When you were the size of a poppy seed, I sat in the bathroom of a Boston hotel room and peed on a stick I’d bought from an elderly man at a drugstore near Fenway Park. I laid the plastic on the cold tiles and waited for it to tell me if you existed. I wanted you to exist so badly. It had been a year of chipper emails from my fertility app, asking if I’d had sex on the right nights, and a year of sunken hearts whenever I spotted blood: at work, at home, in a sandy bathroom on a chilly beach just north of Morro Bay. Each rusty stain took away the narrative I’d spent the past few weeks imagining—that this would be the month I found out I was having a baby. My body kept reminding me that it controlled the story. But then, there you were.
A week later, I sat in a movie theater and watched aliens hatch from their human hosts in a spaceship mess hall. Their dark, glistening bodies broke open rib cages and burst through the torn skin. An evil robot was obsessed with helping them survive. When the captain asked him, “What do you believe in?” the robot said: “Creation.” This was just before the captain’s chest ripped apart to show its own parasite baby: horrific, beetle-black, newly born.
When a nurse asked me to step on a scale at my first prenatal appointment, it was the first time I had weighed myself in years. Refusing to weigh myself had been one way to leave behind the days I’d spent weighing myself compulsively. Standing on a scale and actually wanting to see that I’d gained weight—this was a new version of me. One of the oldest scripts I’d ever heard about motherhood was that it could turn you into a new version of yourself, but that promise had always seemed too easy to be believed. I’d always believed more fully in another guarantee—that wherever you go, there you are.
When I was a freshman in college, I walked into my dorm-room closet every morning to step on the scale I kept hidden there. It was embarrassing to starve myself, and so for the ritual of weighing I retracted into the dark, out of sight, tucked into the folds of my musty winter coats. Since my growth spurt at 13, it seemed like I’d been looming over everyone. Being tall was supposed to make you confident, but it just made me feel excessive. There was too much of me, always, and I was always so awkward and quiet, failing to earn all the space I took up.
In the years since those days of restriction, I have found that usually when I try to articulate this to people—I felt like I wasn’t supposed to take up so much space—they understand it absolutely or not at all. And if a person understands it absolutely, she is probably a woman.
Those hungry days were full of Diet Cokes and cigarettes and torch songs on Napster; a single apple and a small allotment of crackers each day; long walks through frigid winter nights to the gym and back again; trouble seeing straight as dark flecks crowded the edges of my vision. My hands and feet were always cold. My skin was always pale. It was as if I didn’t have enough blood to go around.
During my pregnancy, 15 years later, my gums bled constantly. I thought I’d heard a doctor say it was because my body was circulating more blood—four pounds more of it—to satisfy the tiny second set of organs. This extra blood swelled me. It heated me. My veins were feverish highways, thick with that hot red syrup, flooded with necessary volume.
When you were about the size of a lentil, I flew to Zagreb for a magazine assignment. As our plane banked over Greenland, I ate a huge bag of Cheez-Its and wondered if this was the week your brain was being forged, or your heart. I pictured a heart made of Cheez-Its beating inside me, inside you. Much of that first trimester was spent in awe and terror: astonished that a tiny creature was being gathered in my inner reaches, petrified that I would somehow knock you loose. What if you died and I didn’t know it? I obsessively Googled miscarriage without bleeding. I kept my hand over my abdomen to make sure you stayed. You were my bouquet of cells, my soft pit of becoming. I cried when I found out you would be a girl. It was as if you had suddenly sharpened into focus. The pronoun was a body forming around you. I was a body forming around you.
When I told my mom I was flying to Croatia, she asked me to consider staying home. “Take it easy,” she said. But she also told me that when she was five months pregnant with my oldest brother, she’d swum the length of a bay in Bari while an elderly Italian man, worried, followed her the whole way in his rowboat.
On our plane to Zagreb, a toddler cried ahead of us, and then another toddler cried behind. I wanted to tell you, I know these wailers are your people. I wanted to tell you, The world is full of stories: the men in hand-knit yarmulkes who had delayed our takeoff for an hour because they wouldn’t sit next to any women; the man across the aisle who’d stabbed himself with a blood-sugar needle right after eating his foil-wrapped square of goulash, who watched the little icon of our plane creep over the dull blue screen of the North Atlantic. Who could know what he was dreaming? What beloved he was flying toward? I wanted to tell you, Baby, I’ve seen such incredible things in this life. You weren’t a baby yet. You were a possibility. But I wanted to tell you that every person you’d ever meet would hold an infinite world inside. It was one of the only promises I could make to you in good conscience.
