Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Good to Go


I am lost in the consumer kaleidoscope of Target, searching for the cheapest refill-size hand soap I can find. It is the last item on my list, but I keep adding to the cart as I wander. I turn onto the feminine aisle; tampons are always a good idea.

I find what I need and hurry past the rest, but the next endcap confronts me with an aggressive display, five shelves high, of fuchsia boxes. Target pregnancy tests are on sale: a two-pack for $4.99.

A two-pack of First Response is at least $17.99. I shouldn’t know this. I have no idea what tampons cost and I just put them in my cart. Moreover, I don’t need to know this, because I do not expect to be pregnant again.

I no longer beg, bargain, or scream for a third child. John is unyielding. The worst of it is that he’s right. My pregnancies were unrelenting tortures of nausea and starvation. The births were briefer traumas, but with more lasting physical effects. I’m often overwhelmed already, and we can barely afford the two we’ve got. He’s right, and because he is so indisputably right, I will never win this argument.

I go up the next aisle — razors, surely John needs razors — and another turn reveals a bounty of hand soap. Two brands are on sale. I try comparing size to price, but I can’t think straight.

Uncertainty roots in my brain. My mind is on those tests; my heart is in my uterus and its echoes of unfinished business. Was my period lighter this month? Did I miscalculate ovulation? Were we careful enough? Every ache, every tickle, every hiccup wants to be a sign.

The few friends who know about my obsession have suggested, “Maybe you’ll have an oops.” After four years of oops-hunting, I am left wondering how so many people can screw up birth control. Every method I’ve tried has been as loyal as a Labrador, and I favor the less reliable ones.

If we were in high school, our haphazard mix of condoms, natural family planning, and withdrawal would have failed five times over by now. We were lucky never to struggle with fertility. Conception was easy for us, requiring only a cycle for each child. But wishing for a third baby — the one I shouldn’t have, the one I’ve promised not to have — has cost a fortune in bright pink optimism.

I choose the brand of soap with the largest bottle. Soap is soap. I have everything I came for, but I don’t go to the register. All those pregnancy tests are just a few feet away. The cart seems to steer itself. I slow down, look both ways to see if anyone is approaching. Target will close soon, and it’s quiet. Nobody in sight. I reach the endcap and stop.

$4.99 is a really good price. Not as good as the dollar store, by definition, but still good. Whenever my period is late by even a day, I make a trip to the dollar store. Dollar store tests are cheaper because they lack fancy “midstream” technology. You have to pee in a cup, then use a dropper to transfer urine to a test window. It sounds gross, but I find the chemistry experiment oddly satisfying.

I double-check that I’m alone, even though there is nothing suspect about a married thirty-four-year-old buying a pregnancy test. I’m scared my secret is written all over my face — the secret that there is no way in hell I am pregnant. No accidents, no close calls, only a wish I can’t shake that hurts like an infected splinter.

It doesn’t help that in Los Angeles suburbs, three is the new two. Every day, I am surrounded by three-kid families, so many that I automatically answer “only two” when asked how many children I have. Talking to other moms, I feel obligated to pepper my comments with, “Of course I can’t even imagine how you handle three,” as though it would be rude not to acknowledge the greater trials of those who have outdone me, genetically.

Sometimes, in introductions, I blurt something about how I had always wanted three, and that’s really why we bought the minivan, but it turned out my body just didn’t handle it very well, and maybe someday my husband will change his mind and we’ll try for another. I say these things with an irrational compulsion. I say these things because I have lost all perspective on the matter of two children versus three.

Each box in front of me shows a test with two dark lines; they know their market. The first time I saw two lines, the second was so faint that John didn’t believe me until I took a digital. But I knew. It was one of the only times I’ve ever felt beautiful. For two full weeks, I believed I was one of those women who are made for pregnancy. I want to believe that again. In this fantasy, it all finally goes right. I keep playing catch and driving carpools. I don’t vomit myself inside out, I don’t harden my veins with endless IVs, and I don’t stay in bed for weeks that turn into months. I don’t need drugs with reality-bending side effects just to drink a Gatorade. In this fantasy, I’m meant for making babies.

Staring at those twin lines, I know I can do better. I can be better.

I imagine a band of frolicking diaper commercial moms marching out of TV-land just to catch me here, a test in my hand, pathetic. I want to stand up to them. Bite me. It’s my money and my pee.

Pick up a test, put it back, pick it up again.

The lights seem to flicker more, as if they might not make it another ten minutes to closing. My fleece jacket is suffocating, but it was easier to wear than carry, and I am tired. My cart is piled with toilet paper and paper towels, Pull-Ups and wipes, laundry detergent, a microfiber mop bought on impulse because that’s the brand of impulsivity I indulge in my thirties. Everything but the mop is on sale.

