Biology & Longing: The New York Times Piece that Started It All

In an earlier post, I explained that this piece, which appeared in the New York Times Motherlode blog, was the catalyst for my book deal:

Biology & Longing

I’ve always respected rationality, mistrusted pure instinct. But when I fell in love with my husband, it was visceral: a deep, other-worldly kind of burn. It was also illogical.

We had spoken just a few, broken words.  I knew none of his native Japanese. While he could read English well enough to earn his Executive MBA in Boston, he was far from fluent. My mother, whose own logical plan for me included a nice Jewish doctor, helpfully pointed out the irrationality of our relationship.  My life was centered on writing and literature—in English. I was left of liberal. How could I possibly marry a traditional Japanese salary-man who barely spoke my language—and who would surely return to Asia, post-MBA?

Almost eight years later, I’m still absurdly in love with him, we still share neither linguistic fluency nor political leanings, and I still cannot logically explain our bond.

A year into our marriage, after numerous tests certifying his reproductive perfection at 36 and my dismal potential at 41, other dissimilarities emerged. I had always been uncertain about kids, but my love for my husband transformed my doubts into a longing for our child—a different kind of other-worldly burn. I had also always believed genetics were irrelevant, that to become related by choice was one of the loveliest human acts. In fact, one of my own parents never bonded with one of my siblings, who found home with a foster family. I knew first-hand that DNA doesn’t equal love.

My husband also deeply wanted a baby—with our genes. When he told me this, it made sense: adoption is very rare in contemporary Japan, where bloodlines are usually held sacred. (When Japanese children are orphaned, they are almost always taken in by extended family. Even donor eggs are banned here.)

My reaction to my husband’s feelings surprised me, though: relief. Once he articulated them, I realized that I too had faith I could love a child if it came from inside him and me, but not necessarily through other means.  My beliefs about genetics, apparently, did not hold up when facing the terrifying leap into parenthood.

Now, after over three heartbreaking years of trying to conceive, two miscarriages, and countless injections to compensate for my poor procreative profile—all endured in Japan, where I barely speak the language—my feelings have not changed, despite frequent prodding by well-meaning loved ones that “perhaps we should just adopt.”

At times, I’m slightly horrified by myself. What kind of person, I wonder, goes to such lengths over DNA? In my harshest moments I think, doesn’t the obsession with genetics underlie some of our worst human catastrophes? If I love my husband—surely no biological relative—so deeply, couldn’t I love an adopted child just as much?

I’ve found comfort from women in my “Over 40 and Trying” online groups who face similar struggles, including much confusion from others over why they “don’t just adopt.” But occasionally, it feels like in these forums, too, there’s an unspoken hierarchy of who’s willing to go the furthest to be a mother. Who’s open to donor eggs, sperm, or embryos? Who will pursue adoption after one failed IUI?

One friend found something similar in the adoption community: are you willing to adopt an older child? Another ethnicity? A special-needs kid? What does it say about you if you’re not?

Another friend explains, it’s just “instinct.” Some people have the instinct simply to parent, with or without a partner; some to birth a baby; some to have a child genetically theirs and their beloved’s.

I don’t know if I’ll ever get to meet our baby.  I have an inexplicable but strong, clear sense that our baby exists, that this is what it has asked us to go through in the effort to meet it, and that this makes it all worth it—even, strangely, if our baby never actually arrives. Perhaps my sense is just the remnants of a heartbeat lost at nine weeks, or of embryos that never grew past the brief first sparks of life. Perhaps it’s just my imagination.

Maybe, in nine months, when I reach the age at which my husband and I have vowed to stop trying, I’ll feel differently. Maybe I just can’t conceive of trying to adopt while trying so hard to conceive. But I don’t think that’s it. My longing, so fierce that sometimes I can barely move, is not necessarily to be a parent in the abstract, but to love and parent our biological child. Irrational? Perhaps. Shame-worthy? Sometimes I think so. But still deeply, instinctually true.

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PS. In case readers are interested, I just posted the pitch that preceded this essay here.

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5 thoughts on “Biology & Longing: The New York Times Piece that Started It All

  1. Lovely post and so meaningful. I wonder if you’ve read Peggy Orenstein’s Waiting for Daisy? It was helpful to me during my own journey and part of her fertility struggle (and miscarriage which she memorializes) take place in Japan. She also write about Japanese prohibitions around adoption. Best of luck to you… no one realizes how much strength it takes to endure the fierce longing of wanting a child and the blinding heartache when you can’t but others who have gone through it. Sending good wishes.

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  2. Thanks for this comment, too, Philomela! I actually have read Peggy’s book, and I loved it. I’ve been in touch with her over email since (mostly about the literary series I run, Four Stories, but also about writing stuff), and she is lovely and a huge support. She continues to write a lot, too, and has some great things to say about gender and raising girls (http://peggyorenstein.com/) .

    And thanks for your kind words of understanding. So funny how the internet allows us to connect with each other in ways both so intimate and so removed. But your warmth shines through…

    So happy to be in touch.

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