Maybe There’s Nothing Natural About Motherhood

Photo: ICHIRO/Getty Images

At seven o’clock on a cold winter morning, my partner climbed into the passenger seat with a plastic cup of semen. He had just masturbated in our bathroom while I waited in the car, trying not to vomit from anxiety. Before tucking the cup inside my coat — the nurse had told us to keep the sperm “warm, but not too warm” — I made sure the lid was screwed on tight. On a previous visit, we had arrived at the fertility clinic only to find that the paper bag we’d wrapped around the cup was soaked with semen.

We drove downtown to our clinic, where I was wheeled into an operating room and given twilight anesthesia. “Good luck,” said the doctor, before I faded away.

After the operation, I shouted: “I feel fucked-up!” (I don’t remember this, but my partner, Luca, enjoys recounting it.)

Seventeen eggs they took out of me. When mixed, in the laboratory, with Luca’s genetic tinsel, what person could each egg be destined to make? Some wouldn’t fertilize; others wouldn’t grow; but I wondered nonetheless.

The anesthesia was wearing off; I had to pee. I stumbled down the clinic hallway with my gown flapping open in back, plastic IV bag in hand, needle taped to my inner arm. In the lab, a technician helped Luca’s sperm to pierce my eggs. In the bathroom, I tried to lower myself onto the toilet while keeping the IV bag aloft and the needle in place. I missed the toilet seat and fell to the floor, grunt-laughing.

This is how our son, now 5 years old, began.

My whole life I’ve felt that something was wrong with my body — too big, too soft, too hungry. The infertility diagnosis confirmed my anxieties. I couldn’t do what millennia of human development had designed me for, and I felt the sour kick of shame. Guilt, too: It was my own fault for waiting until I was almost 40. For being overweight. What if I had exercised more? What if I had spent my mid-20s doing yoga instead of heroin?

I wasn’t thrilled about the prospect of IVF. It seemed weird to let those eggs leave my body. I imagined the lab tech mistakenly fertilizing them with the sperm of a hedge-fund manager, and giving Luca’s sperm to the eggs of that grumpy blonde woman I always saw in the waiting room.

When I was trying to conceive — a years-long process — I occasionally read articles about assisted reproductive technology, along with readers’ reactions. A few samples from the comments section:

“Having kids isn’t a birthright; if it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen … the rest of us should not have to foot the bill so someone can realize their ‘dream.’”

“Ever hear of Darwinism? Survival of the fittest? Mother Nature is one smart cookie, sometimes it’s not smart to try to fool her.”

“If you can’t get pregnant the old-fashioned way that means you shouldn’t be having children. Mother nature knows best …”

The writer Joy Williams has an essay called “The Case Against Babies,” which satirizes the First World mania for fertility treatments. In characteristically brilliant prose, she suggests that baby-crazy Western women are contributing to our planet’s ecological crisis. I first read the piece after yet another failed pregnancy attempt, and Williams’s withering disdain for women who seek offspring at any cost was hard to swallow. I couldn’t appreciate the essay’s complexity or its useful critique of how we glorify the nuclear family. Instead, I simply felt judged: “Everyone’s having babies, even women who can’t have babies, particularly women who can’t have babies …”

If you can’t have a baby the old-fashioned way, maybe you shouldn’t have one at all.

I live in Portland, Oregon, where so-called natural birth and home birth are popular. When I was pregnant, I was asked more than once why I planned to use a hospital. “Women have been giving birth for thousands of years!” a friend pointed out. “Your body knows what to do.”

Okay, I thought, but a thousand years ago, how high were those maternal death rates?

As it happened, I developed an infection during labor. My son’s heartbeat sped up dangerously. They had to do a C-section right away.

The body knows.

One of the most harmful myths about motherhood is that it comes naturally — getting pregnant, giving birth, feeding a new human. I’ve watched friends fall into prolonged despair because they weren’t able to breastfeed. They felt like defects. Failures at the very thing they were built to do. A mother knows. Except when she doesn’t.

The sentimental celebration of natural instincts can undermine all parents, whether or not they’re genetically related to their children. Rene Denfeld, a death-row investigator and author of The Child Finder, is the mom of three kids. In a recent email conversation, she pushes back against the tendency to privilege biological connection in parenthood:

Far too often motherhood is equated with birth, and even in birth, a hierarchy is supposed, with some kinds of birth “natural,” as if other forms are unnatural. I chose to adopt from foster care. As far as I knew I could have gotten pregnant. But what I chose was just as natural as any other form of mothering.

In the first draft of this essay, I described Denfeld as “the mom of three adopted kids.” The word “adopted” here may seem neutral — purely descriptive — but is it? The fact of their being adopted follows soon enough. I deleted it from the introductory line because, once I thought about it, it seemed to reinforce a pecking order in which one’s biological children are standard and need no explanation.

Historically, who has benefited most from appeals to what is “natural,” “normal,” “as God intended”?

White people. Abled people. Rich people. Cishet men.

The rationale “That’s the way it is, because nature!” serves a range of conservative agendas. It minimizes and enables sexual harassment. It demonizes queer and transgender people as violators of the natural order. It casts women as naturally better at caretaking and supportive roles, and naturally less equipped for positions of power. And this rationale can be used to attack abortion and IVF, two procedures that disrupt the reproductive system’s business-as-usual functioning.

A vocal minority of Americans believe it’s a sin to interfere with any action in the womb. Those who support so-called fetal personhood maintain that a fertilized egg at the moment of conception has the same rights that you and I do. I came across the personhood movement when I was researching IVF and writing a novel called Red Clocks, which is about, among other things, the pursuit of motherhood. Some of the loudest proponents of fetal-personhood bills were Mike Pence, Paul Ryan, and former Oklahoma state senator Ralph Shortey. Shortey is in jail, having pleaded guilty to child sex trafficking, but Pence and Ryan currently occupy two of the highest offices in the land.

The more I learned about the personhood movement, the angrier I got. Why the hell did these guys care if I took some eggs out of my uterus? My eggs, my uterus! I stood on the other side of the funhouse mirror from a girl in need of an abortion. Her uterus. Her multiplying cells.

My questions and my anger went into writing Red Clocks, whose world is much like our own except that the Personhood Amendment has gone into effect, outlawing both abortion and IVF. When I started the book, in 2010, this legislation seemed far-fetched. But in 2018, with Pence and Ryan at the reins, and with other Republicans insisting that a single-celled zygote is entitled to open a college-savings account, it feels totally — and terribly — plausible.

I would love my son just as ferociously if we had adopted him, or if we had conceived him through intercourse; but he came into the world via IVF. Our wild, sweet, stubborn, beautiful boy wouldn’t be here if we had left things up to Mother Nature. He joins the millions of wonderful and ordinary human beings throughout history who have been labeled (for reasons of hate, greed, ignorance, and religious zeal) “unnatural.” I’m proud to join them, too.

Maybe There’s Nothing Natural About Motherhood