I discovered, much to my shock and chagrin, that I wanted a baby of my own in the back of an auto-rickshaw. It was June 2008. It was sunny, warm, comfortable as it usually is in Mysore, India. I sat in the rickshaw with my cousin and her two-year-old, which by Indian familial logic makes her my niece. I’m Indian on my father’s side—he immigrated in 1970. I’m Jewish on my mother’s—she’s from the Bronx. I visit my family in India often, and as my cousin and her daughter and I bumped along in the sunshine, the reddish dust (deforestation is but one legacy of British colonialism) puffed around us, mixing with the diesel exhaust. My niece napped against me, her squishy body slowly turning solid as she passed from dozing to sleeping. I held her tightly enough to keep her inside the moving vehicle, loosely enough so she could sleep undisturbed. I can no longer remember where we were going, or why. I just remember a new need crawled out of my heart and took up residence in my solar plexus. I had to remind myself to breathe.
That June, I was six months into my first marriage; my husband and I had a shared ambivalence about whether we wanted children. We were leftist activists. He was in law school, I was in creative writing school and working full-time. We had a lot we wanted to do with ourselves—travel, make change, have fun. Maybe, we thought, our lives would be full enough without kids.
I returned from India—an extended visit with my ajji (grandmother in Kannada), my aunts and uncles, my cousins—and resumed my life in New York. Six months later, my husband and I agreed, we’d start trying. He’d be almost done with law school. I’d be turning thirty.
We tried. He graduated. I got a new job. We tried. He got a postgraduate fellowship, then a new one, in Baltimore. We tried. We moved. We tried some more. It was six months, it was twelve, it was eighteen. People advised us to relax, which just pissed us off. We decided to go on vacation, yes, to relax and also to get away from people telling us to relax. Our options for a last-minute December trip—close to the East Coast, beachy—included Panama, El Salvador, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Costa Rica. The latter won out.
Whenever we went on vacation in Latin America, the same thing always happened. Because I look Latina (brown, with dark hair) and my husband is tall, blue-eyed, fair-haired, people would always address me in Spanish. But he’s the one who speaks the language. In Costa Rica, our plans were to surf, eat tropical fruits, and drink cocktails. But we discovered I was pregnant. I needed my husband to teach me how to say “pregnant” in Spanish, to read the labels on painkillers, the words to refuse uncooked vegetables, raw fruit, alcohol, coffee. I used my phone to check BabyCenter, which told me my embryo was the size of a lentil. We began to make plans, talk names, dream. And, then, a couple of days later, I got really, really sick. Maybe it was the food? Maybe it was the flu? I stayed in bed for a couple of days, shooing my husband out to surf, drink cocktails, and eat fresh fruit without me. When I started to bleed, we drove to the hospital in Puntarenas. Even though it was my husband who spoke Spanish, it was me who made sense of the words from the doctor: Trompa de Fallopia. Ectópico. Emergencia.
The doctor made sure to explain to us that it wasn’t an abortion, because the pregnancy wasn’t viable. Viable is the same in English and Spanish. What he said was, “It’s not a sin.” He said it over and over. Neither of us told him I was Jewish, feminist, not Catholic. Neither of us told him we’re for abortion on demand, without apology. Neither of us told him much of anything.
Because we were Americans with good insurance and a healthy credit card limit, we took the calculated risk the doctor recommended: drive to the capital for laparoscopic surgery at the private hospital. “Go now,” he told us, “and don’t stop for any reason.” He said that, repeatedly, in Spanish and then in English. Don’t stop. For any reason. If my tube burst, I could hemorrhage to death in the car. “But you should be okay.” It was the middle of the night.
The hospital in Puntarenas was the only place we went in Costa Rica that wouldn’t take U.S. dollars. My husband had to go find Costa Rican currency, while I paced in the payment office, humming the same tune over and over again. I was surprised to realize it was “Avinu Malkeinu.” It was soothing, so I hummed it, quietly, bent over in pain, until my husband came back with the money.
He got behind the wheel, I climbed into the passenger seat. He steered us onto the highway to San José, pushed his foot all the way down on the accelerator, and he asked me the same questions over and over, to keep me awake, so he would know I wasn’t passed out from internal bleeding. It’s usually a two-hour drive. I think he made it in forty-five minutes.
The next day a surgeon removed my lentil-sized embryo and the fallopian tube it was stuck in. Left to grow, the embryo that I wanted so badly to be my first child would have killed me. As a person of Indian descent, I’m familiar with lentils of many kinds and all sizes: fresh, dried, whole, split. Even now, ten years later, when I wash lentils, I pinch the thin discs between my fingers and marvel that the tiny potential of a person can be packed into such a small package.
