Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Making Babies

When news of the octuplet mom hit the airwaves, my thoughts flashed back to my own experience with pregnancy. You see, before in-vitro fertilization and other high-tech methods increased the odds, I was among the wretched group of women who had trouble conceiving.

The year of my misery was 1963, I was 25 years old, and in my third year of marriage. At the time, I remember thinking how unfair the world was for it seemed as if every woman who came into view was either pregnant, pushing a baby carriage, or dragging a bawling infant by its pudgy arm. Bellies that looked as if they were concealing pillows, or stomachs resembling basketballs, were at bus stops, in supermarket checkout lines, or on the school faculty where I was teaching at the time.

When we married three years earlier, my husband and I thought it wise to postpone pregnancy so I could work while he finished medical school. First, the diaphragm had been my attempt at barring the door. Next, the miracle of science brought us spontaneity and peace of mind. Oral contraceptives -- The Pill -- changed the landscape. All I had to do was twist the plastic circle, align the calendar disc with its designated 10 mg. dose, drop the tiny pill into my hand, swallow, and let the chemical set up its blockade.

But once my husband completed his internship and residency, I tossed contraceptives into the garbage, coaxed him to bed earlier than usual, and added parenting magazines to my pile of reading material. But. Nothing. Happened. Month after month went by. No swelling of the tummy, no morning nausea, no little boy the image of his father, or bitty girl with her mother’s black hair.

"Maybe it was all the contraceptives I used." I said to my husband. "Maybe the combination of science and technology messed up the natural order of things?"

"Don't be silly," he answered. "Give it more time. You were meant to be a mother, it'll happen."

Meanwhile, although my body declined my quest, I was able to sublimate with the children in my third grade class at a Chicago Public School. It was located in a tough west side neighborhood, but I overcame misgivings with a desire to instill in my adorable tykes a passion for learning.

In my first years of teaching, I used affection, gentle persuasion, and copious praise to tame my 35 students. But everything seemed to change by my third year. The incoming kids seemed to have gotten rowdier, tougher, and less moved by hugs or praise. Some challenged me from the Pledge of Allegiance to the ending bell.

While the majority of my students were age eight or nine, one boy, having flunked several grades, was eleven. "Please sit down," I'd say to him, safe behind my desk. When he'd ignore me and continue to roam the aisles, slamming shut children's books, pushing pencils off desks, or shoving a kid from his seat, I’d catch up to him and attempt a tougher tone. Looking up as he towered over me, I'd growl, "Go back to your seat right now!"

"Who's gonna make me?" he'd say, staring down with his thick arms crossed against his chest. Then he'd laugh, and a few of his cohorts would join in. It was a comical sight, a teacher who'd need a stepstool to reach his height. I was clearly outmatched. Eventually he’d weary of the standoff and saunter back to his seat. Some of the children, clearly disappointed there'd be no bloodshed, could be heard uttering, "Shit."

That was another problem with that year's crop, many of them cursed. Third graders! Children! Often when I lined my class up for a trip -- let's say to the assembly hall -- I could easily hear, "step lively, motherfucker," or "get your big-assed feet off my shoes."

One night during that grim year, as I was getting ready for bed, I looked into the bathroom mirror to see red spots decorating my torso. “Honey, take a look,” I said to my husband. I lifted my nightgown and exposed the bright design that was now beginning to itch.

“Whoa,” he said. “Measles?”

“No, can’t be, I’ve been immunized. I have an appointment with Dr. Hankin, on Saturday. I’ll ask him to take a look.”

“Definitely not measles,” Dr. Hankin said. “Looks to me like it could be stress related. Anything bothering you lately?”

“Well, besides the fact I’m not getting pregnant, and the kids at school are driving me crazy, and more guys my husband’s age are being drafted, I guess I’m doing okay.”

“I think you’ve made the diagnosis,” he said. “We’ve done all the tests on you and your husband, and they’ve all confirmed there’s no physical reason you’re not conceiving. I bet if you quit teaching, you’d get pregnant.”

"From your lips to God's ears," I said. As I reached for my clothing that was hung on the back of the examining room's door, I wondered if I'd ever be blessed to see on that hook a pair of slacks with an elastic waistband, plus a tent-like top that would flow over a swelling stomach.

Soon after that exam, my husband enlisted in the Army, and as an officer drew a choice assignment at Fort Devens, Massachusetts. I quit teaching to accompany him. The moment we arrived, I learned my obstetrician had been spot-on.

Within nine months, I delivered a beautiful baby daughter with black hair the same as her mother and if not the image of her father, close enough to make him ecstatic. And eighteen months later, another daughter easily followed her sister.

So without the aid of fertility clinics, in-vitro, or other laboratory settings, dear Dr. Hankin (now deceased) provided the perfect prescription. I’m not certain it would work for others, but, here’s what I recommend: quit your high-stress job, find some calming activity (yoga perhaps, not the military), and oh yes, send me a birth announcement.