When I was starving myself, I kept two journals. One tallied the number of calories I consumed each day. The other described all the food I imagined eating. One notebook was full of what I did; the other was full of what I dreamed of doing. My hypothetical feasts were collages made from restaurant menus and saturated with the minute attention of desperation: not just mac and cheese but four-cheese mac and cheese; not just burgers but burgers with melted cheddar and fried eggs; molten chocolate lava cake with ice cream pooling around its gooey heart. Restricting made me fantasize about the possibility of a life where I did nothing but eat. I didn’t want to eat normally; I wanted to eat constantly. There was something terrifying about finishing, as if I had to confront that I hadn’t actually been satisfied.
In those days, I filled my mouth with heat and smoke and empty sweetness: black coffee, cigarettes, mint gum. I was ashamed of how desperately I wanted to consume. Desire was a way of taking up space, but it was embarrassing to have too much desire—in the same way it had been embarrassing for there to be too much of me, or to want a man who didn’t want me. Yearning for things was slightly less embarrassing if I denied myself access to them, so I grew comfortable in states of longing without satisfaction. I came to prefer hunger to eating, epic yearning to daily loving.
But during pregnancy, years later, the ghost of that old skeletal girl sloughed off like a snakeskin. I moved toward chocolate-chip muffins of unprecedented size. At the coffee shop near my apartment, I licked the grease from an almond croissant off my fingers and listened to one barista ask another, “You know that girl Bruno was dating?” She squinted at her cellphone. “I know she’s pregnant, but … what the fuck is she eating? Horses?”
It took me five or six months to show. Before that, people would say: “You don’t look pregnant at all!” They meant it as a compliment. The female body is always praised for staying within its boundaries, for making even its sanctioned expansion impossible to detect.
When you were the size of a blueberry, I ate my way through Zagreb, palming handfuls of tiny strawberries at the outdoor market, then ordering a massive slice of chocolate cake from room service back at my hotel, then inhaling a Snickers bar because I was too hungry to wait for the cake to arrive. My hands were always sticky. I felt feral. My hunger was a different land from where I’d lived before.
As you grew from lime to avocado, I ate endless pickles, loving their salty snap between my teeth. I drank melted ice cream straight from the bowl. It was a kind of longing that did not imply absence. It was a longing that belonged. The word longing itself traces its origins back to pregnancy. An 1899 dictionary defines it as “one of the peculiar and often whimsical desires experienced by pregnant women.”
When you were the size of a mango, I flew to Louisville to give a talk and got so hungry after my daily vat of morning oatmeal that I decided to walk to brunch, and got so hungry on the walk to brunch that I stopped on the way for a snack: a flaky slice of spanakopita that stained its paper bag with islands of oil. By the time I got to brunch, I was so hungry that I couldn’t decide between scrambled eggs with biscuits, or sausage links blistered with grease, or a sugar-dusted stack of lemon pancakes, so I got them all.
This endless permission felt like the fulfillment of a prophecy: all those imaginary menus I had obsessively transcribed at 17. Eating was fully permitted now that I was doing it for someone else. I had never eaten like this, like I ate for you.
When I was living on crackers and apple slices, I didn’t get my period for years. It made me proud not to bleed. The absence lived inside me like a secret trophy. Blood leaking out of me seemed like another kind of excess. Not bleeding was an appealing form of containment. It was also, quite literally, the opposite of fertility. By thinning my body, it was as if I’d vanquished my physical self. Starving myself testified to the intensity of my loneliness, my self-loathing, my simultaneous distance from the world and my hopeless proximity, a sense of being—at once—too much and not enough.
When I got pregnant at the age of 24, a few years after I started getting my period again, I saw the telltale cross on the stick and felt flooded not by fear or wariness—as I’d imagined—but by wonder. I was carrying this tiny potential life. Even as I knew intellectually that I would get an abortion, I still felt a sharp rising lift of awe in my gut. That awe planted something deep inside me, a tether. It said: Someday you’ll be back.
