Hope has always been a ubiquitous and elusive character on the inner stage of my life. I admit that mostly, I’ve been quite skeptical of her. Over these past fifteen years, I’ve adopted a vaguely Buddhist view that hope is a form attachment to a certain preferred future; fear’s undeniable and constant companion. It is said that we fear that which we believe will cause us pain, and hope for that which we believe will bring us pleasure. Yet my recent life experience shows it’s not quite that straightforward. This skepticism has been punctuated by momentary glimpses of other ways of relating to or defining hope: the way it has kept so many peoples alive through devastating circumstances of inter-generational trauma and systemic oppression; the occasional definition of hope which unhooks it from the attachment to a particular outcome;* during the time in the months after Rafael died and I had to figure out new ways forward; when we conceived Ramona and I felt hope dart in, briefly.
In my work with The Emergence Network, last year we explored the theme: “Hope in a Time of Hopelessness.” It does feel like a time of hopelessness in our world right now, doesn’t it? I quite frankly do not know if we have an ice cube’s chance in hell of making through this mess. One thing I sense is that we will not survive in tact – we will most definitely be broken apart in the process of transiting through these strange lands. Recently, I find that the only source of hope I feel is simply not knowing. At the end of the day, the only thing I know is that I do not know – cannot know – what might happen in the grand (or even tiniest) scheme of things. There is so much we cannot know or see or touch, let alone make sense of. That is, I think, a strange source of hope. Maybe this is what is meant by “Hope in a Time of Hopelessness” – it’s about abandoning the hope that we will be saved, surrendering to the fact that our fate is to drop the shield of knowing and shape-shift into something we cannot, in the present moment, recognize.
But the hope I’m yearning for right now is of another breed. Not the kind that comes with: “We will never know,” but the kind of hope that I might rest into if I were to have some actual knowing. I long for some omnipotent being to proclaim, definitively: “This will never be! You will never, ever, ever be a mother to a living child.” I’m pretty sure that this is not hope. In fact, it feels like the end of hope, the abandonment of hope. Or maybe… just surrender.
As the moon waxes and wanes these months, I find myself caught up in what I call the torturous cycle of menstrual hope. This is how it goes:
#1. Follicular Phase:
After my period, there’s a time of relaxation. I feel ‘the pressure is off’ and I can live freely. I don’t worry about drinking a beer or eating a ceviche. It’s not as if my grief is gone or that I don’t feel sadness or other intense feelings. But hope, at that time, is a distant haze with no possibility of crystalizing into something real. There is no chance I am pregnant.
#2. Ovulatory Phase:
Then comes the egg! Feelings of possibility and also pressure begin to grow like the moon. I think: maybe this will be the month of magic. I’m not tracking my temperature or checking vaginal fluids, so I just pay attention to the date (which given the insane trajectory of my hormonal life these past years is probably less accurate than I would care to imagine). I try to get in some good sex.
#3. Luteal Phase:
After this, a more tangible seed of hope begins to germinate beneath the dark surface of my psyche. I never tell anyone about it. I feel ashamed of my wanting, ashamed of my hope. But secretly I indulge in the fantasy of being a mother to a live baby someday, somehow. Then, almost suddenly, some seven days into this phase my body and heightened emotional sensitivities (with a tendency toward mega-bitchy) remind me that soon my body will bleed.
Then comes the worst moment of this torturous roller coaster ride: the days of desperate hope. These are the days that I sense at a cellular level that I am definitely NOT pregnant. Yet as long as I don’t see blood, I keep holding on. It does not help that my hormones at this point have me in a tangled, emotional mess. These past months have been worse, because my period has often come “late.” After essentially letting hope die with the gentle cramps and grouchiness, it comes back in those days – meek and a bit ugly. After all, that is how the pregnancies have started: late periods. There are no physiological signs whatsoever that I am pregnant but my mind lets in that tiny sliver of light once more.
It’s a week (and lately more) of feeling like a failure. It’s like coming to the edge of a gaping abyss… standing upon the last vestige of solid ground and staring into the nothingness.
Then, finally, I bleed. I feel so much relief from the torture of not knowing and the same time sadness when I see the red stain on the toilet paper for the first time. It is over. Time to relax, let go. Breathe again.
It is very hard to live in a healthy, positive way when your body and hormones are telling you one thing but your mind – for egotistical reasons – is trying to get you to believe something else. Sometimes I fantasize about using all the baby stuff stored away in the bins in the closet of the extra bedroom. Sometimes I feel scared and question whether or not I really want to be a mom to a living child anyway. Sometimes, I am very cynical and dark: maybe I would be a terrible mother to living children and that’s why both of mine have died. I know that I will never know the why behind any of this. It’s the biggest invitation to sit with the uncertainty that I have ever been offered in my life.
