Tuesday, June 4, 2013

How Many?



by: Mary Vermillion

My younger sister must have been in junior high when she told me how many children she wanted. Six. And bless her heart, she continued to want six until she had four. Yes, ours is a Catholic family. But in Atlantic, Iowa, even the Protestants had lots of children. My best friend, a Lutheran, was the second-to-the-youngest of six. I was the oldest of four. How many kids did I want? Zero.
When I thoughtlessly shared this desire with my mother, she said the same thing she would say to me years later when I came out to her as a lesbian: Oh, you’ll change your mind.
But I knew I wouldn’t. I knew that I’d never want kids and that this made me odd-girl-out. Mostly, I savored the role of rebel outsider, but because I was raised Catholic, sometimes I also wondered if something was wrong with me. Yet I can’t blame all my angst on the Church. Science also had a hand. When I studied evolution, I realized that I lacked a basic biological impulse. If the rest of humanity were like me, we would soon be extinct!

Somehow I survived this dark knowledge, and when I came out at age 29, I relished one blissful and na├»ve moment when I thought I had joined a community with little interest in motherhood. Then my friends—both lesbian and straight—started fostering, adopting, and using assisted reproduction to add children to their families. One friend endured debilitating mood swings while taking fertility drugs. My roommate from grad school, then single, gave birth to daughter via assisted reproduction even as she worked to earn tenure. Still other friends, a couple, spent years waiting and hoping and then three months living in Russia before they could bring their two adopted daughters home. How, I wondered, was it possible that my friends were willing to sacrifice so much for something I didn’t want at all?
That question spawned my third mystery novel, Seminal Murder. Much of it takes place in a fictional Iowa City sperm bank, and it explores a wide range of attitudes toward motherhood. On one end of the spectrum is Anne Golding. She has been trying for months to conceive via assisted reproduction, and she is frustrated with her partner Orchid, who doesn’t want a child as badly as she does. On the other end is Anne’s ex, my main character, amateur sleuth and radio host Mara Gilgannon, who shares my desire to remain childfree. I’d like to share a passage from Seminal Murder that depicts Mara’s discomfort with this desire. In the passage, Mara remembers her murdered friend, Dr. Grace Everest, who directs the Advance Center for Reproductive Care at the University of Iowa Hospital.
I thought back to the first interview I did with Grace. I was early and was shown into this exact waiting room. As I sat there, I heard Grace in the hallway talking. “I have to do an interview,” she said. “Damn things are like eating bran. I only do it because I have to.” Not wanting to be linked with a disgusting breakfast food, I had worked hard to make the interview fun. When we finished, Grace announced that she was going to ask me a question. “Do you hope that your children will have red hair like your own?” I hadn’t expected her to turn the tables. How could I tell her the truth, this woman who’d devoted her life to helping others become parents? “Ah,” she said, reading my face before I had a chance to speak, “you don’t want children, do you, kiddo? It’s not just that you lack the desire for them. You’re determined to avoid motherhood.” I was used to her proclamations from our book club, but I was stunned that she saw me so clearly. I tried to tell her that I still respected her work, but she cut me off. “Even bakers know that some people don’t like bread.” I got her point, but, really, what kind of person doesn’t like bread?
            As I portrayed Mara’s fretting, I wondered why she was torturing herself. And then, because her personality bears some resemblance to mine, I asked myself a similar question: What kind of person doubts her own tastes and inclinations? Not me. Not anymore. The heart wants what it wants—or doesn’t want. This Pride month, let’s celebrate the vast range of desires in women’s hearts.

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