May 13, 2009 / Creative Writing
I watched Rebel Without a Cause on TV late one college night when I learned …
March 23, 2020
Remembering my mother, I knew I wanted to be a mother.
I was at a weeklong prayer retreat in the South of France. The first day, I found myself in a small crowd of adults who were all planning to take a vow of silence for the week. I wasn’t sure this was for me. I was just about to go back over to the talking side of the retreat when this warm and funny little nun started explaining silence to us. She asked us to try to be present long enough that a question appeared instead of our search for answers. It had been a difficult year in the campus ministry that I worked with in Germany, and I had come hoping for answers. But her invitation to look for a question instead of an answer strangely made sense to me. I decided to give it a go.
In the stillness of that week, I thought about my husband, our marriage of three years, and my work. I sent my husband a postcard each day because, well, I wasn’t good at not talking. I longed for words, and then I longed for a person. But all I got was time. At some point, there was just more time than words. And then images started to form—memory became my prayer, and I remembered my mother.
My mother brought me to work. She has played the piano in churches since she was sixteen. She loves it—it’s her life’s work. When I was little, a half wall enclosed the piano in the front of our church’s sanctuary. No one could see my mother playing there, which also meant no one could see me. If I were quiet, my mother would let me sit under her piano bench and color. Sitting cross-legged beneath my mother, I saw church up close and at an angle: a red-faced preacher, choir members in brown robes laughing and singing, my mother banging out the hymns of her heart. Yet from my secret spot, all that exuberance somehow felt quiet and safe.
At the retreat, the strange stillness of that long-ago moment met the stillness of our silence. The two became one. I was safe. And a new word grew inside me as I imagined myself becoming my mother, becoming a mother, becoming a woman who creates a still space with her work.
I came home from the prayer retreat and told my husband that I wanted children. Before we were married three years earlier, we were in a long-distance relationship. The questions of where we would live after the wedding had caused a lot of anxiety in our dating relationship. Once we were married, it was nice to give all the questions a rest. We had our answer. We had each other. But I realized I had been avoiding the question of whether we should have children. When I was finally still enough to ask, time gave me a memory. I had found a memory and in that memory a model for how to move forward. It was like remembering something that always was and was always meant to be. Of course I wanted children.
However, when I came home and told Daniel I wanted to have kids, I was still surprised when he responded with, “I love you. Even if we never had kids, I would love you, and life with you would have always been enough. So let’s have kids too.”
That was seven years ago.
Doctors say that so much of infertility is a mystery. They don’t know why some couples can’t have kids. They don’t know why we can’t have kids. This hasn’t been an easy mystery to hold.
A good friend gives me a very detailed fertility book. “You need to know your body,” she says. “Take control. It can be very empowering.”
I imagine for many women this is very empowering. I decide to give the whole thing a go. I am honest with my doctor. I take vitamins. I take my temperature and count out the days between periods. Sex is scheduled. The doctor tells us that if we can do it at least four times in a week that would be great. We naively high five, and it all feels like a fun puzzle that surely we’re capable of solving. But months go by. My body is a chart.
I remember my first visit with my doctor in Germany. I’m trying to be honest, and he can see that I’m nervous. He needs to move me along because he has another patient. So he breaks character and gives me a pep talk. “Remember, you come from pilgrims,” he says. “Those are your ancestors. So you can be brave. You are a pilgrim.”
Well, that’s probably the best pep talk I’m going to get, I think as I undress.
An appendix in the back of the fertility book shows a drawing of a pregnant woman with the following title above: “Where do I come from? A new perspective on a timeless question!” There are various arrows pointing to the woman, and inside the woman, a female fetus, and inside the fetus, fully developed eggs. Underneath, I read that when a woman is pregnant with a girl, the baby already carries the possibility of another woman.1 I imagine my grandmother, mother, and me all present in one body. The science feels a little mystical, but I find myself unable to forget that image: that women hold generations inside of them. That my maternal grandmother held both my mother and me feels like a timeless truth. And it doesn’t feel like time is my enemy.
My mother is pregnant with me when she sees the small felt-based Advent calendar in the craft store. Reindeers and a candy cane, a wrapped box and a Santa Claus, a girl and a boy, a ticker-tape parade all waiting to be cut out and placed in the order of days. She is filled with expectation. She doesn’t know yet: she’s having a girl.
Later she gives the craft to her mother, who gives it to her mother. My grandmother and great-grandmother pass the time cutting and sewing. My dad says he never saw them not working together. Felt, string, sequins, and glue become the main staples in their kitchen. My mom attempts to cut felt figures out for them to sew. A baseball game plays in the background while four generations of women sit and play and dream. I’ll be born in August.
My husband and I decide not to take doctors and calendars further. It’s just not us. Years later, I sometimes wonder if I’ve broken the circle or if—if there’s still the possibility of a new generation inside me. I wonder if that image of my mother playing the piano and me coloring under the bench also contains the possible presence of someone else or if, instead, there is already the presence of a decided no.
To want children and not have children is to miss someone who is not yet. It’s a strange kind of longing. Like being at a party and feeling like you still haven’t found the person you really want to be talking with. Somewhere there’s a woman out there, all fire and curls, I still haven’t met. Or a grown man I would have really liked to have known.
We move back to the United States. Our church life becomes difficult. Without children, there’s not an obvious space where we fit. The life span between college and married-with-kids doesn’t seem to exist. Yet here we are.
A three-year-old girl at a church picnic asks me where my kids are. I tell her I don’t have any. She thinks for a bit. You are like my grandma and grandpa. They also don’t have kids. I try to tell her that her mom and dad are, well, kids. But she’s developed categories. Married people her mom’s age have kids. Thus, I must be like a grandma. I am fine with this.
