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Nashville Scene Ready or Not

Unplanned parenthood

By Margaret Renkl

AUGUST 3, 1998:  "So how do you know when you're ready to have a baby?" I asked my friend Jennie, who'd already had two kids before I was even in earshot of my own ticking biological clock. "How did you know?"

Jen looked at me the way a patient teacher looks at a dull-witted child. "That's not something you know," she said. "That's something you just find out when you wake up one morning with the heaves." We were having this conversation shortly after my husband heard Jennie's 2-year-old daughter sing an adorable rendition of "Kinkle, Kinkle, Li'l Tar" and suddenly decided he wanted to be a father. After two years of dabbling in a marriage that seemed more like one long date than the kind of steady partnership our parents had modeled, my husband was ready to settle down in truth to buy a house and have a baby that would sing cute songs for the dinner guests.

By contrast, I the reluctant human incubator of these dreams was still pondering the existential ramifications of impending parenthood: If you're already living a full life, how do you willingly give up some of that fulfillment to make room for a sleepless, howling, time-devouring baby? And if you're not living a full life if you think parenthood might be exactly the thing that fills up your emptiness well, what kind of a burden is that to lay on the shoulders of a spastic, inexperienced little person who can't scratch her own itches and who weighs in at less than eight pounds?

It was a quandary, all right, the modern sort of quandary that people a couple of generations ago never had to address. Back in the bad old days before the pill, IUDs, and the summer of love people just got married and started having babies. Unmarried, they clutched at each other in the back seat of a Packard and prayed that the gods of the monthly cycle would protect them from public dishonor. Back then, rational human beings and even irrational ones riding the juggernaut of lust understood that sex was a mighty cosmic force, much larger and more powerful than the puny plans and laughable ambitions of individual human beings. If you shucked your clothes and pitched yourself into another naked person's arms, you knew you were surfing a tidal wave, canoeing the Niagara, swimming in a squall.

Here on the scientific cusp of a new century, many people aren't so respectful of cosmic forces anymore. Nowadays we speak confidently in linguistic conundrums such as "birth control" and "family planning" while, in fact, human fertility is barely harnessed, and certainly not under mortal control. I personally know three women who got pregnant while taking birth control pills, several others who lost an important contest with latex, and an almost uncountable number who thought, "Oh, hell, maybe just this once," only to end up someone's mother 40-odd weeks later.

For me the quandary didn't get resolved until I found myself staring in disbelief at that second blue line shooting across the test window of a home-pregnancy kit and piercing every shred of confidence in my still tiny but independent soul. But despite Jen's prophetic words, I didn't believe I was pregnant. I was certain I had simply bungled the test and that a real professional could ease my mind.

I'll never forget the five minutes I spent later that day waiting in the examining room of the only gynecologist I called who could fit me in immediately. On the counter across the room, a small white square of plastic was resting next to a Dixie cup half-filled with urine. Though it was my own urine, I remember thinking idly that Rev. Jim Jones had killed several hundred people in Jonestown by giving them cyanide-laced Kool-Aid in Dixie cups exactly like the one on the counter across from me.

Finally, a woman wearing tennis shoes and blue surgery scrubs simultaneously knocked at and opened the door. "Let's see what we've got here," she said brightly, striding across the room. She picked up the pregnancy test and glanced at it.

"Congratulations!" she smiled, ignoring the perfectly transparent body language of my slumping form. Handing me the test which still smelled faintly of piss she asked, "Do you want to take this home and put it next to your husband's dinner plate tonight?"

I declined. I also vowed to find another gynecologist. Then I went home to think. No amount of thinking, though, of pondering the relative advantages and disadvantages of parenthood, changed the central fact at hand: I was pregnant. Just as Jennie had said, presto change-o, I was going to have a baby, and by God I'd better get ready.

Nine months later I met my first son, a really nice baby with whom I promptly fell in love, entirely forgetting the dismay with which I had greeted the first sign of his existence. I forgot that parental reluctance so thoroughly, in fact, that before long it began to seem like a fine idea to produce another baby, another nice little person who would snuggle under my chin as I rocked him to sleep, smelling damp and sweet in the dark.

When I considered how easily our first child had joined the family, this seemed Like an easy goal to reach. After all, if it's possible to have a kid without even trying, how hard could it be to produce one on purpose? My husband and I would just grin at each other one afternoon during the baby's nap, and a couple of weeks later a little blue line would magically appear in the window of a pregnancy test.

Two years and two miscarriages later, I'd learned the other sad irony inherent in the idea of birth control: Ultimately, you can no more control whether you have a baby than whether you don't have one. Sometimes it seems that all my friends have been, like me, the butt of one cosmic joke or another having babies they didn't plan, or longing for babies that haven't yet appeared. One couple I know spent thousands of dollars on last-ditch fertility treatments that finally produced three children. Later they were surprised by not one but two "miracle" babies, born 14 months apart, whose existence couldn't be medically explained. Other families are still praying for their own miracles to appear.

So maybe it's time we came up with an expression that doesn't mislead people into believing the human body is merely a slave to the human will. We can use all the euphemisms and techno-jargon in the world, but terms like "birth control" and "contraception" and "fertility management" and "family planning" just aren't truth in advertising. The truth is that none of us is in charge. The truth is that people who have sex may or may not have a baby, despite their best efforts to control what happens. It's a baby crap shoot in the end.

I say we start using plain language when we talk about the relationship between sex and birth. No matter which side of the fertility quandary we're onwhether we're spending thousands on tubal ligation or thousands on in vitro fertilization the truth is, we're just fervently kissing the dice in our own clinched fists, then opening our hands and letting them roll.


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