Soon after our not-very-relaxing vacation, we moved to Mississippi, where citizens had just voted down personhood legislation, which might have outlawed my life-saving surgery and certainly would have banned the IVF we tried. I thought, often, of the Costa Rican doctor: “It’s not a sin.” I was grateful, deeply, that we had vacationed in Costa Rica instead of El Salvador, which has banned the surgery that saved my life, and instead women in my situation must wait for the tube to rupture before doctors can attempt the measures that might save their lives. Even Hinduism, which is stricter than Judaism on this subject, recognizes the priority of the life of the mother over the life of the embryo.
The different ideas my husband and I had of what the embryo had been—a “person,” or, as Jewish law suggests, not—and how to grieve the loss, exacerbated our existing tensions. I admired much about Mississippi and the people I met there, but it was hard to live in such a thoroughly Christian place, with so little space for me as a not-black, not-white person. My white, Southern husband couldn’t feel the same squeeze I did. Infertile, far from friends and family in a place unwelcoming, I imagined that my tube, fished out by the doctor, had magically regenerated as a tiny glass pipette containing outer space: cold, dark, pricked by teeny, tiny stars. No matter how hot and humid Mississippi got, I never felt warm.
My IVF attempt spanned the fall, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. Everywhere in Jackson was decorated to welcome the little baby son of God. I felt trapped, sometimes I felt my whole self had been subsumed into that glass tube of space. I went, once, to a support group. Unlike the other women in it, there was no easy blanket of religious tradition for me. I’m from a family where religious observance consisted of latkes at Hanukkah and politics over the seder table—in part because that’s what we did, and in part because our mixed-race, atheist family with radical politics wasn’t welcome in 1980s-era New York suburban synagogues. I only knew “Avinu Malkeinu” because I had started to go to shul on the High Holy Days with friends in college. I had always yearned for more, though, and when we agreed to try for a child, I figured I’d find my way when I became a Jewish mother of a Jewish child. (My husband did not want to convert but agreed we’d raise our child Jewish.) I found little comfort in Internet-based pregnancy loss forums, awash with alienating talk of angels that failed to speak to my own pro-choice, Jewish, and Hindu understandings. So I tried the support group—once. I never went back, though, because of politics—the politics of personhood. After an awkward conversation around a table at a room in the library, I found myself exiting the parking lot, my car behind one of the other ladies. My headlights illuminated her pro-Personhood bumper sticker. I felt sick, and not only from the hormones.
My Christian in-laws called often with positive thinking, encouraging voice mails. It wasn’t their fault, but it pissed me off. I found myself holding the rational positions about the unlikelihood of its success (IVF cycles fail 60 to 80 percent of the time) as a bulwark. The faith that comforted my in-laws, my neighbors, the people on the Internet, it grated on me. I began to dig into Jewish texts to understand what the teachings offer about what embryos are and how to make sense of “bad luck” in general. I began to bake challah on Fridays. It felt like the only way to find a space to live like a person, as the Yiddish expression has it. Just after Christmas, my IVF failed.
It’s not unusual for infertility to strain a marriage. It’s common that infertility makes people feel lonely. My first husband is a good, deeply feeling man, but we were mired in our own, very different experiences—our own childhoods, our own cultural and personal ideas of what it meant not to be able to conceive and what it meant to lose the embryos. For him, I think, they are children. I think he believes that, and I think his family does, too. When he called my father-in-law from Costa Rica after the surgery to share the news that I had been pregnant and was no longer, my father-in-law said, “For a little while, I was a grandfather.” My parents did not say such things. They focused less on the embryo, more on me. My mother said, “It’s sad, but it’s not tragic. Your dying would have been tragic.” In all that, there’s so little room for ambivalence.
But ambivalence is a part of grief and of infertility. For me, infertility provoked another internal conflict: embryos are not people, and yet, I have missed the people those embryos never became every day since I lost them. I expect to for the rest of my life, even as I am certain there is no such thing as a “good” abortion—the kind society says I had—or a “bad” one. All I know is that I walk around in a warm and living body that carries a brittle length of something hollow, full of dark, cold, missing person-potential.
