“Man, I ain’t changed, but I know I ain’t the same…”– Jakob Dylan
Around our apartment, Arthur and I have a lot of photos scattered here and there, with a fair number clustered in our den on the bookshelves. They generally span the sixteen years we’ve been together. There’s a prom photo here, one from our college graduation there, and of course, our wedding. There are also photos at friends’ weddings or family events. In most of them, I’m smiling, long curly hair hanging down, staring out of the frames.
If you were somehow standing in the den, looking at these photos, and then turned to look at the woman sitting at the desk, you’d probably notice some changes. The long hair is gone. Even only around one to two inches long, however, it’s still curly and dark as ever. There’s a large tattoo on my right back shoulder, a motif of cherry blossoms and lines from a favorite Longfellow poem. The once clear skin has been ravaged by PCOS and hormone induced acne since we started trying to conceive. There’s a wrinkle between my eyebrows that definitely wasn’t there before. I’m still tall at almost five foot ten inches, and my weight varies, but remains in roughly the same range.
When I was 28, I cut off just over two feet of my hair. I’d worn it the same way since I was in high school, and ten years later, I had discovered the odd phenomenon of being slightly startled by my reflection in the mirror. The woman who stared back at me wasn’t the image I had of myself in my head, but the changes were so subtle that I’d almost miss them until I’d catch some sort of unanticipated glimpse and think, who is this woman? So I bowed to the fact that I was, in fact, changing. I remember staring at my reflection after the stylist finished and feeling a distinct sense of satisfaction. Finally, I had stepped into and fully embodied this person I had been catching in the mirror for months.
Slowly figuring out who I would be if I am never to become Mother, Mommy, Mama, has had that similar sense of unreality, of surprise, of discovering that I don’t fit the dimensions I always imagined myself in. It’s not until we started realizing that something we took for granted may not come to life outside of our own thoughts that I found all the sticky handprints of small children over so many decisions. There are Cheerios gathering dust in the corners, an illicit doodle on one of the walls when I examine how we chose where to live, jobs, hours, even the cars we drive.
It’s almost, at times, more bewildering than it is painful as the enormity of just how much we invested in the idea that we would have children if we wanted them starts to settle in. Certainly, we’ve spent the past two years engulfed in the all-consuming wave first of trying to conceive, then testing, then treatments, but even years prior to that, we were making decisions with our seemingly-far-off-someday-maybe children vaguely hovering around the periphery.
In confronting those ways we’ve made our lives around the idea of having children, I’ve been startled again to find those subtle changes, the difference between who I was then and who I am now. Even if the next IVF works, even if we have a child or children, I can’t go back to being that woman I was before treatment and diagnosis.
So instead, I sort of tiptoe around myself, taking nothing for granted. I taste foods and ask myself if I’m eating it out of habit or if I still really enjoy the flavor. I look at relationships and how they have changed, if they still are a part of who I am now, not merely nostalgic. I think about what kind of schooling I would pursue if we have no children, how children would affect that decision. How the pieces of our marriage fit together. Do I still like the same books?
Who is this woman? This time, there are no dramatic changes to make, no long hair to cut off to somehow make me more comfortable with this person I’ve become. Just time, slowly moving forward, discovering who she – I – is.