It wasn’t easy. It was probably one of the most difficult things I’ve ever endured, and I’ve been through a lot of deep lows in my life. To watch a planned future dissipate slowly in front of me then disappear in a few strokes is painful and heartbreaking. I didn’t know when or how I was going to share the news with everyone, but writing has been a lifesaver for me in my darkest times, so I open my heart to you in this moment. This year I turn 43. It’s a time to celebrate life, even if there has been profound loss this year.
He is a wonderful man with a good heart. He’s done little things for me, big things for me, and all things in between. I’ve tried to do the same for him. But I’ve not been able to do one thing for him that would give him joy at the core of his being. I cannot give him a child.
For months, every day, many times a day, we had sex – for intimacy but also for a goal, to have a child. Doctors said I was fine, a healthy body, and good amh level (measure of ovarian reserve, in other words I was still fertile according to all the tests). By early 2014, we had to do more to find out why I wasn’t conceiving. When we looked inside we found a unicornuate uterus – a uterus with a single fallopian tube, and my one tube was “underdeveloped”. In vitro fertilization was the only way now. If you’ve ever been through IVF or know someone who has, it’s grueling. Drugs are pumped into your body like a firehose dousing a three alarm fire. I gained a ton of weight over the course of time that I went through the cycles. Hormone shots into my tummy and my butt were scary. Once I hit a bad area in my butt, leaving my right leg stiff and throbbing like Sammy Sosa whacked it with a wooden baseball bat. I was literally limping and wincing in pain with every step. I hit so many bad spots in my tummy that I started to collect a large cluster of bruises on my belly. It looked like a rotten piece of meat infested with mold and mildew. Clinic visits were weekly to monitor the body and the expanding ovaries filled with potential eggs to be retrieved. It was amazing to watch the growth inside my ovaries as the dozen or so eggs on each side would swell up like water balloons floating in translucent black and white satchel.
When it came time to retrieve, I experienced a pain that literally left me debilitated. Because my uterus was tilted, the doctor had to pierce it with the catheter to reach my right ovary. In an ideal case, the retrieved eggs are fertilized immediately, and the successful embryos are transferred fresh within days of the retrieval. Because my uterus was punctured, it would need time to heal. Every cycle would have to be a frozen transfer, with the embryos cryogenically frozen until my uterus was ready. The pain of a punctured uterus was excruciating. It hurt so much to just sit up. I literally had to crawl on all fours just to get to the bathroom to pee. I would then crawl back to the bed, resting for a minute on the floor before I could psyche myself up to raise my arms on the bedside and push myself up on it. I then used my shoulders to lift my upper body up onto the mattress, then roll my torso and use my legs to push myself back into bed. This lasted for days.
Clinic: Negative. You can stop the shots. You’ll get a period in about two weeks. Doctor says you can try again after your next period starts.
Me: Ok, thank you.
I started to cry, a lot. I was a disappointment. Couldn’t fulfill the hopes and dreams for him and his parents. I broke the news to him with huffs and puffs and sniffles and whines.
Me: I’m so sorry. I’ll try again.
There would never be an again like that. The next 3 attempts, I’d never get this close again. One of those cycles the doctor suggested I do an egg retrieval again so as to bank more embryos just in case. So again, same protocol, same pain, same struggle, and same ending – nothing to show for it. No pregnancy. More cycles after that, same result, no pregnancy. By the next summer, I was so tired of being doped up, tired of the side effects of migraines, nausea, and fatigue. And mostly, tired of the bad news.
His cousin and cousin’s fiancée invited us to a going away party. They were taking off for jobs in Japan. It was a festive Saturday as the multitude of cousins, uncles, aunties, and friends gathered to say their farewells. Only 24 hours prior to this celebration, I was given the news of my 4th failed attempt at pregnancy. Cancelled cycle due to thin lining. The cycle before cancelled due to high estrogen level. The air of failure was still fresh on my breath when the door opened and we yelled the standard, “Surprise!”.
Them: Thank you for being here to celebrate our departure, but the surprise is on you! We’re actually staying. And the reason is because we are pregnant!
