Consider This is a column focused on how important elements of a woman’s life look in single life and in marriage. This week, we’re considering how we experience our bodies and fertility as single and married women—with and without children. One single woman, one married woman with children, and one married woman without children have written essays, to be published on different days. On a fourth day, they respond to each other’s experience. Read the reflection from a married woman without children here.
“How important is it to you to keep your fertility?”
I had been expecting this question. A week earlier a CT scan had revealed a large tumor called a fibroid growing in the wall of my uterus. Fibroids are benign (thank goodness!) tumors made of muscle tissue that grow inside, in the wall, or on the outer surface of the uterus. They are very common, affecting perhaps 40 to 80 percent of women. Fibroids are not a big deal until they are. They can be asymptomatic, or they can cause a host of problems from abdominal and lower back pain to bleeding and cramps to miscarriage and infertility. In my case, the darn thing had gotten so big that it was sealing my bladder shut. I will leave the rest to your imagination.
In the week between my diagnosis and my appointment with a specialist to discuss treatment options, I received a crash course in fibroids. I had learned that they are very treatable, with treatment options ranging from medicine to myomectomy (removal of the fibroid) to hysterectomy (removal of the uterus).
Hence the question about fertility goals from the OB-GYN resident taking down my information at this appointment. I was expecting it, but I still wasn’t sure what my answer was.
I should backtrack and say, all of this happened just a few weeks before my thirty-fifth birthday. I am not married and have no children and, by and large, this has not been a great tragedy of my life. I am happily ensconced in a rich community of friends and family, which includes many children. And I have never had that deep desire to be a mother that many other women I know have experienced. At thirty-four and eleven-twelfths, I had come to terms with the fact that I might not—likely would not—have biological children.
So why couldn’t I muster my best Clark Gable and blithely reply to the resident with her clipboard, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn”? If I had no plans for future children, why should I care whether I kept fertility?
What is this body good for?
My body—including my fertility—is not something I had ever spent much time thinking about. I never had to. On the one hand, this is because nothing had ever gone spectacularly wrong with my body. Excepting the occasional cold or broken bone, my body had hummed along for three and half decades requiring little more than standard maintenance, the bodily equivalent of an oil change and tire rotation.
On the other hand, as far as I was concerned, my body also had never done anything spectacularly impressive that would merit attention or appreciation. Like, Simone Biles’ floor routine, for example. Or, the singular feat of endurance, strength, and courage that belongs to women alone: growing a child and giving birth.
I have been a regular if reluctant runner since college, and over the years, I’ve pushed myself to run farther and faster. A couple of years ago I even ran a marathon. But as often as not, running leaves me not impressed by my body, but dissatisfied or annoyed with it for not being faster or stronger. What’s more, even when a run goes really well, the sense of accomplishment I feel is not so much about what my body has done, but rather, what I have done to my body or in spite of it. It’s about discipline, exerting mind over matter, pushing my body to run just a mile or two more, when it casually suggests that a leisurely walk might be just the thing on this sunny morning.
I don’t want to give you the impression that I hated my body. Except for maybe a year in high school, I did not. I just never thought about it as fearfully and wonderfully made. Instead, I viewed my body as the hapless scapegrace—always trying to weasel its way out of hard work—with which I had been saddled. It was the metaphorical Pinky to my literal brain, as together we tried to take over the world.
The faithfulness of the body
Now something had gone wrong. Not spectacularly wrong, but wrong enough to require my sustained attention. What surprised me was the respect I began to feel for my body in response. When the doctor told me the tumor was the size of a grapefruit, I was . . . impressed. Not that my body had grown a tumor that could win a prize at a state fair, but that it had lugged the thing around for who knows how long while hardly breaking stride.
I know that my response is conditioned by the fact that this tumor was benign and very treatable. Under other circumstances, I can imagine I might have felt betrayed by and angry at my body, as if it had been quietly plotting against me. But instead, I wondered at the fact that my body had simply carried on the business of living in a workmanlike way under very pressing circumstances (if you’ll excuse the pun). I began to appreciate the other quietly extraordinary things my body does, from my heart beating every second of every day to the fact that for more than two decades my body has each month prepared itself to be a home for a child—and helps regulate my mood and strengthens my bones in the process!
“I think I’d like to hold on to it, if I can,” I ended up telling the resident. Maybe there’s a part of me that is not ready to completely close the door on the possibility of children. But mostly, I think it was just that I’ve come to admire my body and the quiet but spectacular feats it accomplishes as a matter of course. I will never achieve Olympic glory, and I may never have children. But my body is fearfully and wonderfully made. A few weeks later, I had surgery to have the fibroid removed. And a month after that, my period started again. I was flooded with gratitude and affection for my body’s faithfulness and strength.
In Wind, Sand, and Stars, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry recalls his career as a French aviator, and he tells the story of a fellow pilot who had crashed and been stranded in the Andes mountains for a week. His friend described how his heart almost gave out:
All of a sudden my heart conked. It hesitated. Started up again. Beat crazily. . . . I stayed and listened to myself. Never, never in my life have I listened as carefully to a motor as I listened to my heart. . . . I said to it: “Come on, old boy. Go to work. Try beating a little.” That’s good stuff my heart is made of. It hesitated, but it went on. You don’t know how proud I was of that heart.
I grant the comparison is a stretch. An outpatient surgery is no near-death experience. But I do share his sentiment. I am proud of my body for its ability to simply go to work. That’s good stuff my body is made of.