By Emily Stoddard
Hysterosalpingogram. There is not enough space in my mouth for the word, yet here I am on the exam table, having the procedure that I cannot say. They fill my uterus with dye. On the X-Ray screen, I watch the fluid expand. I think of it as a sort of carbon dating. We are here to decide how authentic my uterus is.
I remember when I prayed for blood from my uterus. In the back of my middle school journals, I hid a list of girls who had already gotten their periods, according to recess gossip. I knew I was one of the last to start. The knowing held me like a map: You are here.
And now, we are deciding whether my uterus is only a diorama, an altar to something imagined, like those names in my seventh grade journal. We send fluid back, inward. I send small prayers with it. For a new map. Now for different reasons, but also the same reason—to be like the other girls.
The dye flushes deeper, into the fallopian tubes. Fallopian. It sounds as distant as an ancient civilization, until a flare of pain reminds me that Fallopian is within me. Part of my body. I had been tracing the X-Ray screen and wondering what languages they speak there, what weather they have.
The nurse breaks in to report: “Sometimes, we just need to clear the dust bunnies, to get the tubes to behave like they should.”
Dust bunnies. Words that fit in my mouth without struggle. The tubes flare with the dye. The nurse shakes her head. The doctor finds no fault in Fallopian. “Everything looks clear,” he says.
They begin the retreat from my body. Unthread themselves from my uterus. Remove the catheter that allowed them to cross the border of my cervix. My uterus is alone with herself again. Fallopian aches. Strangers have been inside now, touching my walls as one touches papier-mâché to know if it has dried.
No one wants to suggest that I carry a diorama between my legs. Instead they say: “The dye will seep out over the next few days.” They give me a sanitary pad and tell me what to take for the cramping. The nurse no longer mentions dust bunnies.
As a child, I once walked into a group of women discussing a miscarriage. I didn’t mean to join the conversation, but my mother was there and I wanted to be near her. I had mistaken the chatter for something casual since it was happening near the coffee after mass.
“We’re going to pray for the baby who was lost,” my mother explained. “Do you want to join us?” I nodded, and the women linked their hands.
Heat clipped at my body as our circle took shape. I faded in and out of the prayer while interrogating myself: What is this? What is this awful, drowning feeling?
Maybe the circle was too exposed in the middle of the church hallway. Until then, I knew Catholics to be mostly quiet pilgrims. I liked the solitude of the rosary. I was raised on strings of beads and private mysteries, not public prayer.
Yet with every gentle murmur of the women, something deeper flared. This was more than overexposure. It was recognition of myself that I had never experienced. I did not want to be a part of this. Not the women, not the child unborn, not the prayer for the mother unmade. It was a circle where I didn’t belong, and my hands itched with the urge to break it.
I decided that maybe there’s a compass where my heart should be. Since the first spin of the needle, I questioned the ground under my feet, the skies overhead. My restlessness grew loudest at church. Everywhere were families that had grown up around me in the pews. My grandmother had been baptized here, married here. It would be the church where she would be mourned. The closed circuit of birthing and living and dying, all under one roof, unnerved me. I wanted more than a closed circuit, more than the comfort of tradition. There had to be a reason for the spinning compass in my chest. I just hadn’t been given the reason yet. My prayers in those pews could have been summed up as: Expect more from me, God.
One year, our parish priest concluded Mothers’ Day mass with a broad blessing. He invited mothers to stand. Mine joined them, and I lifted a hand with the rest of the congregation in a great, invisible cloud of blessing.
But the priest urged: “All mothers.”
My face burned as he became more specific about the blessing he wanted. All mothers. Those who had lost babies, those raising children, and even someday-mothers, those who would birth the future of this parish.
My parents nudged me to stand. I did, but only because the wide palm of Catholic guilt extends first and foremost to procreation.
When the priest seemed satisfied that enough women were standing, he continued. The hands rose again, looming in a collective wish for motherhood, as if they could summon my future children. The priest began to name the many roles and virtues of motherhood: unconditional love, compassionate care, a nurse when a child is sick, a companion when they begin to explore the world, a guide when they lose their way, a source of prayer and nourishment as they grow.
It was a list more abundant than the Litany of the Saints. I tucked my face as low as I could toward my body. I was suddenly aware that I was attempting to claim something that was not mine. As though I had been asked to the reading of a will of a distant and unknown cousin, only to discover that I had inherited everything—a mansion I couldn’t maintain and an art collection that wasn’t my taste, and that I should somehow be very grateful.