A roar of laughter and cheers rang out among the crowd. I was sitting across the room from him. I could see his face clearly. We had not been able to conceive after 2 years of trying, and here, in this moment, his cousins who weren’t even trying were already months along. He didn’t smile, his eyes were deep in thought, I don’t even think he noticed that my eyes were fixed on him. At the food line, my mother-in-law questioned me, surely in reference to the news of the day and the repurposing of this party – a baby shower.
Her: Thao, so what is going on with you and the medical stuff?
Me: I’m sorry, it didn’t work again. I just found out yesterday.
The look of disappointment on her face cut through my chest. I found myself consoling her, rubbing her shoulders, telling her it’ll be okay, that we’ll try again. Now that I look back, I ask myself, who was there to console me? Few knew what we were going through, so I solely relied on him and his parents. My sister cried for me, but I told her that everything would be ok. My parents got the update from my sister, but they know me well enough that they waited for me to reach out to them. As for my partner in this journey, he’s a good man, but emotional outpouring is not his forte. He holds emotions tightly, and he’s an optimist. My deep disappointment of failure was experienced by him as just another step towards the bigger vision he had, which was seeing himself as a father – just like his father, and his cousins, and his friends. And this made my failure to deliver (figuratively and literally) even more stressful. I had big expectations to fulfill, and I hate disappointing the people I love.
Almost everyone’s expectations of a new couple is for them to bring life into the world and create the harmonious imagery of family. Everywhere I went, the routine script played out like a reality tv rerun. “Sooo, when are you going to have a baby?” “Sooo, when is it your turn?” “No pressure, just enjoy each other and it will happen.” I fucking hated these questions and statements. I replied with courtesy, but my inner voice was screaming, “If we were pregnant don’t you think we would share the news? Please stop asking the most socially scripted questions ever!!!” It was almost as scripted as “Hi, how are you doing?” I’m freaking tired of being asked these questions and given these statements every time I go to a family gathering. The one that irritated me the most was, “God will give you what you need when the time is right.” God and Saints play an integral role in my in-law extended Filipino Catholic family. An auntie gifted me with a white scarf that was blessed in the Philippines at a parade of one their saints. It had magic fertility powers so all I needed to do was wear it around my belly like an undergarment. Was this bellywear more powerful than the fertility Saint statue my husband purchased, set on his night stand, and held at night before he went to bed?
The powers of God, Saints, blessed undergarments, and prayers never produced the result my husband and in-laws so badly wanted to see. The compounded swell of emotions at this farewell turned baby shower tore me up inside. I was a sad sack of heartbroken emotions. I was tired. I didn’t want to try anymore. I gave up.
This was the beginning of our end. Within months of this episode, another tornado ripped through our life, but that is another story in and of itself. I promise to expand at another time.
Summer had come, and my annual pilgrimage to my familial roots was in full swing. Being in Texas is like a home that once was, and even though it is home no more, family, friends, and formerly forged memories run abundant in the state where everything is bigger. In the collection of Texas memories, I hold deeply the adventures of being a temporary mother figure to my niece and nephews. Witnessing and experiencing the joys and the hardships of parenting gave me rich perspective on motherhood. I pulled night duties of feedings and diaper changes every 2-3 hours. I cradled and rocked and sang the children to sleep. I went days without a shower. I ate bits and pieces of meals in between duties. I played and fed and bathed and disciplined and loved and loathed the time with these little ones. I felt immense relief when I returned home to California and soaked in the relaxation of work and play and deep, long sleep as a childless woman.
As I reflect on the culmination of everything I just shared with you, I realize that I never thought about being a mom when I was growing up. I know a lot of women who said they so much wanted to be a mom. Me, meh, not a thing on my radar. But what was on my radar was a constant pinging of social expectation. The social expectation was cued by the external forces of a standard timeline and sociocultural recipe that we should follow if we are to achieve happiness. Let me be clear, no doubt, family brings happiness. But in my quest to fulfill this happiness by bringing a child into the world, I woke up to the reality that this happiness is not of my own. It is for others. And that is no way to live. But in the course of the journey, I adapted it as if it were my own because the expectations and social norms are immensely powerful. I told my husband when we met that I could go either way. I wasn’t dead set on having children, but if I did, I would be a damn good mom. He said he wanted children very much. So we agreed, we would have children. We never imagined it would be this difficult. I can’t say that it was difficult for him, perhaps emotionally it was difficult to see your wife going through the turmoil, but to experience the ups, downs, and all arounds of physical and emotional tolls of not delivering the goods was a ride I took alone. The one question we did not ask because we did not anticipate the difficulty of conceiving was, “If we can’t have children, what will we do?”
