In late February, the ground under the Hawthorn tree is covered with red berries. The berries that remain on the branches have started to shrivel up. I picked one up off the ground yesterday as I walked up the trail with my dog, put it in my pocket, and took it back to my studio to investigate. When I took it out of my pocket, it was shriveled up even more, both the dark red berries and the stem. I couldn’t use the berries, how I intended to: as a color or composition study for a painting, they were too far gone.
Yesterday, in the crevices of the now-dry streams, I found moist, dark earth. Under the decaying tree stumps, the ground was thick, sticky, fertile, and tar-like. On steeper ground, where the earth was pulled away under the violence of raging rainwater, light tan topsoil was exposed. During the height of the rainy season, the mud in this area was like slip, a glue that connected one side of the trail to the other. It coated my pants and shoes when, after one of the heaviest rains this past season, I went exploring. This time of the year, the sun shines bright, but the air is chilly. It looks warm, but cool winds blow. California poppies are starting to grow on the hottest patches of dirt. The fig branches are still bare; blossoms cover the plum trees.
February is the time of the year, I think of fertility as I contemplate the large area of daisies that grow in my backyard. I can’t wait to see the spring bulbs bloom. This time of the year, I always reminisce about the history of my own fertility. Waiting for a baby to be born, to bloom into a beautiful child. The hours, days, weeks, waiting for the results, am I pregnant? The new flowers and decaying tree stumps remind me of the cycle of life. I think about the absence of a healthy womb, remembering the brutal moment I was told I could never carry my own child. I had to face that I may never become a mother. A seed germinated but never to sprout. In February, I am reminded of a time before children, where I spent my days in quiet solace, painting or just watching the flowers grow. I contemplated my losses and wondered what to do. I thought about all the seeds I planted. Ones that never took, seeds that didn’t stay, didn’t stick. Wildflowers that never grew. Fertility is a passing thing, a few days on the calendar, a time of the month or year. It’s both elusive and accessible, it can be manipulated, come naturally, or come through intervention. My children were conceived in a petri dish. Two weeks later, the embryologist picked the best two embryos in a sterile hospital room quarantined from dirt, flowers, sweat, sex, the sweet smell of Fertility. There was only the faint smell of disinfectant; everyone was dressed in hospital gowns and rubber gloves except my surrogate and me. The two of us held hands. I felt hopeful that it would work this time. But I wouldn’t let myself be too hopeful, because this was my last try. I had decided that if this didn’t work, I was not going to be a mother. The embryos were inserted into my surrogate’s uterus, two seeds began to germinate, and Jack and Fiona were born in the spring.
My children and I are at home today. I have twins now: a boy named Jack and a girl named Fiona—today is their fourth birthday. My own birthday follows theirs closely; I will be forty-seven years old. There are over four decades between my children and me. Today we are staying home, my daughter has a cough. Since it’s their birthday, I made homemade pancakes instead of frozen ones like I normally do. Fiona and I removed dried flowers from their paper, cardboard, and rubber bands. They’ve been under stacked books since Christmas time. In California, flowers bloom year-round on trees and shrubs. Maybe that’s why the hummingbirds and finches are so active in winter, when it seems far too cold. It’s hard to believe so much time has passed since Christmas. The Thomas the Train Super Station toy Jack got still seems fresh and new, as if we’ve hardly played with it at all. I helped Jack fix his play car ramps today, we built new ramps in the living room across the couch and ottoman to drive cars and trucks on.
It’s interesting how time and place can bring up memories. I read once that the body remembers things; it internalizes things that stick deep inside. My daughter was born with hearing loss, and just after Jack and Fiona were born, I went to a family support group at Early Start, an early intervention program for parents of children who are deaf and hearing-impaired. I remember when I talked to the group at Early Start, I was very emotional. I stood up, bouncing Fiona; I was holding her in a blue baby wrap I wore, trying to get her to fall asleep, and Jack was asleep in a Pack n’ Play. I told the women in the group about everything; told them about Christopher, a baby I had when I was fifteen who died when he was only six months old, and my whole fertility story. I remember feeling so fragile and raw. I had never confronted those experiences of birth and babies. I internalized so much pain about my reproductive system; I remember thinking, when Jack and Fiona were a few months old, I had uterine cancer. I made the doctors run a bunch of tests. I thought for sure there must be something wrong with me. There must be a reason my body rejected a baby, wouldn’t get pregnant. I carried these feelings for so long. This year, as Jack and Fiona turn four years old, I feel whole again, not broken. It sounds like I’m saying having children has healed my wounds, but with time, I’m sure I would have healed through my art, even if I hadn’t had kids.
