How old was Ruth Bader Ginsburg when she had her first baby?
The slender lines of 21 glare back at me milliseconds later. I release a breath I didn’t realize I was holding, take a sip of lukewarm coffee, and try again.
When did Joan Didion adopt Quintana Roo?
The curves of 31 stare back, assertively. I then Google the publication date for Run, River, Didion’s first novel, and do the math, making sure to account that Didion was born in December. (If you, like me, are curious: it was published in 1963; she was 29).
I’m sitting at my computer a lot these days, like many of us, strung between Zoom meetings and the semblance of a PhD dissertation draft taking shape on my screen. Some days it gets claustrophobic, the way the slow drip of writing and the tentacles of pandemia, this borderless landscape, blur the edges of a day until the very unit of a day feels like a myth. And so, I Google.
I am not sure what these numbers are supposed to mean to me, but I archive them on the shelf of my mind devoted to all the questions I don’t know who to ask about motherhood, as if the ages of these women could somehow answer them.
They feel uninhabitable, these questions, and yet they crowd the rooms of my mind until there is space for little else. I try approaching them like I approach other questions, with a rationality (or delusion) that they can be solved—through research or writing. I tell myself my concerns are “twofold” as I draw a line down the center of my notebook. On the left side I write “identity/work”. On the other side I write “having a child…” and my pen keeps moving, “…will render this split-ness—among homes—completely literal…” My attempt to binarize, let alone list, my concerns falls flat. I laugh at the word “twofold.” Multifold? Bottomless?
There are so many more folds. Confronting the question of my own becoming-mother means opening-up to a host of painful uncertain unsolvables—my body, my fertility, my dreams—not to mention the untenable concept of mortality, which has become even more omnipresent during the pandemic. And there are, of course, the other ambivalences: the collective existentialisms. More than one friend has wondered aloud the ethics of having a child amidst climate peril. I watch over the screen, thousands of miles away, the hills I played in as a child in Northern California ablaze, fire season becoming less of a season and more of an epoch.
There is another fold, the one I have been avoiding: the fact of my own immigration. About six months into our living with the virus, the deliberation of when and whether to start “trying” to become a mother has conjured a realization: I haven’t yet processed, let alone fully acknowledged, the fact of my own immigration to Sweden from New York three years prior. I first came to Sweden for fieldwork as an anthropologist. Work always seemed to be pulling me away from home. The field was never supposed to become home, until love entered unexpectedly, itself ripe with the promise of another kind of home. The decision to stay was not one made in an instant but rather in a series of small moments that, in retrospect, felt irreversible. For a time, I sold myself the myth of two homes: here and there, back and forth. Then, Sweden became more of a reality to me during the pandemic because, for a time, I couldn’t leave. And now, I’m beginning to imagine my body as someone else’s future home, whose motherland will be both my womb and not my home country.
I’m not sure why these three—pandemic, motherhood, immigration—decide to braid themselves together, but they do, until I can’t tell where one stops and the other begins. I have trouble deciphering where the anxieties originate—imagining myself as a mother? My relationship with my own mother, thousands of miles away? That my child’s motherland would be different from their mother’s, or her mother’s? Borders enacting themselves as uncrossable? At what point did I start to think about—no, feel—land and nation as markers of identity: mine, not mine?
Even as our geography quickly flattened into the walls of our apartment and onto a screen in those early months, I fasten to the question of place, land, terra. The phrase, terra incognita, percolates in my mind as I grapple to sort out my own cartography of desire. The English cognate, “unknown territory,” feels foreclosing; the word territory connotes possession, belonging, demarcation. Terra, by contrast, feels like an open, vast landscape—ready to be tilled, or burned.
Maybe it took borders closing to assert themselves to me.
Can you be the terra for another life when your own feels shaky beneath your feet?
I think I’m really asking: Can this be a home for a life? Mine, and theirs?
Once, during a guided meditation, the teacher said something about the mind being just a few steps behind the body as the space where we can access “a gripless state of awareness for what is.” Microsoft Word autocorrected “gripless” to “dripless” and I actually quite like it. I am gripping, and my knuckles are white. But the faucet of my mind has run dry, dripless, no longer a stream I can tap into, much less drink from.
This is terra incognita. A parched land of not knowing.
My mother’s mother was 21 when she had my mother, her firstborn. She passed away at just 54 after a midnight fall down the stairs, the cause inconclusive, whispers of a stroke. My mother describes her mother as “an enigma.” She also describes the sense that her mother was possibly too-young to become-mother; that my own mother’s arrival was something for which she wasn’t quite ready. I wonder if there’s something to this that is playing out in my own synapses, my own cells. I wish I could ask her, could write her, could Google her.
