Wanting a Child Makes No Goddamn Sense: Tiphanie Yanique on the Hope and Grief of Pregnancy and Childbirth
“There is nothing logical about wanting to have a baby.”
I’m writing an essay on pregnancy and childbirth.
I need a single word or words that are antonym to “want.”
Maybe. But those words are active.
Want feels passive.
Want sits inside of a person and waits.
“I just killed my baby!” The woman was howling. She was the first thing I heard when I woke up. Actually, I was being woken up. People were shaking me and telling me it was time to wake up. And many other shes were crying. And we were all together in a room. The woman I’d heard shouting was just the loudest of us all. The women waking me were nurses or physician assistants. They were shaking my shoulders roughly and I wanted to elbow them. Hard. I was angry, but also confused enough that first I touched my face. And that was when I felt my tears. My baby was dead, too. And maybe I’d killed it. This is the end of the story.
The start of the story is me, on my knees praying. Me saying, Please dear God, please, if you give me this child, give me this baby, I will leave my womb open for another, dear God, I will leave myself open to another soul that you desire to pass through, dear God, if you grant me this child, this girl that I so desire, I will give you one; one for you, please, dear God. If you grant me my second child, I will give you, God, a third.
One thing to know about me, is that I was raised religious, and I am still religious. I am not a recovering religious person. I am not someone who thinks my childhood faith derailed my maturity or stifled my intelligence. I know my faith to be part of my maturity and part of my intelligence. When I think about why I exist I think I do so for my man, my children, my best friends and myself—and by those people I mean God. I mean God is in the people who love me and whom I love, and I exist for that love, which is God. I pray every day, two or three times a day. As with many women who say they are religious, I have never had an abortion. I am forty-two years old now, and so it doesn’t seem unreasonable to say that I will never have an abortion.
Perhaps there is nothing passive about “not wanting.”
Wanting is a state of being.
Not wanting is more active than wanting.
On the day I awoke to a woman confessing murder, my spouse and I already had a baby. Our son was a boy I’d named two decades before he even existed. I loved being a mother, instantly knew it was what I came to earth first and foremost to do. My writing? Yes, vital to me, but now and forever secondary to my child. I was so full of this miracle thing I had done—become a mother—that I felt sure that it really must be every woman’s first and foremost thing to do. As a feminist, this feeling felt absurd. And yet, there was the feeling inside of me.
Two years after my first born, I was pregnant again. My mother-in-law, who thought it was her place, asked, “Are you just going to keep having children?” “Yes,” I told her, which was spiteful because she’d only managed to have the one, my husband, though she’d longed for a gaggle. This time, my husband and I didn’t wait to tell people—that three-month wait that is recommended. We just told people. We told everyone. I wore a t-shirt that said: It’s not a beer belly, it’s a baby.
So how did I kill my baby? Let me count the ways.
1. There was my yoga teacher. Hot yoga, to be exact. I walked down the block to that beautiful, addictive place daily. Nothing was better for my sanity than hot yoga. And when I was pregnant, my hormones were pretty much insanity inducing. I cried every other day, which everyone said meant the baby was a girl; all those extra hormones. My hot yoga instructor was a man, and when I asked him if it was okay to take hot yoga while pregnant, he said his partner never stopped hot yoga throughout both of her pregnancies. Then he walked out of the hot room. Sat on a bench. And his heart slowed until it stopped, and he died. The yoga studio emailed us all explaining that he had a heart condition, one unknown to himself.
2. Now let’s consider a baby’s heart. Which isn’t fully formed until halfway through the second trimester. I was in hot yoga the day before I found out I’d killed my baby.
3. I was not taking care of my expectant body. For example, I drank wine whenever I wanted. Because how good had I been when pregnant with my son, my first? I’d been damn perfect. And how hard had that been? So hard. I walked my two-year-old to preschool two days a week, so I could do my full-time job in those not-enough hours. I watched him by myself three other days. My husband wanted sex, but I wanted sleep. I got neither. Had nothing left over to give, and so had killed my baby.
4. I’d flown on a plane. In fact, I’d just flown back from my childhood home in St. Thomas because I had a doctor’s appointment, a prenatal check-in. Second pregnancy, so my husband didn’t come to any of the doctor visits, he and our son were back on the island. My cousin, who was a nurse, cautioned never to fly while early in your pregnancy. “You go on the plane pregnant. You get off the plane not.” Her exact words. Which I had ignored, and so had killed my baby.
5. Finally, and mostly, I had killed this baby by wanting this baby too much. I wanted them more than anything. I wanted the baby more than I wanted my job or to write another book. I’d wanted my boy, whom I already had. And I wanted my girl, whom was in me—until
I woke up to another woman screaming. My want, my excessive, awful, deadly want, had
killed my baby.
Is there a “not wanting” state of being?
Not wanting inherently requires consideration of wanting,
then acts in opposition.
Not wanting is a rejection of wanting.
