Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Getting There

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Paso Doble

Leaning against the tiled kitchen counter, surrounded by the thick jazz of Christmas party conversation punctuated with laughter, the reflection of a hundred tiny lights twinkling in the darkened window, I talk with a man I've just met, about my wife Tracie and my plans to get pregnant soon. He says, "I can see you're ready," as if the magnitude of longing inside me has telegraphed itself out. Maybe it has.
"Okay, I know this sounds strange," I confess, "but I feel like I'm already pregnant, and we haven't even tried yet. Almost like I could get pregnant just thinking about it." The minute I release the words into the room, I want them back. Those are fate-tempting words. Those are the kind of words that return to haunt later.

Say, eight months later, when I'm still not pregnant.

And then this man's voice, all smoke and bass, confers: "Yes, because your soul is pregnant." I look closely at this oracle, this prophet: deep lines carved in the clay of his brown face, gray fuzz populating his temples, exhausted haze in his eyes. Under all that, I see a polished saxophone glinting in a midnight bar room. Though it feels transgressive, vaguely dangerous, I speak the truth again, fate be damned. My voice hushes, "That's it," I say. "Like a spirit is fluttering around me, everywhere I go, waiting to enter."

"Then it will happen quickly," he nods, "You'll get pregnant right away."

I want to believe him.

Faith, fear. Faith, fear. They will rehearse their Paso Doble across my dance floor a million times in the coming months: believing that I will receive the gift of a child, then fearing that I won't; accepting that life happens exactly as it is supposed to, then trying desperately to control every outcome. Yes, my lifelong habit of attempting to control the future is about to do battle with my more recent practice of accepting whatever comes my way. The habit of control is more ingrained and therefore stronger, but surrendering into acceptance is the only thing that brings me peace.

Signs

Salmon swimming upstream through a river of procrastinating holiday shoppers, Tracie and I thread our way through the local mall's gadget shop. My imagination is pregnant with wondering about our baby-someday-to-be. In the mode of body purification, I choose not to try out the electric massaging chair--what would the current do to my insides? Instead I select a miniature stocking embroidered with a vibrant pine tree and place it in our shopping basket.
In an imaginary pocket Tracie and I carry potential baby names chosen way too soon. If he's a boy, Aiden. If she's a girl, Emma. Directionless, we spend a few minutes dropping lint on the carpet in front of the vacuum robot--this year's technological wonder--then watch it spin in ever widening circles, scooping up our dust. Deep inside the store, seeking the perfect gift for her dad, Tracie lifts a tool kit off a wrought iron table, revealing a tile mosaic top embellished with a child's handprint and the letters EMMA. A spark of recognition exchanges between us. I swallow the sign: She'll be a girl. Of course. She'll be here soon.

This year, decorating the Christmas tree becomes an intentional ritual. Each ornament casts a spell, calling the baby toward us. We hang the tiny stocking for welcoming, then drop a quarter in it, for prosperity. An angel for protection. Wheat woven into a Celtic knot: fertility, abundance. Two gold doves for peace. A carved wood heart for love. We plug in the lights and curl up on the couch, breathing the sacred wish the tree has become. The air swells with all we want for ourselves, for this future child.

Falling asleep, I try to see our child through the murky vision of my mind's eye. I see a silver fish circling an alpine lake's algae covered rocks, darting away when my touch ripples the surface.

Red Blood

Memory flirts with me:

"You okay?" the nurse asked.

Eyes squeezed shut, head turned away from the needle sucking blood out of a vein in my right arm, I muttered through pursed lips, "I'm just trying to remember to breathe."

"Well don't stop breathing," she chuckled, "that'll slow your heart down, then your blood will pump even slower."

In a sudden gasp, the balloons of my lungs expanded. Seconds later, air released with equal pressure.

"Easy now," she whispered to me.

"Sorry," I said, face clenched tight as a fist, "I hate needles."

"That's okay," she said, pressing a cotton ball to the crook of my arm, "you're done now."

Twenty-two years old, I had just survived the second blood test of my life. Now I remember neither how the needle pinched going in, nor how sweat pasted the exam table paper to my legs. I remember what I saw after the nurse left the room: two vials of blood resting on a metal tray. Two thoughts flooded in: "Oh, that's my blood." Then, "Oh, it's red." As if the blood pulled from my veins would be what? Swamp brown?

Eight weeks ago, a distant cousin of those thoughts arrived when my period did, signaling the end of my first meticulously charted menstrual cycle. After filling in the final point on my fertility graph, I held it at arm's length. For each morning, a plot point indicating my basal body temperature. The line connecting the dots across the graph was shaped like a square root symbol, which means my body did exactly what it should. I stared at the chart in disbelief: "My body actually works the way it is supposed to? Really?" My blood is red? Really? In the contest between faith and fear, trusting in my fertility scored a point. Still, fear nags: Will I get pregnant? How long will it take? Can I carry a baby to term? Will I ever be a mom?

Progesterone

"Sperm's expensive," Dr. Grain says when I talk to her on the phone, "so I want to run some tests before you come in for your consultation with me, to make sure everything's working right." Though it took a while to find her--two days working the phone maze our HMO has constructed seemingly to protect doctors from their patients--I like this woman: practical, proactive, matter-of-fact.

This time, motivation overrides my needle phobia. The next day, perched on the medical center lab's version of a bar stool, I lay my elbow on the white Formica counter and gladly roll up my sleeve for the phlebotomist's glinting needle tip. I even smile as the point breaks skin.

Two weeks later, sitting in her cluttered corner office, Dr. Grain leans across her desk, opens a manila folder in front of Tracie and me, and reads us the blood test results.

