By Kate Haas
The grandmotherly woman with the Minnie Mouse lapel pin doesn’t blink an eye when we ask for the video. She coochie-coos the baby strapped to my chest, then leads my husband and me past shelves of health books and racks of earnest pamphlets, over to a small, curtained cubicle in the corner of our HMO’s Wellness Resource Center.
“Here you go,” she says with a professional smile, plucking our request from a nearby shelf. We step inside, draw the curtain, and insert the videocassette. We’re ready.
Well. One of us is ready, anyway. He presses play.
The screen brightens and a scene of suburban domesticity appears. Imagine Brad and Janet, the naÃ¯ve protagonists of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, ten years later. Brad, still geeky, wears tan, too-short swim trunks that expose his skinny white legs as he splashes in the backyard pool with his two wholesome, blond daughters. Janet, her hair now showing a touch of bleach, turns from her seat under the patio umbrella to gaze adoringly at her husband. We hear Brad’s nasal, whiny voice-over: “For Janet and me, vasectomy was the right choice.”
Inside the darkened cubicle at the Resource Center, my husband and I giggle. We are here because, before granting a man an appointment to see the urologist—much less allowing him to take the irrevocable step of curtailing his fertility—our HMO requires him to watch a video about it.
So, with our seven-month-old second—and last—child squirming in our laps, we watch Brad and Janet walk into the doctor’s office to discuss the big V. The physician (henceforth referred to as Dr. Toupee) smiles reassuringly at the couple from behind an imposing desk as he explains “the procedure.”
“Doctor,” Brad inquires diffidently, glancing at Janet, “will this have any effect on our, ah, sexual intercourse?”
Dr. Toupee clasps his pudgy fingers together and assumes a grave expression in acknowledgement of the seriousness of Brad’s concern.
“Not at all,” he reassures. “There may be a slight reduction in the amount of fluid contained in each ejaculation, and the ejaculate will no longer contain sperm, of course, but your experience of intercourse will be unchanged.”
Janet nods, trying to look worldly, as if she hears the word “ejaculate” used as a noun on a daily basis. Brad gives her a tight smile. Bruce and I giggle some more.
The camera follows Brad to the doctor’s office, where he arranges himself impassively on the medical equivalent of a La-Z-Boy recliner. The nurse covers him with a blue drape. Dr. Toupee approaches with a syringe.
“Now you’ll feel just a little prick…” he says blandly.
Bruce and I are beside ourselves. “Oh my God, did he actually say, ‘little prick?’ ” I gasp. We feel like a couple of ninth graders watching a sex education presentation.
On screen, Brad makes it through the surgery, walks gingerly out to his car, and goes home to sit stoically on the couch with an ice pack. In the final scene, the family is relaxing in the tastefully appointed living room. The kids play while Brad and Janet nestle on the couch, beaming at each other in a manner that makes it clear they’ve got no problems in that department. We get the message: vasectomy is No Big Deal.
Except that it is.
Our two children frequently overwhelm us. We can imagine all too well another round of diapers, nursing marathons, sleepless nights, and the constant vigilance of life with a toddler. It’s a vision that makes us tremble. So why do I feel ambivalent at the prospect of permanently closing the door on our fertility?
It doesn’t trouble Bruce in the slightest. “I would have done this years ago if I hadn’t met you,” he reminds me. And it’s true; when we met, my husband had no intention of having children. Ever. That we are the parents of two is a tribute to marital negotiation and compromise.
I refrain from asking if he’s glad now that he didn’t get the snip back then. We are in the thick of things with two under five and there are days when I know exactly what his answer would be.
I have those days myself. The days when my patience is stretched so thin I start to wish I were a spare-the-rod-spoil-the-child fundamentalist instead of a supposedly pacifist Quaker. The days when the frustration of not being able to do what I want, when I want, tempts me to get in the car and leave. Adding another child—another baby—to our family is unthinkable.
But I do think about it. The few times we’ve been careless, and each time my period is late, a flicker of anticipation stirs in me. I imagine the thrill of being pregnant again, the pervading excitement and expectation of those nine months, the drama of birth. (Conveniently, I don’t dwell on the next eighteen years.) Is all of that really over for us?
“Maybe you’d get your curly haired girl this time,” Bruce teased on one of those occasions. “Little baby Rose,” he sighed, evoking the vision of a daughter named after two great-grandmothers—a vision that vanished with the birth of our second son.
“What are you getting all mushy about?” I demanded incredulously. “You know you don’t want another. Do you?”
“Well. It would be exciting, having you pregnant again,” he admitted. “That big belly growing … another birth, seeing the baby come out, watching you be so strong.” We smiled at each other, remembering, and then he shook his head. “But the minute that baby was in your arms and nursing, you’d realize it was all a terrible mistake.”