Him: Why are you giving up? Why are you quitting?
Me: I don’t want to do this anymore. I realize after this whole ordeal and after taking care of my sisters’ babies that I don’t even know if I want to be a mom anymore. I don’t know if motherhood is right for me.
And as the discussions between us escalated, I stood more firm in my place that motherhood wasn’t desirable for me. It was desirable to fulfill his happiness, which is what I’ve always wanted to do. But the truth of my reflection in the mirror is that I don’t feel that being childless should define me. Motherhood doesn’t define me. And this is where we could not compromise. Fatherhood would define him. It is deep in his DNA and identity of how he sees himself.
I went back and forth on the situation. Happiness for me? Or happiness for him? If I make him happy, then that will make me happy. But being a mom is no dip in the pool. It’s a swim across the Pacific to Asia feeling like there’s no life vest at times. How do I know this? I listen deeply. I observe intensely. I hear the stories with heart and ears wide open of mothers all around me. And I experienced just a snippet of childcare in the extended periods of time that I cared for my niece and nephews. There is good, there is bad, and there is ugly. If you are a mom and disagree with me, that’s okay. There are plenty of moms who would disagree with you. Had it been easy for me to get pregnant, I would not be telling you this story today. But it’s been a struggle, and usually I’m not one to quit. I always go after something relentlessly if I really want it. I guess I just don’t want to be a mom that badly.
I wanted my marriage to work badly, though. Divorce is another experience that makes me feel like a failure. The day he was ready to sign a lease and move out of the house, all my strength and fortitude to stand my ground as a woman who didn’t want to bear children were whittled to a tiny grain of sand.
Me: Please don’t do this. I’m sorry. I’m sorry for everything. I’m sorry for the disappointment I’ve put you through. I’ll try again. I’ll call the doctor right away and try again.
And I did. I got the insurance paperwork done. I got the payment ready. I got the prescription ready.
And when my period started, I felt my whole body tense up. My heart started to race while a heaviness expanded in my chest. I was paralyzed and couldn’t do it. Couldn’t take the meds. It made my mind crazy mad to anticipate doing it over again. But more so, a panic state of crippled angst about being a mom. It’s probably the closest thing I’ve ever experienced to a panic attack.
Him: I knew it. I knew you weren’t going to do it. You’re stringing us along. We’re just kicking the can down the road. It’s okay. You have to be true to yourself. And I have to be true to myself. We need to go in the direction of our happiness, and at this point in our lives, our directions and visions of the future are no longer the same.
He was right. He verbalized the words that ran in my head for so long but never had the courage to say. I was chicken shit and even fooled myself into thinking I’d want to experience IVF again just so I could keep my marriage intact.
As I came around and saw the truths before me, he began to wonder if it was the right decision. He suggested we take some trips to rekindle the flame. Perhaps being childless might not be so bad. We went back to San Francisco at the site where he proposed to me. But by then, it was just another place, the emotions were gone, at least for me anyway. I didn’t feel the same. I’d seen the light, and it highlighted the divergent paths we were to set upon. He needed to fulfill his dreams, and I needed to fulfill mine.
Why not adopt, you ask? It’s not only about conceiving a child. It’s about having a child. It’s about motherhood, parenthood, and the life that I’d grown into over the last few years. My mother is a wise person who I admire greatly as a woman and a mother. She said to me, “Perhaps your body did not allow it to happen because your mind and your soul never really wanted it.” I’d never thought about the connection between spirit, mind, and body, and with my mother’s words, the picture became clear. As I envisioned life as a working mom, I felt stressed and afraid that I would be unhappy.
