My mother is not a feminist. Her mother was not a feminist. I don’t know about her mother, but I doubt it. I don’t know if there are any feminists in my lineage at all. Surely there must be, somewhere back in the 19th century, a stalwart woman on an ocean liner perhaps, blazing eyes facing America? A bold immigrant making good for herself, who had found ways to limit the number of children she birthed? If she existed, and I like to think she did, there was not much of her insistence on choice and agency over her own body left by the time my own mother came around: raised to be a wife and mother by the kind of wife and mother who sweetly, gently, quietly, bore the cruelty, paranoia, and despair of a man, my grandfather, who was given shock treatments and let back loose on her. She never, ever complained, says my mother, as if this were a good thing, a saint, my mother calls her mother, as if this were a good thing.
My mother had five children and she did complain occasionally but mostly not, married to a man who worked like mad and was gone from her and all those children for weeks on end; once, she confided not in me but in my husband, years later, she was so desperate and exhausted and frustrated she had to take a weekend off.
We, my two sisters and I, were meant to take the baton from her. From the time I was very small she told me so: Someday you are going to be a wife and mother. Her definitions of these words wife, mother were very clear. They had little to do with choice and agency, and plenty with submission, acquiescence, denial.
And from the beginning I did not want to. I did not want to be like her. I saw that she was sacrificing herself, the passions of her heart, to be a wife and mother, that she was not free to choose and to think her own thoughts and disagree with my father and get angry and say enough. I saw that her shape was smaller than what she could have filled if she had been able to expand. But her role was to shrink and she did. At three years old I saw this and did not want it even if it wasn’t until fifteen years later that I learned about feminism.
All of these mothers working in me. An endless army of mothers, living and dying just to keep the whole thing going, peopling the ranks with mothers-to-be. Before saintly grandma and the feminist on the ship there were countless generations of peasants, interrupted perhaps by the dancing flame of a nun who hid her lovechild, my great40-grandmother in the woods, and she did not die. Before them nomads on horseback. All of them mothers and all of them, every single one, doing at least one thing just like her mother had done: given birth to a baby girl.
Until, in 1976, a clean, round, blonde little girl looked up at her mother and decided she was going to put a stop to this.
And she did. By the time I was twenty-seven I was ovulating more and more rarely and by the time I was thirty-one I had stopped ovulating completely. A doctor finally made it official: You’ll never give birth to a baby girl. Or baby boy. Whether you want to or not. It’s not up to you.
As a teenager, I thought that I had broken the cycle by making a conscious choice. But you were a child once, my mother implored, as if choosing to not have children meant I was rejecting my own erstwhile existence as a child. In a way this makes sense if to her being a girl-child is first and foremost equivalent to being the future bearer of more children. But that is not how I wanted to be defined, so I announced to the world that I was choosing against motherhood. I did, later, choose to become a wife, albeit using a different definition than the one used by my mother and her mother and, most likely, all of my mothers before them. But despite the fact that I loved him and he wanted to become a father I continued to reaffirm my choice, happily, and I felt good in my flesh.
Rattles its pod, the moon
Discharges itself from the tree with nowhere to go
writes Sylvia Plath in her poem “Childless Woman.” But there was no hollow rattling in me.
Until those mothers rose up and began to shriek with desire. It was around my thirtieth birthday, before I’d had that conversation with the doctor. I felt betrayed and called it a hormonal imbalance. Had I not made a clear and conscious, grown-up, feminist decision? I had—but something was rearing up against it. My body, I supposed.
At first I tried to ignore it and my mothers speaking through it who wanted me to become one of them. I tried to drown them out by noisily celebrating my childlessness, but that defiance began to taste like ashes in my mouth and their shouts were louder than I could ever be. Or, actually, as I finally had to admit, they were me. This was not an alien army of baby-hungry mothers colonizing my blameless feminist self. Nor was it my animal, female body trying to debase my rational, enlightened mind, the true me. This roaring hunger was me just as much as the decision at the age of three to not become my mother was me. That first, unconscious decision was made way down deep and I had become it on the level of tissues and endocrine feedback loops. But, as I discovered at thirty, I am more than that. I am also the daughter of my mothers and of my fathers and they don’t want to die and in me there is also this creature that wants to give her flesh and her juices and the fiber of her bones to another living sucking thing. This too is written in my cells.
By the time I made this discovery, however, my old, deep decision had already ensured that I could not satisfy the resurrected primeval thirst. No doctor, Western, Chinese, homeopath, yoga, hope, soy, strategic sex could reverse it, not even: me, the most powerful figure in this story. If I could yell stop at a million grandmothers as a tiny little girl with a pink barrette in her hair and really make them stop, why could I not, as an adult woman, reverse or rather modify that decision? What I meant was: I don’t want to be like you, mother, grandmother, great-great grandmother, I don’t want to erase myself in order to give life, stand low next to my man, reduce, trim off, curtail, cut short, swallow hard, take back, concede, turn in, give up, defer, tongue-bite, look up, agree. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t want to be a mother. And there are even ways that I do want to be like you. I want to bring my children hot orange juice to bed when they’re sick, I want to love them like you do. Not that I’m taking anything back. Nothing’s really changed since I was three. I just didn’t make myself clear. To you, grandmothers, and to my ovaries.
So far, anyway, such clarification has not convinced the blunt revolt to refine itself into a more nuanced critique, on the bodily level anyway. There are limits to choice, to the will, to the power of desire to triumph over flesh, even if the source of that desire is also, in part, the flesh and all that is written on it. Even as I assert my agency and autonomy as a woman and a feminist, I come up against limits that I would bludgeon myself to death on if I didn’t acknowledge that they were there. My body, unlike the bodies of all my grandmothers before me, can’t make babies. I suppose you could say that on some cellular level, my body does not want to make babies, no matter how deeply “I” want to.
So I am taking the desire out of my ovaries, out of my womb, uncoupling it from the bloody, mucousy chain that I have cut once and for all, and attaching it to something else. If we can make our way through the labyrinth of rules and regulations, my husband and I will adopt a child, the child of a woman who for reasons most likely more plentiful and unhappy than her own choice, could not keep her. And there we will be, mother and daughter, or mother and son, despite what my body/spirit decided, changed its “mind” about, wanted and didn’t want. It will be the fruition of loathing and love, hope and defiance, choice and lack of choice. It will be because of my grandmothers and it will be despite of them.