My pregnancy terrifies me. Joe and I have been married for five years. We are both the oldest children in our families, and each set of our parents has been impatiently waiting for grandchildren. Still, I am not sure I am ready for motherhood. I’m scared about the physicality of growing a human, but I’m also scared that the accomplishments I set out to achieve in life will now never be reached. Before we got married, I left a career as an attorney to write a novel, loosely based on my own experiences as a Korean-American Jew, that utterly refuses to come into being. I would tell Joe that the book was my baby and once it was done, we could start a family. When it seemed the universe had other plans, I peed on four pregnancy tests before I believed the news. Then I took a shower. Afterwards, my husband stroked my wet hair as I cried.
The physical part of my apprehension stems from my mother. For the past thirty-some odd years, my mother has worked as a labor and delivery nurse, and so I knew about the frequency of emergency Caesarians and the miraculous brutality of vaginal birth from a young age. Throughout my childhood, my mother liked to tell stories of patients enormously pregnant, how she would hold onto their swollen feet, coaching them when to push, when to breathe. She delivered tiny preemies to drug addicts and soothed the screams of teenagers as they became bewildered new mothers. Once she assisted with an elective late-term abortion. She told me how she watched the baby dance on the monitor, and that during the procedure she had cried behind her surgical mask.
“I don’t care what anyone says.” She shook her head, still haunted years later. “Everyone deserves a chance to live their life.”
Contemplating my own unwanted pregnancy, I wonder what it means to live a life deserved. As the daughter of an immigrant who tenaciously chased after the American Dream, I was taught that if I worked hard enough, whatever goals I set out to achieve were obtainable. After all, my mother had reached dreams that are incredibly improbable given the circumstances of her birth, so how could I, with all the advantages her hard work and sacrifice has afforded me, fail to secure my own lofty ambitions? I took it on faith that I would publish a book on the dubious principle that I had an MFA in creative writing from a reputable program and a story I wanted to tell. I “deserved” it, or so I thought.
But now my pregnancy feels like a sudden change in course, that I am about to lose my way. And while I certainly recognize that my fears of motherhood are a scapegoat on which to place my unrealized ambitions, I remember, too, how my mother once dreamed of being an artist. Like my mother did, should I let go of the imagined artist’s life I think I deserve and embrace the practical realities actually before me?
My mother graduated from the Red Cross School of Nursing in Seoul. The degree earned her a work visa to the States, but she could not afford the cost of airfare. When she learned of an opportunity to escort Korean children to their adoptive American families, she seized it with the reckless ambition of a twenty-three-year-old who had never left the city where she was born. At Incheon International Airport, she took flight with fifteen orphans and two suitcases. Inside her bags she packed only what she would need to survive, and left behind the objects that had sustained her dreams of immigrating in the first place. There simply was no room for her guitar and paintbrushes among the paraphernalia of her departure.
When my mother talks about leaving her family, her home, her country behind, she seems awestruck by her own naïveté. “My first time airplane ever and it is so overwhelming I don’t think I ever ate that whole time. Twenty-hour flight and just orange juice and water.”
Despite three decades of strenuous nursing work, chaperoning the orphans, my mother claims, was the hardest job of her life. The agency had hired only one other escort to accompany the children and adoption coordinator to America. The ratio was five kids per adult. My mother was responsible for infant care, but on the flight she befriended the oldest child, a nine-year-old girl whose name my mother can no longer remember, though her adoptive family probably changed it anyway. When my mother fed a baby, the orphan girl wanted to hold the bottle. If my mother changed a diaper, the girl would ask, “Older sister, what can I do?” As they flew across the Pacific, the girl spoke cheerfully about what she dreamed for her American life, her American family. When my mother said she was impressed by the girl’s confidence, the orphan answered with the same blind certainty my mother recognized in herself: “I will do well.”
My mother was the daughter of an orphan, so it seems fitting that her journey to a more promising future involved this link to the past. Her mother, my grandmother, had been the oldest child of a wealthy family that owned land on Daebudo Island. When a typhoid plague killed her parents, an uncle came to the island to manage the estate but kept the family fortune for himself. Disinherited, my grandmother married a policeman and moved to Seoul, where she struggled to survive in a country freshly torn by war.
Growing up in the shadow of these hardships, my mother was poor and malnourished. Classmates would call her “kalbi-ji.”
“Kalbi means rib,” she explained. “I was so skinny you could count my bones.”
And so, it does not surprise me that from a young age my mother imagined a different kind of life. Hers were bohemian fantasies of watercolor and song. She dreamed she would leave Korea for France. She would play her guitar in the streets of Paris and paint along the Seine. As she got older, however, practical considerations took root. No one was offering starving artists visas to immigrate. Ultimately, what she wanted more than to paint or make music was to follow the spirit of adventure wherever it would take her, so long as it was away from her motherland.
