For my mother and two older sisters, moving into motherhood was like moving into a new neighborhood. They picked out houses they liked, ones that came with a husband and children, set up the furniture, and settled down to get to know the neighbors. All three of them moved into that neighborhood before they turned 20.

I thought that one day I would move in there, too. Whenever I wanted to. Every woman I knew did; and there seemed to be a house for everyone.

One month before I turned 30, I finally said, “I do.” For the first year of my married life, I used a form of birth control because I thought I was in control of having babies.

Yesterday I wrote about the shame I felt because I couldn’t get pregnant. I felt like a failure. My husband tried to talk me out of both of those emotions; so did a counselor. It didn’t make sense to be so overwrought. My mind grasped that, but my emotions had their own reasons; on the surface, they seemed illogical, but they weren’t.

Underneath the shame and sense of failure, I had a deeper wound. One I couldn’t talk about or explain because I didn’t have words for it. I rummaged around in my heart and found something I couldn’t identify. I didn’t have enough light to see properly and when I tried to drag it out. I couldn’t: it was too big and all the edges seemed too sharp for me to grasp.

In the third year of my struggles, my husband and I went to visit my oldest sister and her family in Georgia. Mother lived with them at the time. I have no recollection of what we did or said that first day. We were never close the way some mothers and daughters are. I found fault with almost everything she did and had little patience with her. She, on the other hand, was always kind and did her best to please me. I found that especially irritating. I knew nothing of her pain, nor cared to know, but that day I must have seen truth flicker for just a moment in her glance or in her words. It was just the amount of light I needed.

That second day I told my mother I wanted to talk to her alone. We went into her bedroom and sat on the bed. I didn’t know yet what I would say because I still couldn’t articulate what I felt. When I opened my mouth, these words came out, “You never wanted me, did you?”

She gasped for air and broke down crying. We held each other for several minutes before she could speak.

“You were such a hard baby,” she said. “I didn’t want to get pregnant again so quickly, but your father was thrilled that were going to have another child. Of all my children, you were the smallest, but I had the hardest time with you. It was like you didn’t want to be born. And then you cried all the time, and I never felt like I could comfort you. Even though I loved you, it seemed like you didn’t want me.”

I don’t remember how long we cried; somehow the words and tears washed away years of hurt. It sounds impossible, even to me, but it’s true. From that day, our relationship radically changed.

Our lives are full of mystery. My mother carried shame and grief for a child she had; I carried mine for the child I never had. She needed me to say the words that could not tell herself; I needed to say the words so I could heal myself. My hard words released both of us that day. Sometimes words can do that.





You stand before a vast, empty country, the land taut and pinned to the horizon. You measure your journey in months, believing the mirages, imagining fruit-laden trees. Before you, emptiness; behind you, the bones of your hope, bleached white by the unblinking sun. Blistered by grief, you drink shame; it burns your throat.


Your womb refuses life; it is the tomb of lost children. A dozen die each year. You see their blood and weep.


Reason tells you that giving birth is not a measure of your worth. You are still a woman. You listen politely, go home and drown yourself in tears. You curse the moon.


At the store, you wander the aisles, fill your basket high with food; some hungers can be filled. A woman, great with child, walks by, smiles at you, as if the two of you shared a secret. You leave the basket; someone will come by later and empty it. You must leave quickly, before the wailing starts, before you rock yourself to silence.


You do not know the secret.


After the silence, you rage, scorch earth and heaven with your anger. You tend the fire of hatred and burn yourself.


In the times before this, when your body kissed your lover, you shut the door to time. Now you line the walls with calendars, watch the clock, measure love by numbers, as if there were a recipe for life.


You give yourself to doctors, learn the humiliation of need, fail, and try until you are tired of dying like this.


One night after some years have passed, you hear the soft whimper of a child, and rise to hold her in your arms. Standing before the window, you see the full moon and smile. You never learned the secret, and yet your arms are full, too.


Another woman, in a different place, rises from her sleep and stands beneath the moon. Her hands search beneath her breasts and feel the emptiness beneath her heart, where a child once slept. That child sleeps now in the arms of the barren woman.


On dark nights when the moon empties itself of light, you think of the woman who shared her secret. You weep for the moon and the woman. You, too, know something of emptiness.