I have wasted innumerable hours pondering future scenarios and plenty of pesos on pregnancy tests in these brief periods of trickstery hope. And I am tired. I sense I need a new way to live into all that I am experiencing.
Then, from an unexpected place I am hit with a clear and somewhat daunting invitation. In the midst of the penultimate phase of this crazy menstrual rollercoaster, I read an incredible new essay by my brother Adebayo called The Allegory of the Pit: Or the Irony of Victory. I recommend reading the whole damn article if you have the time but the important part here has to do with the story of Batman (Bruce Wayne) in the latest film, The Dark Knight Rises. I know nothing about this comic book stuff, but basically Batman is captured and thrown into a pit. Upon first glance, it seems an easy prison to escape from: the sun is shining there above, the sky is blue, there are a series of rock-steps protruding from the walls of the deep well. There’s even a rope to tie around one’s waist in case of a fall while climbing.
Bayo explains, however, that no matter how many times Batman tries to escape the pit, he always comes to one point in the climb where the leap from one rock to the next is just too far and he falls, saved each time by the rope. Until, at last, the spirit of a once imprisoned doctor in the pit tells the superhero that the light he sees is simply false hope taunting him. In order to get out of his prison, he’ll have to befriend his fear. Batman is not afraid of dying, but he is afraid of his own heart, his own emotions… of fear itself (sounds a bit like me some four years ago). So he begins the climb one final time but without the rope around his waist. He must make the leap from being the all-powerful, yet guarded superhero to being just a human being with a heart, unconcerned with attaining victory in the end.
“…the Pit tempts the prisoner to escape: it offers a way out. It says, keep hoping. Look at the bright sky. Leave the cave behind. Come hither. Defeat me. By offering a way out, by illuminating a path of justice, the Pit obscures the entangling relationships (the performative links) that tie the prisoner to its own economy.”
The essay was revelatory to me in some many ways related to my own story of fertility. Here are my three take-away’s.
#1. I must come to know my fear that I will never be a mother to a living baby. And it’s not a coming to know as in a confrontation; it’s a befriending of the fear. Do I know how in the hell to do this? No. But I am committed to figuring it out.
#2. Hope is a trap. Bayo writes this in the piece: “hope ironically strengthens the conditions we want to leave behind.”
There is literally nothing generative that can come out of believing in the hope of a “victorious pregnancy.” Yet I intuit that something else may come through as a result of all this if I become friends with my fear. I’m not sure if it’s a new expression of hope or some kind of faith but this holding on month after month in the face of desperate wanting is NOT working for me or my inner life.
#3. The final insight may be the most difficult one to swallow. And it came to me not only through the Allegory of the Pit, but also as a result of a challenging conversation with my husband. In some ways, it’s related to The Emergence Network core question: “What if the way we respond to the crisis is part of the crisis?” As I shared with my partner about my monthly adventures surfing the tides of hope and feeling quite unsettled with my decision to talk about this, he suggested that perhaps it is my wild and desperate wanting that is making it impossible to have a living child.
It is a bit hard not to get defensive when I hear this (and trust me, I have) but it seems aligned with this bigger idea about there being something in the way that we are being or, more so, something in the kinds of thoughts we think and things we do that actually prevents us from attaining exactly the thing we proclaim to want. It’s definitely related to Batman’s trial in the pit. It is the taunting, hopeful opening above that creates such a deep attachment to escape, to victory. What Batman comes to learn is that it is his very longing that prevents him from attaining freedom. He has to be willing to let go of the idea that he will ever get out of there alive. He has to cultivate his relationship with death, facing it whilst befriending his fear.
I take from the allegory of the pit an invitation to lean strongly into the very real possibility that I will not be a mother to a living child in this lifetime. I have to let that hope die now. It feels counterintuitive to me, but I think it may just be a new kind of intuition.
I was explaining some of this to my therapist the other day. She asked me if I was looking to get pregnant again and was very surprised to learn that I was. I hadn’t mentioned it to her before. On the one hand, I think: DUH! How could I not want to get pregnant again? How could this possibly not be my #1 priority in life right now? (especially given my age). On the other, I realized that there is some of me that is ashamed of this desire. I don’t talk about it with many people and never at length. I suppose that part of my shame comes from feeling that I don’t deserve this. Perhaps part of it comes from the fact that Yeyo and I have such different views about fertility and pregnancy. And some deeper part of it comes from a strange root belief that I shouldn’t have desires or needs at all. My therapist’s advice is to just be aware of the shame and frustration I feel around my fertility, not try to fix it or banish it or make it bad. So, that’s what I’m up to these days: befriending my fear, abandoning hope and noticing my shame. In the end, there is no knowing. No one knows what will happen in the future. Perhaps my greatest ally at the moment is the dark, fertility of the pervasive Mystery that is life and death and everything in between.
* e.g. Vaclav Havel’s definition that “[h]ope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”