Science makes the clear picture even sharper. As a sociologist, I keep myself abreast of what science reveals about the human condition. Scientific research shows that children make people unhappy. One report of a recent study states, “It’s an almost immutable fact: Regardless of what country you live in, and what stage of life you might be at, having kids makes you significantly less happy compared to people who don’t have kids. It’s called the parenting happiness gap” (Anderson and Pyne 2016). Also note that the study highlighted that American parents are especially miserable, posting the largest gap (13%) in a group of 22 developed countries. The research was conducted by Glass and colleagues (2016) at the University of Texas at Austin and published in the American Journal of Sociology. They point out that this gap is due to the poor family-work policies that exist in the United States. Another study by Margolis and Myrskyla (2015) confirmed the same outcome. A report on that study notes, “that unhappiness stemmed from three main causes: health issues before and after birth, complications during the birth, and the generally exhausting and physically taxing task of raising a child.” Research confirms for me that my idea of happiness is the current state of my life (childless), and the anticipated reality of what I envision as a life with children isn’t something I want (unhappiness).
As I reflect more on this matter, I realize that while I’m not a mother, I’ve become a mother figure to many. My cousin’s daughter calls me her “spiritual mom” and once wrote a report about the person she admired the most – she chose me. Many of my students tell me I’ve given them the hope and belief in them that their parents never gave, one of those students calls me her angel. I have a lot of love to give. I care, and cherish, and nourish those around me who are in need. I believe this motherly/nurturing thing I’ve got is part of my spirit. Whatever reasons that God, Allah, Buddha, the Cosmos, etc has for me for not being a mother, I’m okay with that. I’ve made peace with that. And the reasons for why my spouse and I divorcing, I’m okay with that, too. It wasn’t easy. It’s taken me months to even want to share it openly like this. But people want to know. What happened? You two seemed so happy? And we were. And we are, at least I am. I believe he is, too. I sincerely hope that he is. Enough time has passed for me to heal enough to where I can talk about it as beautiful period in my life and also a lesson to be learned. I’m no longer stuck in my worries and fears about the future. I am living in the future now. I’m making my way forward and living everyday in the way that fulfills me. I don’t know what else the future will hold, but I know that even though I’m not a Mother, I have Motherly Love that I can share and want to share. Motherhood is not about having a child, it’s about the love, care, support, and guidance that we can give to someone who needs and/or wants it. I’m always ready to give, and while I didn’t embrace being a mom, I embrace Motherhood with all its wonder and fulfillment.
I want to see him be a father someday. Last June, Father’s Day presented itself with pictures on social media of male friends and family members with their children. Their spouses wished them a Happy Father’s Day and thanked them for being wonderful. I understand why he sees himself in that kind of imagery. I see him in it, too. And that’s why I believe it will happen for him. I will celebrate that moment for him with the deepest joy… even though that moment will not be with me. I was once his happiness, but life paths change, and his next happiness will be with someone else. The someone who can fulfill his life dreams will be the right one. I was the right one at one point in time. And while it hurt deeply for a moment that I wasn’t the right one anymore, I’ve made peace with the vision of him in his place in this world as he sees it – as a father.
As for me, what do I see for myself? I haven’t really figured that out. Today, at 43, these are the things I wish for… I wish for him to have his dreams fulfilled. I wish that I can continue in my career and grow as a professional. I wish that I will see my niece and nephews grow into their fullest potential. I wish to be bonded with family and friends everywhere. As for a partner, I don’t know. For the last couple of months, I tried to imagine being a single career woman who would do lots of philanthropy, play lots of volleyball, and have lots of lovers and dalliances at my leisure. But that last thought has faded away like the end of a song. I’ve always been a long term thinker, and I can’t see myself doing the leisurely lover thing in the long term. How long can fleeting moments of romance really last? They don’t. I like things that last. Like family, friends, career, philanthropy, and volleyball. So I wish for a strong companionship with someone. I wish to have a best friend be my lover, too. I wish to see an end game where I have that someone by my side with my family and friends as I take my last breath here on Earth. But I don’t know if that will happen. Nothing is for sure. The only thing I can see for myself in that regard is that I will always want to give love, and wishfully, love will be returned to me.