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In Search of Motherhood

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” I was often asked when I was eight years old. Without hesitation, I always replied, “A writer!” I had just written my first poem. The magic of pouring my feelings onto the page and then seeing that poem published in the school paper was thrilling! It was the 1950s. Most of my girlfriends would have answered, “I want to be a wife and mother.”

“I’ll teach to support you while you get your law degree,” I told my husband-to-be before we married in 1965. “Once you establish a practice, I’ll be able to write stories and poems, and, of course, I’ll also be a mother.” I was of a generation where the man’s career was still considered more important. I did study writing at home, but I was kept pretty busy teaching, working on a master’s degree, and typing all of his academic papers. Still, how exciting to think that I could both raise a child with him and fulfill my dream of being a writer.

Unfortunately, the marriage ended before my dreams could become a reality.

“Maybe I’ll adopt,” I told my best friend in the ’70s. My biological clock was ticking and I was single. “Or ask one of my platonic friends to contribute his sperm.” I had so many options now that Women’s Lib was in full swing. So why didn’t I act on them? I didn’t feel secure enough financially. And I still held out hope of finding the right partner.

When I met Ted, I thought he was the one. “Let’s go to the country and make our baby this weekend,” I suggested after we’d been in love a few months. He was thrilled. But hours before we were due to leave, I was forced to make an emergency appointment because of severe pelvic pain and ended up in the hospital. By the time this health crisis was resolved, I’d learned enough about Ted to realize he would not make a good father.

“Your fibroid tumors are growing,” my doctor told me a short while later. “You need a hysterectomy.” Three doctors concurred. I was 37. And single. Those four words changed my life.

“You may be taking out the baby carriage,” my mother joked, trying to console me, “but you’re leaving in the playpen.” Yes, it was freeing, as a “liberated” woman, to enjoy sex without having to worry about an unwanted pregnancy. Now I could really focus on launching my career as a writer. I buried the sense of loss I felt at not being able to bear a child.

Until I met Adam. We had met through work when we were both 40. On our first date I sensed there could be a deep connection.

“I need you to know that I can’t have children,” I told him. “If that’s important to you, I’d rather not see you again.”

“I do want children very much. All of my family, except my parents, were killed in the Holocaust and I feel a huge responsibility to carry on my family’s legacy. I’m certain that if we reach the point where we want to spend our lives together, we will find a way.”

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  • Jeanie November 15, 2016 at 10:35 am

    A beautiful, touching story. Thank you for sharing.

    • Joan Leof November 16, 2016 at 6:36 am

      Thank you all for your responses.
      B, I am touched by your comment and especially grateful that you want to share it with your daughter.

  • B. Elliott November 15, 2016 at 9:10 am

    What a beautiful piece by Ms. Leof. As someone who struggled with fertility, I recognize these deep and difficult emotions have been expressed with inordinate intelligence and truth. This is something I will share with my daughter.

  • Roz Warren November 15, 2016 at 8:43 am

    Variations on the theme of motherhood – nicely done! I’m a mother myself and enjoyed this look at the path not taken.

    • Maureen Mistry February 14, 2021 at 2:56 am

      This is essay is so beautiful on so many levels Joan – on so many levels. Thank you for sharing.