Before I had kids, I remember a friend telling me her couch had pee all over it, every inch of it, she said. I didn’t think she really meant everywhere. When I had kids I started to think, she did mean everywhere. Surfaces of couches, floors, chairs, have gotten poop, pee, spit up and throw-up on them. Before I had kids, I had a very weak stomach. The smell of throw up would make me throw up. One morning, when Fiona was a little under a year, she was sitting in her high chair. She looked a little funny and all the sudden stuff started coming out of her mouth. I thought it was milk, spit up, but it was throw up. I just stood there, frozen, I didn’t know what to do. I grabbed Fiona and held her. I had a major cleaning to do, I never did get the smell of throw up out of the high chair straps. Now no smell or bodily fluid phases me. My days turned into endless messes after Jack and Fiona were born. I remember one time crawling across the carpet looking for poop. Jack and Fiona had had bad diarrhea, the runny kind that slips out the diapers and drips on the floor; its color was the same shade of brown as the color of the carpet. I had to check every inch of it.
The ottoman was pristine the day we brought Jack and Fiona home from the hospital. I remember the sun shining bright, just like today. I laid Jack and Fiona on the ottoman with the sun hitting their tiny, pale bodies. Fiona was slightly yellow from jaundice. I have the image in my mind of Jack and Fiona on their backs, arms out, sleeping for hours. I had both the heater and the gas fireplace on. I got worried it was getting too hot and I was cooking their tiny little brains. It’s hard to believe that I’m an experienced mother now, that I have already gone through their infancies, toddlerhood, and am on my way to having children in primary school. I had such a long, hard, road to get to this point. There have been times throughout my experience of motherhood that have pushed me to points of exhaustion, and things I endured on my journey to have a family that made me question everything I knew to be true. Motherhood has revealed my innermost strength and has taught me who I really am.
My husband and I tried to get pregnant naturally for two years. I wasn’t worried, I thought it would happen. My OBGYN wasn’t as hopeful and suggested I was a candidate for infertility treatment. I put off the suggested tests, I was happy as things were, being married, and preparing my portfolio to apply to MFA programs. Then, out of the blue, my mom died of a massive heart attack. It rocked my whole world, my mom and I were very close. She was an artist as well, we were taking an evening painting class together at the time. After this I decided to try Invitro-fertilization. I wanted to try harder to have a family. I did five embryo transfers, and finally got pregnant. But at 17 weeks I had a miscarriage. After this the fertility doctor told me I could not possibly get pregnant or carry a child. I was devastated, so we decided to use a gestational carrier. I had done an embryo transfer with a previous surrogate, which hadn’t worked. This was my current surrogate’s second try and I told myself, this is it. I’m done, I’m finally free. I told my husband, I can’t do this anymore. Every time it doesn’t work, a piece of me dies. A piece of my optimism, my ability to hope and dream; all of this, withered away during the ten years I tried to have a baby. After I had declared this was my last try, I felt a weight lifted off me. A freedom from my own mind that was trapped in the failure of my body. Two weeks later, after the transfer, the pregnancy test results were positive: my surrogate was pregnant.
At the three-month ultrasound, the doctor showed me the murky grey picture on the screen that showed the inside of my surrogate’s uterus.
“Both embryos attached. You’re going to have twins,” the doctor said. I was numb, shocked, in disbelief. When I got home, I went straight to my studio and painted a whole series inspired by the news. Through the pregnancy, I went to most of the ultrasounds, sometimes touching my surrogate’s tummy while trying to be respectful of her privacy. I was terrified something was going to happen to my babies or they would be born premature. I dreamed of names for the babies that I presented to my husband near the end of the ordeal. I wondered how I would take care of twins. I worried, not giving myself the space to be excited or happy or hopeful. I wish I had given myself that gift and allowed myself to be excited about becoming a mom.
I kept a distance from my babies in utero, but not because I wanted to. I had a hard time accessing and connecting with my feelings. I spent the whole pregnancy working in my studio and volunteering at an art gallery, where I never told anyone about the surrogacy. I had been through so much loss I was unable to feel. I trusted my surrogate to love them, talk to them, feed them, give them rest, bring them places, and sing to them. She had her own children, and I imagined Jack and Fiona listening to my surrogates families voices and I found comfort in that, but also wished my babies could hear my voice, and that they were sleeping in my tummy at night. My surrogate lived in the mountains, and I imagined Jack and Fiona as strong mountain babies. When they were born, they were so small, and I couldn’t wait to bring them down to sea level, to bring them to their new home so they could fill their lungs with fresh, abundant oxygen. I bonded with Jack and Fiona quickly when we got home. I was their mom, but I’d missed the first nine months and the intimacy that comes with carrying a child inside your own body.
I worried so much before I had kids that I would be too old, that people would assume I was Grandma. It did happen, but only twice, when Jack and Fiona were babies. Once, I was at Peet’s Coffee. Jack and Fiona were sleeping peacefully in their double stroller. It was a warm, sunny day, and I had just gotten done taking a walk. I was exhausted from the rigorous feeding schedule of the twins. I tried to get them on a schedule and feed them together, like all the books I read suggested, but it didn’t work one hundred percent of the time. I would set myself up for double feedings, strapping my giant piece of foam wrapped in green fabric around my waist. I got the burp clothes, warm bottles, and a glass of water for myself that always ended up getting knocked over. I was always topless and would take off the babies’ onesies so we could have skin-to-skin contact. The nurses said that was the best way to raise babies.
