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The topic of childbirth has, in recent years, traversed several arenas, the private, the public, and the political. Everybody seems to be talking about having babies. And with good reason. Changes in law and advancements
in medical technology have introduced possibilities and prospects in parenting that were not available before. Be it through adoption or in vitro fertilization, people who would have at one time been unable to become parents are now able to do so. Likewise, there are many more viable options for people who either don’t want or are not yet ready for children. Regardless of our biological limitations, we are now able to respond to our heart’s desires, if we so choose. Theoretically, at least.
What makes these two books, Paradise, Piece by Piece and Wanting a Child, so compelling and valuable is that they fill a very real need for a dialogue that is specific to the situations and lifestyles of this day and age; they address the emotional realities of desire, the necessity for choice. The former, a memoir, focuses on the complexities of making the decision not to bear or raise children; the latter, a collection of essays, takes into account the many difficulties one may still have to face even after making the decision to become a parent. And what makes these stories all the more fascinating is the knowledge that they belong to such accomplished writers. After all, who better to facilitate this dialogue on the pains and pleasures of procreation than people whose life’s work is devoted to the process of creation?
In Paradise, Piece by Piece, poet Molly Peacock investigates the reasons why she decided not to have children. Perhaps the most immediate and seemingly reasonable response one would have to such a book would be: Who cares? Peacock is certainly not the first woman to opt against motherhood, in this era or any other. But after reading this honest, well-crafted, and thought-provoking book, you do begin to care. By allowing her writing to transcend the myopia of her own life, Peacock enables you not only to care about her and those other women who have chosen to remain childless, but also to understand the enormous weight that motherhood imposes on womanhood, the unspoken societal belief that a grown-up female who does not have children is incomplete, immature:
As it turns out, my choice not to have children has defined my adult life. It’s been like hacking through undergrowth while walking down a hardly used, perfectly paved way….If someone were to ask me why I could feel increasingly whole even though I was making a radical refusal, I would have answered that each time I said no, I felt a more complete sense of who I was. But, if at any of those times, someone had asked me if I felt like a complete woman, I would have hesitated before answering yes.
Growing up in Buffalo, N.Y., with an abusive, alcoholic father and a kindhearted mother who was imprisoned by her circumstances taught Peacock to hesitate before fleshing out her own idea of womanhood. She learned at a very young age that parenthood was something for which one must be prepared. Shortly after entering the seventh grade, Peacock was given the huge responsibility of caring for her younger sister while her parents were away at work.
Every day we came home after school to the smell of linoleum, the empty kitchen of the empty house that waited to be brought to life. It is mothers who bring houses to life, and ours was gone, though she’d left the table wiped and the counters clean….The house itself was cold of [her] scent. She had left too many hours before. And I did not smell like a mother.
Ironically, the word that Peacock’s mother uttered in snide envy to her child to describe the pretty, perfumed ladies who were not burdened with children was “selfish.” “I hope you get to be selfish all your life,” her mother would say to her. And on many other occasions in her youth, she was told by both parents and a grandmother that she should not have children unless she absolutely wanted to, statements that seemed more like admonishments than advice. Whatever the case may have been, Peacock took those words to heart, coming to believe as she grew older that remaining “childfree,” as she puts it, by desire does not automatically make a woman selfish, self-involved, or anything less than the person she wants to be or sees herself as being. “The defining of a self is not the same as the defining of a role.” And upon coming to that conclusion, Molly Peacock decided that the role she wanted to assume in life was that of poet, teacher, and administrator.
But for those who choose, in fact, yearn for, children, the ability to become parents does have an impact on the way they view their lives and define themselves, particularly if it appears as if both society and medical science are failing them. Wanting a Child is an anthology of works that deal with another aspect of parenthood that is often either ignored or, worse yet, intentionally shrouded in silence, what happens when the attempt to have a child doesn’t go according to plan. “Somehow the messages that we received regarding our miscarriages and pregnancy losses were that this child wasn’t meant to be, and in that message was also the fallacy that they weren’t meant to be mourned,” editors Jill Bialosky and Helen Schulman write in the book’s introduction. “And when something can’t be mourned, talked about, allowed to be real, the experience becomes ensconced in a cloud of shame.” The overwhelming majority of the 22 pieces in the book, most of which are personal essays, address some type of frustration, despair, or loss that occurred while the authors were trying either to conceive or to claim the children they so wanted; all are refreshingly cathartic. A good number of the stories end on an inspirational note, as most of the writers are ultimately successful in their quests.
In an effort, however, to “fill some of the gaps,” the editors also included three selections of short fiction by Amy Hempel, Marly Swick, and William Kotzwinkle. The absence of these pieces would have served the tone and purpose of the collection better than their presence. In comparison with the specific focus and emotional depth of the nonfiction work, these pieces are not as rich in language or raw in spirit. For example, Philip Lopate’s essay “The Lake of Suffering” brilliantly explores the devastation of waiting and planning to have one’s dream child only to discover that she is sickly at birth and must stay in the hospital for more than a year: “I understood what it meant now to suffer, really suffer, night and day: to be in up to our necks in the lake of suffering.”
In her essay “A Love Diverted,” Lynn Lauber details the longing she lived with for years after having to give her child up for adoption, the fear and urgency with which she searched for, and later found, her daughter. Other contributors are Tama Janowitz, Peter Carey, Bob Shacochis, and Ann Hood. There are also essays by both Schulman and Bialosky. In Bialosky’s heart-wrenching, breathtaking piece, “Ex Utero,” she writes about her two stillbirths, which resulted from the DES her mother took while pregnant with Bialosky:
My baby…Her little pine coffin would break your heart. In the cemetery in Westchester there is a place where they bury the babies….Did you know that in Japan there is an entire cemetery for lost babies? We come to visit the grave every year on her birthday. We bring a bunch of baby’s breath and scatter it over the headstone. It’s the perfect flower.
Only by acknowledging the loss of her two children, Bialosky confesses, is she able to see the space that was left open for her adopted son, Sam, to occupy.
Barbara Jones, in her offering, “Heedless Love,” perfectly articulates the message that is quite clearly at the heart of both this book and Molly Peacock’s: “The irrevocable moment in becoming a parent is not the moment you conceive a child; it’s the moment you conceive of her.” The choice to have children or not is one that must be motivated by nothing less than the impulse of individual desire; and that choice, once made, regardless of outcome, is the beginning of a whole new life.