When I’d gone to the doctor for my prenatal checkup, she stared at the screen. Stared and stared and stared. Her face carried the kind of frown you only see on cartoons. Her lips a hump on her face. “I can’t find a heartbeat,” she said. Then she turned the screen so I could see what could not be seen. “I will leave you here with the image. Stay as long as you need to.” How long did I need to stay? I have no idea. I stayed for a long time. When I left the exam room, each staff member in the office looked at me tenderly, but no one said a word. I felt like I was floating, which I understand now meant I was in a state of shock. My baby was dead inside of me. Nested and perfect and quiet. With fingernails and a heart but no heartbeat.
And I had to get the baby out.
The doctor had said so. I remembered this hours later. She’d said that if I didn’t go and get the baby out that I may start bleeding in the middle of teaching my classes. Or I may bleed and bleed and not get to a hospital in time and just bleed out. “You have to go as soon as possible,” she’d said. “If you want, it’s okay to wait until your husband comes back. Go on Monday, or you can go tomorrow.” The tomorrow place was an abortion clinic.
“It won’t be nice there,” she said. “But it’s the same procedure, so they know what to do.”
At home, I called my son’s father, who was still my husband, and hollered into the phone. I wanted him to tell me, “Wait for me so I can be there with you.” But I never asked. In fact, I felt it best that he stay away. If he came back early, I would have to take care of him and our son. It was going to take all of me to take care of myself.
And also, there was something stranger: I didn’t believe my baby was dead. The baby could not be dead. Because I had heard her in my mind since I was fifteen years old—I’d named her then. I was sure the doctor was wrong; I still felt pregnant. I wondered if the doctor was inept or a cruel liar. If only that one doctor believed that the baby was dead, then maybe the baby wasn’t dead.
None of this made sense, of course. And yet it was completely logical to me: I was going to an abortion clinic as soon as possible so that I could prove that my baby was alive.
Is there something human that makes this word want so particular? Or is there something grammatical about the word want that does this?
There are only three verbs: be, do, have.
Want is a variant of be.
Ah-ah. That means that want is being. A natural constant state.
Another thing to know about me is that I curse. A lot. My friends will tell you that I do this like a sailor. I give the middle finger to people I respect, as a sign of my respect. I curse when I am happy. I curse people out when I am angry. I have cursed out strangers. I use curse words you have never used and never should. Still, I believe my body is holy, even when bleeding. I believe your body is holy, too. Religious men do not think I am religious. Religious men think I am a threat to their faith—a few have even told me so. And then I have cursed them out.None of this made sense, of course. And yet it was completely logical to me: I was going to an abortion clinic as soon as possible so that I could prove that my baby was alive.
Which brings me back to the abortion clinic. It had a very nice waiting room. The chairs were comfortable, more plush than any hospital or doctor’s office. Most of the women were there with other women. There were no men in the waiting room at all. Some of the women, like me, were alone. Then there was the examination room, which was like the living rooms in hotel suites. All of us women were going through something we hadn’t planned on going through; a thing we didn’t want to go through. We were sad or scared or angry or confused. The designers of the clinic didn’t want to make all this worse with uncomfortable furniture or discomforting decor. Many of us, I’m sure, were grateful. I was, in fact. Grateful that this place was open for me on a Saturday. Grateful I wouldn’t bleed to death on Monday when I taught my night class. Grateful I didn’t have to wait for my husband to get home. But gratitude is not happiness. No one was happy in that clinic.
Is it that language creates certain possibilities of being in the humans who speak it?
Humans exist in our senses.
In order to consciously process those senses,
there must be a sense of self.
The sense of self is therefore unitary (I am).
In the examination room at the abortion clinic a tech did a scan, as was the law in New York. I wanted to confirm the sex of the baby, but I didn’t ask. The woman asked me when I had had my last period. I answered. “Seventeen weeks,” she said to me. “Heartbeat, 140 beats per minute.”
She repeated: “Seventeen-week old fetus and heartbeat, 140 beats per minute.”
“Yes,” she said, dull and flat, like women came in and doubted her all the time.
“My baby is alive?”
“Seventeen-week old fetus and heartbeat, 140 beats per minute.”
“What. The. Fuck. Are you saying? What are you motherfucking saying?” I was screaming this at the woman. Screaming it as I sat up from the examination table. Pulled my clothes on. “Get me the fuck out of here.” My baby was not dead. This woman was about to kill my baby.
The woman backed slowly out of the room, then rushed back in with a doctor. A man. He looked at the screen and then looked at the woman. He asked me to lay back down. He took out an instrument, jellied it, and pushed it hard over my stomach.
Even now as I write this, I can feel the adrenaline crashing through me. I can feel my arms and shoulders and neck growing tight. My baby was still alive. My girl. The one I had named years before and was waiting for. Wanting so badly. The one I had thought I had lost. The one I had thought I had killed. Maybe she had died, but here she was, back. Back in me. With me. I was crying and hiccupping. I was breathing so hard, I was breaking.
“I want you to relax,” the doctor said. “Your heart is beating so hard I can’t hear anything else.” He didn’t say what he could see. He didn’t say what he couldn’t see. I took deep breaths. I calmed myself. I spoke to my girl in my mind, which I felt was the most true way to communicate with her, because she was, after all, inside of me. Was nothing apart from me. Was me. I spoke to her like I was praying. Which I was. I was praying to her.
