves Mardi Gras, a drunk guy I ran into on Bourbon Street who I'd known since childhood, Tulane Law School parties, that guy from Brandeis, and Robert Goulet.)

But nobody ever asks about that part, you know the part that answers this question: how in the world have you two been together for so long, and married for sixteen years?

(Or better yet: Robert Goulet? How long ago were you in college, exactly?)

But that's always the real story.

I can't tell the birth story without choking back the real story, the one that answers the real question: how did you become a mother? Because the birth story is completely not the answer to that.

Also, actually, in some way, I hate my birth stories. The first one was remarkably hard, and I thought I might die. That part I didn't care about, because then I thought my baby might die and it would be all my fault. I failed at the getting pregnant right part, and now I was failing at the giving birth right part.

But I was lucky. All through my pregnancy I'd had excellent health care. I was Mature (which is code for "over thirty first time mom"), married, solid income, a house, health insurance, and access to a great system that was the exact model President Obama wants all over the country: completely high-tech and computerized and interconnected. Let me tell you? It works, great.

You want it---truly you do, and I don't care what political party you vote for. You want that health care, even more than you want a new ultra light and thin plasma TV. Or that house in the mountains of France.

Because of that health care, I got pregnant. Because of that health care, we saved that pregnancy. Twice. Because of that health care, we saved me, once. Because of that health care, my baby was born healthy and fine. because of that health care, my baby was cared for after birth as she needed to be.

Because of that health care, I had weekly nurse support for a full year after I gave birth. Because of that health care, I was a better mom, and less women had post-partum physical and emotional issues.

Because of that health care, I got pregnant again.

That's a really funny story.

But you can't hear it right now.

Instead I'm going to tell you that during that pregnancy we moved to Texas, where I no longer had access to that health care.

First, in Texas, the insurance company got to exclude my pregnancy and offer no prenatal or postnatal care at all.

When we were finally able to close our jaws after that shock, we checked costs, and found it was cheaper to pay for COBRA to maintain our Massachusetts health care, than to pay out of pocket.

If any of you know about COBRA, you should now be mouth agape.

We were glad we kept our insurance, though, because then I had trouble in that pregnancy and had to be hospitalized, and then put on bedrest.

Imagine paying for that out of pocket.

Instead of choosing whether or not to get the best care for me and the baby, based on what we could afford, we just did the best thing we needed to do in order to preserve my health and the baby's life.

I can't even imagine where our family would be if we had not had that health care. We'd probably be a family of three instead fo four, and we'd probably be living with relatives because we probably would have had to sell our house to pay for medical debt.

This morning, as I did my laps, I thought about my story, and its other possible outcomes. Despite the 80 degree heat and 84% humidity, I felt chilled.

We were so, so lucky. We were lucky to live in Massachusetts where we got great health care. I didn't know anyone who had troubles or complained about health care, because everyone had access to it there.

We were lucky we could keep that health coverage when we moved to Texas. Here, everyone complains about health care. Here, I hear about troubles with access to health care.

Lives hang in the balance. This isn't about entitlement or pull yourself up by your bootstraps. This is about women and children, and little babies. Babies who were made and are coming and deserve the very best chance available.

My babies did, and I am thankful every day for it.

That weekend at Lake Winnipesaukee, I convinced Cate that I was a woman worthy of a big dog. The truth is, everyone who is going to have a child should get an audition weekend like Cate gave us for the dog.

I proved I could hide pills in peanut butter, remember the care and feeding instructions, and throw a ball out in the water for fetch.

Luckily I still retain those skills.

I earned my big dog, and my status as dog mom, and I earned my babies, and my status as human mom.

But you don't know that---my whole story. You don't know how or why I am a woman with a big dog going in laps on a track. Or how I became a woman with two girls in the back seat of my car.

And if you ask, for my birth or "coming into motherhood" story, what you probably really want is a magical realism description of that moment when I first held my baby.

You don't want to hear about the infertility, the challenges in my pregnancies, the hard labor, or how access to good health care saved our lives.

But that's the real story---and it is the one that spotlights the making of me as a mother. It is the one that shines the light on how essential it is that all women have access to what I had.

Join MOMocrats as we support the White Ribbon Alliance's efforts to help save mothers and babies through access to health care with their "Every Day is Mother's Day" campaign.

Write your own post, and we'll do a link love post on Mother's Day at MOMocrats.

FREE! A GIVEAWAY! And if you comment here, I'll enter your name in a drawing for a brand new DVD of Dog Days of Summer, which has been called a "brilliant film" that is a "tense Southern Gothic slice of literature."


