Rachel Fiske Reynolds
My daughter is a proxy, soft-cheeked resting place, a curly-haired happy ending for anyone to see, offering up tidy certitude while the thorny bodily tangle she emerged from disappears.
Of course the truth doesn’t disappear, it is written in my body. Scratched into my reddest insides are the tally lines of others, of the fetuses I aborted and the one I lost that October night in my mother-in-law’s bathroom, cramps wracking my body until I recalled birth and understood what was happening: there had been life inside me and now there wasn’t; now my living body yearned to extract itself from death, to delineate between the living and the dead. As though my body weren’t dying. As though birth were anything other than death. As though relinquishing this death weren’t its own sort of birth: once you lose a baby, you are never the same; anyone who’s ever lost one will tell you.
Or they would, if there weren’t so much shame blanketing the fertility of women, muffling the peculiar agony of miscarriage with a mandate that now you are partial, only sort of a woman; the sort of woman who can’t breed, who can’t breed right.
John and I were fucking when my body screamed stop and, like the morning I went into labor with our daughter, I stopped. Padding to the dining room, following the lead of my full moon belly as the sun had only barely begun to rise, I thought I was a doe. I felt the roundness of my eyes, their wide-openness, the high alert of pricked ears coupled with deep quiet; I knew the nimbleness of my limbs. I awoke that morning in a bad neighborhood in California in complete surrender, listening for the world but regarding it only insofar as it could fail to honor the space I needed. I ceased to worry about hospital bills or how we’d buy groceries in the coming weeks. Instead I sat at the dining room table, and I waited. Wrapped in purpose, purpose wracking my body, I had everything I needed.
These days, by which I mean for the last few thousand years of white European tradition, childbirth is the rare gem by which women suddenly reign, if only for some moments. As we rip open, our muscles ripple. For once, no one can stop us, and when we are left to call the shots (and we are not all left to call the shots: here I think of my sisters inside, of my sisters inside Catholic hospital systems, of my sisters inside the silence they’ve learned so well that even in their hour of power they cannot dominate), we call them right every time. Childbirth is the same thing as knowing. I have never been more certain; I have never swum farther out from the shores of language. Childbirth is earth no matter how hard culture tries to convince us otherwise.
When my body screamed stop and I curled up, back turned to John as his family slept in different rooms around us, my body knew what my mind didn’t. I hadn’t known I was pregnant, didn’t know there was a grain of death curled up inside me, bound to my interior but ready to let go. Or, my body was ready to let go of it: death is certitude followed by silence; it is unyielding in its conviction, forcing the conversation to circle around it and tend. My body became a murder of crows as John slid his skin over mine, into mine—and then it kicked him off, pushed him out: it had a corpse to address, to circle around and scent and then diminish.
I became pregnant with my daughter without any sense of what it meant, with no concept of myself as a mother. It seemed sexy to grow full with life, courting death more closely with each passing day: I sensed surrender and I yearned to relinquish power. I wanted to let John maybe kill me, to let him reach inside and plant a seed that might raze me as it rooted and bloomed. I wanted to license my own destruction, to say yes to his ability to turn me into an endless no. The bigger your baby, the more likely you are to come up against it in delivery, to find yourself a contender vying for the only living spot. The bigger your baby, the more likely church and Congress and petty, piddling men are to choose it over you, even if it means you both lose. When I let John cum inside me, I reached out my hand to death; I positioned John as my murderer, and I liked it.
And then I hated disappearing. The constant interruption of who and how I wanted to be, the conspicuousness of my pregnant state—vomiting at bus stops, belly swelling beneath shirt. I hated the simplistic narrative my body put forth, insisting on the primacy of my pregnancy to a society that insists on the primacy of pregnancy for determining my validity. I felt my queerness fall out of view, felt curiosity about my potential for complexity pause, replaced by a steady hum of we know who you are. In desperate search for a respite from this painful drag, I bound my breasts with bondage tape; Emile trimmed my hair and carefully glued it to my face; John put on a dress and baked me a pie while I watched from across the room wearing nothing more than combat boots and jeans. I smoked a cigarette. Emile took pictures. He printed them and gave them to me, large black and white shots lovingly pulled from the page in the dark room. Being seen is the only antidote to society’s insatiable gaze.
I was mad at John for months; no, make that years. Of course I was really mad at myself: I got myself into quite the predicament.
John destroyed me like I wanted him to, but the eroticism slipped away so soon, replaced by worry. Worry I’d never read as queer again with my cis-male partner and biological child. Worry about grocery and utility bills, about not getting sick because we can’t afford insurance, about paying for childcare, about always having to compromise because choice is not afforded to the poor, about never getting what I want again. Some days I still feel like having a child was the last choice I made. Everything that’s come after is simply another response to the call.
My daughter calls my name from down the hall, hollering into the early morning light from the warmth of her bed. I respond, shuffling through the dark past her drawings taped to the walls, hoping I don’t step on a Lego and get thrown fully awake. In the blue-light of her bedroom, she grins as I open the door, rolls over against the wall in her bed and says, I couldn’t sleep.
I slide into the slim space she’s made for me, wrapping my arms around her small torso and pulling the blankets up to both of our necks. She smells better than anything I’ve ever smelled and I stick my nose into the mat of hair that weaves itself on the back of her head each night as she dreams and I do not care if keeping her safe and helping her grow is all I ever accomplish. If I can only love her right, I will have done enough.
In December we decided to have another child, and in January I had another abortion. We didn’t have enough money after all. In Pennsylvania, where we live, the state marched through the hallowed halls of my body, forcing me to drive to the clinic, the sky slung low and heavy across the thin gray morning, to watch a video of a doctor explaining how abortion works and exaggerating the risks. In a windowless room with crappy linoleum flooring, a collection of us women sat, patronized and collectively delegitimized despite what I am certain were countless good reasons. No one, after all, has an abortion for fun. In this society, one more mouth to feed can mean everyone goes hungry.
When my daughter was a newborn she slept on our chests, passing back and forth between us, her ear turned toward our heartbeats, the top of her head warmed by our breath. A few hours with me, a few hours with John, offering each of us a chance to roll over for a while, to sleep without grip.
Once I woke with a start, upright in bed with empty arms, heart racing as hands frantically searched the sheets around me. Where are my babies? John awoke, too, murmured all was well; he had the baby right there in his arms, her soft skull resting against him.
But she wasn’t the baby I was looking for.
Rachel Fiske Reynolds is a queer radical feminist nerd living and writing in philadelphia. She's a pretty shitty gardner, bakes a mean chocolate chip cookie, and thinks duende is pretty rad.