He was right. Still, I was surprised that my husband had articulated my ambivalence so astutely. Although pregnancy made me feel more like a grumpy, avenging angel than a powerful fertility goddess, I savor the thought of giving birth again. Because really, is there anything else that comes close?
My first son’s birth took place in a haze of exhaustion. There were raised voices shouting, Push, push, push! There was pain. There was an unbearable burning sensation. And then, though I have no memory of his emerging, a gangly baby was being held up in front of me.
When my second son was born, three years later, I was more with it. This time all present had strict instructions not to yell “Push!” at me. This time I actually felt the baby—hard and soft and slippery all at once—slithering out through me. Two years later, I can still mentally summon up the exhilaration of that moment—the triumphant realization that I had just pushed a human being out of my body and into the world. I had never been more proud of myself.
I want to do that again.
Sometimes I fantasize about how it would be. After two hospital births, this time I might have the baby at home. No bumpy car ride with the contractions four minutes apart. No nurses coming around to hook me up to that damn monitor. This time I would remember to prepare the right, soothing music mix. Gregorian chants, ethereal guitars… I stop myself before this scenario gets too groovy. Some aspects of the way I labor would undoubtedly remain the same. To be strictly honest, I would probably be yelling at everyone to just shut up for the love of God, the way I did the last two times. But that would be fine.
It’s not going to happen.
Bruce will get the snip, my toddler will wean, and this exhausting phase of our lives will give way to the next one. I won’t imagine a next birth because I’ll be certain there won’t be one. If my period is late, there will be no half-terrified, half-thrilled consultation of the calendar. I’ll finally sort though those boxes of little hats and sweaters on the basement shelves. I can’t quite picture it, but we’ll move on to being parents of school-aged children. Homework and soccer practice are as foreign to me now as diaper-changing used to be, but I’ll figure it out.
Recently, Bruce and I brought a meal to new parents in the neighborhood. We cooed over the baby. I couldn’t wait to be asked to hold her. How light in our arms she was, how delicate and perfect those little fingernails! But in the car, on the way home, there was a palpable sense of relief, of escape, of better them than us. We laughed giddily, like trekkers who are finally descending the mountain.
I don’t want another child. But I look at myself in the mirror sometimes, at my belly that has sheltered two babies, at my breasts that have nourished them, and it’s strangely sad to think that never again will I feel the invisible dance of a baby kicking inside me. That from here on out, my body won’t be called upon to sustain anyone but me. That this phase of my life is ending.
On the other hand, there’s something to be said for physical independence. I won’t miss being woken nightly by a toddler’s sleepy demands to nurse. I can’t imagine feeling nostalgia for the nausea of pregnancy, or the fatigue of new motherhood. My maternity clothes? Long since passed on to friends.
And then, of course, there’s the sex. Bruce and I may have mocked that cheesy video at the HMO, but we want the same thing Brad and Janet wanted. These days, sexual encounters are either triumphs of strategy or brazen acts of defiance against Morpheus. Fighting our way through the chaos and fatigue to reconnect can be exhilarating, but often enough it’s easier not to make the effort. A marriage that has weathered the pressures of two active children needs all the spontaneous passion it can get.
Graduate school, full-time work, and family life take a lot of a man’s time, and for the year and a half since we watched that video, getting on with life has pretty much precluded “the procedure.” But with the degree finally in hand, my husband has made the appointment. The seven-month-old baby we brought with us to the HMO that day is now over two years old and has become a playmate to his brother instead of an unwelcome interloper. Watching our boys race down the street hand in hand or put their heads together over some scheme, we see how far we have traveled. And with each milestone reached, it’s easier not to think about starting the journey over.
Author’s Note: Shortly after completing this essay I was at the park, sharing intimate details of my life with a near stranger, as we mothers often do. Nodding toward a cluster of women with young babies, I confided—perhaps a bit smugly—that since my husband’s surgery, all of that was now over.
My new acquaintance pointed to her kindergartner. “Meet ‘Over,’ ” she said. “You mean…?” I stammered. She nodded. Her second child had been conceived eight years after her husband’s vasectomy. “I love this kid, don’t get me wrong,” she told me. “But have your husband tested yearly. No one told us that. Now it’s my personal little crusade.”
Note has been taken.
Brain, Child (Winter 2006)
About the Author: Kate Haas publishes Miranda, a long-running print zine about motherhood and other adventures. Her writing has appeared in Salon, Brain, Child, Babble, and the Toronto Star. A former Peace Corps volunteer and high school English teacher, she is currently an editor of Creative Nonfiction at Literary Mama. She lives with her family in Portland, Oregon. Her website is www.katehaas.com.
Art by Clover Archer
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