The Petrified Womb by Susan Griner

Years ago, while I was living in a small town in Tennessee, I heard the story about a father-to-be that panicked as his wife went into labor. He ran through the halls of the Harriman hospital shouting, “The antichrist is coming! He is coming!”

Within hours his wife gave birth to a baby girl with normal appendages. The father came to his senses as soon as he held his daughter in his arms and he turned out to be a doting dad. I kept the story in my back pocket as proof of what can happen if you sip too much religious fear juice; but the anecdote about the freaked-out father latched onto me for reasons I didn’t understand until I finally became pregnant.

My husband Tim and I took our time deciding to have children. I was in no hurry because as the oldest of seven kids I had already helped to raise my younger siblings. We were in our thirties, secure in our jobs and settled in a suburb outside Seattle when we decided we were ready for a baby. By that time, my fertility had apparently waned and my body wouldn’t cooperate. It was determined that we would need outside help to make it happen. I was thirty-nine, practically “as old-as-Ruth” by my mother’s standards, when I got the call from the fertility clinic in Bellevue. The nurse called and said, “You’re a princess now.”

Having gone so long without any promising news, I had to clarify what she meant. “So, I’m pregnant then?”

“That’s right,” she said. “Congratulations.”

Even though the doctor had said I could return to work after the in-vitro procedure, I had confined myself to my bed for several days to give my embryos a better chance at latching onto the walls of my uterus; but as soon as I hung up the phone I jumped up and did a victory dance.

I called Tim and he hurried home so we could celebrate. He had been so confident about the medical breakthroughs he’d read about in his scientific journals. I thought it all sounded too futuristic, but now it seemed a baby via the hand of science wasn’t too far out of our reach after all. We drank sparkling cider and interrupted each other with questions we had never needed to consider before. Which room would we use as the nursery? Cloth or disposable diapers? Where would we send out child to preschool, high school and college? I couldn’t sleep that night buzzed as I was about the changes that would soon be upending our lives.

The joy that ran through me didn’t last long and before the night was over it had been transformed into a sharp blade of anxiety. My thoughts turned primitive. What was I thinking? What had I done? I couldn’t do this!

By morning I had consciously squashed my doubts so I didn’t bother mentioning it to Tim before he left for work. I took the day off from school so I could pop over to Babies R Us and scout out cribs and car seats. I flipped through racks of gingham dresses that our baby might someday wear. I spent that evening reading to Tim about what to expect at this stage of pregnancy while he stroked my still flat stomach.

It was after the lights were turned off that I began my worry cycle anew. I told myself this couldn’t happen, that this baby couldn’t come out of me, and I was afraid at the same time that if I didn’t get some sleep that the baby wouldn’t grow. I wondered if I was killing it with all the adrenaline running through me. I knew I couldn’t get through nine months like this. I had no sense that there was anything natural about having something growing inside me. I don’t know if it was because of the sterile laboratory conditions that the baby was conceived in, but I began to believe something alien was taking me over. The baby wasn’t a girl or boy, but an “it” set in motion despite my ambivalence toward it.

I asked myself over and over why was I afraid of what I wanted most. After all, I worked with children every day at the elementary school where I taught and I loved being surrounded by them. I had completely stopped being satisfied to merely teach my students and then shoo them home at the end of each day. My baby deficit had begun to weigh on me. The simplest act of helping a kindergartener tie his shoes would bring out tears because I didn’t have a child of my own who needed me. I told my fertile co-workers that I couldn’t hold their babies because they seemed so fragile, but I was really afraid it was me who would fall apart. I was jealous as well and could hardly restrain myself from rolling down my car window and yelling, “Show off!” to women parading strollers past me.

I reminded myself how much I had wanted this and how long it had taken. We’d turned to the fertility clinic as our last hope and I had endured the twice daily injections that Tim administered to my bruised rear end. Then there were the equally bruising visits to the fertility clinic for my appointments with our doctor, a coarse Australian who referred to me as a “tough nut” and called my eggs “duds.”

