*An amazing picture Jesse drew of his family, putting them in two pairs.
By Kendra Lubalin
Sadie is wrapped around my leg, her surprisingly strong thighs and arms tightly squeezing her body to mine, attached. She says “I don’t know why I ever stopped nursing! If I hadn’t I could still suck on your boobs every day!” She is six years old, but her face is pressed to my calf so tightly, her yearning voice so authentically in pain, that I can’t laugh.
She wants to be so close that she doesn’t know how to get there. It’s an impossible amount of closeness to achieve. She wants my membranes to be permeable so she can swim inside me, she wants to pass though me like a ghost, but solid and warm – blood mixing with blood, breath with breath, heartbeat with heartbeat. If she could crawl back inside the womb I’m still not sure she could satiate the desire she has to own me, to make me hers. She whispers to me that she will put a window into my stomach, so she can live in there and still see her friends.
Straddling my lap she grabs my face in her hands and goes eye to eye, foreheads touching.
“You are mine. Only mine.”
I stay in close, squeeze her chest to my chest. “I am yours, totally yours.”
“Only.” She says again.
I squeeze tighter, press my forehead into hers firmly. “I am your only mommy, but I am Jesse’s mommy too.”
“No, mine.” Her forehead furrows, her eyebrows drawing together tickle me.
“I am completely yours.” I try. “You have my whole heart. I love you as much as a person can love.”
She likes to say I’m special because she was “born out of me.” I’m uncomfortable with this particular analysis, I don’t think it quite expresses what she means or why she means it. Sometimes I reframe “Well I nursed you, and that can create a certain kind of bond between people.” Sometimes I come closer – “Children do something called attaching, and you picked me.”
What she’s really asking, without asking, I’ve not answered. Because what she wants to know but doesn’t yet have language for is this – is my primary attachment to her too? And of course the answer is yes. She does own me. She is the daughter I dreamed of my entire life, who fell close to the tree, who I look at to see my past and my future in one pair of blue eyes. She is the child who was born in a petri dish after years of my infertility struggles, who braved five days in a lab to grow to eight cells. I have a microscopic photo of her then, hanging on our fridge. She is that cluster of cells who survived a quick transfer in a syringe to burrow into my uterus and make a home there, when her would-be twin did not. She is the baby who made the fetus lost in miscarriage, and the embryo who didn’t take root, have a meaningful storyline – one that is resolved because their loss led to her. She is the being with the outstretched legs, feet pushing against my lungs in utero, tiny hands playing games with me through the thin barrier of my stomach’s skin and my womb’s muscles. She is the product of thousands of hours staring into each other’s eyes, skin on skin, my body her food, while we were bathed in hormones and our brains instructed us chemically in the art of love.
My love with her is completely uncomplicated. We love in this visceral, physical, chemical way, where her life is the center of my life, and I would die for her, and I would die without her. It’s an instinct. It’s love that’s thick like syrup. It’s love the has sunk into every nook and cranny of me, melted into me and changed my fundamental texture, it’s made me denser.
But I can’t tell her that. I can’t requite that love, even though it is requited.
Because I do also deeply love Jesse. It’s just that it’s not a simple love. It doesn’t have the purity, the holiness of the love between me and Sadie. It doesn’t float with the clouds, soar with the birds, it is not a rainbow, or a ray of sunlight. It is made of the earth. It is something I made with my own hands.
I adore Jesse. Adore him. Some moments my heart is so full looking at him that I don’t know how to hold it inside my skin, it’s edges are bigger than my edges. I wanted him to be mine too. I wanted him to own me the way that Sadie owns me.
I fought for it, but I lost the battle.
After I had tried and failed to get pregnant for quite some time, once briefly succeeding and then bleeding my hopes into pads made of cotton and plastic, we decided that my wife would try to get pregnant too. We were older for would-be parents, we both wanted to carry a child, and we were ready for a family.
That was the time I learned that you can’t make big decisions based on who you want to be, based on the best version of yourself you can muster. You must, absolutely must make them based on who you actually are. Because who you are will be living with those decisions every day after. Your very worst self will be living with those decisions for months, years, afterwards. For the rest of your marriage. For the rest of your life.
We were laying on the bed, it was the morning after my 36th birthday, the morning after our new landlord had given us the keys to our new house. The night before, we had driven over the Bay Bridge into hills more green than we knew was possible and had a birthday dinner, a pizza picnic on the floor of our empty new living room.
