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  • Writer's pictureMary Balistreri

All the Baby Stuff

A baby shower can be loaded with emotional pain for a woman who cannot seem to conceive a baby, or who lost a child, or who had a miscarriage, or who gave a child up for adoption, or who had an abortion, or whose baby has disabilities, or... fill in the blank with your experience. Many men also feel this grief, but I can only speak from my experience as a woman who was unable to have a baby with my husband. All the baby stuff brought the most consistent, never-ending grief to my life. Spoiler alert: the grief did end.

Now, as a post-menopausal woman, the pain has eased and I am filled with happiness every day. I am so grateful for the beautiful life I enjoy with my husband, son, sisters, brothers-in-law, nieces, nephews, friends and my pets. I am not enduring the empty womb pain right now, but when I was in the midst of it, it was excruciating.

As a five-year-old girl in pig tails tied with pink ribbons wearing a red dress and starting kindergarten, my only aspiration in life was to have a baby. What was the source of this strong desire? I did not think about it then or much through the years, but I never dreamed of falling in love and getting married. I just wanted to be a mom.

When I was in my early 20's, a friend told me she thought my family was "baby crazy" because it seemed to be the primary focus of our lives. Who was having a new baby? Who had the first baby? When were the babies coming to visit? Weren't all of our babies the most beautiful, cute, smart, verbal, athletic, and just the best of all of the babies anyone had ever seen?

By the time I graduated from eighth grade, my oldest sister Chris had given the family its first grandchild. I was an Aunt. It was my favorite thing and made me more happy than anything had up until that point in my life. This little girl in the picture wearing her mom-made white graduation dress, big glasses, long hair swooped slightly back was the proudest Aunt that ever entered aunthood. I can smell the lilacs behind me when I look at this picture. And, I am wearing my graduation gift - the stereotypical wristwatch - of which I was also proud. I was riding high.

My sister, Chris, beamed with the glow of motherhood. She radiated beauty on any given day when she was not expecting, but when she was carrying a new baby, rays of sunlight and moonlight exploded from her. She talked about how she loved being pregnant and feeling all of the changes in her body. She relished the incubation period and then was exhilarated when the new little one arrived. I remember Chris telling me one of her favorite things was when the kids first started talking and she could "finally find out what they are thinking!" I could not wait to experience those days, too.

A stream of children joined the family and, when I was 17, my closest sister friend, Ann, gave birth to my niece Valery. I always thought of Ann as an Earth Mother. In my mind, I see her wearing a purple, satin robe feeling every movement of the baby. When she was pregnant with Valery, she craved fruit and vegetables, all healthy food. It was completely different with Josh, so she knew, in her witchy way, that she was expecting a boy. We were very close, so she told me about every little thing as it happened. I loved listening to her. Just like Chris, Ann had natural childbirth meaning no pain meds. Ann proudly stated, "Giving birth is the best pain because you get something good out of it. You get to meet your baby."

During this time, my sister, Sue, added to the brood of grandchildren visiting my parents house on the holidays. Sue is a scientist and I loved to listen to her excitedly talk about the things her boys did. Her approach to telling a story filled in the blanks with facts like which dominant traits made it through to create this child and which did not. Isn't that fascinating? Her approach to raising the kids used her scientific skills, her lab skills, to determine which parenting method was proven to work the best with each son.

Ann proclaimed me her family photographer and I have hundreds of pictures of Valery and Joshua growing up. We spent so much time together, I felt like they were partly mine, too.

We all lived together for a few years, hard years, years of scarcity in terms of money, but filled with abundance in terms of caring and love. We invented fun things to do. We made up games to play. Whenever we needed one, we threw a love holiday. We would say, "Hey! Today is love day! Let's find ways to show how much we love each other." Life was hard, and we made it through.

Most of all, we laughed. We laughed and laughed! Those were the glory days when I embraced aunthood and yearned for the time when my belly would nurture a baby.

Fast forward into my later 20's and I was too busy to concentrate on finding a way to become a mom. The wish was still with me, but finding a husband was low on my list of priorities. I performed in shows for local theaters, wrote articles for a number of newspapers and magazines, and, eventually, started a musical theater company with my friend, Don.