When my mother took a pregnancy test at the age of 40, at the urging of her colleagues who suggested her perpetual nausea might be morning sickness, she did it just to assuage them, and with a good dose of self-deprecation. She and my father had tried for a second child for at least ten years after my brother was born, but no baby arrived. For many years, they were happy and scrappy, those three: my brother playing with his Legos under the dining room table as my father wrote his doctoral dissertation and my mother was adjunct faculty lecturing psychology at the community college. Thirteen years after my brother’s birth, they had settled into some form of acceptance he was the one child they would have, and for him they were grateful.
When the pregnancy test read positive, as she told it, after the numbness and disbelief abated, my mother ricocheted between maniacal laughter and flooding of tears. Her whole body shook, or at least I imagine it did. She would always emphasize this part of the story to me: how she laughed, then cried, then laughed, then cried, until the two became the same thing. Laugh, cry, laugh, crylaugh. As a kid, I found this story unrelatable and a little embarrassing. Today, it makes me want to crylaugh, too.
From the moment my conception was made aware to my parents, I was considered a miracle. They always tell me this part, even though other elements of my birth story were foggy (the collateral of being a second child). What does it mean, to be born to parents so in awe that you could exist? It feels like the most easeful entry into the universe, to be so deeply loved and wanted. At the same time, it makes my own maternal ambivalence feel deeply wrong.
21… 40… At 30, I am about to bisect the difference in age between my mother and mother’s mother when they gave birth. At 30, I am nearly the same age my mother was when she lost her mother. At 30, I am standing on the bridge between them, one terra to another.
It’s not just to Google that I outsource my uncertainty. I devour literary accounts of motherhood, particularly narratives of women writers, or women I admire for their art, who are also mothers. I want to know if mother and artist can coexist, and how. I have trouble locating narratives of motherhood that do not involve a sublimation of the self. This terrifies and intrigues me in equal parts.
I read Sheila Heti’s Motherhood, in which she interrogates whether she should have a child while pondering the difference between creating a life and creating art. I understand completely why Heti subcontracts her deliberation and ambivalence about motherhood to the I Ching, an ancient Chinese practice of divination, diluting the wildly untenable into a matrix: yes, or no. I read Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work, a controversially honest portrayal of the isolation and boredom of pregnancy and early motherhood, and am both frightened and grateful, as if I am being let onto an age-old secret. I read Kate Zambreno’s meandering, circular musings on creative obsession in Drifts and can’t help but admit that the gnawing nothingness of the narrative becomes something, something interesting at that, when the narrator becomes pregnant. All of them—Heti, Cusk, Zambreno—seem to be pointing to a central tension of creativity: art, child, and the suggestion that the two threaten each other’s existence. The through line is the identity of writer, mother, in flux.
As I devour these accounts, I write compulsively; my words traipse and trip over themselves self-consciously without destination. Underneath them, I bury the secret that I want to birth a book as much as I crave to birth a child, maybe more. And it is not the book I am currently writing, the ethnographic monograph I am told will be my passport to another unknown land I feel ambivalent about: a career in academia. It is another book entirely. Book and baby become entangled in my mind, as if the two could not coexist.
Writing has always been a way to pinch myself awake, to freeze on the page a quickly disappearing self. I feel an urge to gather this girlwoman on the page before she disappears or sublimates into something else. I tell myself that I only have up to the day I give birth, as some sort of creative expiration date, a point of no return. This urgency conceals a fear that I won’t know myself, won’t recognise myself, because I feel so foreign, because I will have already crossed over to a land from which one can never return.
Is sublimation something to fear?
Before I met Tobias, I had imagined myself as a someday-mother, but only ever obtusely, a terra I would only know once I traversed it: a not-here, not-yet place. One of the many things I love about Tobias, which first startled me but also drew me to him, is his utter directness. It’s a quality often attributed to Swedes—an economy of words, an unwillingness to dance around gesticulating here and there and anywhere but toward the point itself. There’s a softness to his rawness and directness that makes you want to trust him more, not less. Loving him has taught me that asserting one’s own edges need not be sharp, need not be cutting.
One thing Tobias has always been utterly open with me about is his intention to become a father. “We talk so much about ‘baby-fever’ as something that happens to women,” he lamented to me one evening, “But there’s no language for when a man longs for a child in this way.” His eyes looked deeply sad, like he was trapped in a place I could not reach. It was the same look he wore when he told me about being turned away from au pair positions in the US as a teenager because he was a guy, the exchange program explaining, “parents don’t tend to trust male au pairs as much.”
The fact of our different citizenships was always humming in the background. And the eight years separating us were just enough to be significant, depending on the day or the mood. “You and I make a great coalition,” he told me once, “Our two countries. You’re the fighter jet. I am the steam barge.” Neither of these were on land.
