It was just an ordinary moment by the organic bananas in Gerbes. The kind of moment of silence as you pick over the fruit and feel lost in thought about what to make for dinner and decide whether or not you have gotten everything on your list.
Do you like this cart? I heard a young voice say.
Not noticing that I was being addressed, I continued examining the bananas.
Do you like this cart? The little girl said again, pointing at me with her voice.
Are you talking to me? I had noticed her at last. Yes, it’s a fine cart! She was sitting in one of those large wheeled carts from the front of the store or maybe from her mom’s car. I really didn’t pay attention to detail.
Do you have one? She sparkled as she spoke. I noticed her shoulder-length blond hair. She was very friendly.
No, I sure don’t. It is a nice cart, though!
Do you have children? She suddenly queried. Taken aback at the personal inquiry, I looked for her mom. Usually mom’s a step away at a time like this. I thought she would appear to say Now. Now. Let’s not get personal.
No. I sure don’t. Might as well be honest though I thought about making up a story about having three kids, all girls like her only older, having graduated and gotten good jobs.
Why don’t you have children? She asked. I saw that her mom was a short distance away examining the strawberries.
I shrugged and smiled kindly, thinking that would be enough. Don’t take me back there, I thought. I recall many encounters I had had in that very grocery store from women in my English as a Second Language classes in my child-bearing years before I learned the reason why I wasn’t bearing fruit. Some women from other cultures couldn’t understand why I was childless. To many people, bearing children is the most meaningful event in their lives. For others, it is a duty. In most societies, it is expected that people will marry and have children. This is one cultural expectation of theirs that I wasn’t ready for. I hate to say this, but my emotional reactions to these challenges only made more women in my class torment me more intensely about it. Who wouldn’t want those cuddly adorable babies cuddled up to you with unconditional love? And small kids are so cute and entertaining with their words of wisdom and unabashed honesty. How could anyone not love children? Therefore, if you are childless, you must not like children. My students obviously struggled with this. Even people in my own culture didn’t understand.
If you don’t have children, you may be seen as selfish by some regardless of national origin. Even my own mother blurted out one day that people who didn’t have kids were selfish. This statement was only meant to highlight her accomplishment of having seven kids. Still, it made an impression on me as a young girl unaware that she was never to give birth. I knew it was important to be fertile and bear children as part of social expectation along with Why aren’t you married yet? When are you going to give me a grandchild?
These days, because I am retirement age, I am even asked by hair dressers and nail technicians if I have grandchildren. Due to my age, I obviously must have grandchildren. When I reply No, the silence can be like a knife. Some people don’t know how to relate to the childless. I feel like I have to reassure them, I have three cats, though! Or I have tons of nieces and nephews!
Didn’t you ask God for children? The young blond girl asked in a tone that said Simple enough or Let me help you out. She seemed very inquisitive and concerned, even offering a solution, like it is still possible for me to have kids though I’m retired.
What do you say to that? My life circumstances and belief system came together like the perfect storm in my brain. This exchange repeated itself with me just smiling and shrugging my shoulders. OK, Mom, I thought, where are you? Can you kindly take this child to the candy aisle?
Well, you know, some people can’t have kids, I finally said with another kind smile. I felt like an angel trying to placate this young one and let her down gently to the truth.
This reply seemed to work long ago for one woman a former student who just didn’t understand why she had kids and I still didn’t. We were in a different aisle in this very store, maybe the cereal and pancake mixes.
Really, she was very rude, a real bully about it. I don’t know how we got from, How are you doing so nice to see you to Why don’t you have kids? Do you hate kids? Don’t you like children? Her eyes were on fire, and I was stunned.
Between her breaths, I heard her possible frustration with kids, maybe even jealousy that I didn’t have kids. Did I really have to say why I didn’t have kids?
The reason for my childlessness was Diethylstilbestrol (or DES), a drug given to women between 1941 and 1971 in order to prevent problems such as bleeding during pregnancy. I was saddened to learn that the drug had been tested on young girls before it went to market. Still, it was prescribed to pregnant women. Mom felt uncomfortable being given a medication while pregnant and didn’t take it for very long, but the effects grossly deformed my reproductive organs, caused me problems with my monthly cycle, left me sterile, made me an emotional wreck due to hormone issues, and gave me four cancer scares later in life.