I worked out my ambivalence in many ways: I volunteered at the last remaining abortion clinic in Mississippi, conveniently around the corner from our house. I stopped going to baby showers. I retreated into Jewish tradition, where the comfort with conflict and ambivalence felt like the only place to grapple with these questions, even as organized Jewish life can be forbidding and family oriented. It was hard to find a way to observance, especially in Mississippi (though there are Jews there, of course), so my ways were small, and personal, and contained by our house, in which lived just one Jew and one person whose atheist sensibilities didn’t really allow for observance without belief. So I felt I had to tiptoe toward observance and kept my Jewish curiosity to myself, reading more and talking less. I baked bread, I lit candles, but I said no blessings, and I sang no tunes. I did begin to seethe about how my white husband, like all my white boyfriends before him, was more into my Indianness than my Jewishness. Indian was exotic, strange, and erotic. Think the Kama Sutra, whispery silk saris, food studded with nuts and lentils and chili and cumin. In the lefty cultures we inhabit, being a person of color (and, sometimes, being married to one) confers a certain, unassailable authority on race and, in the case of Indians, colonialism. Jewishness does not, associated as it is with American elites, complicated international problems, stinky fish products—none of which were particularly sexy or interesting. We lived in the same house but began to inhabit separate worlds. Finally, we returned home to Brooklyn. Our marriage fell apart. Freed, adrift, I began to attend shul on Saturday mornings.
Shabbat services—the practice of joy—were just what I needed to find a small measure of peace in the maelstrom of infertility, divorce, and my father’s terminal lung cancer. I was desperately grateful that all of me—my lefty politics, my lack of Jewish knowledge, my atheism, my mixed-race, mixed-heritage identities—were welcome at shul.
When my father died, I clung again to Judaism’s mourning rituals. Shabbat became a container for the immensity of my feelings, a time to sit inside my grief and to embrace new joy as it came. After the first month of mourning ended, I went to India, the first extended visit since I had discovered, years before, that I wished to be a mother. There, I continued keeping Shabbat in my family’s house. Generally, alcohol is shunned in observant Brahmin households, but every week, my uncle took me to buy wine. Every week, my ajji, my aunt, and my uncle listened as I blessed the tiny oil lamps I borrowed from the pooja room, I blessed the wine, I blessed the slice of white bread from the local bakery and dipped it in salt, and handed it around. They chewed as I recited Kaddish. (My uncle shared in the wine; my ajji and my aunt did not.) My grandmother told me how glad she was I had something to do, that I was doing some ritual of remembrance, of grief, of recognition, even as it was not hers. It was a special thing to share—a current of feeling, expressed so differently.
I returned again to New York. To mark my exit from those years of sorrow, I ran the New York City marathon, cheered on by a new love. I also hired a Hebrew tutor. At her suggestion, I ran loop after loop in Prospect Park to the v’ahavta, learning the sounds, the rhythm, and, in some way, inscribing the might of the prayer into muscle memory. On marathon day, I jogged through Hasidic Williamsburg slowly, sounding out the signs, propelled by my new ability to read Hebrew letters—aided, in no small part, by my previously hard-won ability to read Kannada letters. As I jogged along slowly, I considered the homes in which I was simultaneously inscribing the words. The home of my body, with which I was slowly making peace in it-is-never-making-a-baby-love-it-anyway form. The home I was constructing of Jewish ritual. It was the Jewish imperative of joy that helped me find air when I felt I might drown in a vast vacuum of sadness. It was Jewish ritual that gave me the courage to grab strong hold of my new love, my bashert, who somewhat unbelievably is also Indian and Jewish, also leftist, also finds pickled fish and political arguments sexy and romantic.
Braided, our similarities (we both love country music), our differences (he’s a planner; I’m not), our affection—those strands make us a family, complete in the two of us. Some days, I feel unbelievably lucky. Some days, my sorrow that we will not make yet another curly-haired, Indian-Jewish-lefty little human is boundless. It pushes out of its imaginary glass vial, exceeds its brittle boundaries, seeps cold into my bones. But most days, that is not my main problem. Most days, my problems are the usual marathon of everyday American adult life: Overly long commutes. Irritating coworkers. Political setbacks and advances. Insufficient funds for the things I prefer to do. That everydayness is a blessing, a binding sign of the fullness of this life—my life—and its importance unto itself. In the throes of infertility, it felt like my whole life orbited my inability to conceive, to bring forth a new person, the grief and the longing. It is hard work to keep that dark, cold feeling to its proper size and scope—acknowledged and contained. Every week, as my new husband and I welcome Shabbat with blessings we recite aloud, the regular rhythm of Jewish ritual is a reminder: my life matters more than my lost embryos’. Maybe in another ten years I won’t need the reminder. In the meantime, I am glad for the sign, and I inscribe it upon my doorpost.