When I’m lying flat, stretched out like a starfish on our king sized bed at night and trying to fall asleep in the cool dim of my bedroom, I imagine I can hear my ovaries crusting over, disintegrating, and blowing in a puff of breeze into the night sky.
I beg my body for just a little more time. One more month. Maybe three. I’ll do the fertility yoga. I’ll drink the fertili-tea. I’ll get the acupuncture. I’ll take the acrid herbal “uterine health” capsules and pour the rest of my cold brew down the drain.
At 43, I know that the pregnancy ship has almost certainly sailed. Part of me thinks I could swim out and catch it if I just tried a little harder. I could do the special diet and the supplements of dubious origin. I could lay face down on a table every week and get embroidered with acupuncture needles. I could get up every morning while my family sleeps and do the Yoga for Fertility DVDs. I could take my temperature before rolling out of bed each day and skim my cervix for “egg white consistency” mucus a few times each month. I could probably even get my husband on board with cringy, unsexy, hyper-scheduled sex. I did all of those things and more to conjure forth my daughter. I could do it again.
I don’t really need to entertain this To Do list. The helpfully depressing charts and graphs on every fertility related website all tell me that at 43, I have a 10% chance of conceiving with my own eggs in any given month, and a 50% chance of miscarriage even if I do manage to find one good egg to meet up with one stalwart sperm. IVF at 43 offers similarly low odds of success. My chances are very, very slim. But my grandmother gave birth to her sixth baby when she was 44, so, for the record, geriatric pregnancy is not unprecedented in my family.
I have baby fever, so menopause must be just around the corner. My uterus is clawing at me from the inside in its last sputtering gasps for life, desperate for some assurance of her relevance and evergreen utility. She and I have our toes at the very edge of that fertility cliff, and we both know we’re about to be pushed off. My hormones conspire to wring one more baby out of me in panicky desperation. After years of pregnancy ambivalence, my abdomen cranks into a tight knot as I shove my cart through Target and see the moms with their buzzy broods. A ruffly lemon print onesie inflicts a stab of actual pain in my eyeballs. Every pregnant belly and every mom and baby stroller combo in the neighborhood feels like a personal insult.
I’ve been almost perfectly content with one child for all six years of her life. The thought of another pregnancy or another screamy, sleepless new baby were not appealing to me at all, even if the idea of a sibling for my one kickass daughter has been pretty tempting. She is a brilliant bright light, and I’d love to give her a partner in crime, and someone to talk smack about her messed up parents with when she’s an adult.
But another baby? I was pregnant three years ago and miscarried in the first trimester. We weren’t really trying – in that, I was not doing my To Do list of fertility-boosting semi-science or scheduling sex. Somehow, I got pregnant anyway! At 40! And was excited and terrified for about three weeks. When I realized I was miscarrying, I was 70% heartbroken and 30% relieved. I wasn’t most afraid of birth complications or genetic abnormalities or even the increased chance of multiples (I was definitely worried about those things, but vaguely). No, I was saliently terrified that I would gain weight with this second baby and I wouldn’t be able to lose it. When I imagined my post-40 postpartum, I saw the specter of a person who was bigger than I could emotionally or psychologically handle.
When I lost that pregnancy and I admitted to myself that my fear of weight gain was bigger than my fear of much more dire health risks of “advanced maternal age”; that was my fat-phobic Come To Jesus moment.
Mentally wrestling with the miscarriage and my warped view of my body and my deep, deep fear of weight gain was the catalyst for my first efforts towards body acceptance. It has not been fast or easy or linear work. I haven’t “arrived”.
Bet here I am, three years later, ovaries crusting over, exerting real daily effort to appreciate the body that I have no matter what size my stretchy jeans. Today I feel ready to confront that fear of weight gain and just do the whole damn Get Pregnant thing, but it’s too late. If ever you need a cautionary tale for how internalized fat phobia can screw up your actual life, let me be your case study. This body has carried me through a lot, and I’m grateful. The body I have today – my real one, not an imaginary diet-culture-infused smaller one – is pretty great. I wish I had realized that much earlier.