All this being true, my longing to have a child evaporated once I became pregnant. I alternated between bliss at becoming a mother and a smothering fear of what was growing inside of me. I considered talking to my doctor about my situation but I was certain that there was nothing he could do for me except offer anti-anxiety medication that might affect the baby. I came up with an abundance of strange and horrific scenarios where I’d admit to my doctor that I was resisting this pregnancy. I would endure a hard labor where I’d scream unforgivable things as the baby slid out of me. The doctor, out of fear over my reaction to the baby, would have it whisked away to child protective services. Even if I did make it through the delivery and brought a newborn baby home how could be expected to keep something so small alive? Somehow, by accident or by my own incompetence the baby would die and I’d be guilty of manslaughter. How could I be responsible for someone else when I was barely responsible for myself? This was a mistake in the making.

I didn’t know where else to turn so I sought out mothers who shared my agony. I began asking mothers where I worked, neighbors and even strangers I met in waiting rooms if they had been afraid while they were pregnant. Maybe these veteran moms didn’t want to alarm me since I was newly pregnant, because they seemed to downplay their worries. I heard similar comments from each mom. “I wondered if I would miscarry during the first three months,” or “I was concerned about the health of the baby.” A few had been afraid of going through a long labor, but they seemed to have amnesia about any pain or fear they had suffered. “Make sure to get the drugs early and you’ll get through it,” one mom assured me.

I hadn’t even gotten to the point where I could worry about going into labor or whether I could possibly bear a normal baby. I was frightened by the enormity of what I had done. No one seemed to know what I was talking about; or rather, what I was thinking about, since I couldn’t admit I didn’t want this whole scenario after all, not when everyone was beaming about “this special time in my life.”

On the way to the fertility clinic for my first sonogram I reminded myself to get the rusty tailpipe on our car fixed because I was worried that the exhaust I could smell would make “the fetus” sick. When I arrived at the clinic I lowered myself slowly into a chair in the waiting room to indicate that I was with child. I thought of myself as a symbol of hope for the other 40 year-old wishful women sitting near me. Because I was barely pregnant I had to be carefully monitored. The statistics for women getting pregnant through in-vitro were one in four, but the likelihood of producing a child from the pregnancy was much lower. The first time I saw the blip on the ultrasound screen I began to cry as our doctor asked, “You happy now?” For the time being, I truly was.

I stopped by the store on my way home to buy saltine crackers to stave off the nausea I had yet to experience along with prenatal vitamins and jeans with a stretchy waistband. I had a black and white image of the sonogram to show Tim when he came home. That evening he studied the picture and pressed his hand to “the fetus” inside me. I still couldn’t call it a baby yet, because I was afraid I might screw things up. After Tim fell asleep I thought about signing up for a meditation class so I could learn to breathe again. This wasn’t my first experience of self doubt.

Years ago, after I got my first job offer, I had my first panic attack. I had been so excited about getting my first real job at a community college outside of Knoxville, but by the time I drove away from the parking lot, I had a hitch in my diaphragm and could barely pull air into my lungs. All I could think was, “What the hell have I done? I hate teaching. Everyone will be staring at me waiting to hear what I know or don’t know. They’ll figure out I’m a fraud.” By the time I got home I decided to call back and reject the job offer.

“Give it a month,” Tim suggested. “You’ll feel better about it by then.”

“I have to get help if I’m going to do this,” I said.

Once again, I was sure my own heart was trying to kill me. Any changes in my life were always met with a degree of dread that I could trace back to my shaky childhood. I’d gotten through that rough patch with the help of medication and therapy, but this time my fears were wreaking havoc on three lives. I had already ruled out taking pills while I was pregnant and I doubted that I could find a therapist I could trust with my secret.
I confessed to Tim that I was afraid I might not be able to get through labor, and even if I could I might not be able to keep our baby alive.

“You’re worrying too much, the way you always do,” he said. “You’ll see you’ll be a good mom.”