Sometime in the midst of production for our first show, Don suggested I freeze my eggs for later. I had just turned 30 that year and kept reading about the biological clock ticking for career women. It definitely stressed me out.

"You're always talking about wanting a baby, either freeze your eggs now so you will have them when you have a husband or have a baby on your own," Don said.

I thought that thinking was so weird. I had seen what a single mother goes through, and I knew I could not knowingly take that on by myself. I also had seen the impact giving a baby up for adoption had on a woman. A friend of mine went through that and ached with the sorrow of it. She did not know who adopted her baby and that uncertainty scared her. At the same time, another friend experienced the psychological pain of abortion. She continuously had nightmares about it. Yes, by the time I was 30 years old, I realized all the baby stuff was big stuff, loaded with emotion.

"That's crazy!" I responded to Don's suggestions, "I have no money," Running the theater was a full time job and I was working two other jobs. I was truly broke without a regular income. And, I had no health insurance. Even if I did pursue one of these avenues, they all cost money. I had none.

And so, I coasted, enjoying the demands of working completely in the creative arts. Hanging out with actors, musicians, writers, singers, and artists of all kinds. Excitement filled much of my life, yet, I was lonely. I wanted to be a mom. I became cynical. There was no hope for me, I thought. I will always be alone.

Until I suddenly met my husband, Steve. Wow! How unexpected! I still am amazed that we found each other. We met when I was 32 years old and were married before I turned 34. We both became so close to Ann and the kids, they all stood up for us at our wedding. Josh, at just 9, was Steve's best man. Ann and Valery were my matron and maid of honor. The story of our romance is a food one, but it's story for another blog.

After the excitement and bliss of the wedding, my mind turned back to my lifelong wish. I was sure I would be a mom soon. Steve would be a wonderful dad. In my head images of the family I expected to have danced and played.

However, it was not to be. I realized after more than a year of trying, I could not get pregnant. Since the early days of suffering the monthly pain, my periods were horrific and came inconsistently. During that first year of marriage, my cycle only came a few times. I consulted my doctor and other doctors whose advice was, "Just lose a few pounds." When I lost 25 pounds and no pregnancy resulted, they brushed me off. I knew I was not ovulating normally, yet no one was really interested in finding out why.

I despaired every time my period showed up. "My uterus is grieving again," I sobbed at Steve while I clutching my pillow. Steve went through the testing they do for men. Although his little guys were sluggish, they should still be able to get the job done, the doctors said. I felt embarrassed, ashamed that my woman's body could not accomplish this womanly thing.

Back to the excruciating pain of attending baby showers, I felt ashamed for being jealous and wanted to keep the feeling hidden. So, I attended the showers as expected. Then, after listening to all the women talk about their pregnancies and their children, I would slink off to the bathroom and hide there, crying. I remember once inching my way to the exit, eyes down, barely controlling the lump in my throat. I cried all the way home - this shower was 45 minutes away from our house - venting my frustration, sadness, and hopelessness.

Life was in turmoil. Steve suffered something like a stroke or blood clot that went undiagnosed. I left my theater to start working a "real" job. And, in the midst of it, came a shining light named Valery, who was carrying an accidental pregnancy.

"Would you and Steve adopt my baby?" she asked. Her decision was sound and she never varied from offering us this incredible gift, our Owen. We said "yes!" after much deliberation (much more on my part than on Steve's).

How would I feel as a mother to someone else's baby? I was afraid. What if I did not connect to him? What if I was a terrible mother and Valery asked to take him back? What if this was my only chance to have a baby? What if I really was barren and I could never give Owen a brother or sister? What if I failed at my new job and we ended up homeless?

Together, the three of us, Valery, Steve, and me, somehow made it work.

Once I saw Owen's sweet face, I was in love. My sister Ann, Valery's mom and now Owen's grandmother and aunt, said to me, "It's like Valery was carrying your baby. He's so much like you!" Indeed he was. Once Owen started talking, Steve says he never took a breath and never stopped. Much like me. Poor, lucky Steve.

