I was a terrible babysitter. I didn’t really like babies and kids, the single qualifying quality for a teenage sitter. The only thing that drew me to the job, besides the money, was the free time after the kids went to sleep and free HBO, and a chance to be alone in someone else’s house with a refrigerator stocked with food. I wasn’t maternal or nurturing. When I played Barbies, I’d act out passionate sexual adventures with Barbie and Ken in the bathtub, but I never had them marry. There was never a Barbie baby. My Barbies remained singular and interesting, unlike my parents. I had no intention of being a mother. I had things to do and big dreams and plans that didn’t include being a mother. I would be a famous actress or singer in New York City. I would live in a loft there and have lovers but never marry. I’d never move to the suburbs. I would be forever interesting.
I was in my 30s when it occurred to me to ask my doctor about freezing my eggs in case I changed my mind. “You should have thought about that 10 years ago,” he said. I took it as a sign.
When questions would come, mostly from family, about being childless in my 40s and single, I’d say with a smirk, “I guess I was so busy being me that I forgot to have kids,” as if a child was a piece of luggage I’d forgotten on the conveyer belt.
More excuses built up: I loved my life as a touring musician. I loved my art, my career. I was too selfish. I was single. I’d never met anyone I’d want to have kids with. I was too broke. I loved my flat stomach. I decided to be the best aunt I could be and aged into my late 40s without kids, and with only a slight bit of regret.
* * *
Hail Mary full of Grace, the Lord is with thee
I was driving into Wyoming on a late August day in 2016, wandering through the flats and scrub, the southern part where the mountains were a faraway postcard I hoped to see. The sun was high and hot and I kept the radio off to hear the wind numb my racing mind. I had to pee — a good excuse to stop and stretch my legs on this long ride through the moonscape, en route to somewhere else. I hoped for a truck stop, a gas station, some little café to appear.
Pine Bluffs, Wyoming. In the distance, I saw it. Wasn’t sure what it was at first. A shock of white in the beige and brown tumbleweed. A point at first that grew as I climbed the hilly curve, grew and loomed, shadowing over the bowl of a little town below. As I saw the green rectangular exit sign, Exit 59, a huge white cross stood as a strange welcome to this ghost town. Large white crosses weren’t so surprising to me. There is one on I-40 on the way to Memphis. There’s one on a Texas highway I travel. Someone built one into the side of a mountain near Roanoke, Virginia; at the top of the hills of Williamsport, Pennsylvania, where, in high school, we gathered near Steve Landale’s house and walked to the cross to drink beer in cans and smoke cigarettes. I pulled off the road and found a café, got a coffee and peed. But rather than head straight back onto the highway, I turned toward the cross at the edge of the town. Just a five-minute diversion. I’d take a photo. Send it to my Catholic mother and make her smile.
Blessed art thou amongst women
I was single. I’d never met anyone I’d want to have kids with. I was too broke. I loved my flat stomach.
As I pulled into the parking lot, the thing loomed larger than it looked from the highway and cast a midafternoon shadow along the tops of the trailers and one-story vinyl-sided houses. I parked my car and walked toward the cross.
A small group of elderly women and men stood in a semi-circle in front of the cross. I moved closer. They had rosary beads dangling from their hands. There were eight, maybe ten of them and I tiptoed away, around them, so as not to disturb. I didn’t want to bother them, and I certainly didn’t want them to notice me. I didn’t want small talk. I was looking for something else in the still desert air, in the shadow of the monolith.
Blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus
“Would you like to join us?” One of them had spoken.
“Oh, no. I’m sorry, I’m not…” I couldn’t find the end of my own sentence.
“It’s OK. We are praying the rosary. Do you know it?”
I did. My mother. My grandmother. All my grandmother’s sisters, my great aunts, the nuns in their black widow habits with rosary beads dangling from their hips. The cold marble of the stations of the cross. The frankincense that tickled my nose and set off allergy fits of sneezing in the middle of Mass my entire childhood.
Holy Mary, Mother of God
“Yes. I do,” I almost whispered. One of them held out a rosary, an invitation. Surprising myself, I reached out and took it, joining them at the end of their arc.
My grandmother’s hands found my shoulders as the breeze touched my skin and I could smell her wrinkled fingers, talcum and rosewater.
Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death
And the words tumbled like tears from my mouth. I knew them better than I know anything. It’s more than memorization: I know this prayer like the beating of my heart and although I have raged against The Church in capital letters for the better part of 25 years, I fell into the lullaby of this prayer to The Mother, the impossible mother who was untouched and pregnant, riding a donkey through the mess of the world to give birth to hope, surrender and grace in the body of a human who would take on our brokenness. A birth of forgiveness. The tears filled my eyes, threatening to spill a great flood of regret and desire. My grandmother’s hands found my shoulders as the breeze touched my skin and I could smell her wrinkled fingers, talcum and rosewater. “My princess,” she would coo to me, brushing my hair away from my tears. My mother in her paisley skirt, stained by orange juice and flour, baking cookies and pies surrounded by her children, the four of us clinging to her pleats, competing for her love.
Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.
The cross came out of the sun’s shadow and the words became whispers and one of the women next to me touched my hand as I touched the beads to my lips. I was in my late 40s already, and I realized something: I had been telling myself I didn’t want a child. I embraced the story of independence. My art came first. Men failed me. I failed men. I failed myself. I failed the early stages of fertility and wasted the last of the years. My last chance was long ago, and I had accepted this.
Or so I thought. But there, amidst this holy place shining like a neon trailer park sign, something — a new wish — stirred inside me.
* * *
A couple of years after we married, my husband’s job added IVF and egg donation coverage to the insurance plan. My husband had always wanted a family, but he married me at 47 knowing my eggs weren’t viable. We’d talked about adoption, but it was too expensive. I hadn’t known about egg donors, but the new insurance made it and IVF affordable, so we decided to try.
Our fertility specialist was confident. “It’s the age of the egg, not the uterus.” We began the treatments and chose a donor. My husband was also confident. I was the one who held out little hope. A couple of cycles later, much to my surprise, Blastocyte #3 stuck to my uterus and I was pregnant. I would have a son the month after I turned 50. Talk about a geriatric, last-minute pregnancy.
The day I found out I was pregnant, I thought back several years to that day on the road and the large, looming cross. I stood with strangers on a borrowed pilgrimage for 10 minutes at most and the wind changed and the sun warmed and a prayer came out of my skin anew, a gift from all the women who gave life to me and the mother I knew I wanted to become, finally, birthed in a strange barren landscape, just a stop on the way to nowhere special.
personal essays about motherhood