At least I had tried to warn him. I was two months along on the morning of my weekly check-up at the clinic. I put on a new lipstick, one called “Mauve-a-lous” and left the house looking forward to seeing the baby’s progress. As I drove to the doctor’s office I thought again how I had to get the exhaust pipe on my car fixed. I laid on the examining table with the goo spread across my abdomen I watched the monitor. Our doctor moved the sonogram probe across me repeating the passes over my belly. Usually I saw the familiar blip by now. Come on, keep searching, I urged in silence. Our usually boisterous doctor was quiet for once as he began more furtively to find the fetus. “I can’t find it,” he said at last.

I propped myself up on my elbows. “It was there a few days ago.”

“I don’t know what’s happened,” he said. “There’s no heartbeat now.”

I nodded that I understood and got dressed. The nurse, who was sent in for the human touch, guided me to a private room. I wasn’t sure how long I could use the room or if the mothers-to-be in the nearby waiting room could hear me crying. How could it be over before I’d even begun to feel anything certain? Was I ever really pregnant? I called Tim and spoke in pieces. “There’s no heartbeat.”

“I’ll come right home,” he said.

He held onto me while I convulsed with grief. I once read that the Swedish Sami people have over three hundred words to describe snow and ice. There should be as many words to define the degrees of sorrow that can be experienced. Mine was the kind that came in waves which left me drained and stooped over. When I wasn’t crying, I looked for reasons why the baby hadn’t survived. I went over everything I’d done differently that day from wearing a new shade of lipstick to taking a different route to the doctor’s office as though these had factored into the baby’s demise.

“I never got the tailpipe fixed,” I told Tim. “I think I gassed the baby to death.”

“You can blame yourself all you want, but that’s not what happened,” Tim assured me.

“It wasn’t meant to be,” was all I could say for certain.

During one of my lulls from crying Tim said, “We can try again, you know.”

I wasn’t ready to consider a next time, not when there was a dormant fetus inside of me. We had to meet at the doctor’s office the next day so Tim could witness the lack of life in my uterus. I stretched out on the table as I had the day before while our doctor searched again with his probe. “See there’s nothing showing. No heartbeat at all, agreed?”

“I see that,” Tim said.

“You happy now?” our doctor asked out of reflex, forgetting that we were viewing a static screen. I didn’t even have the fight in me to sit up and glare at him. He shuffled out of the room saying, “The nurse will schedule your D&C. The fetus will have to be removed.”

Why did I put up with that gas-ass who’d grown fat preying on desperate women? Because he was one of the few doctors who would help a woman my age, that’s why. The D&C was scheduled for the end of the week, but that seemed too long to carry dead tissue around inside of me. I went through rounds of crying, but there was relief too that I hadn’t had to go through with it after all. I’d no longer feel my pelvis drawing up every time I thought about going into labor. There would be no strain from the constant vigil to keep my child from dying if I looked away for a moment. With the end of the baby’s heartbeat came the return to my heart’s normal rhythm.

I threw up neon green bile in the recovery room after the D&C as though my body was trying to eject everything. A few days later I went back to work and focused my gaze over the tops of my students’ heads. At night I’d sit beside Tim, stroking out cats in our laps while we watched TV. I imagined us becoming crazy cat people, the kind who take in too many cats and allow them to crawl across the kitchen table.

A month passed before we went back for another visit with our doctor. He’d recently returned from a safari trip to Africa that my husband and I had helped to bankroll. He leaned back in his leather chair making his swollen belly more prominent as though he was permanently pregnant.

“On my trip I saw a pair of young lions mating,” he said. “The lioness stretched herself out on the grass afterwards. Very sensuous. You know the need to procreate is undeniable.”

I tried to make the connection to our own situation while Tim nodded and said, “That sounds like a great trip.”

Suddenly, it seemed our obtuse doctor realized who he was addressing and righted himself in his chair and said, “Yes, well. What we’re here for today is to figure out if you want to try again.”

“I’ll leave that up to Sue,” Tim said. “She’s the one who has to go through the shots and doctor appointments.”

Our doctor directed his focus on me, the tough nut, a producer of duds. “The thing is if you don’t try, you’ll always wonder what might have been.”

There was no mention of what we could afford financially or emotionally. “Alright,” I said. “One more time.”