I wonder if I make other women uncomfortable when they realize I’m approaching my late thirties without kids. We all have categories that lead us to false assumptions about each other. I continually think that women with kids must be older than I am, and they continually think I must be younger than they are. We are both wrong.
I find myself in the basement of a small Lutheran church filled with the busy lives of white suburban women. I’m trying something new in a new place.
The yoga instructor announces that it’s now time for partner yoga. Dear God, don’t let her pick me.
But we can’t avoid each other’s eyes. She almost bounces toward me. “It’s your first time, right?”
“Yes.” Please don’t be my partner.
We hold hands, her right leg against my left. We spread out in a lunge. Intimate.
“So, how many kids do you have?”
“Oh, I don’t have any kids.” I try to smile.
“Oh, I thought but surely—your body shows that you’ve had kids.” She pushes on my leg, trying to work my body into the stretch.
“Well, I haven’t.” Still smiling. I pull and lean.
“Well, you must be pregnant now. I can tell these things.”
“No, I believe you are. Really, I can tell.” She is almost exuberant in her confidence.
Silence. She’s not used to being wrong. I can tell she wants so badly to connect with me.
“Dogs or cats?”
“I have a cat.”
She is once again overjoyed. She prefers dogs, though.
After cooling down, we all lie on our backs. We are to focus on relaxing every muscle. We are to free ourselves from anything that would distract, anything that would entangle us, keep us from rising up from our mats and walking and praising God. We are to not work. Our eyes are closed and in the silence of a Lutheran basement church, there is only one long eternal breath. I remember my mother’s body. I have her hips.
The instructor begins to move around the room. Slowly and wordlessly, she is anointing our heads with lavender oil. When it’s my turn, I know she is praying for me. I know she is praying that I will get pregnant. I can just tell. I wish she wouldn’t. I haven’t asked for this. I haven’t asked for her pity or her oil or her hands on my forehead. I don’t want her prayers. The audacity of her prayers are not about me; they are about her. This is not kind. I try to pray my own prayer over hers, and I am crying. I don’t want there to be a small part of me that wonders if God values her prayers over mine.
For seven years now, my husband and I have kept Sabbath. Originally, we started this practice when we realized we wanted children. We knew we needed to rethink work and time. Having children can be about a forward-thinking view of time. We reproduce versions of ourselves that we hope will outlive us. This can make us feel eternal, less fragile, in control. And work is connected because it too is often about connecting to something larger than ourselves. We produce things, invent, take up space, and make our own little impact on society. We find value in work, and value is tied to doing.
When Rabbi Abraham Heschel wanted to help Jewish families rediscover their Sabbath traditions in the American context, he wrote about time. At the heart of Sabbath is a belief about time, and Heschel knew that a faith practice could change how we relate to God, that changing our relationship to God could alter whether or not we see the world as holy. “Time is holy,” Heschel writes. “There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord.”2 Otherwise we will fear time. We will say things like, “if only I had enough time, I would do this.” In keeping Sabbath, we celebrate eternity by accepting that eternity is both beyond us and present with us. Timelessness has already been planted in us. There’s nothing that we need to do or can do to get more time. We are all already holy.
If God sustains us and loves us in rest, then God can also sustain us and love us in work. Our weeks are about working to change things, but Sabbath is about celebrating what we cannot change. We memorialize our physical limitations and remember we are not God. Yet God gifts us time. With time, we’ve all been invited to do some pretty godlike things. This is grace. And in time, we are all mothers. We are all born to create.
One summer in Germany, we had a garden.
Someone had once paved the backyard of the campus ministry house for a basketball court, but it had decayed and cracked. Nature wanted to reclaim the space, and we had decided not to stop her. But when we removed the cement fragments, we created a large hole in our backyard. If we had any hope of good clean earth for planting, we had to spend weeks removing stones by hand that were too small for a backhoe.
The first time I met Sam, she was sitting in what we had started calling the “pit.” I was walking out the door, putting on my work gloves, when I saw a person I had never seen before. She was all by herself.
Someone had evidently invited her to come work in the “garden” and then gone to get lunch. So there she was, her first time ever at our campus ministry house, in the middle of the pit, doing a job that no one else wanted to do.
I passed her some gloves, and we worked, side by side, picking out stones by hand. That was the moment we became friends.
Sam became a staple of our community. She was always there and always inviting others. She was an outsider who became an insider who brought in other outsiders. Despite being a self-proclaimed atheist, she told us once that we should rename our group the “saving people” or “house of salvation” because we weren’t just a group; we were a community where people got reborn. She had a gift of seeing through things. Like when she saw a pit, she saw a garden.
A year before I leave Germany, I stay out late on the balcony, talking with a close friend. She is pregnant. Everything is about to change, which is maybe why we don’t want to move. The candles are almost out, and we can no longer see our faces. We whisper in the dark, so we won’t wake the neighbors. She asks me what mothering has looked like for me despite not having children. I tell her about Sam and the garden. We’ll have plums in August.
Today, my favorite picture of my mother is one in which the two of us are together, laughing. Mom came to visit me in Germany to see my work. We’re in the backyard with college students. And my mother is laughing so hard. I’ve never seen her laugh like this. My husband takes this picture to show me later that we have the same laugh. And for a second, I get a glimpse of that world that is always there, running beside us, breaking in from time to time. That one where all those secret wishes of the heart finally exist outside of us, and there is no loss. Everything is known, and all is well.
Beth Jarvis is ordained in the Independent Christian Church and holds an MDiv from Emmanuel Christian Seminary. She and her husband now live in Johnson City, Tennessee, where they enjoy hanging out with friends on their back porch.