Our choice to be together was a willful freedive into uncertainty, patience, and flexibility, undergirded by a mutual understanding we needed space and time to write the story that was uniquely ours. And still, I see Tobias, eight years older than me, grappling with his own sense of a clock which exists slightly outside the kinds of “biological clocks” we talk about when we talk about parenthood, the kinds which have to do with eggs and the chronology of fertility drawn onto people with uteruses. It makes me ache for him, which makes me ache for myself in different ways, and some days I do not know what to do with all this ache.
Tobias’ determination to become a father is beautiful and endearing and, at times, intimidating. With children, he is tender and completely present. He gets down on their level, hoists them up and walks around pointing at things in the big world, looking into their eyes, asking them questions. His hands are large and strong and safe, his touch gentle and playful and secure, like the rest of him. Friends have told me, “He is made for this.” I try not to make these statements also about me, as if my own being-made-for-this were up for debate. Tobias’ longing to be a parent is a mirror, reflecting the ambivalence of my own. I am longing for so much these days—my own parents, my family of origin, my homeland, the abstract concept of home—but the longing for a child of our own still seems like it has yet to catch up to me.
Is wanting your husband to experience being a father the same thing as wanting to be a mother? I want to ask Google, I want to ask the I Ching, I want to ask all the women who quietly wondered this or so much else, whose questions were stifled by the weight of everything unspoken.
Our first big fight, the one that threatened to call us into question, came a year into our relationship in early 2019, before our pandemic elopement. Friends were having kids left and right, it seemed, and it felt like we were staring back at the world our peers inhabited from the other side of a glass pane, the script of a life that could have been ours. “I need to know if this is something on the horizon for us,” Tobias said.
But just the day prior, I learned my research visa had been denied renewal, my legal right to stay in Sweden called into question, and I was livid at everything, especially him, for reflecting all the ways I hadn’t quite caught up to myself yet, for forcing my heart to make an impossible choice it had already unquestionably made, namely that this right here with him was becoming my home.
“I refuse to make up for the life you thought you’d be living by now,” the words burned my esophagus on their way out as I shut the door. As the satisfaction of its slam like an exclamation point at the end of my cold words dissipated, I realized I had nowhere to go. I ambled purposelessly into the already-dark frigid Swedish winter afternoon without destination, just trying to make a point with my absence.
“I refuse to make up for the life you thought you’d be living by now.”
I wondered if I was speaking not to Tobias, but to myself.
How old were you when you realized that the morning after pill doesn’t work after ovulati—
I started to type into Google. I still wonder who the “you” was. I was 28 and had just learned that morning.
Like many, my foray into the unknown land of fertility was the first time I apprehended how little I was taught about my own body. And this makes me angry in ways I am still unpacking. My 9th-grade “Sex Ed” class was taught by our white heterosexual cis-male track coach. It had very little to do with sex or ed and very much to do with policing bodies with uteruses. After ten years of suppressing my cycle (and the amenorrheic consequences of an eating disorder) via birth control, I learned from Google that the morning after pill doesn’t work after ovulation, or rather, only works for several days of the month.
I decided it was worth the shot that day. I walked to the apotek (pharmacy) to the aisle with condoms and tampons (yes of course they are next to each other) and picked out a card with the label: Levodonna, levonorgestrel 1,5 mg. The name sounded beautiful and potent, like a poisonous flower. I slid the card to the cashier without words, like we were dealing in a secret currency, relieved not to have to ask specifically for “Plan B” as one does at U.S. pharmacies. I was also relieved to find when the cashier rang me up that in Sweden this pill is $15, not $50.
Fourteen days later, I bled an exhale of relief.
More things not taught to me in Sex Ed:
That a fetus is born with all the eggs they will ever carry, inside.
That what this means is I, or at least the half of me that comes from my mother’s DNA, once lived within my maternal grandmother.
That even though I never got to meet her, earthside, we shared primordial space. That before I took form in the geography of my mother, my grandmother was my first terra.
How can it be that I never met my mother’s mother, although I did reside within her, on the most microscopic cellular of levels?
In Swedish, there is a word for those of us who are born to older parents, much later than our older siblings. The qualifier is at least ten years separating the siblings. “Sladdbarn,” quite literally translated to “cord child,” meaning the child that comes at the end of the cord. “Sladdis” for short.
Sladdis describes Tobias, 10 and 11 years his two sisters’ junior, respectively, and me, 13 years my brother’s. And, as it were, a string of relatives—my aunt, my mother, my great uncle, my grandmother—all spaced between 10 and 15 years apart: a generational hopscotch. I come from a long line of sladdisar.