Before Jack and Fiona were born, I was told I could breastfeed even though I wasn’t going to be the one pregnant. I could take pills to make myself produce milk or use a supplemental feeding system. I didn’t take the pills; I was tempted but was worried I would have a reaction to the hormones. I also felt awkward at the thought of making myself produce milk, but not being pregnant myself. I was worried my milk wouldn’t be healthy, or people would think it was strange. I wish I would have tried.
In the hospital, the nurses helped me breastfeed with the supplemental feeding system. It took four nurses. I was naked on my hospital bed with pillows all around me. They handed me Jack and Fiona—they were so tiny, I was so afraid I would drop one. The nurses taped tubes to my breasts that went to bottles of formula I balanced on my shoulders. The nurses worked with Jack and Fiona, one on each breast trying to get them to latch on. The trick was to get the little tube in their little mouths at the same time they latched onto my nipple. We got them to suckle, and Fiona figured out how to drink.
The nurses were so proud of me for trying and sent me home with the setup. I tried for a few weeks, late at night with lights dimmed, and I tried to breastfeed with the supplemental system. I needed an assistant, but I was alone. My husband and I decided it was best to split up the night feedings, and that I would do the ones in the middle of the night because he had to work early in the morning. We tried to figure out a way that we could each get enough sleep to function. I ditched the supplemental feeding system after two weeks and just used warm bottles. My surrogate sent fresh breast milk once a week from the mountains. My husband and I could not keep up with the night feedings (maybe we were too old for that), so we hired a night nanny.
The first time I was asked if I was Jack and Fiona’s grandma was after a night of little sleep. I was tired and feeling a bit depressed, and I was thankful for my break, my seat in the sunshine, and my cup of coffee. A regular started to talk to me. He was sitting with his friends, all regulars, a group of men in their 80s.
“Taking care of the grandkids today?” he asked me. My legs got weak, and my face turned red.
“No, they’re mine,” I said. Then I left because I was so uncomfortable. I was only forty-three; lots of women have babies at forty-three. I kept repeating back in my head, Don’t think about it, it’s nothing; he’s an old man: in his day, women had kids at eighteen; I could be a grandma, technically.
This happened one other time, at the mall. This time, I was running after my two-year-olds, trying to catch them and a woman walked by saying, “Grandma’s day?” I looked at her and said, “No.” Once I caught Jack and Fiona, I put them in the stroller and went to the bathroom to see what I looked like. I stared into the mirror, wondering, how old do I look? Do I look like I could be their mother? Is it my outfit? My hairstyle? It was like I had to prove to myself and the world that Jack and Fiona were my babies and that I was their mother. I was still young enough to have technically been able to carry them in my womb, to have given birth myself. These questions stemmed from my own insecurity.
Women love to swap birth stories, but I always found these conversations awkward. I didn’t carry Jack and Fiona, so I can’t talk about their birth in a visceral way. I didn’t endure a painful delivery with Jack and Fiona. They were born in front of me while I held my surrogate’s hand. The room was cold, crowded with nurses, doctors, and respiratory specialists. I was in my socks, and we had been waiting all day. The birth had been induced at 6:00 a.m. and now it was almost 10:00 p.m. Jack came out first; the doctor narrowly caught him. He was tiny, bloody, and his afterbirth fell onto the floor.
“Is he okay?” I asked.
“He’s perfect” the nurse said. They put him under a warm lamp in a little plastic bed, sucked out a bunch of fluid from his mouth, and there he was. Fiona didn’t come out as quickly. The nurses said I could take Jack into my room and lay him on my chest, and I did. His heart was right on top of mine, which they said was good and helped regulate a newborn’s heartbeat. We didn’t have much time to lie there together because I was called back into the delivery room. The doctor had his entire hand up my surrogate’s vagina into her uterus, grabbing hold of Fiona’s legs, because she was breach, I kept thinking about all the blood and fluids on the floor and wished I had shoes on. I didn’t think Fiona was going to survive; when they pulled her out, she looked pale; her legs were dark, and she didn’t breathe or cry. My surrogate was ready to pass out, too. Her heart rate was elevated, and she looked just as pale as Fiona—she was taken into her recovery room and cared for. I was worried about her and Fiona. They kept removing fluid from Fiona’s mouth until finally she cried. Her breathing was labored the rest of the night. She slept on my husband’s bare chest and Jack slept on mine. Our hearts beat as one all through the night.
Today is Jack and Fiona’s fourth birthday, and it’s hard to believe the life we’ve lived already. I’m one hundred percent their mother; there’s no turning back now. I love them so much, my sweet adorable babies, but I can’t call them that anymore. They are now my children, and I know my life would have been so different without them. I would have had more time to paint, to spend with my husband, to just sit and listen to the hawks flying overhead. But the growth I’ve experienced becoming a mother has made my life richer, and it’s affected my artistic self in ways I could have never imagined. My children have given my life depth and responsibility. I don’t know if I would have grown this much as a creative person without the experience of becoming a parent.