It was only after I’d gotten the abortion that I started to notice babies on the street. Their little faces watched me from their strollers. They had my number. It wasn’t regret. It was anticipation. I’d been magnetized. I didn’t want to hold other people’s babies; I just knew that I wanted eventually to hold my own—wanted to watch her bloom into consciousness right in front of me, apart from me, beyond me; wanted to be surprised and mystified by a creature who had come from me but was not me.
During the year I spent trying to get pregnant, a decade after my abortion, my friend Rachel told me about watching her infant son have a febrile seizure. Her description of her own terror was humbling. It wasn’t something I could fully understand. I’d always resisted the idea that parenting involves a love deeper than any love you’ve ever felt before, and some part of me wanted to give birth just so I could argue against that belief, just so I could say: This love isn’t deeper, just different. But another part of me knew it was possible I’d simply become another voice saying: There is no love as deep as this.
Once I finally got pregnant, my gratitude was sharpened by the wait. My body had decided to bestow this little purse of organs when it could have just as easily withheld it. This second heartbeat was nothing I could take for granted. After my first ultrasound, I got on the subway and looked at every single passenger, thinking, You were once curled up inside another person.
As you grew to the size of a turnip, then a grapefruit, then a cauliflower, I wanted to build you from joy: summer rainstorms and fits of laughter; the voices of women in endless conversation. With my friend Kyle, I swam naked in a pool at night, under eucalyptus trees shushing in the hot breeze, while your kicks swelled under my skin like waves. With Colleen, I drove to a rickety old house perched on a hill above a post office, where rattling trees tapped our windows. By lamplight, we ate eggs with bright-yellow yolks. She left the sink full of their broken shells, just as she had when we lived together, after both our hearts had been broken.
In Los Angeles, your grandmother had a Cameroonian refugee staying with her. What can I say? This was hardly surprising. It made me clench my fists with longing, how much I wanted you and your grandmother to have a thousand years together in this world, nothing less. My hunger for my mother during pregnancy was like my hunger for fruit, for a second Snickers bar, for the scrambled eggs and the sausage links and the lemon pancakes. There was no bottom to it. She told me she could still remember looking at the snow piled on the branches outside the window of her doctor’s office when he told her I would be a girl, as if all her longing had gathered on those branches—impossibly beautiful, utterly ordinary.
I wanted to give you the best parts of my love for your father—how we rented a house in a tiny town in northern Connecticut, that summer I was pregnant with you, and lay on a big white bed listening to the wail of the trains and the patter of rain on the creek and imagined it falling on the blue tarp covering the hot-dog stand across the road. We ate hamburgers at a roadside shack and swam in Cream Hill Lake, where the teenage lifeguards almost kicked us out because we weren’t members. We barely deserved that deep blue water, those shores thick with trees, those wooden buoys dappled with sunshine. We’d had our whispered resentments, our nights of fighting. But I want you to picture us there: our voices bantering, our laughter entwined. I want you to know you were built from medium-rare meat and late-afternoon light.
When I finally got treatment, it gave me a sudden, liquid thrill to glimpse the diagnosis written on one of my medical forms: eating disorder. It was as if there was finally an official name for how I felt—the sense of inadequacy and dislocation—as if the words had constructed a tangible container around those intangible smoke signals of hurt. It made me feel consolidated.
The psychiatrist who diagnosed me wasn’t interested in that consolidation. When I told her about being lonely—probably not the first college student to do so—she said, “Yes, but how is starving yourself going to solve that?” She had a point. Though I hadn’t been trying to solve the problem, only express it, maybe even amplify it. But how to translate these self-defeating impulses into the language of rational actors? I’d failed to justify the disorder with a Legitimate Reason, like failing to supply a parent’s note excusing my absence from school.
For 15 years after that appointment, I kept looking for that note. I kept trying to explain myself to that doctor, kept trying to purge my shame about the disorder by listing its causes: my loneliness, my depression, my desire for control. All of these reasons were true. None of them was sufficient. This was what I’d say about my drinking years later, and what I came to believe about human motivations more broadly: We never do anything for just one reason.
The first time I wrote about the disorder, six years after getting help, I thought if I framed it as something selfish and vain and self-indulgent, then I could redeem myself with self-awareness, like saying enough Hail Marys to be forgiven for my sins. I still thought of the disorder as something I needed to be forgiven for.
