By Abby Braithwaite
I lift myself off the front seat of my car and dig into the pocket of my jeans to extract four off-brand ibuprofen. I pick out the pocket lint and toss the pills into my mouth, chasing them down with the dregs of my son’s water bottle, chilled from a night forgotten in the car.
I’m in the parking lot of not-my-doctor’s office, waiting for a midwife I’ve never met to remove the last piece of birth control I’ll ever need — assuming I can avoid divorce and widowhood for the next decade. I’ve done my time on pills that turned me psychotic, and a few rounds of IUDs that made my cycles flare up and down, and ultimately disappear. With this last, the tiny plastic Mirena, my uterus was so damn sure she was done hosting babies that she sucked the whole contraption up inside a few years ago, string and all. An ultrasound confirmed the device was in place, no immediate action necessary, so I left it there.
But my husband got a vasectomy last fall, and I’ve decided to let my body return to its natural rhythms for a few years before it shuts off, to join my adolescent daughter as she learns to navigate womanhood on her end, and I get ready for crone-hood on mine. With my husband snipped and sperm count tested, I made an appointment to get the IUD removed. My doctor, a family practitioner, doesn’t have the tools or techniques to go in and get it, so she sent me to the big clinic I left ten years ago because it was so cold and impersonal. They were able to get me right in, so I dropped the kids off at school this morning and now I wait in the parking lot.
It’s time, I know. I swapped my mini-van for a Chevy Bolt last spring, graphic novels and granola bar wrappers have replaced board books and Cheerios in the back seat, and the other night I found myself saying, “If you guys are going to be so unappreciative, you can make your own (damn) dinner,” and the kids fed themselves on cereal, eggs and leftovers. My daughter, almost thirteen, started her period more than a year ago; her developmental disability means she needs more support with it than another girl her age might, so we talk a lot about menstruation in our house, and her nine-year-old brother learns more every month about the trials of puberty for girls. Though they’re both peanuts on their growth charts, my kids aren’t little anymore, and there’s a lot to be said for this era of near self-sufficiency.
Five years ago we talked about having another baby, but my husband was worried about my health after two complicated pregnancies. After I spent a year getting in shape before trying again, our third child came to us in the body of a fully-formed 14-year-old, the daughter of an old friend. She lived with us almost four years before returning home last December, her time with us eating up any reserves of energy we had for another kid; the conversation about babies was off the table.
And so, here I am in the parking lot, not ready to go inside. Part of my hesitation is purely physical, as this removal could be pretty uncomfortable. When my doctor mentioned a “crochet hook-like tool” I knew ibuprofen would be on the menu. But there’s something else, too. I should have gotten over my grief back in September, with the vasectomy. But the surgery went so fast I didn’t even get three lines down in my journal before my husband limped back into the waiting room, ice pack down his pants. We were supposed to have a lot of sex over the next few months, to get any live genetic material out of his system while I still had protection. But then I broke my leg and wasn’t much interested in touching anyone, so he was left to his own devices. When he took a sample to the lab three months later, he was deemed sterile. I didn’t grieve then, either. So why can’t I get out of the car?
I remember sitting in birthing class in our midwife’s living room before my daughter was born, discussing our fears around childbirth; I wasn’t afraid of pain, or complications for myself or the baby. No, I was afraid I would reach what I deemed the **pinnacle of feminine physicality, and blow it. Not be able to birth a baby through sheer physical prowess, not be able to open myself to the primal force childbirth and push this being out of the center of me. I’ve never understood or strived to obtain the * feminine, but physicality? That’s been a thing. Always pushing to keep up with my big brothers. Finding my currency at recess by being picked with the boys for kickball and Red Rover; I found it easier to join the testosterone gang on their terms, rather than try to decipher the arcane language of flirtation, attractiveness, seduction. I had lots of boy friends but never a boyfriend, until college. And even then, and beyond, I never really figured out the game, finding myself at staff retreats in my twenties, my 5-foot tall self competing with the 6-foot tall dudes with arms as big as my thighs on the high ropes course, impressing them with my prowess, joining them for jocularity and beer in the bar, while my friends flailed and flirted and later bedded them. I never could figure out what I was missing, why I was always alone.
Now I had fallen in love with a man who loved me anyway, and conceived a child with him in the throes of a wild abandon I have only experienced one other time (three and a half years later, the night we conceived our son). I was six months pregnant and fully embracing the biological imperative of procreation; I wanted to push that baby out. But instead my body reacted against her. I got pre-eclampsia, we induced labor to get me well, and the baby’s heartrate fell through the floor, and she came into the world under a surgeon’s knife in a sterile operating room. We were just happy that I was healthy and the baby was here, and we went about the business of becoming parents. In the coming days we would learn our daughter had an extra 21st chromosome, and suddenly everything seemed more important than how she came into the world.
