Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Using my Digging Stick

Written for a blogging friend who has had a miscarriage and another who must have an hysterectomy.
We were going to be a four child family. It was in The Plan, along with establishing careers and setting up a lifestyle that included lots of outdoor activities. The first half had been accomplished -- two beautiful, healthy babies as close together as possible, one career on track and one avocation established, recreational land purchased and weekend home built. The first two kids were in school and old enough to do a lot of things for themselves.

The joker in the woodpile was a negative Rhesus factor. Mine. Antibodies built up and up and up, and for that and other unassailably good reasons (or so I thought at the time and still, in the main, support) I found myself, in my late thirties, in a doctor's office signing up for a tubal ligation. I hated the man at first sight and his questions and comments to me confirmed my instant reaction. 'Do you not want a son?' he asked. Later, while I was on the examination table with my feet in stirrups and his very cold fingers in most uncomfortable places he remarked, 'I will have to have your husband's permission, you know, for this procedure.' Fuming, I convinced him that he was not going to get my husband's permission and I stayed with him for the simple reason that at the time he was the only doctor in our city doing tubal ligation through the vaginal wall and it seemed like the best procedure. I didn't realize that what I hated was the decision, not the doctor.

And so I 'got my tubes tied'. And I thought it would be no big deal. No incision. No more danger of miscarriage. No more birth control. I was free. The day after my surgery I forged off into the scrum and did most of my Christmas shopping, then did all the Christmas stuff you do with two kids and an extended family, hosted the dinner, did the school holiday sports stuff. After the girls went back to school in January, there was time for what I had done to sink in and I collapsed into a puddle of misery.

The only grief I can compare it to was what I felt when I lost my adored mother. But this grief was keener, the knife edged with poison, because I had done it to myself. Hindsight tells me that part of the problem was the obvious; I was exhausted. But the babies who would never be were ghosts in the daylight and haunted my dreams at night. No chance now of the son who would have my father's eyes and gentle humour and whom we had planned to bear his name. No chance now of another little one, a unique combination of genes, whom we would meet with fascination and joy. No little round head in the crook of my arm, relaxing into satiated sleep. No next one.

In her post about her upcoming hysterectomy, Slouching Mom wrote this heart tearing paragraph:

Because someday you might be in my shoes, and you'll have so many regrets, regrets about the moments you didn't enjoy your babies, because you always believed that there'd be another chance to be a better, wiser, kinder, gentler mother, that no matter how many mistakes you made with your first and second children, there was always the promise of a third child, the one you'd more perfectly parent. That's why (isn't it?) after a particularly trying battle with a child who hadn't yet attained the age of reason, you so often found yourself muttering, "I have to remember not to do this the same way with the next one."

I don't know how it feels to have fertility slowly slip away in the menopause years. I read the things that women write as it happens and I read what is written about this slow, irrevocable loss, and I can't relate. But oh, I can relate to you whose miscarriage was your last try and I can relate to you whose body has to go under the knife to save your health. There is no pain like it.

It passes, that pain. The ghost babies fade away and other joys make themselves known. When your children are grown, all children become, in some sense, yours and there is a solid comfort in working for the community and making a difference in the lives of the little ones. And of their mothers, who are the same age as the children you did not have.

If you are lucky, someday your children will put their babies into your lap and the last little ghosts will be gone. I regarded my mother's devoted slavery to her grandchildren with a somewhat jaundiced eye, as it was my job to coax the little monsters back into some kind of civilized behaviour after she had looked after them. I see that same resigned look on my daughter's face when Little Stuff is reunited with her after a stay with Grama and Grampa. Grandparenting is sheer, indulgent fun. But the best thing is that I have found that grandparenting is a generic activity that I can do in all sorts of ways.

In Woman, an Intimate Biography, Natalie Angier devotes a chapter to the utility of the menopause in creating grandmothers way back in prehistory, infertile women whose contributions of food and child care increased the survival rate of their near kin and thus perpetuated the anomaly. Off these women went with their digging sticks and the food they brought back (plus child care, I am sure) made a huge difference. These women enabled our distant ancestors to thrive and spread out across the world. Angier calls it the 'grandmother hypothesis'. It's a fascinating take on the thesis of menopause as a survival characteristic. Working in and for the community (digging stick optional) is something I love. It's a role that fits me and that I fit. Hard work, sometimes, but satisfying and fun. It doesn't require you to deal with tantrums and vomit at 2:00 am either. Priceless!


  1. Oh, Mary. Oh.

    Thank you for this. It's reassuring.

    I particularly appreciate the idea that doing community work will be fulfilling in many of the same ways that caring for babies and young children has been (at least for me).

  2. This is lovely.

    I had a miscarriage very early into pregnancy, and although I didn't even know I was pregnant until it was too late, I was devastated. And even though I went on to have two healthy babies, I think of the little one who never got a chance to live every day of my life. And hope that some day the pain will fade.

  3. Thank you, Mary for this haunting gift of yet another look at my lost babe and my lost mother. I have tears in my eyes and don't quite know what else to say other than "you are gold, woman. Pure gold."

  4. Thanks, Mad. This was a hard one to write, but I needed to try it.

    MommyK, even better, I hope you can replace the pain with purpose.

    SM, I think it will, in whatever form your giving wants to take. Community service is mine, but you have so many, many talents.