This morning, we were back in the city, surrounded by boxes, honking coming from out the window, someone yelling in the flat above us. My wife was so cranky, so bitchy.
“Will you just go take another test?” My voice was sharp and I rolled away from her, put my back to her.
She got up and went to the bathroom.
I lay there breath shallow, tracing a crack in the ceiling with my eyes. I had traced it a million times before, could imagine the feeling of it under my fingers. In a few days I’d never see it again.
“Holy shit!” I heard her call out. There was no feeling of surprise. My eyes pricked with tears, grief welled up in my chest. Grief that matched the grief of flushing my incomplete baby down the toilet in clots of blood and muscus. Grief so big it was glorious. It consumed me.
We were having a baby.
If you’ve struggled with infertility for any period of time, you know that pregnant people can be a certain kind of painful. You don’t want to hate them, you don’t know their stories, maybe they are kin and this is their miracle baby. But no matter how magnanimous you aim to be, you do hate them a little bit. It’s because of the fierceness of your jealously. The way their growing stomach, their hand resting on the curve of their baby, creates a rush of longing and shame and a slow creeping terror inside you.
Well I was living with a pregnant person. And she was carrying my baby, the baby I couldn’t grow. She got to be the one to bring him to work with her everyday, and touch him freely all day long. She fed him cottage cheese and french fries and whatever else he was craving, while I had to wait for permission to sing to him or rest my hand on his hard head. I felt virtuous for just bearing it every day, although I was, in my external actions, cruel and cold. I could not wait for him to be born so I could own him, so I could take him from my wife and become his mother. So I could stop hating her for being a woman in the way I had failed to be, and start loving her again for being the amazing parent I knew she would become.
I said “What do you think you’ll want to be called?”
My wife is butch, and she’s chosen the ‘male’ role in our most traditional interactions – she proposed, she wore a tux at our wedding, she holds the door open for me, she leads when we dance. So while some people might have read us as ‘two mom family,’ I didn’t really. I always had pictured that I’d be our children’s mother, and she’d be their, well, their other parent. I expected she’d want something more gender neutral – Bapa, or Abba, or some other language invented by the queer community to make spaces for who we are to each other. I was curious what she’d choose.
“I actually have been thinking I’d like to be Mommy, or Mama.” She replied. She was thoughtful, working through something. “I think they apply most to how I feel inside.” It was said with an internal focus, as though this wasn’t stealing something else from me, as though I had no claim on this space. It was the kind of punch in the gut where the wind gets knocked out of you and you can’t figure out how to take in air. That pause where time slows down to a pitiful crawl and you wonder if you will ever actually breathe again. My whole heart wanted to be his mother. I feared it wasn’t going to be a shareable role.
I was right about that. When Jesse was six months old, he chose. I remember the moment it happened, it’s like a slow motion replay on a sports broadcast, each searing second highlighted. He was sick, so sick, and he was crying. I swooped in to pick him up but he scrambled out of my arms into my wife’s. Pushing off me to get to her. Desperate shrieking cries, comfort seeking, he settled into her, soothed by their nest of hormones and the smell of milk, and speed-stick deodorant, and safety.
He chose her. He attached.
As Jesse grew older, his autism became apparent, along with the associated subtle lack of empathy.
One day he pounced on my wife’s lap, knees first.
“Ooof” her arms went up defensively.
He sniffed her neck, rub his nose on it. She pushed him back with her hands, holding him at bay.
“Mama” he breathed the word like prayer. Precious rare eye contact, even if too close and slightly violent.
I leaned over and kissed the top of his head, my son’s hair and my wife’s hair identical in color and feel.
“I love you Bean.” I was soft spoken, telling myself a secret I almost hoped he wouldn’t hear.
He’d gone back to smelling my wife’s neck.
“Did you hear Mommy?” My wife pulled him back again, putting air between her body and his. “What can you say back?”
“Okay!” He glared, yanking himself free of her hold and catapulting his body back onto hers full force.
It could have been any day. It happened every day.
He refused to utter the words ‘I love you’ to me for several years. He didn’t feel about me as he felt about my wife, that was black and white, clear to him. If what he felt for my wife was love, then what he felt for me must be something else, and so what was clear to him was made crystal clear to me.