I originally wrote this post in August of 2020, when Daisy was still a baby. A lot of things have gotten easier since then. As of this posting, she only occasionally destroys clothing while you are wearing it.
Our beloved Chihuahua/Rat Terrier mix, Auggie, died in June at the age of at least 15, after a short but brutal decline from brain stem cancer. He hated all but a pawful of people, and that small group of acceptable humans did not include our five year old daughter. Dogs were not really Auggie’s jam, either. He was friendly with exactly one dog in his ten years with us; a little dachshund who lived around the corner from our Roger’s Park apartment. She and Auggie would shyly bump noses and wag tails at each other and he seemed as smitten as an ornery old dog could be. He thought the rest of the dogs in the universe could go jump in a lake.
We were childless when we adopted Auggie. He was an adult dog with an epilepsy diagnosis and twice daily medication when we brought him home. We joked that he was our fur-baby, which was an eye-roll type joke to our friends, and, privately, not at all a joke to us. He was small and kind of fragile. He needed us. He had been adoptable for months when we saw his enormous upright ears on Petfinder and drove over to Red Door Animal Shelter to pick him up. “Most people are not interested in a dog that they know has any kind of medical issue” the adoption counselor told us. “But this little guy will probably have a pretty normal life once he has the right meds and follow up care.”
We took him to vet appointments and adjusted his anti-seizure meds. We hired trainers to help us and him with his anxious habits. We worked on creating a zen-like home environment for him. Our needy, anti-social little dog stretched our hearts wide open when we were pretty sure human children were not in the cards for us.
We loved him for 10 years, my husband especially. He liked to snuggle in between our thighs on the couch and purr-snore his way through our Netflix binges. He loved to sleep on Les’s lap while he graded papers or tapped with furious energy into his laptop to finish his dissertation or surmount the next pinnacle of his latest writing project. Auggie loved to sleep, snuggle with me or Les, and sometimes sniff around the yard for rabbit poop he could gulp down like candy. He didn’t like walks or fetch or toys or kids. In his sunset years, we indulged him with the gift of never having to eliminate outside ever again – he had two generous dog potty pads in the corner of the kitchen and used his “litter box” faithfully to the end. He was a cat in dog’s clothing.
After he died, I caught puppy fever. Ok, before. It seemed like at least a quarter of the people we knew had gotten a puppy since the shutdown, even people who had never struck me as “dog people”. How hard could it be? And, I mean, have you ever seen a puppy? Don’t you think that puppy licks and galumping sprints through the backyard and snoring couch snuggles could go a long way to heal the big dog-shaped hole in our family? Wouldn’t a puppy give our days structure and focus and our family a group project? Training, walking, housebreaking, playing. Those all sound better than the endless, boundaryless stream of days and weeks and months we have had since last March. It would force us to keep the house clean so the puppy wouldn’t swallow a lego or eat our books. We would eat dinner at the dining room table again, rather than sprawled out on the couch, each with our own device, ignoring one another for a few blissful minutes of mouth-stuffed alone-ish time. (Is that just us? Months of 24-7 togetherness have made “Let’s sit down to a meal together!” seem like overkill).
It wasn’t just me. Within days of Auggie’s death, our daughter’s doggy love escalated quickly to a dog obsession. Our daily walks around the neighborhood were timed for the maximum likelihood of encountering people walking dogs. She knew every dog in every fenced yard between our house and the park. She unabashedly begged people to let her play with their dogs. “I could come in your yard right now, or I could come after The Sick and play with her in your house!”. She convinced our brand new next door neighbors to let her come to their yard and run and roughhouse with their two young dogs. I watched her squeal with delight as they zoomed past her, ran circles around her, and licked her hands and face.