I'm a mom! I rejoiced and relished it. Every night after Owen fell asleep, I would run to Steve and sing a song I made up There's An Angel in Our House. I danced and sang

and twirled with happiness. Some days, after a sleepless night up with Owen and a long day at work, I did not dance as much. I dozed. Then, I woke up for a bit and cleaned. Then, I dozed until Owen complained of a wet diaper, new tooth, or, whatever.

Steve, still recovering from his ambiguous medical incident, stayed home taking on the child care responsibilities. Life was full and often quite difficult. Owen was born with Arthrogryposis Multiplex Congenita (AMC) which affected all of his limbs in varying degrees. Much of his first year, we ran to PT and OT beginning at 6:30 a.m., then I ran to work, and once I arrived at home at the end of the day, we worked on adoption stuff. We had a beautiful life and I thanked God for Valery and Steve and Owen every single day.

My period problems continued throughout. I had a grapefruit sized cyst removed from near my ovary when Owen was only a few months old. I continued being cyst-y, and my menstrual cycles were only consistent in their inconsistency and in the awful, terrible cramps they inflicted on me. Every few years, I suffered tremendous back pain, underwent ultrasounds, and found out I had more cysts erupting on my ovaries.

My fears came true. I could not give Owen a brother or sister. We spent an inordinate amount of money on pregnancy tests through the years. I never, ever had a positive one.

Conflict became the center of my life. My family filled me with happiness on the one hand while turmoil filled my mind and heart on the other hand. I would never fully be part of the mommy club. I had no stories to tell about cravings, the length of my labor, strangers reaching out to touch my stomach in the grocery store just to feel my baby move. I would never feel the life inside me. I never grew a life inside me. I felt less than. Not really a woman. Flawed. Out of order.

I would never beam like Chris. I was not the Earth Mother like Ann. I could not debate the fascinating arrangement of our DNA visible in our, Steve and my, baby like Sue did. There would be no little MarySteve or SteveMary. I felt this grief throughout my 40's. The answer to Owen's request for a baby brother was a girl puppy named Sammi.

I still remember a time when I felt I could not take a step without bouncing off someone's baby bump. Two of my male colleagues with whom I worked most closely had wives expecting babies. Valery, now happily married and starting a family of her own, was expecting. Another niece was expecting twins. I felt so sad and depressed, I could barely raise my head. I was also angry and filled with envy. Yet, at the same time, I was tremendously excited about all of the new life around me. I felt extreme happiness for everyone adding to their families.

How confusing. During this time, I finally learned to journal. I took a few days for myself away from everyone and everything, sat in a hotel room next to a roaring fire - it was Autumn - and wrote. When the time was over, I was still so embarrassed about my feelings, I tore the pages out of the journal and burned them. Somewhere around this time, I was finally diagnosed with PCOS (Polycystic Ovary Syndrom). Alas, too late for it to make a difference.

Perimenopause made my hormones go crazy. I had lost much more weight by then, at 45 years old, and was hopeful yet afraid that my time to see the pink line, or double line or whatever it is that signified a positive pregnancy test had finally arrived. Nope.

The greatest relief came with menopause. It was like someone flipped a switch, turned off the hormones, I guess, and I no longer dwelled on the barren nature of my womb, the lack of the fruit of Steve's loins, the true satisfaction of womanhood. I moved on. How much of a factor were hormones in my baby-crazy depressive state? How much of my lack-of-progeny gloom depended on my upbringing? How much of it was me? I am not sure.

What I do know is that the happiness I feel due to motherhood all came to me through the gifts my sister Ann gave me. With her passing, I see more than ever the beautiful bond between me and her children. And, my son is Ann's grandson. Just as Ann shared her with me, Valery continued the practice by offering me the greatest gift of my life, Owen. We are a family.

And, the perfect alignment of the stars brought me the gift of the best life partner possible, my Steve, who embraces it all with me.

For every woman or man grieving losses due to all the baby stuff, look for answers to your dreams to appear in less than ordinary ways from unlikely places. They will be extraordinary.

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