I sat down in the pew abruptly, before the blessing was over. I was mortified. I had been outed, to myself as much as everyone else.
Maybe all restless daughters are a kind of alien. I wonder this when I overhear my mother telling people, “She was born that way. I was just the host uterus.” When unexplained infertility arrives, I am not entirely surprised. This is the price of trying to make my way in a world where I don’t seem to fit. This is the trouble with stepping into this human body—not everything translates.
My mother has always been a willing host, a mother-in-waiting. She prays relentlessly to the Blessed Virgin Mary, who is affectionately called “the BVM” in our family. During their wedding, my parents prayed to the BVM in a vestibule of the church. My mother recalls it as her most intense prayer for children.
I wonder what my father prayed for. Two weeks after their wedding, he found his new wife sobbing in the bathroom when it was clear they would not have a honeymoon baby. The story goes that he blustered: “You’re questioning my manhood already?” The next month, he—and perhaps the BVM, who had heard enough—made sure my mother was pregnant with the almost-honeymoon baby that I would become.
I don’t know much about my mother’s ambition, but I know she wanted children furiously. By comparison alone, it seemed I was meant for something other than having children. I marched my furious prayers directly to God, with ample suggestions for what we could make together, the books I’d like some help writing, and where I might be sent to be useful in the world.
The trouble with compasses is that they have a wonderful sense of direction, but they can’t tell you which road to take. Love slipped in when I wasn’t looking. It was a magnetic field with its own, strange pull. In the span of seven months, I fell hard, got engaged, and married a man I wasn’t supposed to have loved. He was a friend and someone I supported as he dated other people, until one spontaneous dinner conversation snapped us together.
I was still unsure about motherhood and about what that uncertainty meant—and yet here was this new, somehow separate, desire: to witness the man I love becoming a father.
We bought a five-bedroom house with too many bathrooms and a decent school district. During the bachelorette party, my sister-in-law wondered, “What are you going to do with all that room?”
“We’re going to fill it with babies!” I squealed in between shots.
A year after our wedding, we started trying to conceive. A year and a half after that, there were no babies. I started taking Clomid, which a friend called “the gateway drug of infertility treatments.” It didn’t work. There were too many empty rooms to walk by every day. We sold the house. I started taking offense to people who said they were “blessed” with children. As if I should have been praying to the BVM to make people instead of asking God to collaborate on books.
The doctors kept testing us: our blood, the sperm, mucus. Tests to decide what to test next. Women running the same gauntlet surrounded me. Many of my friends were mourning miscarried babies, shooting themselves up with hormones, obsessing over whether gluten intolerance or coffee habits affect the implantation of an egg, and on and on.
I was one of them, to a point. More than a decade after closely watching for its arrival, I grew frustrated with my persistent period. I tracked my temperature and gave up coffee for a year. I could spot the flare of ovulation between my hips. I tinkered with old wives’ tales about the position of pillows after sex. Yet I did not feel gutted by the hunger for a child. There were other women who held their cause like a devotion, even if it meant getting a second mortgage to fund a third round of in vitro fertilization.
The truth is, their voracity intimidated me. We had our physical boundaries and the purgatory of “unexplained infertility” in common, but I did not want motherhood as clearly or as much as they did. I had become an outsider among outsiders.
As we entered our third year of infertility, the uncertainty grew feverish. I had a dream about a family reunion. I searched for my cousins but was met by my dead grandmother instead. She greeted me with sharp blue eyes and a long hug. Her only words were: “Some people try like animals for this. You don’t have to.”
Unexplained infertility is at best an unfinished map. My mother wants to pray it into being. She keeps her vigil to the BVM, but now it is for me. Doctors want to needle the map into completion. A team of people tries to coax the body for answers, and hopefully, a baby. The body is the main event but also a third party—something to be tampered with rather than treated. Doctors’ visits start to sound like: What can we do to the body now?
The question of parenthood begins to swell into its own universe and threatens to eclipse all others. I begin to admire the empty space that suggests the possibility of other, less conventional treasures. I imagine detaching myself.
When I felt this way as a teenager, I took my restlessness to a priest. I wondered if I should be a nun, given how intensely I needed meaning and how ambivalent I was about marriage and parenthood. If only I could have carved the compass from my chest for interpretation. He must know where it comes from, I thought.
“You’re in discernment,” he offered. “These feelings are normal.”
In the midst of infertility, I choose psychics instead of priests. Usually I bring only my compass-heart, no specific questions. Except one time, when I ask whether I’m meant to have children.
