I Thought I’d Be A Ballerina. Now, I’m Pregnant, Publishing A Memoir During A Pandemic, And Grateful.
Ellen O’Connell Whittet was a professional ballerina who suffered a career ending injury. Years later her dreams of becoming pregnant and publishing her first book both came true. Then came the pandemic.
A year and a half ago, before it became unsafe to travel, my husband and I went to Paris for a week to take a break from the fertility treatments we’d recently started. I felt sad and frustrated and lucky to have a literal vacation from failing to get pregnant. Meanwhile in New York, my agent was preparing to submit the memoir I’d recently finished to publishing houses. So I walked around Paris and waited: for an email from my agent to say the book was ready, for the drugs I was taking to make my body work the way I wanted.
One cold afternoon we walked into Notre Dame. I wanted to light a candle for my book, a small symbol of superstitious hope, but when I got into the cathedral and saw images of Mary holding her baby, I realized the candle I wanted to light was for two things I couldn’t untangle: the book I’d written and the baby I wanted. I lit my candle for both, thinking my ambitions would have more room to ascend in this tall, gothic church.Then we walked across the river for onion soup. As we ate, and all day long, I thought of that tiny candle burning in Notre Dame. I imagined that flame inside of my chest, flickering with longing.
The memoir I had recently finished was about my life as a ballet dancer as well as my exodus from ballet after a devastating injury. It chronicled an adolescence spent battling my body and an adulthood spent trying to befriend it again. To submit this book to publishers at the same time I was submitting my body to doctors meant surrendering all my control.
In my memoir, I wrote about how ballet taught me to deny myself food in order to be noticed and praised, and how weak that made me while I demanded so much of my body. The first time I visited our fertility doctor, over a decade later, he looked through my medical history, pausing when he saw I’d written down, “Anorexia, ages 18-22.”
“This might be why,” he told me, tapping his pen over the words I’d written. I felt a wave of shame wash over me in his office. All these years later, I was still reckoning with the ways I’d punished myself as a hungry and ambitious teenager.
A few months after that trip to Paris, my agent called to tell me she had sold my book. I wept with happiness into my husband’s chest. And two months later, I was pregnant, and for the second time wept with happiness into my husband’s chest. At our first ultrasound, when we first saw a tiny, flickering heartbeat, the doctor told us that my due date was three weeks after the publication date of my book. It made sense — these two creations could never have existed without one another.
There was a twinge of regret, a small wish that I’d had more time to celebrate the publication of my first book on its own terms without being 37 weeks pregnant the day it came out. I wished I could have planned a book tour without having to consider which venues would have a quiet place to breastfeed between reading and signing. And yet, both were the things I'd been working toward for my recent adulthood, things I'd made through my own body's ability to bounce back after loss. I envisioned their births as a victory lap after years of work and faith.
As the baby grew, I planned for a book launch. A friend was in charge of reserving the bookstore and restaurant, and I decided to splurge on a new dress to accomodate my bump that would still (I hoped) make me look like a hip debut author. I imagined my friends and family, my students and colleagues, finally hearing what I’d be working on for years. I imagined the baby kicking to remind me she was there too. Then, almost overnight, COVID-19 changed all the plans I’d fantasized about. Instead of coming together to celebrate, it made us retreat to our homes and isolate.
Today, I am mourning the perfect spring I set in motion in Notre Dame the moment I lit that candle. Within days, I cancelled both my book launch and my baby shower, and have spent the last several weeks learning to celebrate without in-person community support. Having a book and baby so close together are enormous gifts. My husband and I are healthy and have jobs we can do remotely. Yet the years of my life I spent writing my book, and the baby I'm afraid to deliver during a global pandemic, feel like desperate and outdated acts of hope.
Publishing requires looking outwards while childbirth requires looking inwards. I am both commemorating and grieving my greatest accomplishments without the physical presences of those I love most. My twin creations — the book and my unborn baby — teach me to do both at the same time. In the same way it felt like an act of self-love to stop dancing through injury, it’s an act of love to stay home right now, waiting, worrying, and keeping my distance through the life events I can’t share with my loved ones.