“Wouldn’t P do better with a doggy playmate? She’s an only child! She’s so lonely!” My husband, still heartsick over Auggie, leaned ever so slightly towards agreeing. I ran through that narrowly open door and started sending in dog adoption applications all over the region. My heart was set on a puppy, but I knew those were in high demand, and we had always been inclined towards those hard-luck pups who had been on the adoption rolls for a long time. So I applied for some adult dogs, too. I had heard that the pandemic had dramatically increased demand for adoptable dogs, and in fact several of our local rescues either had no dogs available, or had set up a (brilliant) fundraising effort where you could make a nominal donation to get “first dibs” on new dogs as they became available. It felt like the odds were stacked against us, but we were happy in the knowledge that record numbers of dogs were finding homes, and full of empathy for shelter workers (most working tirelessly as volunteers) who were totally unprepared by the deluge of dog demand wrought by thousands of home-bound people eager for companionship and drowning in time away from their routine. I was shocked when I heard back from one of the first and most earnest applications I sent – I had a serious puppy crush on one of the black and white lab/hound mixes on the Safe Haven website.
Would a puppy be more work than an adult dog? Sure. Was I ready for the challenge? I absolutely thought so. My biological clock screamed over my logical brain on this one. You see, I’m 42 and we did not intend to have just one child. This year, my baby-wanting whipped me into a frenzy, but not quite enough to pursue any medical interventions. Just enough to wish it would JUST HAPPEN ALREADY. And stick. After two miscarriages, I radiate pregnancy ambivalence. I want another child. I do not *actually* want to be pregnant or give birth again. At my age, it’s really unlikely to Just Happen. But there was this steady thumping of desire – for baby snuggles and baby coos and baby clothes and baby wearing. For a sibling for our brilliant goofball of a daughter. A desire to mother something. I’ve gone from “mommy” to just “mom” over the span of a couple of harrowing months, and it is jarring. Anyway. A puppy seemed like the next best thing. “Bringing home a puppy is a lot like bringing home a newborn!” the rescue agency adoption coordinator told me over the phone while conducting our screening interview. “Perrrrrfeecccttt” I whispered to myself.
But holy shit. It is not perfect. For one thing, newborns will, at least 92% of the time, poop and pee in one predictable place: a diaper. Also, newborns don’t ambush and pounce on their older sibling with all their baby energy and shark-like biting power. Newborns don’t chew on your walls or your storage baskets or your hands or your daughter or tear holes in all your shirts while playing tug of war with the clothes you are wearing on your body. Newborns CAN accidentally ingest dangerous objects. They just can’t bite off and swallow chunks of, say, tree trunks or dead animals or toxic toadstools or underpants. Newborns, for the most part, can’t weasel between your legs at the front door and run into traffic. No, this is not like having a newborn. It’s more like having a toddler with really sharp teeth. The only ways in which this puppy is easier than a newborn or a toddler is that 1) the puppy sleeps about 7 hours straight each night before needing a pre-dawn potty break (contrast with my human child, who was 19 months and 21 days old the first time she slept more than three consecutive hours at night) and 2) I am not breast feeding this puppy.
I am suffering the natural consequences of my selfishness in wanting a puppy when they are in such high demand: the pulsing headache of baby fever drove me to toss all that empathy for hard-to-home dogs out the window to GET A BABY THING. And now that baby thing is destroying our house.
But P adores her, even when the licking turns to nipping and the nipping begets tears. And Les dotes on her and thinks she is absolutely the right dog for our family. He reminds me that perhaps my expectations were too high for her, and notes that all ages of dogs are in high demand right now. The fact that we were even matched with this pup seems like a sign. I applied for six dogs, and only ever heard back about this pup. And she is really freaking cute. After our 5 am potty break in the yard, she and I lumber bleary eyed back into the house and I sprawl out on the couch to try to get a little more sleep before I start the day. She stretches her sleek black otter-like body over my torso and nestles her face under my chin and we snooze. The endorphins or hormones or whatever this cuddling produces are the fairy dust that sparkle away the angst of the previous day, and the early wake up, and my dread of more holes in more clothing and more emergency vet X-rays for foreign objects and the exhaustion of a demanding house training routine that seems to be only 40% effective. In those minutes before the day officially begins, she is my fur baby, and we are alone together in quiet and dark, learning together how to recalibrate our family dynamic and commit to the long game. Babies don’t keep. Thank heavens. Now that we’ve had both a puppy and a human newborn, I will tell you that the puppy is harder.*
*Except for the part when I didn’t get any REM sleep for 2 years with the human baby.