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BEYOND CONCEIVING: What do you feel when it’s finally too late to have children?

By Lise Funderburg

Prevention Magazine
April 2007

From where I stand, 47 years old and therefore increasingly in touch with what lies both behind and ahead, it’s fair to say I’ve been lucky. I’ve traveled much of life mapless and still have somehow ended up exactly where I want to be. I became a writer, for example, through subtraction rather than striving, the outcome of ticking things off the list—waitress, personal assistant, manager—and then seeing what of me remained. And yet the one path I’ve forged so often it can only be described as self-determined also has exacted the greatest toll: deciding not to bear a child.

There will be no screaming at my husband in the delivery room while he feebly proffers ice chips; no infant suckling at my breast; no seeing grandparents in my child’s eyes; no confronting of forgotten selves at every developmental turn. No, no, no, no. I can isolate four times I’ve chosen the course of preclusion, stunning in how they started out to be about such different things, but no, not in the end. Not different at all.

ONE In college, long before I appreciated how commingled sexual responsibility and self-respect are, my most responsible act was to terminate the “accident” that my fecklessness produced. I did not take the decision lightly; nor did I waver. Mostly, I didn’t dwell on it. I don’t recall weeping over the child who might have been, although something about it wrecked things between the boyfriend and me. Maybe the gravity of what had happened was easier to bear alone. A decade later, when I heard he had fallen ill and died, having left no children, I thought about how I had once been in a position to keep a part of this spirited, brilliant person alive. That, I mourned.

TWO My entire first marriage. I could swear we’d talked beforehand about having kids someday, but when something like a ticking sounded in my womb, he didn’t remember the discussion. The world was a mess, he said. He was a mess, he said. I pushed, we made some dutiful, fraught attempts to conceive, but our foundation had already begun to crumble. People would say to me later, “Thank God you two didn’t have children.” I knew they meant well. I wanted to slap them.

THREE Several years postdivorce, I met an extraordinary man. Sparks flew. We were ready to do the heavy lifting that makes healthy partnerships, ready for the bloom of love. Except for one thing: He had been “fixed,” as he put it. Having fathered his son at an early age into a marriage that failed, he’d chosen years earlier to forestall any repeat. Not only could he have no more children, he didn’t want more. When we met, the man’s son lived with him, and he felt no need to add to—or detract from—their status quo. His love for his son was fierce, his sense of responsibility deep, but he knew his limits. “I will not change,” he lamented one evening as we ate in a restaurant’s garden, strings of lights hanging above our heads. “I think you’d make a wonderful mother. But I will not change.”

I tried to look into my future with and without him. Unknowable, like Algebra II. I tried to imagine a time I might resent him if I let go of my vague desire to see a child through from the starting line. Incomprehensible, like Trigonometry. What I could grasp was that I was already 42 and parenting alone at this age, at any age, frightened me. Letting go of this man frightened me at least as much. I chose him. We married.

Not only have I no regrets, but also his son, now 21, is someone I have grown to love, despite meeting him on the brink of what might best be termed his “individuation” years. He has a mother, but he also is mine: I have hemmed his pants, said no to him, plied him with food. I have promised him that I will always be in his life, maybe not out loud, but with a surety that was surprising even to me. Perhaps starting lines are drawn wherever love touches down.

FOUR A few months ago, I couldn’t pee. Who would have thought you could have too much continence? But there I was in the emergency room, raising radiologists’ eyebrows and surprising nurses with my catheter drain off. No one could figure it out: not my physician, not the urologists, not the sisters and friends who are my medical advisory board. In a feat both empowering and frightening, I diagnosed myself over the Internet. A urogynecologist seconded my opinion: Fibroids were physically blocking the flow of urine. Because the growths were big and they could grow back, she advised a hysterectomy. As my consolation prize, I’d keep an ovary, and therefore not be catapulted into early menopause.

Surgery went well, and I went home after two days, where I Googled gentle workout routines. Mostly I found post-op warnings about psychological distress. Will you feel that your identity has been stripped away? How will you feel about no longer being able to bear children?

What I’m feeling, I thought, is relief at not having a bladder swollen to four times its natural capacity. But I had time on my hands, time to let the questions settle, and here’s what I came up with: We enter the world with physical abilities that transcend physicality. We don’t just walk, we amble. We don’t just see, we discern. And we don’t just reproduce, we create a life to whom we transmit our love, demons, and hopes, whose heartbeat is never completely distinct from our own. What an essential, defining experience that must be, and that I’d missed.

Other miraculous possibilities endure. I can still get to all the continents before I die; if pressed, I could train for and run a marathon. I could find God in a way that she/he is currently unavailable to me. But I will not grow a child in this body. It was my choice each time; each time I made the right choice, but the wonderful life I have doesn’t cancel out the lives that weren’t led as they might have been. From where I stand, at this age and as a result of these decisions, the sun casts haunting shadows. But I turn my face to its warmth and think, What a beautiful afternoon.