The Infertility Secret I Kept From My Mother

Photo: Getty Images.
Although I’ve always enjoyed almost sitcom-level chumminess with my mother, I’ve also always kept certain things secret from her. Total transparency does neither a mother nor a daughter any favors, which is why, when I was in high school, I kept my cigarettes hidden in a shoebox and threw away underwhelming report cards before she could see them. Later, after I’d moved out of the house, I continued to bury select items deep in my closet before her visits: a rude and gigantic sex toy an ex-boyfriend bought me as a gag gift; once again, my cigarettes; my overwrought, heartbreaking journal.
It’s not that I wanted my mother to think I was someone I wasn’t — someone who followed every rule, someone who was still a virgin at 26. She was no fool, and anyway, she could smell the smoke on my clothes. But I honestly felt, as I shoved condoms beneath a pile of sweaters, that I was doing this for her, because I loved her. I didn’t want my mother to have to face me as an insecure grown woman; for her, I wanted to continue to be the person that I had once been, a pretty little girl, full of potential. Me before the fall.
Yet of course it wasn’t really a fall as much as it was just my searching, exhausting twenties. By the time I was thirty, I was married, with much less to hide I stopped smoking. I got pregnant. I had a C-section and my mother inspected the inflamed stitches above my pubic bone. She jammed my breast in my son’s face as we tried — successfully — to get him to nurse.
It helps, I think, that my mother had me when she was quite young, so our ages and experiences aren’t really all that different, although she was born at the end of the baby boom and I was born at the end of Gerald Ford’s weird, brief reign. We can borrow each other’s clothes — we have generally overlapping taste and sizes — and since she’s always up for a stiff drink or a dirty joke, we usually have fun together. She also looks great, even in the middle of her sixties, with smooth skin and a cool short haircut. But best of all for me, and I think for her, is that she is still the one I call when I feel like chatting, the one I want to talk to about all the little things, even though here I am, a grown up. I’m forty years old.
Still, there remain many things we don’t discuss. I had to learn from my brother about her small recent medical scares. We don’t mention her goals for retirement. We’ve never talked about any elder care plans she and my father have, or what they might want me to do for them if they become incapacitated. I still wonder, sometimes, if I’ll call and find out that my mother is dying, or that she’s already gone.
I suppose what I’m saying is that there are still illusions we work hard to maintain. We both need to believe, at least a little, that she will always be the beautiful mom, 35 or so, picking me up from school in her station wagon. She will always have a perm, there will always be Billy Joel in the tape deck, and we will always have two hours of errands to run. We’re still in the late 1980s, when people ran two hours of errands. And fundamental to this shared illusion is that we will never quite leave here, leave this particular moment, before she became a child again at the death of her own mother. Before she became someone I refer to, when talking to my own child, as grandma.
And of course I will always be her little girl.
A few months ago, my mother came down for a visit, and like I always do for her, or for any visitor, I cleaned up around the house: vacuumed, changed the sheets, emptied all the trash cans. I wiped down some yucky shelves in the fridge and bought some of the strange foods she likes: kefir and raisin bread. That night my husband brought home dinner and we polished off a bottle of wine, and then she helped put my son to bed. Afterwards, we stayed up late to watch reruns of 30 Rock, and finally staggered upstairs to our respective bedrooms, which share an adjacent bath.
“Honey, are there extra towels in the closet?” she called.
I was exhausted. I wasn’t thinking. “On the top shelf.”
When she was done, I went and saw the bathroom closet ajar. My mother had been in my bathroom closet. My heart started beating; I felt my cheeks heat up like summer. The bathroom closet. I hadn’t cleaned out the bathroom closet.
I hadn’t hidden the ovulation kits. There were at least four of them, both the low-tech kind where you pee on wooden sticks and the science-fiction kind that calculate everything from date of menstruation to likely menopause.
The basal temperature thermometer. The little chart where I’d kept track of my period.
The neat stack of pregnancy tests, which I would never open. We had given up months ago.
And more: three boxes of hair dye — not the cool space-age hair dye I’d used to dye my hair black back in college, but the sad kind of hair dye you use to mask the skunk-line of white that appears in between coloring appointments at the salon. The kind of hair dye that says, I’m old and I’m a little bit cheap. The kind of hair dye that says, my fertile days are almost certainly behind me.
I stood staring at the open door of the closet, my whole body now burning, feeling a sort of shame and sorrow that made me want to run. Truly, I wanted to race down the stairs and get out of my house and run away from all of it, the gray hair and the infertility and the fact that my back hurt now all the time and I couldn’t have a cigarette anymore even if I’d wanted one because I’d somehow grown allergic to smoke.
But countering this running, this desperation to escape, was the feeling of wanting to stay put so that I could apologize to my mother. Mom, I’m so sorry I got older. I’m so sorry you’re getting older. I’m so sorry this wonderful life keeps moving forward because I know that it means that one day it will end.
The next morning, I thought about saying something: We’d tried for so long to have another baby and it was so hard and my body just isn’t working the way I thought it would. I waited too long. I never believed infertility could happen to me.
But instead I got out the raisin bread for her and made us both coffee, and she made me an omelet eggy, which is what we called an omelet stuffed with cottage cheese, which was my favorite thing to eat for breakfast when I was very young. The New York Times was on the table: the arts section, the crossword. We both love doing the crossword. So we sat down and ate together, and did the puzzle together, and talked about everything, and nothing at all.
Lauren Grodstein is the author of Our Short History.
Photo: Courtesy of Algonquin Books.
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