Fighting the Tide

A few spoilers for the finale of “How I Met Your Mother”.

A few weeks ago, I sat down with Khaled Hosseini’s newest novel And The Mountains Echoed. The book itself was a prize for the local library’s winter reading program that I’d participated in, and I was excited to see it in the shelf of books to pick from. I’d enjoyed his previous novel A Thousand Splendid Suns and heard good things about his new book.

Every once in awhile, I run across a novel that makes my breath catch and my heart stop. It might be an image, a character, a passage that for just an instant makes me slow down, think, relate. Or it calls out to me in a way I can’t even quite describe, touching on something deep within me, perhaps something I hadn’t even realized was there.

One of the cultural themes I’ve struggled with throughout infertility is the way parenthood – particularly motherhood – is viewed in our culture. I have heard the message many times in different forms: that if you do not parent a child, you are somehow unable to cross over into true adulthood. That having a child is, in so many ways, what makes a person complete. Special. Worthy. Healed.

A recent, excellent example of this particular cultural touchstone can be viewed in the “How I Met Your Mother” finale when perennial playboy Barney Stinson finds himself as a father to an unplanned baby girl with a woman he bedded in a one night stand. Barney couldn’t be changed as he grew older and began to recognize his own destructive behavior. “I’ve banged through every bimbo in the Tri-State area,” he tells his friend Ted at one point, “and it left me feeling nothing but broken”. He couldn’t be changed by marriage or love, as he and Robin break up three years after their wedding and Barney goes back to his former life, even rewriting his infamous playbook.

The only thing that apparently redeems Barney Stinson and causes his true, lasting reform into a decent human being? Becoming a father.

Now, not being a parent myself, I would never, never say that becoming a parent doesn’t change a person. Dear heaven, I hope it does. I also have no doubt plenty of people have cleaned up their lives and become better people for their children. But I am deeply, incredibly wary of the cultural narrative that undergirded that episode and that I’ve seen expressed subtly in other contexts: that having a baby somehow automatically fixes or heals your wounds and flaws as a human being.

When I came across a passage in And The Mountains Echoed it made me catch my breath because it ran so counter to what I describe above. One of the characters says of her mother: “Maman was elegant and talented…But she had also very deep sadness. All my life, she gave to me a shovel and said, Fill these holes inside of me, Pari…But I could not” (p. 382).

Arthur and I want a child with all of our hearts and minds and souls. We want a child with such a deep and powerful yearning that I cannot even put it into words. It is amazingly easy to slip into the idea that if we have a successful pregnancy, if we go on to parent in whatever way that happens, somehow we will be whole only then. Hosseini’s words are a reminder to me to resist the pull, to fight the current, to not fall into the idea of redemption through parenting.

It made me cry because it reminded me so powerfully that no child can ever mend the ugly wounds infertility has inflicted on me. No child can fix the broken places I have. Of course, if we became parents, I have no doubt we would find great joy and possibly some healing within it. But it is destructively unfair to put, even in the smallest ways, such a burden on the tiny shoulders of a child.

Whether or not we ever have a child, my holes are my own to fill.

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