The only sound in the car was the inane drift of music on the radio, the whir of tires over the highway. My mother clutched the steering wheel while I watched the trees blur by the window. She pulled into the driveway and parked. We both exhaled.
“Honey,” she began. “Are you sure about-“
I threw the passenger side door open and leapt out of the car. I didn’t even stick around to hear the end of her sentence.
A shower, I thought. What I really need is a shower.
As the hot water beat down on my head and shoulders, my hands drifted down to my belly. For a moment, I imagined being pregnant. I wonder what it would feel like to press my hand to my abdomen, knowing that I carried a life inside me. I ran my fingers over the pink skin, which was only round with leftover baby fat. My belly button was still concave.
I thought back to the doctor’s words, only an hour previous.
“You have an autoimmune disorder- Hashimoto’s Disease. You see, when the antibodies don’t recognize the hormonal centers as belonging to the body, they attack them, which destroys the hormonal center’s ability to function.” The doctor’s face was kind, her voice gentle. “The antibodies have already attacked your thyroid and your adrenal glands. The next hormonal center they would attack would be your ovaries.”
She began explaining what the consequences of that would be, but I could already guess. The overzealous little soldiers in my body seeking out my ovaries as their next target would send me rocketing into early menopause. I would probably never be able to have children. This would be a bombshell for anyone, but it was absolutely bizarre to hear as a nineteen year old.
At that moment in my life, my ability to bear children didn’t even rank on my list of concerns. I was still recovering from the decimation of my thyroid and adrenal glands by Hashimoto’s Disease. I was more concerned with college, friends, and finding my path in life than I was with starting a family. That was a decision to be made in the nebulous realm of my thirties. But here I was- suddenly faced with the prospect of infertility at nineteen years old.
My mother and the doctor began discussing freezing my eggs, a procedure I knew I couldn’t possibly afford. I felt a little dizzy, wondering at the sudden feeling that my mother had suddenly begun to see me as a vessel for her future grandchildren, not as my own person. I felt powerless, suddenly feeling the weight of other people having a stake in my body. My mother, I realized later, had really been most concerned with providing me with the choice to one day physically have children if I wanted. It certainly didn’t feel like that at the time. Then, it felt as though I was being usurped as the sole decider of what would happen to my body. Before I was drowned out entirely, I spoke.
“I don’t want to freeze my eggs. It’s so expensive, and you know what- I don’t know that I’ll want to give birth myself, even if I decide I want to start a family. Look, if this happens, it happens. If I lose my capability to have children, then I lose it. If that happens, when I’m ready to start a family, I can try something else- adoption, or a surrogate.”
My doctor was very understanding, agreeing that it was a valid decision and that if I changed my mind and my ovaries had not been affected yet, we could discuss freezing my eggs later. I was told to keep an eye on my period, and if it came late, to give the doctor a call. I set a date for my next appointment, agreeing to talk about it more then, after I’d absorbed the news. My mother accompanied me out, and we sat in silence until we were home.
As I stepped out of the shower and toweled off, I looked at the shape of my body in the mirror. My womanhood had never been called into question before. Once upon a time, a woman’s only lot in life was to bear children. I had grown up in a household that emphasized that I could choose what to do with my life. Maintaining a career, something once only allowed for men, was certainly in my future. But one day, I realized I would be judged based on the children I would or would not have.
In the absence of gendered “places” for people, what did it mean to be a woman, when I should no longer be measured by the accomplishments of my womb? I thought of the women I admired: my mother, and female relatives, the strongest people I knew. My friends, bursting into adulthood, pursuing their dreams with single-minded intent. Though many of the women I admired were mothers, one way or another, none of them should be considered only for being able to get pregnant. That, I decided, does not decide the mettle of a woman. It shouldn’t have been a revelation- but it was.
Two months passed, and I was back in the doctor’s office again, and I chose once again not to freeze my eggs. And I did the same at my next appointment, and the next. I am twenty-five now, and while the thought of early menopause is certainly not appealing, I don’t fear the effects of it.
The ability to give birth is a precious gift, and one not to be taken lightly. But if I lose that capability, it won’t determine whether or not I can become a mother. Motherhood is not contingent on my body. If I choose to become a parent, then when the time comes I’ll be the best parent I can, whether I am related to the child by blood or not. And becoming a mother shouldn’t affect the legitimacy of my womanhood, nor my value as a human being. Living with a chronic illness is challenging. But, strangely, I’ve found an unexpected well of confidence because of it.