The woman sighs. “There is a son for your husband… but you, you could go either way. You wake up every morning wondering what you’ll be that day, and you could become whatever you choose.” She looks up then: “Discernment. It’s an important word for you.”
That word, discernment, felt like a homecoming the first time I heard it. Here was a world built entirely of thresholds, yet it could stand upright. I could live within it, and it would hold my questions. But hearing it the second time felt more like a sentencing: Here you are in this body that feels so strange, and after all these years, you still don’t know what to do with it. You may never know.
I should have been an ideal match for the intervention that infertility requires. My body has always felt borrowed. For better or worse, I have often treated it as a third party. It should have been natural to pursue it like an experiment, to poke and prod at it in the name of a greater purpose.
Yet when the catheter expands across my cervix during the hysterosalpingogram, something shifts. Something deep and unmooring—like circles of women praying, like hands hovering with blessings I do not want.
I am blindsided by the reality of my body. I have never experienced her so inwardly and outwardly at the same time. I go pale. I fight the edges of my skin to hide how much I am shaking.
The doctor pats my foot and asks, “Are you okay, hon?” But how can I explain what is happening to me? This routine procedure is cracking me open. After more than two decades of being in this body, I’m being confronted with it on a new level. And it is trying to tell me something.
When people ask why my husband and I didn’t continue with treatments, I struggle to offer the right order of events, the true story. I don’t want people to draw the wrong conclusions, as they’re prone to do when it involves a uterus. I feel obligated to a preamble: I believe in science and progress and also some divine order of the universe. I don’t think any religion should dictate what a family looks like or how it comes to be. I stand with my friends who have needed more good science than good luck to have children.
I want to say this before saying what I now know to be true: When I opened the door of intervention, something inside me shrank. When the catheter entered my body and I saw my inner walls expand on the X-Ray screen, I recognized myself in a bright, new way. Something about the procedure made me wake up in my body. Fallopian became a sacred spot in the journey. I saw the unfinished map nearly burst.
Of everything I have learned through infertility, this was the most surprising. It did not come by prayer, by priest, or by psychic. The first glint of knowing came during the hysterosalpingogram. While the nurse considered dust bunnies, the body cried: No. Not down this path. Listen to me.
After the hysterosalpingogram is finished, I get dressed in the bathroom. Dizzy with the echo-pain of the catheter, with my nebulous womb. The dye is starting to leave me, muddy-colored like my first tentative period. The pad feels thick and clinical and reminds me that I’m in the basement of the hospital.
There is the newfound knowing, but in its newness, it is terrifying. It does not bring me relief. Instead, there is a remnant of anger. Broken. I want the word in my mouth. It rises blood-hot and sure of itself. I would rather be broken than unexplained. This kind of knowing is too complicated to carry. Definitive proof is easier. People pity a “barren” woman. Will they be able to make sense of the alien who learned, only because she was trying to get pregnant, that pregnancy is not her calling?
I rest my hands across my womb in the quiet of the bathroom. I imagine my fingertips appear as linked clouds above Fallopian. I imagine the language there has hundreds of words for clouds, one for every fold of my skin. I imagine that this is what the children first learn—a vocabulary of horizons, the language of sky.
When a friend gives birth to her first child, she asks me to bring cupcakes to the hospital. I’m happy to have an assignment, to arrive with a clear role. There is no uncertainty in cupcakes.
Until she takes the cupcakes and gives me her phone, with the video of the birth queued up. I’m not sure I want to watch, but here is the video in my hands, and it feels unsupportive to turn it down.
It was a long labor that ended with an emergency C-section. The video shows me how they pulled the baby out of my friend’s body, ripped him from the only shell he’d ever known and into the shell of the world. I can’t stop looking at the hole that he left behind, the last gaping image on the screen. It leaves me too stunned for the usual congratulations. I’m in awe of what my friend has endured.
I try to turn my silence into something useful or at least less obvious, but she says, “I would do it all again right now.”
There isn’t a flash of triumph or ego or ambition in her face. It is the most utterly serene and self-possessed I have ever seen her. It’s as though she is sending a prayer toward a world just beyond my shoulder.
I do not turn and try to see the world for myself. She is already transformed, in the circle now. I recognize the old feeling. I say a prayer from my own threshold.
Emily Stoddard’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in New Poetry from the Midwest, Cold Mountain Review, Menacing Hedge, Watershed Review, Hermeneutic Chaos, and elsewhere. She is a certified leader of the Amherst Writers & Artists Method and the founder of Voice & Vessel, a writing studio. More at www.emilystoddard.com.
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