“Once I decided to become a nurse,” she told me, “no more time for so many dreams. Now I only have eyes for one dream: America.”
When I tell her I am pregnant, I think about my mother’s first flight, what she gained and what she left behind.
“This is better than good news,” she says, literally jumping up and down. “It lifts me up to the sky.”
Because of my mother’s nursing background, I grant her request to come to my first OB appointment. She and my husband sit in the waiting room while I go back to be weighed, have my blood pressure recorded. In the month since learning I was pregnant, my perspective on motherhood has shifted. Maybe it’s the hormones, but having a baby no longer seems like an obstacle to my dream of becoming a writer. Instead, raising a child seems like an opportunity to cultivate wonder in another human being. Is that not, after all, the purpose of storytelling? I have become obsessed with reading about fetal development, delighting in the figurative language that compares the growth of my child to types of food.
Your baby is the size of a poppy seed, a peppercorn, a cranberry bean.
I have suffered no morning sickness, a surprise because my mother endured intense nausea when she carried me. Instead, insomnia and wild dreams infuse my nights. In the mornings I find myself smiling at strangers, surprised that something still invisible to the outside world makes me feel somehow special. Inside the dark space of me, my baby has webbed fingers and toes. I picture a tiny alien, dancing.
When my OB enters the room, she greets me warmly. It is my first time in her office, but I have known Dr. B. since I was thirteen. The mother of my closest friend, I have slept in her house, devoured the rajma and chapattis Dr. B. makes from scratch. Seeing her now, coating my stomach with ultrasound jelly, I remember standing in her kitchen as Dr. B. lamented how hard it was to raise her children in a country so far from her parents. She had described the sense of disconnection: long-distance calls were expensive, and news came through the mail weeks after the precipitating event had occurred.
“Back then, everything was letters,” she had said in a voice colored with competing hues of nostalgia for the past and gratitude for present circumstance. Remembering this, I am grateful my mother is close, just down the hall.
The image of my uterus on the monitor is black and nebulous, a wormhole into another universe. You are entering uncharted territory, I tell myself, as if I were aboard a space ship seeking out new life and strange new worlds.
“Normally there would be a heartbeat,” Dr. B. says, while I am trying to pinpoint whether ultrasound fluid has an odor. I read somewhere that it smells like Dr. Pepper, but my nose must not be discerning. I cannot smell a thing. It isn’t until Dr. B. repeats herself that I catch the worry in her tone. “I should be able to see very clearly a heartbeat.”
She is apologetic about the limitations of this particular machine. She wants to send me to the hospital down the road where their equipment is more sensitive. I can see her struggling with how to present this news because her personal interest in my wellbeing is at odds with her professional training. She does not want to give me false hope, but her own hope persists. I cling to nonchalance.
“It’s okay,” I keep saying.
She expects a bigger reaction. She references other patients who could not handle the shock as if to give me permission to break down. She alludes to next steps, assuring me that if the other machine does detect a heartbeat, there is every reason to believe the baby will be perfectly healthy, but we both already know the life inside me is gone.
Before bringing Joe and my mother into the examination room, Dr. B. says she is sorry again. She pats my leg.
“You are like my daughter. I watched you grow up. You are the same.”
Her words cinch my persistent, beating heart. I cry a little then and she leaves. I cannot hear what Dr. B. says in the hallway, but my mother’s disbelief finds its way to me.
“You’re kidding,” she says.
I knuckle the tears from the corners of my eyes. When they enter the room, Joe looks at me as if for guidance on how to react, as if how he feels about this news is conditional on my own response. He seems so boyish and uncertain and my love for him swells. I sit on my hands, palms pressed to the thin paper on the examination table. It crinkles under my weight but does not tear.
When my mother arrived at LAX airport that winter of 1978, she had to coordinate which orphan belonged to which adoptive parents. The wonder of arriving in a new country was overshadowed by the incredible responsibility of uniting a family. Then another. Then another.
“You know what I was thinking that time watching them go?” she said, describing the process so I could record and fictionalize it for my novel. “I think, oh my god, what will their life be? Will they be successful? Will they be happy? All those children I’m still wondering about today. More than thirty years since then, so they must be now all grown up. I don’t know where they are, but I think about them constantly. Are they some famous Korean actor, or doctor, lawyer, or some criminal in deep, deep trouble? Are some of them married too or not? Falling in love? I hope so. I hope they are all falling in love at least.”