When I submitted that early jumbled attempt to a writing workshop, another graduate student raised his hand during the discussion to ask if there was such a thing as too much honesty. “I find it incredibly difficult to like the narrator of this essay,” he said. I found his phrasing amusing, the narrator of this essay, as if she were a stranger we could gossip about. It was my first nonfiction class, and I wasn’t used to the rules of displacement—all of us pretending we weren’t also critiquing one another’s lives. After class, the same man who’d found it difficult to like my narrator asked me if I wanted to get a drink. In my head I said, Fuck you, but out loud I said, “Sounds great.” The less you liked me, the more I wanted you to.
By getting pregnant, it seemed as if I had finally managed to replace “the narrator of this essay”—a sick girl obsessed with her own pain, difficult to like—with a nobler version of myself: a woman who wasn’t destroying her own body, but using her body to make another body she would care for. A stubborn internal voice was still convinced that the eating disorder had been all about the “I,” all about whittling myself to the shape of that tall rail. Now pregnancy promised a new source of gravity: the “you.” Strangers smiled at me constantly on the street.
At my ob-gyn, once a patient was pregnant, she got to ascend to the second floor. I no longer visited the regular gynecological suites on the lower level. I got to glide up an atrium staircase instead, destined for ultrasounds and prenatal vitamins, leaving behind those gonorrhea tests and birth-control prescriptions—as if I were advancing to the next level of a video game, or had earned a ticket to the afterlife.
By the time you were the size of a coconut, I was audibly huffing my way up the subway stairs. My belly was a 20-pound piece of luggage I carried everywhere. My ligaments stretched and snapped, painful enough to make me gasp. Each evening, my legs were overcome by a maddening fidgeting sensation, something my doctor would call “restless legs syndrome.” At a movie one night, I kept compulsively crossing and recrossing them, unable to hold still, so I left the theater to sit in a bathroom stall for 10 minutes. My legs jerked and stretched as if they were being commanded by someone else, as if the tiny being inside had already taken control.
When I was in the middle of a three-month-long cold, my mother chided me for refusing to alter the pace of my life. “I know you don’t want to disrupt your plans,” she told me, “but there will be a point when you won’t have a choice. You will go into labor, and your plans will be disrupted.” It was what I was most afraid of—being disrupted. It was also what I craved more than anything.
In a way, I was grateful for the physical difficulty of my third trimester. It made me feel like I was doing my job. During the first few months, when morning sickness hadn’t shown up, it had been like failing to cry at a funeral. Wasn’t I supposed to feel my boundaries flooded by pregnancy? Wasn’t I supposed to hurt? Wasn’t that Eve’s original punishment? I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children.
Some part of me craved pain as proof that I was already a good mother, long-suffering, while another part of me wanted to reject hardship as the only possible proof of devotion. I’d been so eager to fall in love with pregnancy as a conversion narrative, promising to destroy the version of myself who equated significance with suffering and replace her with a different woman altogether—someone who happily watched the numbers on the scale grow bigger, who treated herself well, and focused on her baby, and devoted herself wholly to unconflicted calories and virtuous gratitude.
But as it turned out, pregnancy wasn’t a liberation from prior selves so much as a container holding every prior version of myself at once. I didn’t get to shed my ghosts so fully. It was easy to roll my eyes at people saying, “You don’t look pregnant at all,” and harder to admit the pride I felt when I heard it. It was easy to call my doctor absurd when she chided me for gaining five pounds in a month (rather than four!), and harder to admit that I’d honestly felt shamed by her in that moment. It was harder to admit the part of me that felt a secret thrill every time a doctor registered concern that I was “measuring small.” This pride was something I’d wanted desperately to leave behind. I worried that it was impeding your growth, which was really just the distillation of a deeper fear—that I would infect you with my own broken relationship to my body, that you would catch it like a dark inheritance.
When you were the size of a pineapple, I wrote a birth plan. This was part of my birth class, but it was also a species of prophecy: telling the story of a birth before it happened.
The birth-class teacher pointed triumphantly at a model pelvis made of plastic. She said, “People think there’s not that much room for the baby’s head to pass through. But there’s actually a lot of room.” I squinted at the pelvis. Not that much room.
