I always wanted to be a mother. From the moment I met my one-month-old cousin in ‘97, to that chilly afternoon in early-December, less than a month before I completed my first semester of college, I knew that no matter the career path I chose, the lifestyle I embraced, I wanted to be a mother.
Leaving my art history class, my mind half occupied with the essay I was writing, I stopped to examine the wall adjacent to my classroom’s exit. I admired a hodgepodge of photos and flyers: a postcard of Florentine painter Giotto’s Ognissanti Madonna (Madonna and Child), a brochure on teaching English in France, and information on an internship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Towards the bottom of the bulletin board was an advertisement so out of place, I felt the urge to stop a fellow student and ask if I was reading it correctly. Women, the sign read in bold letters, Help a Family Grow. Looking for college-age egg donors. I wrote the web address on the back of my hand then headed out to the nearest Starbucks to work on my essay.
As I waited on the New York City curb for the streetlight to change in my favor, I became entangled in a fantasy. I imagined a couple marveling over the pink-cheeked, black-haired newborn I’d helped them conceive. I already knew a good deal about sperm donation. As a gay woman, I’d been relieved to learn that when the time came for me to experience motherhood, I’d have the option of being artificially inseminated. There were men willing to give up a sacred part of themselves so that I could conceive a child. Wasn’t it only fair that I, in my way, reciprocated?
Enjoying the warmth of my chamomile tea, I typed the address into my laptop and scrolled through a page of testimonials. I couldn’t help but be moved by the stories I read. Men and women shared their tales of journeying into parenthood; some wrote anonymous letters to the woman who donated her eggs, others described the daily joy their children brought them. By the time I got to the last testimonial, I’d made up my mind. I clicked the button that read, Become A Donor, and was redirected to a preliminary questionnaire.
Are You Eligible to Donate?
1. Age: 20.
2. D.O.B: 10/11/1987.
3. Height: 5’0.
4. Weight: 104.
5. Do you currently smoke? No.
6. Do you currently drink alcohol? No.
7. Are you physically active? Yes
8. Do you or members of your immediate family have a history of heart disease? No.
9. Do you or members of your immediate family have a history of Cancer? No.
10. Do you or members of your immediate family have a history of mental illness? Yes.
Yes, someone in my immediate family does have a mental illness. Since my teens, I have struggled with Borderline Personality Disorder, a psychiatric illness characterized by severe mood swings, poor sense of self-image, patterns of unhealthy relationships, poor impulse control, and a history of self-harm.
I looked over the questionnaire one last time, pressed submit, and was immediately rejected. The decision was made in close to thirty seconds. I’d failed the test. I was unfit to donate. My eggs were no good.
Bad egg: we’ve all heard the term; it is generally used to describe someone who has committed a wrongful act. Before clicking out of the site, I scrolled though the donor requirements and learned that women who have a history (family or personal) of mental illness are not suitable to donate. As I sat drinking my tea, I thought back the image I’d conjured of an infant in the arms of his/her new parents. This time, however, I was the one holding the child. She had a full head of black hair, tiny, pink pursed lips, and button sized eyelids that fluttered every so often. Wrapped in a purple blanket, my bad egg slept.
Carly, nine years older than I, picked up before the second ring.
“I failed a donor test.” I snapped.
“What? What’re you talking about? Blood?”
“Eggs. I have shitty eggs.”
A brief pause. “Why are you trying to donate eggs?”
“I thought I could be of help. You know, to a family in need.”
A slightly longer pause. “Are you really that surprised?”
“Emma, I love you. You know that.”
“If you couldn’t have a child, would you—“
“I hate kids.”
“I know. But if you changed your mind and found out you couldn’t conceive, and I offered to donate my eggs, what would you say?”
“What would you say?”
“I’d say no.”
My cheeks grew hot. My breathing quickened. Don’t say fuck you, don’t say fuck you…
“Emma, you’re fun, you’re smart, you’re quirky, but you’re also, you know—“
“You tried to kill yourself.“
“Five years ago!”
“You’ve been in a hospital, you’ve had drug and alcohol problems—“
“I’ve been sober three years!”
“I’m not having this conversation now.”
“You think I’m a bad egg, that I have bad eggs.”
“I’m not having—“
I hung up. Slamming my laptop shut and stuffing it away in my bag, I left the coffee shop and headed back to school. For the next five years, I held onto the belief that a woman like me should never have children.
Two years ago I wrote a short novel titled Still, At Your Door: A Fictional Memoir. Still, At Your Door tells the story of a sixteen-year-old girl named Sabrina who struggles to find her place in the world while looking after her two younger sisters and her mother, Sheila, who is mentally ill and refuses to take medication. Last April, I gave a short reading of my book at Book Culture, NYC. The reading was succeeded by a Q and A during which a member of the audience raised her hand and asked, “Is Sabrina you?” Wanting to be honest without revealing too much (after all, my own mother was in the audience), I hesitated before answering, “No. I am Sabrina’s mother.”
When I began writing Still, At Your Door, I thought regularly about the afternoon five years earlier when I learned that, because of my own mental illness, I could not be an egg donor. Would it be irresponsible, I asked myself, for me to have a child when my disorder may (psychologists are unsure) be inheritable? While I sat in my not-so-tidy bedroom (yes, my children may very well inherit the messy gene), I realized that by allowing one small facet of myself to determine my decision, I was giving my disorder total power. I was letting Borderline Personality Disorder define me. What about empathy? I wondered. What about intelligence and creativity? Those qualities are, at least to my knowledge, inheritable as well. As I sat on my bed crafting an outline of my book, I decided that I wanted to write a story about a mother who suffers from a mental illness, and her relationship with her daughter. I’ll leave genetics to the scientists, I decided, and focus on relationship.
Still, At Your Door: A Fictional Memoir is, in many ways, a tragic story. Through Sheila, I explored what could happen if I become a mother without first gaining control over my own life. As I wrote, the question of whether or not I should reproduce faded. Perhaps my children will struggle with their mental health. Perhaps they’ll be creative and want to write novels. Maybe they’ll roll their eyes when I pull out an Emily Dickinson poem and say, “Mom, let me explain Quantum Mechanics to you.” What I know for certain is that when I decide to have my Leah or Willa, or Caleb or Nathaniel, I’ll let genetics take its natural course. I’ll focus on what I can change. I’ll be loving and patient. I’ll work hard. I will be a good mother.
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