"Glucose, normal. TSH, normal. Rubella, immune. Hemaglobin, normal. Hemacrit, normal. Progesterone, 9.7." Here she pauses, tip of her ball point pen tapping the number. "Now this," she says, "this I'd like to see a little higher. Usually 10 or higher is normal for this point in your menstrual cycle, but 9.7 is close enough, so I'm not worried."

I'm worried. I say, "Really? It's okay? Should I take supplements or something?"

"No, it's fine," she says, unmoved by the concern staining my voice.

So I make another go of it: "The first time my sister got pregnant, she had a miscarriage. Her doctor diagnosed her with low progesterone and gave her supplements. The next time she got pregnant, the baby was fine."

In a classic doctor-frustrated-with-patient move, Dr. Grain sighs, drops her pen on my lab results sheet, folds her arms across her chest, and looks at me over her teardrop glasses. I'm starting not to like this woman with the bowl-cut gray hair and tired brown eyes. "Progesterone levels dip when a pregnancy is already failing. Your number here, 9.7, is within the margin of error for this test. You don't need to worry."

I nod my head. I worry.

"If you have trouble after you get pregnant, we can talk about supplements," she concedes, as if that's supposed to soothe me. As if a first pregnancy is like a first batch of cookies--burn them and it's no big deal, you've got plenty more dough in the bowl.

"May I get a lab order from you, so I can test my progesterone once I get pregnant?"

Dr. Grain holds eye contact with me for a long second, her facial expression offering nothing. She's not impressed by my persistence, but I'm proud of myself. I'm getting the hang of this HMO thing--find the back door and sneak through it, demand what you want until you get it. "Okay," she says, pulling a lab requisition off a tray on her desk, ticking the box next to progesterone, and sliding my golden ticket toward me.

Back at home, I search my fertility books for information on progesterone. From a local midwifery group, I order a small brown glass bottle of progesterone drops, then I wonder which is worse, dispensing four drops of the alcohol-preserved solution under my tongue twice a day, or trusting my 9.7? Fear or faith? Faith or fear?

The Variables

Outside the living room window, a squirrel dashes across the street with a peanut in its mouth. Rain overruns the leaf-full gutters of the neighbor's house. Weeks past Halloween, a whole pumpkin glows orange on her gray porch. I notice none of this. I've fallen headlong into my research. Sitting on our green canvas couch, I have three books and two pamphlets folded open on the cushions beside me: Taking Charge of your Fertility, The Essential Guide to Pregnancy for Lesbians, The Ultimate Guide to Pregnancy for Lesbians, "Your Ovulation Cycle," and the instruction manual from the ovulation predictor monitor I borrowed from my sister. This could be a scene from my college days, synthesizing information from several sources to support my hypothesis. Back then the topic would have been feminist subtext in Emily Dickinson's poetry. Now it's all about baby.

The texts conflict, each staking out different routes to a town called pregnancy. In the spiral notebook I'm balancing on my bent knee, I jot notes. On the coffee table, I spread out my three fertility graphs marked with lines, dots, initials, and cryptic notes scratched in pencil charting the ups and downs of my basal body temperature, the changes in my bodily fluids, the rise and then fall of my hormone levels. I stare at the graphs the way I used to stare at the globe in my preschool classroom, as if by looking closely enough at the pinpoint marked San Francisco, I could actually see my street, my house, a microscopic version of my family moving through their daily routines. Encoded somewhere in these charts is the key to the door marked parenthood. I can see her in there, that baby. Now how to get her out. The puzzle teases my brain even in sleep, where I dream of receiving a science kit in the mail. The box is labeled Baby. Inside: a rolled up pair of socks, a tube of toothpaste, three automotive looking parts I cannot identify. There are no instructions.

Awake, the problem becomes mathematical: If sperm leaves the syringe at seven a.m., traveling an inch an hour, and an egg leaves the ovary at twelve p.m., traveling an inch a day, will they meet before they die? Math. I remember a poster that hung on the bulletin board in my Algebra 2 class junior year in high school. It answered the question "When will I ever use this?" with a list of everyday scenarios that require algebra. Somehow "determining optimum schedule for insemination" didn't make the list.

Along with that image from the past arrives the voice of Mrs. August, my Algebra 2 teacher, whispering, "Identify the variables." Mrs. August, who announced her accidental but welcome pregnancy in class one day, as she tore open a sleeve of Saltines and proceeded to litter the classroom floor with their crumbs for the next two months.

"Okay," I say out loud, "the variables." I isolate them: the release of egg from ovary, the travel time of sperm, the shelf-life of a post-ovulation egg, frozen sperm's post-thaw life expectancy. Apparently, getting one half of our future kid's genetics to meet up with the other half is not as easy as it seems. On the one hand, each vial we use contains up to 64,000 live sperm. We need only one. On the other hand, the odds of getting pregnant using our chosen method--inseminating at home, using frozen sperm injected via a needleless syringe--are five to fifteen percent, depending on who I ask.

I study harder.

Three hours later, I have a cramped neck and a four-tiered timeline, a plan that should keep a constant supply of live swimmers present in my body from the moment my ovulation predictor test goes positive until the released egg either meets her match or goes sour. It's worth a shot. I fall back against the couch's down pillows, close my stinging eyes, and press my fingertips against my eyelids, massaging out the fatigue. After a few long breaths, outside, I hear a fluttering in the flowerbox below the window. I lift my heavy lids and watch a red-breasted house finch forage through our post-season leftovers. She picks at a dry sprig of alyssum, then turns toward the screen between us and taps at the weave with her beak, as if asking for entry.


Winner of the 2008 Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize, Cheryl Dumesnil’s books include a collection of poems, In Praise of Falling, and a memoir, Love Song for Baby X: How I Stayed (Almost) Sane on the Rocky Road to Parenthood. She is a regular contributor to VillageQ.com and Huffington Post. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her wife and their two sons.


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