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A Mother’s Day Garden Of Grief

As a rabbi, I helped 15 families welcome babies this year. I long for my turn.

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“Do you have kids?” they often ask.

I wonder if they ask because my body looks different than it used to. Or because two years after our wedding, it still says ‘just married’ on the windshield of my car, so kids are the assumed next step. Or because they see the dead plants in my office windowsill and wonder if I know how to keep anything alive. Or maybe they are trying to find something we have in common or are genuinely interested in my life. Sometimes the question comes as an implied “so, how arrrrrre you…” as if waiting for a pregnancy announcement.

“No,” I respond, “not yet.”

Sometimes, if I’m feeling irreverent, “Yes, our 15-pound rescue dog Joey.”

When their eyes light up with laughter, they ask, “What kind is he?”

“Jewish,” I snark.

By then they’re distracted by the fact that I’ve admitted my dog is our son and that my nieces call him “cousin Joey.” Now that they have forgotten their original question, and I’ve refrained from telling them my uterus and I are not on good terms, we move on with the purpose of our meeting.

While the Supreme Court prepares to control my uterus, at least I can take control of my inbox. With a uterus like mine, it’s no surprise I appreciate all the emails from various organizations and stores — “Let us know if Mother’s Day is hard for you” — followed by the promise to filter me out from this particular marketing subset.

But I’ve been part of this marketing subset for more than 39 years by celebrating my mom. She’s the nicest person I’ve ever met unless you’re playing her in Scrabble. Her mom, my Bubbe, was among my favorite people as a child. On Mother’s day, I celebrate the fact that I was born with all the eggs I’ll ever have, as was my mother, as was her mother — and that in some way, the child I pray I will one day produce is a fractal of all the maternal love I’ve ever felt.

I know the day is deeply painful for so many: those who have lost mothers, never knew their mothers, hated their mothers, long for their mothers. But this is the first year I have grieved that I am not yet a mother.

This is what it feels like to be among the one in eight struggling with unexplained fertility on the eve of a day dedicated to moms. Our fertility journey includes three uterine surgeries, two cycles of IVF, and one failed embryo transfer involving nightly injections of progesterone in sesame oil into my butt. I know the day is deeply painful for so many: those who have lost mothers, never knew their mothers, hated their mothers, long for their mothers. But this is the first year I have grieved that I am not yet a mother.

The day my friend Adrien gives birth to a baby boy — at age 41 after eight failed embryo transfers and years of struggle — I text my friend Sara that I wish sci-fi pregnancy was an option. I would purchase a womb and put it on the kitchen counter next to our AeroGarden overgrown with basil and cilantro. Sharing the same electrical outlet, our kitchen-top uterus and beautifully graded 5bb embryo would be nurtured and nourished with Miracle Grow and love, partaking in family dinners, Shabbat candle lighting, and banana bread baking. This dreamt-of beloved being implanted in our kitchen womb would allow my husband and me to equitably offer daily care and render reprieve from the tending and tilling that IVF demands of one’s body.

Here in reality, the blacks and blues on my belly suggest the real drought within me: an inhospitable uterus filled with fibroids that one (former) doctor likened to a bag of marbles. The hot pink self-adhesive bandage holds a tiny cotton ball in place to stop the bleeding in my elbow crease, exposing me as if I were a Times Square ticker blinking “In treatment.” Amid the subtle lupron-induced headaches, my mind feels blurry, my mood irritable, and there is an actual pain in my ass. You do not exist yet, oh beloved being, and you are already a pain in my ass. Couldn’t we hold off on that until at least adolescence? I imagine arguing with you to study your Torah portion and in exasperation yelling: Do you know what I went through for you to exist? But in my mind, I walk over to our countertop uterus to make sure your backup power source is charged, just in case. Your always-calmer-than-me father is sitting at the kitchen counter drinking an IPA and patiently awaiting you to become your fullest self. Were a uterus an option for someone born without one, he would carry you with such love.

Our real kitchen counter AeroGarden guarantees 100% seed pod germination. After two tries, sage and thyme finally burst forth, but the mint and the rosemary still refuse to grow. “Thank you and happy growing,” the company emails each time I reorder free replacements. “Wishing you good luck,” reads the card the clinic coordinator handed me at the two-week-wait blood draw. “We forgot to give this to you at your transfer,” the phlebotomist atoned.

Last winter it was a brief exchange when the nurse called. “I’m calling to share with you the results of your pregnancy test.” She hesitated. “Unfortunately, it was negative.”

I’m sorry kitchen-top uterus, you are but a dream denied. As I open the bottle of whiskey and snuggle your furry sibling, I dwell: do we really need mint and rosemary to be happy?

As a rabbi, this past year I have helped 15 families welcome their babies into loving arms. Each time, I expect it and it still catches me off guard as grandparents' eyes gleam with pride and brim with emotion; as exhausted parents yawn and smile, grateful for the health of their new child; as baby sleeps through this first life ritual, transformation tucked away into their onesie and their soul. Watching these tiny humans surrounded by generations of love brings me tremendous joy, though there are tears in my eyes and my voice often chokes up. Still I genuinely hold their joy alongside my own grief, awaiting the day that Joey becomes a big brother and our Mother’s Day garden bursts forth with life.

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