As is sometimes the case with learning another language beyond one’s mother tongue, I had felt this word as an unnamed thing before I learned to say it. It manifested in an overwhelming sense we all were running out of time. I wonder about this cord, and the way it ties me to my parents, my parents to me, in particular ways. And just how long it stretches. How afraid I am of it fraying. Of me fraying it.
Over Zoom, 5,000 miles apart, I study my parents’ faces through the screen, noting every new wrinkle, new crease. My father’s hair looks whiter, but I don’t know if that’s the overexposed webcam. My mother tells me she’s trimmed it (his hair); he tells me she would never dare to let him trim hers. They laugh. Meanwhile, I am still searching for signs of time in their faces. A hummingbird stops by to sip from the feeder outside their window, behind the screen in their real world, their real home, the one where I am not. It momentarily steals their attention. Their faces light up as they crane their necks to peer outside, and suddenly they look younger, the corners of their heads disappearing from the confines of the screen as a small voice inside me begs “don’t leave.”
Today, they seem to be doing alright. On days like this I can exhale. It’s not always this way. Just a few days earlier, my mother had said, her voice exhausted with longing, “I just want to see where you live.” It had been two years since they had visited me in Sweden, and Tobias and I had just moved to a part of the country they had never been, and then could not reach.
Her words pierced the deep place within me where guilt was always quietly gnawing. The guilt-voice spat — What kind of daughter does this to her aging parents—goes to a place they cannot get to?
What kind of mother, daughter, wife, goes to a place that no one else can reach?
Somewhere inside me knows this sense of unreachability was exacerbated by the pandemic, by borders reinscribing themselves as real in ways that they hadn’t for us prior, that it was all temporary, but still, it haunted me. And beneath that nagged a sense that the time my parents would have with a child of my own was dwindling.
“We make the best decision we can based on what we know under the conditions at that time,” was one of my father’s go-to adages about life. “And then, when things change, we reassess.”
“Maybe that’s the point of family,” Tobias said to me once, after a particularly heavy conversation about our parents. “To get us to our next one.”
“It’s different in Sweden.” My Swedish husband and everyone else who lives here explain this to me. By “it” they mean many things, and not just that dispensable cheese comes in toothpaste-like tubes, or that daylight vacillates from five to 20 hours a day depending on the tilt of the earth’s axis. They also mean 480 days of paid parental leave per child. That each parent, if there are two, is entitled to half those days. Free education, all the way through college, universal healthcare. Monthly stipend checks from the government per child. The parenthood my husband is imagining is not the structural model of parenthood I can fathom. It is all, like many things about Sweden, too good to be true, in a way that feels inconceivable.
I have trouble grasping this could be my future, and while part of me feels a sense of unfathomable fortune, another part feels like a traitor. I do not tell my friend in the US who has just given birth and is still healing while fighting for two more weeks of paid leave her employer calls “disability.” I think about my own mother working throughout my infancy and childhood, years and years and years of work written on a college paycheck. I think about my mother’s mother foregoing employment to be a housewife in the 50’s, the stack of books by her bed piled high for after the children went to sleep. I think about Joe Manchin and the nerve to vote down 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave, keeping America one of the few countries on this globe without it. I think about the overturn of Roe v. Wade and suddenly my ambivalence feels like a luxury. The possibility I as-mother may bypass this level of sacrifice and sublimation, feels overwhelming and almost egregious. It stands as a cliff between me and all the mothers I love.
What is universal about motherhood, and what is conditioned by the local, the cultural, the situational?
I am asking not as an anthropologist but as a someday-mother straddling worlds and ways of being.
Everyone is pregnant. Either that or pushing a stroller. That’s how it feels at least, as I look around the streets of Malmö on a Saturday afternoon, perched outside a café. I’ve heard about this phenomenon: once you welcome into your heart the idea of potentially having a baby, you notice pregnant people everywhere.
On the corner of Folkets Park, I see yet another one: a woman, pushing a bassinet, her stomach round with the promise of life. I find myself wondering if she’s close to due, and what could possibly be in the bassinet except for another infant. When she passes me, and I peer not unnoticeably into the carriage, I see no baby. The bassinet is filled with flowers—the kind that are ready to go into the earth to plant, not the kind you set on a table for two weeks: the ones you have longer hopes for. Is there a name for those—flowers ready for earth? At first glance it’s unbelievably poetic — flowers ready for earth, a life ready for planting. I indulge in the fantasy of imagining this woman’s life. Is she practicing what it’s going to be like, to push around flowers of another form, of her very own, in just a few weeks?
I want to ask her.
Or maybe I should start pushing flowers around, to see how it feels.
Maybe that would help me know when and where to plant them.
Rumpus original art by Dmitry Samarov