The box scalds its pink feminine desires into the red flesh of my palm. I hate the sight of my fingers on that box. I remember when I was a kid, how I loved my pale hands and long, delicate fingers. I called them alabaster because it sounded very Jane Austen, not that I had read any Jane Austen. These fingers, though, are dry and cracked, swollen and splotched. It occurs to me that I should look for hand cream.

An elderly woman rounds the corner from the pharmacy. I drop the test in my cart and leave. I do not remember hand cream.

I spend the drive home fantasizing about holding a newborn, about replacing all the cute maternity clothes I gave away, about nursing again, about being really good at something again. I was not good at pregnancy. I don’t know if I am good at mothering my older children. But I am damn good at babies. With my babies, I was always enough. I always had a boob, a fresh diaper, a cuddle, a smile. I was enough.

At home, I pull the test out of the shopping bag and tuck it into my waistband. I slip into the bathroom and put my urine to a purpose. I brush my teeth, wash my face, floss, swish mouthwash, and watch the control line darken. To kill another minute, I put on the retinol face cream I never use. I don’t take my eyes off the test stick.

We’ve agreed that John should get a vasectomy, but he keeps putting it off because work is so busy. Rationally, I know it’s for the best. I will be healthier when cramps are just cramps, a headache is just a headache, and I am forced to stop inventing reasons to take pregnancy tests. But I still worry that fate might be losing a race against time, like the lover who shows up at the airport a minute too late.

The small voice of sanity tries to make herself heard, reminding me that my period started right on time, six days ago. I spent the first day, as I do every month, imagining it was implantation bleeding (the Yeti of Internet pregnancy sites). By day three I accepted, as I do every month, that no embryo could survive this flood. The bleeding tapered off sometime last night, and I already recognize the signs of new hormones filtering through my body, tilling the soil of possibility. And yet… when you are desperate enough, there is always room for the unexplainable.

I hold the stick up to the light. I can see the test line; I always can. I pry open the plastic case to study the strip more closely. There is a faint band if you look hard enough, even on the expensive tests. They can’t hide the reagent once it gets wet, not completely.

Could it be a little bit pink, just a hint?

Even as I’m chastising myself for acting crazy and even as shame is sinking in, I am still a hot air balloon hovering over reality and not quite ready to land. So I decide it’s an open question. I put the strip in a drawer to inspect again in the morning, and bury everything else at the bottom of the trashcan. I’ll empty it tomorrow.

John is waiting for me in bed. He turns out the light and scoots across our king mattress for a cuddle. “Still a bad time?” he asks, sliding his hand under my t-shirt.

The warmth of his hand and his voice offer comfort, and I almost confess.

“No. We’re good to go.”

He rolls away from me, opens the second drawer of his nightstand, and rifles for a condom.

Sarah McCanless has worked as an aerospace engineer, a technical writer, and a stay-at-home mother. She lives in Southern California with her husband and two sons, ages 6 and 9.

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Sarah, I thought I was the only one who refused to accept that I couldn't bend reality by the force of my will. I'm 41 now, and those days are behind me. I don't miss them. I still find myself explaining my family size to people, even though I totally get that the size of your family does not adequately explain how hard you've worked, or how much blood, sweat and tears went into getting where you're at. Thanks for sharing your story! I miss your blog posts, and this one was beautiful.
This is so beautiful. Reading it, I remembered how good it felt to listen to you in class -- weaving the everyday with a drop in the gut. thank you for keeping on keeping on.
This is a beautifully written piece that really resonated -- I'm in my early 40s and have been trying for #2 for over three years. Amazing how our minds and hearts can keep holding out hope long after it's reasonable to do though wanting something badly enough can magically make it happen. I laughed out loud at the bit on implantation bleeding -- so been there. Thanks for sharing.
Change the 3rd to a 4th and this could be me. I did have a 3rd when my older 2 were 7 and 9. I imagined an easy pregnancy uncomplicated with hyperemesis and zofran. It was not. In fact it even ended with an emergency c-section.
Oh, I just love this. Your writing is so relatable, and you manage to make the neurotic, compulsive side of fertility sound beautiful! We may end up having a third baby, but I worry that even if we do, I may never achieve that sense of completion. I am not sure it is possible for me to turn off those controlling, intrusive thoughts about ovulation and fertility cycles. Thanks for sharing your experience!
Wow. I loved this piece and can totally relate. I remember buying pregnancy tests and hiding them in my dresser, just in case. I remember the longing every month...except my oops turned into twins and I went from two to four and now I can't even think straight. But I just LOVE this piece and your voice. So beautifully written. Just sucked me in.
This is beautiful and evocative and true.
What a moving essay about such a personal topic. Your honesty and self-awareness are amazing - and of course the writing is beautiful. It's remarkable how truly addictive babies are, isn't it? Thanks for sharing.
Beautifully put - I have just celebrated the 2 year anniversary of us trying for our 3rd, several miscarriages later we are still a 2 child family and I struggle with how hard I want a baby and how my body just doesn't seem to support that desire Sending love and understanding
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