In a way, we all lived toward that pain. It wasn’t just about suffering; it was about knowledge. It was impossible to understand the pain until you’d undergone it. That opacity compelled me. In sorrow thou shalt bring forth children. The pain had been punishment for eating the apple, for wanting to know. Now the pain itself had become the knowledge. Soon I would become someone who had a birth story. I just didn’t know what that story would be. It was understood, of course, that there were no guarantees. Anyone could have a C-section. It cast its shadow across everything. It was what you tried to avoid. The pushing—the labor—was what made the delivery real. That’s the implicit equation I’d absorbed.
In writing my birth plan, I saved my strongest language for the golden hour. That was what they called the first hour after birth, when your new body would rest against mine. The phrase itself sounded like a chiming bell. If I wanted this golden hour, I was told, I needed to insist on it: I would like immediate uninterrupted skin-to-skin contact with her until the first feeding is accomplished, I wrote in my plan. It was like casting a spell. I would bring you into the world. You would live against my skin. You would eat.
When you were larger than a honeydew but smaller than a watermelon, the new year brought a blizzard. It was three weeks before my due date. My doctor was worried you were too small, so she had scheduled another growth scan. I trudged through piles of snow to get to her office in Manhattan, wrapping my arms around the swaddled globe of my belly, around a coat that would not zip, and saying, Mine, mine, mine. My sense of ownership was sharpened by the icy flurry all around me. It was primal.
At her office, my doctor said it was a funny thing about storms—some people believed they made a woman’s water more likely to break. It had to do with the drop in barometric pressure. This seemed like something one midwife might whisper to another in the barn, while the sky filled with clouds, and like a fairy tale it came true that night. I woke at three in the morning, stepped out of bed, and the hot warmth gushed out. My mother’s first birth, with my oldest brother, had also begun this way. It was almost biblical, I told myself: As it was for the mother, so it shall be for the daughter. There was a pleasing symmetry.
My birth-class teacher had recommended going back to sleep if my water broke in the middle of the night, because I would need the rest. I did not go back to sleep. I could not even imagine the version of myself that might go back to sleep. Plus, I still seemed to be leaking. I sat on the toilet with my laptop on my legs and felt the amniotic fluid leave my body while I edited an essay about female rage. When I sent it to my editor, I added at the bottom: “PS: I am in labor.” By the time we took a cab to the hospital the following afternoon, my body was knotting with pain every few minutes as we headed up that glorious stretch of the highway beside the East River, lined by docks and basketball courts and gleaming skyscrapers looming across the water.
The pain meant my body knew what it needed to do to bring you here. And I was grateful that my body knew, because my mind did not. It was now the body’s humble servant, begging with its crudest, truest words: Please do this. I want this more than I’ve ever wanted anything.
After we got to the hospital, I labored through the early evening and into the night. A monitor above my bed showed two lines: my contractions, and your heartbeat. My doctor started to get worried, because when the first line spiked, the second plummeted. That wasn’t supposed to be happening. Your heartbeat always came back up, my doctor said. But we needed to stop it from dropping. It was supposed to stay between 160 and 110. Don’t drop, I willed the graph. Don’t drop. I watched the monitor vigilantly. It was as if I believed I could keep your heart rate above the danger line through sheer force of will. Belief in willpower was another familiar ghost, one of the gospels of my hungry days.
When your heart rate stabilized, it felt like we were working together—you and I—as if you’d heard me calling out, as if you’d felt my stubborn insistence that you be okay settle like a sturdy floor beneath you. The contractions were an exploded version of the hot, twisting cramps I’d felt during the nights following my abortion. But really the pain was exactly like everyone had described it: impossible to describe. Someone had told me to picture myself lying on a sandy beach, that each contraction would be a wave washing over me with pain, and in between those waves my job was to soak up as much warmth as I could from the sun. But very little in that delivery room felt like waves, or sand, or sun. I asked for an epidural: a helicopter that would spirit me away from the shore entirely. Approximately ten thousand minutes passed between my saying “I’d like an epidural” and actually getting one.
Early in my pregnancy, your father told me that his first wife had been determined to have a natural birth. “With you,” he said, “I imagine it being more like, Give me all the drugs you’ve got.” I was indignant, but couldn’t argue. The story of the woman determined to have a natural childbirth felt nobler than the story of the woman who asked for all the drugs right away, just as the story of the pregnant woman felt nobler than the story of the woman who starved herself. There was something petty or selfish or cowardly about insisting on too much control, about denying the body its size or its discomfort.