Three eggs were harvested this time, all duds, according to our doctor. He mentioned the option of implanting me with eggs donated from a younger more fertile woman, but I left the office and never went back.

“We can travel,” Tim said during our evening ritual of lap sitting our cats. “Or maybe get some dogs.”

“Why not go all out and have a freaking menagerie?” I asked.

After a few months had passed and I was less sullen, Tim mentioned the idea of children again. “We could adopt. I’d be okay with that if you still want to have kids.”

I had wanted the best of Tim and I fused together, though I hoped his genes would compensate for my corrupted DNA. Maybe it was best that the genetic line on my side came to an end. There was a tendency toward alcoholism demonstrated by my father, not to mention the faulty wiring of his nervous system that led to rages and abuses I had tried to forget. I was beginning to believe that it wasn’t fair for me to have a child since I had the same jangled nerves as my father. Besides I had nothing usable from my own parents to build on, though I was sure I couldn’t do any worse than them. I began to babysit the neighbor’s little boy in the afternoon and that quelled the emptiness for awhile.

One morning while I was in the teacher’s workroom I glanced up and noticed a young Chinese girl standing in the doorway. She was hard to ignore because our school had few minority students at the time, but she would have stood out anywhere. She had been named Flora I later learned because her mother said her deep red lips reminded her of a rosebud.

“Can I help you?” I asked.

“I’m waiting for my mother,” she said.

Her mom appeared behind her though I didn’t think it was possible at first because she was blue-eyed and square-jawed. It was Maureen, the ESL teacher.

“Flora, this is Ms. Griner,” Maureen said. “Say hello.”

“Hi,” was all she said, but her presence opened up my world.

I have never been a religious person, but at that moment I believed in signs, miracles and in trite sayings about one door closing and another one opening. After Maureen sent Flora to the office on an errand I fumbled for a way to ask how Flora could be her daughter.

“Is your daughter’s heritage Asian?” I asked.

“Yes, she’s from China. I adopted her when she was four.” Maureen filled me in the lengthy process she’d gone through to adopt her daughter. By the time I got home that afternoon I knew I wanted to adopt. Tim went along because I was so certain.

The adoption agency sent an intimidating binder of information and paperwork for us to complete and we had to submit to a home study visit with a social worker in order to qualify for adoption. I cleaned the house and made cookies for the home study visit. Our social worker, Becky, hadn’t been at our house long before she said to both Tim and me, “Tell me the story of your life beginning with your earliest memory to the present.”

I turned to Tim and said, “You go first.”

I reshaped my family history in my head as Tim related the details of his fairly wholesome childhood. When it was my turn I mentioned my father’s alcoholism and his nervous disposition, but nothing about his drunken ranting and groping. I admitted to getting counseling to deal with the effects of his drinking, but said nothing about my periodic panic attacks. When she asked if we had grieved over our miscarriage we said we had and that we were ready to move on with our lives. I saw no reason to tell her how poorly I had reacted to being pregnant. I would not jeopardize our last chance to become parents.

After four hours of discussion we were deemed acceptable candidates for parenthood. All we had to do was prep the baby’s room, read the parenting manuals and wait our turn. A year passed before we received a photo from China of a twelve-month-old girl perched on a teeter-totter. She looked uncertain, maybe because she wasn’t used to having her picture taken or because the seesaw was wobbly. She had round cheeks and her hair had been cropped short for easy maintenance in the orphanage, or social welfare institute, as the Chinese government preferred to call it. She was almost ours. Tim and I wanted to go get her right then, but there would be another month of waiting.

It wasn’t until we were on the bus weaving through the city of Wuhan with a group of other adopting couples that I could let myself believe I was going to become a mother after all. Our guide stood at the front of the bus and made an announcement. “We’ll be stopping at the store so you can buy diapers and formula for your new baby.”

“We’re really going to do this,” I said to Tim.

“Uh, yeah,” he said and laughed.

