This winter has been a real festival of minor bodily indignities and ailments for me and my children. As I write this I am suffering from a second bout with viral pinkeye, hot on the heels of the flu I caught from Raffi, who had it last week. I’m still not mentally recovered from the stomach virus that Ilya brought home in November, which resulted in a permanent orangey stain on the rug in our bedroom when Raffi threw up raw carrots (he swore he’d never eat them again, a vow he completely forgot about almost immediately. I’m still not ready.) The goals I had for myself at the beginning of the school year, like ‘figure out what my next book is about’ and ‘apply for full-time teaching jobs’ and ‘get assigned a substantial reported article,’ have taken a backseat to just surviving and doing the baseline amount of work that I thought would be happening “on the side” of those larger ongoing projects. I have felt stymied and foggy and full of self-recrimination, like the fact that I’ve caught every kid-ailment that has traipsed into our apartment must be indicative of some larger failure on my or body’s part. Why can’t my immune system get it together? Why can’t my brain triumph over the weak vessel of my body???
Clearly this attitude is not helping matters, but it’s hard to shake the impression that one is a total waste of space if one is not currently working on some publishable piece of writing that will change the world or at least one’s own place in it. I also live with Keith, who in addition to being insanely hardworking is also sort of taking over the mommyblogging beat. For a solid 2 weeks in December I could not go anywhere without hearing about Keith’s Raffi-rage essay. A friend who lives in Oakland told me his therapist recommended it to him! It was nice to be able to bask in reflected glory, but I could never quite get over the “reflected” part. It was weird to feel like I’d lost control of the narrative of our family’s life, even though I (mostly) cosign Keith’s account. I guess I’d become used to being the one who tells the story.
The other thrumming little psychodrama running underneath everything has been a crushing and strange set of feelings about my childbearing career being over. Ilya had his final desultory sips of breastmilk sometime in late November or early January. The last time I whipped out a boob and proffered it, he laughed in my face and bit me; the message could not have been clearer. When weaning Raffi, I had secretly consoled myself the whole fraught time with the idea that it was not really the end; I would nurse another baby someday, I told myself. In fact, weaning Raffi was clearing the space necessary for that to eventually become a reality. But with Ilya there was no such consolation. Keith and I have always said dumb things to each other like “if we unexpectedly get really rich,” or “if we could guarantee a clone of Ilya,” but neither of those things are real possibilities. As insecure about my work as I sometimes feel, the reality is that Keith and I are doing as about as well as can be expected in our respective careers — it always feels like we’re barely scraping by, but that’s about choices we’ve made, not some cosmic injustice that will soon be made right by a giant windfall. We chose to live in New York City, we chose to be writers, and neither of us had made money a priority or planned or saved for the future at all until I got pregnant with Raffi. Also, the reality of the book biz — and please read this closely if you are someone who thinks, as I once did, that “getting a book deal” is a be-all, end-all life goal — is that you work on a novel for four to seven years and then if you are very, very lucky (as Keith and I both have been, though not every time), you get paid an amount that would be commensurate to one year’s very good annual salary, minus 20% commission and taxed heavily. We are not going to “unexpectedly get really rich” unless one or both of us goes back to school, gets a law degree, and becomes a corporate lawyer.
So we are not going to have a third child. Obviously! It’s kind of preposterous that we had a second child! It’s crazy that we’re even having this conversation! But of course there is part of me that feels really sad about this, against all reason. The two children I have are so wonderful, and also so all-consuming and energy-depleting and immunity-destroying. I don’t want to have a third child but I also don’t want to not have one. It’s kind of like how even though I have had about 10 cigarettes in the past 4 years I would still not say that I have “quit smoking,” because that implies that I will never have another cigarette again. It’s hard to say “never” about anything. I always want to keep the door open a crack.
If I became pregnant accidentally I would probably, after a lot of agonizing, be able to summon the iron will necessary to get an abortion, but the whole thing would be horrible and I would second guess myself painfully the entire time. Or, alternatively, I would have a third child and that would ruin my marriage, career, life and children’s lives. Not to be melodramatic! There are definitely people who make it work in NYC with three or more and a lot less in the way of money and resources than what we’re working with. But the tradeoffs we would have to make would, for me, be too much to bear. And I’m typically terrible about sensing where my own limits lie, so if that one feels clear to me, it must be real.
So I decided to get an IUD, which, barring any crisis, will protect me from pregnancy til I’m 45, unless I decide to get it out sooner because I’ve won the lottery or lost my entire mind.
The day of the insertion I felt anxious and excited, the way I used to feel before getting a tattoo. I had the same kind of self-talk beforehand, where I have to pretend that it’s actually nooo big deal in order to keep myself from freaking out. I also thought happily of all the nice treats I would buy myself as a reward for taking on this unpleasant but necessary duty — I could go out for lunch, or maybe even go see Little Women alone, feeling crampy and virtuously responsible.
The insertion took place in my regular GP’s office. I love my primary care doctor, who’s also my kids’ pediatrician, so much, but it seems like a sad symptom of how unseriously the whole system takes women’s reproductive health that this procedure is basically treated about as seriously as a pap smear. What happens is, you like there in stirrups while the doctor gives your cervix a little shot of lidocaine to numb it, then dilates it enough that the IUD, which has collapsible little “arms” like an umbrella, can make it through the narrow cervical os. Once it’s in your uterus, it opens up like a tiny cocktail umbrella. That part, which happens a few minutes after insertion, is when people usually feel woozy, my doctor said. She left the room to let me recover in privacy and I took out my phone to report to my mom thread WhatsApp friends that it had been worse than I’d expected, that my legs had been shaking like when I was in labor. Then I put the phone down because a wave of horrible not-rightness was washing over me and I felt like I was going to pass out, but I was already lying down, so unfortunately that meant that I had to puke up the advil-coffee sludge that was the only thing in my stomach. It was a reflex-puke that felt unrelated to nausea. It reminded me of giving birth to Raffi, when I’d puked with every contraction.
I managed to get most of it on the paper skirt thing that was still draped over my lap, so I balled that up and put it in the trash, then gingerly took off my sweatshirt, which was at the end of its natural lifespan anyway, and put that in the trash too. Still naked from the waist down, I lay back on the examination table and waited for someone to come in and check on me. I felt much, much less inclined to go to see a movie.
As usual when something kind of awful happens to my body, I spent the rest of the day feeling mentally great, relieved and revivified by having survived some minor pain. As I held Ilya that night at bedtime I felt his soul-deep placidity as he let exhaustion overtake his little body, and I tried to remember how Raffi had felt in my arms at 18 months. I don’t think he was ever so peaceful, so solid. My two boys, one dark and one light, like two interlocking halves of a design. They are too much, and just enough.