Sadie’s arrival was a gift to my relationship with Jesse, although in utero she felt like a betrayal. Like I had failed with him and was giving up and replacing him with another chance. My last chance. But once she was born and I was complete, not a yearning hole I was trying to fill with Jesse, he and I were able to meet in our own spaces rather than in the land of ‘mother and child.’ I’ve learned how to become his ‘other parent.’ Through knock knock jokes and math homework and TED talks on string theory and hours and hours of discussion about Star Wars and Percy Jackson, we’ve found spaces that are ours. I’ve also found the corners of motherhood too feminine for my wife to comfortably claim and inhabited those. I’ve moved right to the edges of where she ends and I’ve learned to begin there. I’ve also become his advocate, which he’s needed in spades, and I’ve done right by him in that role. And I’ve become the one who starts the uncomfortable conversations about the tricky things in life.
His autism has been a gift to our brand of discovered love, because when Sadie is in a school play it’s ‘so cute’ but when Jesse is in a school play it brings tears to my eyes. Every milestone has a depth since it was arguably unreachable sometime in the recent past. Every new development is unexpected and therefore tender.
I adore Jesse. Adore him. I also find him quite difficult to parent. I can become cold and rote with him, robotic in my drive forward as I hit wall after wall of resistance. He brings out of me the worst and the best parenting. He has mined my terrain and unearthed a level of patience and an ability to regroup internally that I didn’t know was possible to find, when I was in the depths of a frustration and exhaustion I didn’t know I could reach.
My love with Jesse is boundless and cautious and not uncomplicated. We do not meld into each other in a oneness that I can’t imagine breathing without. We circle each other like dogs, sometimes playful, sometimes wary.
And that is the landscape through which I’m wading, as I move toward the question that Sadie is really asking me when she says the word ‘only’ – she is asking whether I feel with Jesse what I feel with her? And the answer is no.
But I can’t say that out loud. Because my children are not yet old enough to understand all the subtle things that love can be, and no matter how old Jesse becomes, he may never understand them.
My womb, Sadie’s second home after her five brave days in a laboratory, was carved out of me by surgeons when she was 3 years old. There was a cancer scare that fortuitously didn’t prove to be cancer. During that window of fear and grief, my thoughts turned repeatedly to the way losing me would wreck Sadie. The way she relies on me for attachment and safety. She still needs me in a fundamental primary way to be ok, and I saw clearly for a moment that her being ok is my core purpose.
My ovaries went with my uterus, taking every potential biological link to me with them except for her, and one other twin embryo frozen in a cryotank somewhere in Texas, unlikely to survive thawing if we ever wanted more children, which we do not. This unused embryo, this embryo hugely unlikely to ever become a human baby, we nonetheless pay $400 a year to store. Because of the degree to which I am attached.
But we don’t want more children, or more honestly, we did want more children, but we couldn’t imagine how to survive having them. Right now we are two pairs, who would we be as five? We’ve been dealt like a hand of poker, our children were the dealers – a pair of jacks and a pair of queens, and we’re living with the hands we’ve been dealt. If my wife carried my frozen embryo that I no longer have the capacity to envelop, who would that baby own? Who would it claim as theirs? We are already two pairs. We have both already been marked, branded, tagged.
Sadie is mine and I am hers. She is the sun around which my earth rotates, she is the zero axis, my center point. And yet, I am not only hers. I am deeply and completely Jesse’s too. My love for him, the daily seeking and finding of our connection, is the roots holding me to the ground. My hourly struggle to do right by him and restrain from doing him wrong, is those roots drinking in the rain and growing me tall and straight. He grounds me, he improves me, he tests me. Jesse shows me who I am. But my love for Sadie is my leaves drinking in the dappled sunlight, pure, still, joyous and easy. Loving her is like drinking God. I have lost myself in her. I am self-less.
Megan Trainer has a recent song on the radio “I’m gonna love you, like I’m gonna lose you” I love Jesse like that. Like he is precious because he is potentially temporary. He is a priceless treasure that I’ve been allowed to take on a long term loan, I am so careful with him, careful not to lose him. His staying seems tied somehow to my choices, our love seems breakable. It requires things of me.
I love Sadie like I’m going to keep her. I love her like I will not survive beyond her. We are connected like my soul is connected to the cells of my own body. I cannot imagine the separation. We are conjoined twins, of one heart, our fates linked. And so I love her fearlessly, with wild abandon.
She asks me ‘Are you only mine?’ her blue eyes shining. And my blue eyes shine too as I look back at my own fiercely beating heart. ‘Yes’ I don’t answer her. ‘I’m only yours.’
‘No’ I answer her. ‘Not only.’
And it’s true.