Although I have since abandoned the novel—it is an orphan in a desk drawer—I am grateful I had interviewed my mother about her immigration story, or as she puts it, “the way I came to America.” I love the way she tells the story, her sentences halting in their imperfect grammar. Her journey both pains and comforts me in the aftershock of my doctor’s appointment. Such sacrifices my mother made to give me a life free from the hardships she had endured. And here I am, so quick to crumble—turns out I’m not cut out for writing books, I tell myself, resigned. And I question how both the pregnancy and miscarriage have shifted my perspective on having children. Do I want kids? Should I try again? Could I handle another loss? I wish I had inherited more of my mother’s resilience in chasing after her dreams.
In the eight days between my OB appointment and the D&C procedure I eat food as if it were punishment. I eat so much that my belly button hurts, stretched and tender from the sudden dome of my stomach. I cry at night and in the shower and eating cereal and watching commercials. In a restaurant bathroom there is a changing table, and I cry in the stall quietly because there are other women there, just beyond the door. My grief is unnerving because I do not feel entitled to it.
Over lunch, I tell Dr. B.’s daughter that as far as bad medical news goes, there are graver injuries. “I’m lucky,” I say, “that this is the worst thing that’s ever happened to me.” I think about hopeful parents who try desperately for children. The accident of my own failed pregnancy. If miscarriage is a statistical certainty, might as well be me. I’m due some suffering in life.
My friend blinks at me. “Yeah, but it is still the worst thing that’s ever happened to you.”
The operation is on a Tuesday. I fast. No food. No water. My stomach is grateful for the reprieve. At the hospital my wedding ring and other valuables go into a Ziploc bag. I am made anonymous. A body without relics. The nurses are attentive and kind, though they keep telling me what happened is not my fault with such frequency that I start to feel guilty.
“Some of us know what you’re going through,” the woman taking my blood pressure whispers. A curtain surrounds us, dimming the light. My voice has become unreliable, so I nod, not wanting her to go on. “I had one and four healthy babies after. It is really common. Working here, you realize what a miracle this all is.”
Such responses will become familiar. When I tell people about the miscarriage they inevitability say, “I’m sorry,” and “People don’t talk about it,” and, “It really is common.” They will say this a lot. That it is common. I know this phrase is offered in good nature so I won’t feel like an anomaly, but I am skeptical. What does it mean to belong to a club whose members do not know each other? And while I understand the secrecy surrounding miscarriage—it is hard to quantify what’s been lost—because people don’t talk about it, I am lonely.
Of course the catch is that I don’t want to talk about it either. I want to curl my body around my grief. Feed it warm milk and stroke its hair. A part of me understands that what I am grieving for is not a person, but an idea, a lost dream. There is nothing to bury.
After the removal of my “uterine contents” (everything is letters euphemistically rearranged) I take the blue hospital socks with me. They have white grippes on both sides. During my recovery, I pull them on dutifully each morning, these morbid slippers of sorrow. I tell myself, “A weight has been lifted,” then wonder if a thought is cliché if it is literally true.
Your baby is the size of a prune.
I imagine biting into my sadness, sticky and withered.
At the end of the story, my mother always returns to the orphan girl, the one who spoke so confidently about her future. On the plane, the girl had described in great detail how she dreamed about a beautiful blond American mother with blue eyes. But at LAX, upon meeting her family for the first time, they were different from the stereotype she had held in her mind.
“They were big, fat American man and woman,” my mother too candidly described. “When I see them I am shocked.”
Because my mother did not have a strong command of English at that time, it was the adoption coordinator who made the introductions. Holding my mother’s hand, the orphan turned to her and asked, eyes wide, “Is that my mother and father?”
When my mother nodded, the girl started crying and crying. “She became like a different person totally.”
I understand the girl’s transformation now more than I did when my mother first told me the story. It used to bother me, the petty vanity that both my mother and the orphan used to judge this bighearted couple, who must have been so nervous, so hopeful to invite this strange child into their lives. But, I no longer think their appearances were what really frightened the girl. It is overwhelming to be struck by the sudden discord of dream and reality. To discover that the imagined life inside you will not come into being. When the girl met her parents for the first time, it finally hit her that she had no common language with which to communicate, that everything was not going to be as easy as she thought.
As her adoptive parents extended their arms, the girl screamed, “‘No, no, no, no!’” She clutched tighter to my mother’s hand until the adoption coordinator came to help pull her away. Even then, the girl would not let go.
In the chaos at the airport my mother told the orphan not to cry. She explained how sometimes the shape of your life is different from what you have imagined. Sometimes you have to change course, and still go boldly on.
“Remember?” she said. “You have a dream for your life. You will do so well.”’
Rumpus original art by Briana Finegan.