But we would have more kids, I would have another chance to reach this mythical milestone. Hah. Kid number two sat up like a little Buddha in his cozy womb, and try as we might we couldn’t get him to flip over; once again I found myself in an operating room, another surgeon with his knife at my midsection, and our boy was born, butt to the ceiling. This time, I was mad and sad and not distracted by anything but how unfair it was that I had been robbed, again, of the opportunity to prove myself a woman. My sweet boy was suckled on milk with a tinge of rancor, but he made it through; we all survived a few dark months of post-partum disorientation, and in the depths of my heart I planned another chance that never came.
So here I sit, a few days from 44 and a tiny bit reluctant to declare that this old body is done generating new life. The last two times I went off birth control, we made a baby in a matter of minutes, but this time I’m becoming fertile again for no reason other than my nostalgia for natural rhythms.
It’s time to go inside. As I unplug my phone, I notice a pink bread tab stuck in the bottom of the cup holder. I pick it up, fiddling it in my fingers, feeling heat rise from my crotch to my cheekbones. Thanks to an off-the-cuff comment in a marriage counseling session, bread tabs became the **token in our sexual economy, and they appear EVERYWHERE. My husband and I came into the marriage with wildly different intimacy needs, and the chasm between us was widened by pregnancy, and this hang up of mine that my body let me down in childbirth. And so, for our tenth anniversary we gave ourselves the gift of marriage counseling. We worked on boundary issues (his), control issues (mine), rejection issues (his), control issues (mine) and tried everything from assigned sex days (**Fucking Tuesday, you choose the inflection) to, somehow, bread tabs. If he handed me one before six pm, I could accept or decline. If I accepted, I was committing to sex that night, even if I just wanted to lie down and sleep. He had the worst timing, handing me a tab the moment I cleared my lap of dogs and kids and inhaled my own space for the first time all day. Other days I would accept, fully intending – wanting — to follow through, and then renege when I was just too tired. I started to throw away every bread tab that came into the house, while he snatched them up from other people’s kitchen counters.
But in the last few months, for the first time in our 15-year relationship, I have initiated intimate encounters almost as often as he has. He blames his vasectomy, convinced it has lowered his libido, a dose of emasculation good for our marriage, not so good for his ego.
I credit the two months I spent in bed recovering from surgery on my broken leg, relinquishing control of the household. All fall, I listened to my husband getting the kids up and out the door every morning, working with the babysitter to keep us fed and cared for, running the show with a strength and grace I had never seen in him – never ever allowed him to show me, with my relentless gathering in of every important and trivial detail of running our home. So we fell into some twisted version of ourselves, a partnership that worked, in its way, but that wasn’t true. Even after three years of marriage counseling, open and honest counseling, where we cut incredible paths back toward each other, there remained an impenetrable thicket when it came to sex, and we surrendered to this as a truth of our marriage.
As I lay there throughout my recovery, incapable of anything more tangible than being present, I watched my husband step up and in, not as a father, because he’s been an incredible dad since day one, but up and in to a confidence and competence that I am ashamed to say I may have been unwilling to see. And it’s sexy.
I smile and put the little pink piece of plastic back in the cup holder, thinking I should hand it to him later. Letting the flush move through me, I climb out of the car and walk across the sunny parking lot into the clinic.
As it happens the midwife is wonderful, finds the IUD string with nothing more invasive than an oversized Q-tip, and sends me off with a warning that, with the device removed, I could start bleeding at any time, there’s no way of know where I am in my cycle, and I spot a bit over the next couple days. On Sunday, my husband texts me while I’m out in the studio — ** Black underwear days. Our daughter has started her period again, and he’s digging through the bathroom drawers to find all the blood-absorbing Thinx panties, making sure they’re stocked and clean for her week ahead. I make sure they don’t need me, and step outside to pee in the woods. Whoops! Seems my body has noticed the IUD is gone, and I’ll be bleeding with my girl this week. Better dig out the Diva cup and remind myself how this whole process works. It’s been awhile.
Abby Braithwaite lives in Ridgefield, Washington, where she sometimes writes from a converted shipping container in the woods overlooking the family farm. Her essays on parenting, escape, and disability have been published in the Barton Chronicle, the Washington Post and the Hip Mama blog, as well as a handful of non-profit newsletters. She shares her home with her husband and two children, and whoever else is passing through