It’s ironic that DES, which was given to prevent miscarriages, prevented countless births and ruined the lives of not just women but men. If I had been able to sustain fertilized eggs in my t-shaped uterus, both my male babies and female babies would have also been infertile and would have faced the same effects I did. As bad as my case was due to DES, others’ cases were far worse, including breast cancer, moderate to severe cervical squamous cell dysplasia, spontaneous abortions, preterm deliveries, ectopic pregnancies, to name a few. Due to these ramifications, I was happy my OBGYN was a DES specialist. I was well cared for.
As much as I wanted children, I chose not to go through expensive daily hormone treatments and have my cervix tied to prevent miscarriages. The process was already hard enough on my husband and me. I was also the breadwinner in the family since we depended on my income and couldn’t afford to miss work every day. I certainly didn’t want to face some of the dire consequences of DES exposure throughout a pregnancy. I also didn’t want to pass on the conditions I had suffered from to unwitting children.
Didn’t you ask God? She asked again more pointedly. She was really concerned, having learned that God answers prayers. Her enquiries were innocent but persistent. For a five-year-old, her faith was immense. I heard her embarrassed mother say to her daugher (as she passed by us without stopping), You are silly.
Yes, of course, but…. And I shrugged again.
My brain felt like it was twisting in my skull. Back in the past, I finally tired of the rude challenges and just told the inquisitors why I was childless. I didn’t do it perfectly or with love, sorry to say, but the challenges stopped.
When you go right up to their face as close as you can without eating their nose, and speak firmly and slowly, Be….Cause.…I….can’t….have….chil….dren, they stop. And then they say matter-of-factly, Well, kids can be a lot of trouble! And then they forgive you for being childless. They flip flop as fast as coin being dropped to the surface of a road spins from heads to tails.
I certainly didn’t want to eat this little angel’s face. I really thought I had let go of a lot of the pain. It wasn’t my fault I had fallen victim to Big Pharm “science”. I just wasn’t prepared for this journey back to the past; all I had wanted was a good bunch of bananas. Instead, my life went before my eyes like a near-death experience.
All I could think of, as well, were the things I have missed out on by being childless. The list is so long: the pregnancy, the delivery, the first word, the first step, the first day of school, the graduations, the first job, the first love, the first date, the wedding, the grandchildren….The list goes on. By being childless, I have felt left out when mothers I knew shared their stories about their kids: the birth experiences, the joys, the triumphs, the sorrows.
I have a brother, she suddenly changed the topic just as her mother reappeared.
I have six brothers and sisters, I proudly stated. Her mother gasped.
I don’t believe you! The child said.
It’s true. I have six brothers and sisters!
Suddenly, she was elated. Then you DID have kids!
Yes, very true! I affirmed.
I did help raise my siblings since I was the eldest girl and second oldest of the seven. The “little ones” were all in diapers when the last was born, almost taking Mom’s life, so Mom desperately needed help. One toddler was in the process of being potty trained, two babies were one-year-old twins, and one was the newborn. Because we had no disposable diapers in those days, the laundry had to be washed and folded constantly. All the bottles had to be boiled and sterilized between uses. Mom couldn’t breast feed, so we made formula and later added solid food we would mix up. My sister Martha and I would sit the babies side by side in their seats on the sofa and go down the row with the spoonfuls of food and sips from the bottle in succession.
As young mother’s helpers, my sister and I were not perfect. We still argue over who had pinned one of the twins, Christopher, to his diaper. However, I used to wake the babies up at night just to rock them and hold them. Being 10 years old, I didn’t completely understand that these years would my only time mothering babies. I didn’t realize then that the day the youngest called me Mommy would be the only time any child would.
I suppose this experience at Gerbes affirmed the young girl’s faith in God, for she had seen what I had grown to realize: Blessings don’t always follow time lines.
Copyright © August 23, 2017 Barbara Harris Leonhard
In this picture from left to right: Martha, me holding Earle (the youngest), Cynthia (one of the twins), Monty, and Christopher (the other twin). Not pictured is Grant, the oldest. The four youngest, born 5 years after Martha, were the “little ones”. They were my children for a few years.