I believe that my children do not belong to me. “Your children are not your children,” is how Kahlil Gibran said it, and that is a thought that brings great comfort to me.
Five years ago, when my fiancé and I learned that I was pregnant, it took a few moments of panic before we were overtaken by joy and expectation. In the third month of the pregnancy, the ultrasound technician declared her a girl. We called her Lily. Lillian Naomi. In the fifth month of the pregnancy my health began to decline and we learned that Lily had a rare genetic abnormality. She would die, either in utero or within hours after her birth no matter what we did. The severe hormone imbalances associated with her disorder meant that I might not survive if I continued the pregnancy. A spontaneous miscarriage would likely have resulted in hemorrhaging so severe that it might leave me unable to conceive again. My blood pressure was spiking to astonishing levels and my kidneys were no longer working properly. The longer I remained pregnant, the sicker I would become. No choice was a good choice that day. And so my first act as a mother was to end the life of my child in self defense and in defense of the children I might one day conceive. It was the hardest decision I have ever had to make. It was the right decision. But knowing that did not ease my grief much.
In the year that followed, the procedure that ended my pregnancy, loosely defined as a partial birth abortion, was rendered illegal by Supreme Court’s decision in Carheart v. Gonzalez. I had contributed to an amicus brief filed in the case, and for a long time I thought it would transform me into a foot solider for the Pro-Choice movement. It was important to me that my friends and family, especially those who call themselves Pro-Life, understood that I didn’t just lose a baby, but safely ended a dangerous pregnancy and preserved my ability to have more children. I remember explaining that to my grandmother, who wears the Pro-Life movement’s tiny feet pin on her lapel every day. I was careful not to use euphemisms, and was surprised by her openness. She sympathized with my grief and trusted my belief that I made the right choice, just as I trust that there are women who might have made a different one in the face of such grim odds. And if the experience transformed me in a political way, it’s to understand that the issue is murky and nuanced, and that politics does it little justice.
It’s hard to reconcile any political truth with the personal truth that emerged from this experience. During my second pregnancy, I came face to face with that truth with in a terrifying way. My child could be taken from me at any moment. Doctors assured me that the genetic abnormality reoccurring in another pregnancy would be beyond rare. But still, my child could be stricken by some other rare malady that I had never heard of or any of the more pedestrian dangers of pregnancy. After a sample was taken for genetic testing late in my first trimester, the nurse told me that the results would take about two weeks. “Waiting is the worst part,” she told me.
When I left the office I remember taking comfort in the thought that this child does not belong to me. I’m still not sure where the thought came from, only that it brought me much-needed comfort after the weeks of anxiety over this pregnancy. This child does not beling to me. He is not a possession; he is an assignment. He belongs to the world. He has been given into my care for a time. If that time is measured in weeks, like Lily’s, I can be equal to the task. If it is measured in years, in decades, I can be equal to the task. Long before the test results came back -all normal-I felt a deep sense of peace. I was able to welcome this child at last and allow him to grow a place in my heart, like the child before him.
Eli was born after an uneventful pregnancy. And that place he grew inside my heart decorates itself daily with color and texture and sound, the experiences we share, his first steps, his first words, his easy going nature and his budding independence. And it highlights Lily’s absence. That place she grew in my heart remains quiet, hollow, like an empty chapel, filled with only expectations, faintly colored by the tiny pang of betrayal I feel when someone sees me with Eli and casually asks, “Is he your first?” I say yes of course.
Eli is 14 months old now and deals with all the usual illness and injuries sustained by someone his age, and sometimes that fear resurfaces. The fear I could lose another child to a danger I never saw coming. And then I remember. This child does not belong to me. He belongs to the world. He has been given into my care for a time, to love and to teach, and I will care for him and love him each day in the knowledge that the world could retrieve him at any time. I am equal to that task.