Response to Cheryl Strayed, “The Beauty of What Is”
I joined Substack to follow my favorite writer, Cheryl Strayed. Her memoir Wild got me through one of the most difficult years of my life in 2013. When I discovered her “Dear Sugar” column in this app recently, it had the same effect.
I’ve read your “Ghost Ship” piece before, and somehow it appears now in my feed when I find myself at a similar crossroads as Undecided.
Except I decided years ago, and it hasn’t happened yet.
I decided to start a family with my first husband (my high-school sweetheart) in 2010, once we’d both turned 30 and felt more or less like adults. We tried once (literally one time). I waltzed around for two weeks absolutely certain I was pregnant. I journaled to my baby every day, ate all the right things and avoided all the wrong things. I sat on the floor in my parents’ living room, secretly overjoyed to think that in a year they’d have a grandbaby wriggling around on that floor.
That night, at their house, I got my period.
Life got busy and my husband and I decided to wait another year, but in the meantime our marriage strained and broke and I found myself divorced at 33.
I remember watching the young families at the 4th of July parade that summer - handsome dads with toddlers on their shoulders, glowing moms wrapped in baby slings - with a profound ache in my heart that I’d lost my chance to be a mom, and that I’d never find love again.
That fall I read Wild, as I was sifting through the rubble of my divorce and embarking on my own wilderness soul-searching that would lead me to hike 750 miles of the Appalachian Trail and peak-bag the hundred highest mountains in New England, twice. Your words were my medicine and your truth was my beacon to carry on in search of my own Bridge of the Gods, the place I could return to one day and have my happy ending.
When I was 37, a miracle happened and I reconnected with a childhood crush who would become my second husband. In our first month of dating I told him I wanted a family and couldn’t wait much longer. But he was ambivalent, so we waited three more years.
By the time he was ready, it was too late.
We’ve endured three traumatic miscarriages in the past two years, and the last one caused uterine scarring that may make it impossible to ever get pregnant again.
Three months shy of my 43rd birthday, we’ve finally been cleared for one last try. The doctor says my egg quality isn’t good enough for IVF, so our only option is IUI (a glorified turkey-baster), with single-digit odds of success.
The thing is that in the six months of grief and uncertainty since our last miscarriage, my brain started doing the work of letting go. After years spent planning my annual calendar around a possible pregnancy, I finally started making long-term plans for ME again. For months I’ve been scheming an epic winter road trip from New England to Mexico’s Baja that was supposed to start this week. The car is packed and the calendar is clear. At least it was until my missing period made an appearance, prompting a new round of blood work and ultrasounds and procedures scheduled for the coming month.
Should I stay or should I go?
This question haunts me now. I was finally adjusting to the idea of the life I might have without kids - the one of travel and adventure and writing and inspiration. I was finally moving through the pain of loss.
To stay and try again is to crack open the door to that other magical life of snuggles and shoulder-rides and 4th-of-July parades. But it also opens the window for the cold winds of uncertainty and heartache and loss to come blowing in again.
I just listened to your Dear Sugars podcast episode on “Moms Who Hate Motherhood,” and I secretly worry that after all this anguish on the road to parenthood, I might find myself regretting it. It struck a chord that both of the women who wrote in had endured years of fertility struggles to start their family, only to find that motherhood made them miserable. These fears shadow the glimmer of hope that the fertility process brings.
I have a choice now, but I don’t. The only choice in my control would be to choose the adventure and give up on having a biological child, but what kind of choice is that if I’ll spend the rest of my life wondering “what if” and feeling that pang of grief every time I see a baby?
And yet, choosing parenthood isn’t as simple as it was for Undecided. I don’t get to just make the choice and then it happens. I don’t get to have sex and get a positive pregnancy test and start joyfully decorating the nursery. So far, every time I’ve chosen parenthood, it hasn’t chosen me. It’s like getting jilted at the altar of motherhood.
So what happens, Dear Sugar, when a choice is not a choice?
Perhaps the answer lies in the photo you shared: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
I can see my fertility journey through to its inevitable conclusion, whatever that may be. It won’t be long now either way. I can choose to face it, and I may or may not get the desired outcome, but I will at least forestall the regret of giving up too soon.
Then, as you artfully shared, we can “hold the beauty of what is while also bearing the weight of our sorrow limbs that ache for what might have been.”
Thank you for your words to guide me through the storm.