So, then the opposite of want might be satiated.
The opposite of want might be simply being.
It is not so unusual to think that a fetus is the same thing as God. To a woman who wants that baby, an unborn baby is a divine thing. And so, praying to that baby is a way to talk to God. It is a way to talk to something that is not yet. Something that is not of this world and so is greater than this world. This is not about when life begins. What I am talking about is completely untied to life. This is before and beyond life. A pregnant woman knows that the not-life inside of her is actually still mostly spirit. And so is still mostly God. I know many pregnant women who talk to their enwombed babies with their minds. These women are praying.
Which is what I was doing.
Which is why when this second doctor said to me in the abortion clinic, “There is no heartbeat,” I started cursing that motherfucking bitch mother’s cunt asshole what kind of dumbass bitch mistake did you just make don’t you fucking know I wanted that heartbeat you stupid fucking ass-licking pussy-face son of a whore.
I don’t know when I calmed down. I don’t know when I realized, as I do now, that the woman, just a tech, had just been saying what she was trained to say. She’d just done the math from the date of my last period and presented the numbers that added up. Seventeen weeks, 140 heartbeats per minute. She hadn’t looked at the screen at all. Maybe she never looked. There was no heartbeat. This time the doctor made me look, didn’t just suggest it. “Look,” he said. And he made me listen: “Listen.”
Gratitude is the cure for desire.
Is desire a disease?
*Excessive. Excessive desire.
Gratitude is the cure for excessive desire.
The next thing I remember is waking up to a woman screaming that her baby was dead and that she had killed it. And I could feel in my body that my body was empty. Which I had not expected. I felt cold at the base of me. Cold like that part of me was gaping open to a chill. Someone had put a pad in my panty. And now they were handling me roughly. Telling me to go home. They needed the bed for someone else. That was the end of that pregnancy. The end of that story.
I have no memory of how I got home that day. Subway? Taxi? Black car? Did I walk? No clue. But I remember that when I arrived to my empty Brooklyn apartment, I went to my knees and made a promise to God. God, if you let me have my baby girl back again. If you bring her back to my womb. I will leave my womb open for another, for a third. I didn’t have a name for a third baby. I didn’t have a want for a third baby. But I promised God, that if he gave me back my girl, that I would leave my womb open for whomever He needed to get through. Would make the pit of me a hallway.
And that is what happened. I got pregnant again, fast. Two months later, a new beginning. Pregnant with that girl. When I was pregnant again and showing big, I remember the head of my first child’s preschool saying to me, “You have been pregnant longer than anyone I know.” Which I gather meant she thought maybe I had been lying about being pregnant earlier because I’d cited my pregnancy months before as one reason I was applying for a scholarship for my first child. I had told her, as I had told everyone, about that second pregnancy. But I had never told her, or really anybody, about the miscarriage. And then I was pregnant again as soon as I could be. Most people didn’t even realize I’d miscarried at all.
This new pregnancy was nothing like my first, or that second lost one, for that matter. I felt more exhausted than I knew a person could feel and still be awake. I felt scared, waiting for the baby to die inside of me. I broke my hips apart in delivery. And I don’t mean this metaphorically. I mean the rupture in my hips showed up on X-rays, and I couldn’t walk for weeks. Couldn’t run for years.There is nothing logical about wanting to have a baby. It makes no fucking sense to want a heart from your own body walking around outside of your body.
And my promise to God? My doctors said no. No, you should not get pregnant a fourth time, not again. And when I got pregnant that fourth time? My spouse, who was still my spouse, shrugged. “Whatever you want,” he said. But I’d made a promise. And so we named the third baby Nazareth. And yes, Nazareth’s first steps were taken in a church. And yes and yes, he is a miracle baby. But in that last point, it must be said that he is no different than any baby. All mothers are miracle makers.
Gratitude might be too active a word.
Gratitude might be active.
Gratitude might also be a state of being.
Do you understand that what I did to have a second child after my miscarriage, was make an agreement with God to have a third? Do you understand that I understand that bargaining is just a stage of grief? Can you tell that my children’s father is no longer my spouse? You won’t have known that the psychologist who assessed our custody agreement wrote that my desire for a third baby was cited by my ex-husband as a reason for the divorce. But I know this all. Understand all this. I do. There is nothing logical about wanting to have a baby. It makes no fucking sense to want a heart from your own body walking around outside of your body.
Truth is, I badly want this essay to be like all the essays I have written and hope to write. I want this essay to have meaning, because that is what I believe writing is for. And yet this essay is wanting of meaning. There is only me and my sisters crying about our dead babies. There is only this thing that only women and women alone know. There is only me and another person, who also had a surprise third child—texting back and forth, forth and back, about the word want. There is only that this person is also my partner, my day-to-day coparent, and we are also texting, of course, about being in want and in gratitude for each other. And there is communication that is love, which we call prayer; and praying is the active verb of hope, itself a derivative of want; and there is belief, the state of being prayerful; and there is a life, which is a prayer. And nothing else.
Excerpted from So We Can Know: Writers of Color on Pregnancy, Loss, Abortion, and Birth, edited by Aracelis Girmay, available via Haymarket Books.