Unlike most of my peers, the only ambition I had coming out of high school was to be a mother and build a home and family, just like my Mom did. That seems shockingly anachronistic and anti-feminist for a child of the ’80s, I know, particularly for an only girl growing up with 5 boys.
I was raised by my parents on a par with my brothers and I roughed it up with them, learning to put up my dukes that way. Besides basic pugilism, I had my fill of eclectic discussions at home (with my Mom and brothers), and had the daily privilege of debating with a constitutionalist, law college Dean, and later Supreme Court Justice (my Dad). I was taught that I was free to be whatever I wanted to be, and I could do it. But my aspiration had nothing to do with flouting gender politics or negating my potential. Rather it was all about realizing that potential. I knew indubitably that the only thing I was truly expert at was mothering.
The second thing I could do well enough was write, so I went to University and got my Journalism degree. After a short post-graduation hiatus I worked as a deskman in one of the major dailies and taught in my alma mater too. Good things to put on a resumé. But what gave me a thrill was the prospect of marrying soon (hopefully), and having children (immediately). Career? That was the only one I wanted. I was the child of older parents and I knew it was important to be young with my kids. My secret goal was to be a mom by 25.
It didn’t pan out that way.
My white knight took a long while coming. (Did the fear of my Dad and the 5 boys keep the gallants away? That’s another story.) And as I waited (im)patiently for him, I discovered that I had inherited the family endocrine disorder, and that in my case it targeted my reproductive system. I was diagnosed with uterine pre-cancer at 24. Thus at 25, I found myself with no prince, possibly no future kids, and somewhat sodden hopes.
I finally married at 30, and because I was told by my doctor that there was “still a chance” for pregnancy, we had a go at it. More like a no-go, actually, for in my first year of marriage, I developed another illness, both debilitating and enervating, which required me to go on a regimen of hormones for about a year. After hurdling that, I again went for the fertility work-ups, swallowed the meds, took my basal temperature daily – trying, trying, trying. In the doctor’s office I’d sit feeling insecure with what seemed like a flotilla of pregnant women for 2 hours until I was finally called for my ultrasound. After less than 5 minutes, I’d get the verdict: not ovulating. I’d drive home in tears and fall apart in our sala, but I made sure to pull myself together in time to cook dinner. I went through this M-W-F weekly for about three months until, emotionally exhausted, I told my husband, “This all feels so artificial. If God wants us to have kids, He’ll make it happen. Right?” I was relieved to hear him say he felt the same way, and so we agreed to stop trying.
I went through my 30s waiting for a miracle, professedly in faith yet more truthfully in desperation hinging on despair. We once visited an orphanage and spent the morning in a playroom overrun by toddlers. We had the time of our life. I bonded with a little boy, about 18 months, who clung to me with possession. I wanted to take him home right then. We were not wealthy by any means, but we felt we might make a go of it. I recall sitting on the playmat with the boy napping on me. I caught my husband’s eye; he caught mine. Done deal. Upon leaving, we made tentative inquiries about the boy, but we were told that we could not choose the child we wanted on sight. There was a procedure, a matching process, a wait-list, social worker visits, legalities, court appearances, the possibility of rejection. Not again. With sadness, we decided adoption was not for us. Unless a basket with a baby were left on our doorstep…
My thirties came and went and I hit 40 surprised by the joy of emancipation. I didn’t realize I would welcome it so. The angst of the past decade was gone. Older now, I was no longer constantly asked whether I was pregnant or if we were trying, or if we just didn’t know how to make a baby. I no longer had to suffer the crude jokes and awful comparisons with fertile contemporaries. I relished the freedom of having my own time while my friends were caught up in PTA meetings and sports meets. But my unrequited dream lingered like a spectre and a long-beheld grief. Empty womb, empty arms; subtle, spiking sorrow.
Work was a balm. While doing research for a book, I noticed a litter of kittens had been born in our neighbor’s yard. I had absolutely no experience with pets, and frankly, I didn’t care much about animals except in a general protective sense. One day the mother cat and her litter chose to cross our garage just as my husband was backing out the car. I jumped out to get them safely across. Just then, one of the tiny kits broke rank and came to me. He sat looking up at me and I had a hard time leaving him and getting back in the car.
The next day, he was back in our yard – just him. I played with him a bit, cute fellow, about a month old – his eyes had just opened. He sat on my feet. The following day as I came home from an errand, who comes bounding up to meet me but the same kit. He was alone now and seemed to be suffering from some illness. He was thin, dirty, and couldn’t keep his food down. I built him a small shelter on our porch and gave him food and drink. He sat on my feet, he climbed on my arm, he clung to me with possession. That night I cradled him in my hand – he was as big as my palm – and I sang him to sleep. Next day, my husband bathed him, and because he was so sick, we brought him to the vet. We were just in time; he would’ve died in days had we not intervened. We took him indoors and nursed him. He gained weight and flourished and is now doing very well. That was Persia, our eldest. We eschewed adoption, but it didn’t us; we were adopted, by Persia.
Persia helped me throughout the writing of that book, my most difficult endeavor to date. Whenever I was overwhelmed, I would sit by him and stroke his coat. We would be like that, quiet together, energizing each other, and all would be well. He does that even now, though he’s no longer a kitten but a big mash of muscle, flab, and fur. He is every bit my son and satisfies all my maternal instincts. I didn’t realize that love could flow from human to cat that way, and vice versa. And why not, after all? We’re all God’s creatures.
Shorty after Persia, Talia came along. Then Memphis and Cairo and Sahara and Lucy and Bruski. All my children. Hemingway said, wryly, “One cat leads to another.” It’s true. In five years we’ve rescued and sheltered nearly 30 cats. We have only 6 indoors now (Cairo chose to go walkabout and never returned), but we do our best for the ones in the yard who choose to stay or go as they please. Mostly they opt to stay. It’s pleasantly ironic that during my bleak days, I was led to Isaiah 54:1, which I grasped as a promise:
“Sing, O barren woman,
you who never bore a child;
burst into song, shout for joy,
you who were never in labor;
because more are the children of the desolate woman
than of her who has a husband,”
says the LORD.
Promise fulfilled. All my kitty-kids call me “Mau” (sounds like wow), and that’s close enough to “Mom” for me. For someone who will never know the joy of parenting a human, this feline alternative is a tremendous blessing. Not many understand it and more think we’re foolish. That’s quite all right. This is a personal choice brought about by circumstances I believe were engineered by a merciful God who knew when to banish my ghost.
It’s called being clowdered.