When we met our daughter she was handed to me by her nanny who made a hasty exit. Our new baby cried at being foisted on well-meaning strangers as did all the other girls being handed to their new parents. Our daughter, who we named Sydney, cried all the way back to the hotel room until she exhausted herself. She fell asleep across my chest, her warmth spreading over me. I knew she’d cry all over again when she woke up to find nothing familiar around her. She’d grieve for many months, but one day I’d be able to soothe her the way she unknowingly soothed me now.

As attached as I was to Sydney, she preferred to cling to Tim instead insisting he carry her everywhere. Once we returned from China, Tim returned to work and Sydney had to contend with me instead. She’d greet me in the morning with a hard stare then cry out, “Aiiieee,” the Chinese word for nanny.

I gulped a lot and fumbled my way through the feeding and caring of my unsettled child. At night I consulted parenting books to see what I was doing wrong. In the midst of Sydney’s stormiest tantrums I found a way to cut my parents some slack for having to raise not one, but seven kids. Over time Sydney and I began to trust my mothering skills. What I have figured out is that even though I may not be good at having kids, I’m pretty good at raising them. Tim and I enjoy our daughter so much that we returned to China and adopted another little girl. My children are so much a part of me that when strangers ask me if my daughters are adopted I’m startled into remembering that they are.

When I turned fifty this year I thought over the goals I had set for myself and had reached—having a stable family life with children, getting my work published and traveling. But there were still things I want to do and a few things I fear and want to overcome. I’ve been afraid of drowning all my life, but I’m determined to take swimming lessons along with my daughters. But what can I do about my fear of giving birth? Out of curiosity I Googled the words, “fear of giving birth.” The results came back with the word “tokophobia.” According to Wikipedia one percent of the female population suffers from the phobia of giving birth. There were other women out there like me who were too frightened to allow a baby to trespass through their wombs. From my reading on the subject I found that there were two main causes for tokophobia.

Some women cited a feeling of disgust after seeing graphic images of childbirth when they were growing up. When they became adults they had no desire to put themselves through a similar ordeal. Tokophobia can also occur among women who have experienced sexual trauma as a child. I had never until that moment made the connection to the abuse I’d suffered from my father to my brief but anguished pregnancy. My bewildered reaction to being pregnant finally made sense to me.

Tokophobia can be treated with psychotherapy which helps to lessen a woman’s anxiety during her pregnancy. Even though I know it’s medically possible for women to have babies past their fifties and that I could have help this time to guide me through the trials of labor, it’s not an imperative of mine. As an older mom, I barely have the reflexes to keep my four-year old daughter out of trouble and with a husband and two lovely daughters I consider my family complete. I’m relieved that menopause is around the corner because it will bring an end the possibility of pregnancy.

I have wondered though if I have come up with excuses like middle age and the presence of my children to avoid facing my last ghost; but what I feared more than giving birth was that I might never have any children at all. On my way to motherhood I have grieved over the child I never had and I have both forgiven and bypassed my body which was too stymied by the past to create a new life. I’ve withstood the scrutiny of others who decided my fate as a parent and I have endured a wait beyond a human or even an elephant’s gestation period before I was given my first child. When I’m out with my daughters and someone asks, “Are they yours or are they adopted?”

I will say, “I had a hard labor with each one of them. They are absolutely my girls.”

Author Bio:

Susan Griner lives in the Seattle area with her husband and two children. She’s a computer lab teacher by day and a writer by night. She usually writes for children and has had her work published in Cricket and Babybug magazines.

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  1. Your story had me riveted…

    Am glad for the rainbow that came up your sky.

    I also was touched by two specific points – the fear that we jinxed ourself (the gas, a new lipstick)… and that menopause would end the fertility journey….I am away from menopause, but I have given thought to what it would take to be finally ‘cured’.

    Beautiful piece, Susan.

  2. Your story has touched me very deeply. I had a miscarraige at 39 after finally becoming pregnant after years of infertility. I always wonder if it were my thoughts of being afraid to have my baby that caused my baby to leave its soul felt unwanted.. I am 40 now and fear the door to my fertility is closing..not that is was ever opened fully anyway..i am so happy you became a mom. Thank you for sharing your story.

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