Around two in the morning—nearly 24 hours after my water broke, following several hours of sweet epidural haze—a nurse I didn’t know came into the room. “What’s going on?” she said. “Looks like you’re having problems with the fetal heart rate.” Her tone sounded accusatory. It was as if I’d been withholding this information.
“What’s wrong with her heart rate?” I said. I thought you and I had managed to bring it up. But when I looked at the monitor, it was just below 110—and dipping further.
Another nurse came in. “Could you use another pair of hands?” she asked, and the first nurse said: “I could definitely use another pair of hands.”
Why do you need so many hands? I wanted to ask, but I didn’t want to distract them from whatever their hands needed to do. More nurses arrived. They told me they needed a better measurement of your heart rate. They stuck a wand inside me. They had me roll onto one side, then the other. They stuck the wand inside me again. They asked me to get on all fours.
“We’re not finding it,” the first nurse said, her voice more urgent, and I wanted to ask: It’s not there? Or you can’t hear it? It was the only question in the world.
Then my doctor was in the room. She told me they were seeing what they didn’t want to see. She said, “Your baby’s heart rate is dropping and it’s not coming up.”
Everything happened very quickly after that: 10 people in the room, 15, many of them rolling me onto a gurney, my legs still paralyzed from the epidural. Your father grabbed my hand. A voice called out, “It’s in the 60s!” And another, “It’s in the 50s!” I knew they were talking about your heart. Then they were pushing me down the hallway on the gurney, running. A nurse fit a surgical cap onto my doctor’s head as she ran.
In the operating room, a man pinched my abdomen and asked if I could feel him pinching. I said I could. He seemed annoyed. I said they should just go ahead and cut me open anyway. He put something else in my IV and the next time he pinched me I didn’t feel anything. My doctor said I was going to feel pressure, not pain. Everything would happen on the other side of the blue curtain, where the rest of my body was.
Your father sat on a stool beside the operating table—worried, in a blue surgical cap—and I watched his face like a mirror, trying to read your fate. It was only when I heard the doctor’s voice say, “Hey there, cutie-pie” that I knew they had opened me up and found you waiting there, ready to be born.
Every birth story is the story of two births: The child is born, and the mother is born, too—constructed by the story of how she brought her child into the world, shaped by the birthing and then again by the telling. My birth plan stayed folded in my hospital duffel bag. It was the story of a thing that never happened.
Instead, a team of doctors separated my mind from my womb with a blue tarp. The hands of another woman reached in to pull you out. My body went from collaborator to enemy. It was no longer laboring; it had failed. It needed to be cut open. The process needed to be saved by other people, because I hadn’t managed it myself. I’m not saying this is the truth about C-sections. I’m saying this is the truth of what I felt. I felt betrayed.
I’d always heard labor described in terms of triumphant capacity, but giving birth to you was a lesson in radical humility. My story was disrupted. My body was disrupted. You arrived and showed me that pain had never been my greatest teacher. You arrived and showed me I’d never been in control. Giving birth to you didn’t matter because my body had been in pain, or because it hadn’t been in enough pain. It mattered because you showed up glistening and bewildered and perfect. You were still part of me. You were beyond me.
If the work of starvation had been as small and airless as a closet, then the work of birth was as wide as the sky. It expanded with all the unknowns of a life that would happen in the body that my body had made possible.
For much of the first hour after you were born, I was still lying on the gurney, asking if I could hold you. Your father reminded me that I was still in surgery. He was right. My abdomen was still gaping open. My body was still shaking from all the drugs they’d given me to numb the things that had gone right, and then the things that had gone wrong.
I didn’t know I would keep shaking for hours. I knew only that your father was pointing to one corner of the room, where they were carrying a tiny bundle to the incubator. One little leg stuck out, impossibly small. My whole body vibrated with the need to hold you. I kept saying: “Is she okay? Is she okay?” The doctors’ hands were in my belly, rearranging my organs—pressure, not pain; pressure, not pain—and then your wailing filled the room. At your surging voice, I heard my own crack open. “Oh my God.”
There you were: an arrival, a cry, the beginning of another world.
This essay will appear in Make It Scream, Make It Burn.