Magpie said…
Julie, Julie.

This is a great piece. Thank you.
Madge said…
wonderful wonderful post... thank you.
alejna said…
Thank you for sharing this very personal story. You are wonderful.

It continues to shock me that so many people can't afford adequate healthcare in this country. Things have got to change.
MommyTime said…
I have long thought (well, for about five years and four months, which is exactly how old my son is) that we do not have much truth in the cultural narratives about what it means to become and then to be a mother. There are lots of soft focus photographs and aphoristic maxims that stand for mothering. And even though there are an exponentially growing number of message boards and online forums and books with titles like Pregnancy Sucks!, they largely tend somehow to make light of the serious difficulties or elide the hardest questions. And, there is always that lurking feeling that even if a few readers agree with you, you are all still in the minority. As if somewhere there is a "majority" of women sitting dreamily in rocking chairs nursing perfect babies who sleep well and poop on a schedule and don't screw with their hormones. Whether it's infertility, or lack of medical care, or lack of self-awareness, or the crushing guilt of feeling inadequate for being depressed, there are many many things about our system and our narrative that do a disservice to real women.

Thank you for this post that highlights one part of that. I only wish I'd known you 5+ years ago when a voice like yours would have been so very reassuring.
Her Bad Mother said…
You are awesome. This post is awesome.

YOU are awesome.
Mayberry said…
It IS chilling. Absolutely chilling. I'm so glad it has a happy ending for your family.

I hope someday it will be a happy ending for everyone's family.
Lady M said…
Amazing, amazing post.

My husband recently had surgery, and as I review bills as they pour in, all I can think is to thank god we have health insurance.
Unknown said…
Oh, Julie, Happy Mother's Day to you and your whole family. I love every bit of your story. It is amazing and brave.
Wo-hoo! To Mass health insurance!!!
Anonymous said…
Wow. Great message. Having had one of mine in New Hampshire and one in Texas, I totally get what you're talking about.
jeanie said…
This is a great post, Julie.

Not everyone gets the picture card outcome with motherhood - some in the transit into it, some on the train ride through.
Stephanie said…
First of all, the coach in health class cracked me up. I've said this several times before, too, about scaring us out of sex by lying to us about pregnancy. And the point about why we've all waited so long is really a good one.

My story of moving into motherhood doesn't get told very often, either. I'd given up my career to move with my husband, and worked at Starbucks until the day I gave birth to keep their health insurance (which wasn't that great - we still owe several thousand on my first child's emergency c-section, even with the insurance). I would cry in the bathroom during my 10-minute break because I was so unbearably tired. A woman carrying a full-term baby is not meant for standing on concrete for hours at a time. Nor does she care if your coffee is correct.

Anyway, it's a great piece. Thanks for sharing it.
Jaelithe said…
Thank you, thank you, for all the work you did helping me promote this, and for this lovely post, and for being awesome.
Anonymous said…
Reality is always beautiful, if not also magical realist sometimes in its own way.

Anonymous said…
Reality is always beautiful, if not also magical realist sometimes in its own way.

nonlineargirl said…
Beautifully expressed. Thank you for writing that.

Yesterday the ultrasound tech asked how I came to be carrying twins. "The miracles of modern science" was my reply. My sister thinks she wanted to hear that I am a twin. I think people without infertility issues assume pregnancy for everyone works as your gym teacher suggested.

Off to check out the momocrats effort - quality, affordable health care access being my big issue professionally.
ewe are here said…
Stunning piece. And I for one think MORE people need to read about stories like yours. Wanting children is a natural thing; it's devastating for those who struggle to procreate. And health care should be a right, a human rights issue in fact, not a privilege.

I'm happy and relieved it all worked out for you and your family ... and sad for the far too many people our health care system doesn't look out for.
Hip Mom's Guide said…
What a great post, Julie. Thank you for painting a beautiful picture of what good health care meant for your family and could mean for so many more.
Angela said…
I never really liked Texas when I visited and now I know never to leave Massachusetts. My health insurance now is not as good as it was under an HMO (more forms and having to fight declined claims all the time), but it is still just fine for our family. Thank goodness you were fortunate enough to have been in MA in the beginning.
ConverseMomma said…
I believe that if childbearing was something that white males did in this country, fertility would always be covered, infact, fertility would be cured. I know that probably sounds crazy, but I was labeled infertile, and remember wondering why the doctor wouldn't look me in the eye, or up from the chart as they gave me that as a sentence. I went on to adopt a son, and then give birth to my daughter, both true miracles. This post was really touching and beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing.
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