May 3, 2020

Sweet Child O’ Mine

My twins were born June 22nd in Tbilisi, Georgia by surrogate, the culmination of four years efforts- India, our original choice, banned commercial surrogacy officially in 2017 – during which I started cultivating a sense of moral superiority based on living through unpredictable obstacles.  

We have paid extra for a room with an atrium in the Chachava clinic. The room crackles with keyed up expectancy. There’s a flat screen tv playing the world cup in a corner when my husband- who I nominated to be in the operating theatre for the birth- bursts in, flushed; ‘Girls! We have two baby girls!’  My mother in law, also flushed but with barely disguised exasperation, drops her knitting ‘Now will you tell me their names?’ she holds up a blank square of the blanket she has been working on, ‘I need initials.’ 

On cue, my mind fogs up.  

Names? I didn’t even know the gender of our babies until now. It was all so dreamlike, this period of gestation; while my girls grew in another woman’s womb, they slowly grew in my mind.  

I don’t have names because I never thought I’d have kids. Particularly now, at the biologically geriatric age of 46. 

 Since 16 I’ve grappled with an ambivalent view of procreation, finally deciding in my early 20s to guard myself against breeding: the loss of autonomy implied by maternity and the victory of mustardy diapers over a quest for freedom and self-definition.  

And so I was for years, single and child free by choice. Circumstances in my life propelled me to Bombay at 16 and my life has been shaped by strange and contradictory forces since then. But more than anything I chafed at all the assumptions over the years- you must breed NOW, it will be too late, you’ll regret it! Implicit in these uninvited opinions was: what is a woman who is not occupied with children to do? I decided to be one of the threatening, defiantly untethered women, free to get into all sorts of other trouble because this business of living is messy enough on my own. Motherhood, I believed, contracts and I wanted to expand. 

After years of stockpiling experiences and trying on different selves for size, I was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma at 37, a rare blood cancer. My treatment hurtled me into chemo-induced menopause. A doctor delivered the news mournfully, with a box of tissues, ready at his side. 

‘Well, that’s that. The end of my fertility.’ I thought, clear-eyed with just the faintest tug of regret. So the choice was taken away from me- a choice I never exercised, until years later, when surrogacy gave it back.  

So what changed? Why have I taken such efforts to enter this momentous yet banal and polarizing world of motherhood? After all, having babies is not something you can get over like a religious conversion or a psychotic episode. The child remains long after we return to our senses 

As one who has traditionally hurtled head first into most experiences, this has been my most deliberate decision. It’s an unfamiliar practice for me, but I weighed through all my doubts and conflicting desires: 

They tell you everything will change and nothing will change. 

Now that I’ve travelled everywhere, the final frontier, is perhaps an inner expansion of heart and patience. 

Jason wants to be a father. I love Jason. 

The world is troubled and thrashing and boiling over 

It will be hard work. I know there will be hardships which my current emotional contingencies of chocolate and Netflix won’t solve. 

Perhaps my puppies are longing for interspecies siblings 

My mind tells me otherwise, but I feel maternal.  

Certainly living with a serious disease- a malignancy in my bone marrow- changed my life and gave me a clarity I’ve never experienced before. More than anything, it shook loose from my bones old concepts of who I should be and what my life should look like. After all, even beliefs should be examined and aired out occasionally like linen and diaries. 

That’s how I discovered a discrepancy of desire between what the mind wants and what strange alchemy happens in the heart when you arrive where you didn’t think you want to be to find it’s another sort of home.  

In the beginning when I held my newborn girls (one at a time!) during a feed, I imagined them gazing up shrewdly at me, knowing better than to surrender to anything so far fetched as myself as a mother. But no- I no longer want to defend myself to myself.  

Why limit myself to a chosen identity over a deeply lived experience?  

My babies are helping me trespass into territories of my uncritical self. Sure there’s a divide- motherhood and non motherhood, which I’ve crossed. There is a new habit of the heart when I hear their dolphin sounds, or watch their faces as they startle themselves with epic burps and farts. All the ghosts of all the women I’ve been gather to gaze down at their pumpkin heads and swollen, delicate eyelids. I experience them experiencing everything. 

With my baby girls pressed close along the contours of my own body, there’s a growing edge of my life. I’m not longer ending at the limits of my skin. Where do I end and where do I begin?  

Oh and my babies names? Sufi and Soleil which in combination becomes Souffle.  Served sweet or savory, it’s my favorite dish. 

Originally printed in Harper’s Bazaar India, September 2018


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