“So, which one of you is his birthmother?” a fellow mom asks me outside the elementary school. It’s the second day of kindergarten, and her words snap me out of my reverie. I realize I’m still staring forlornly at the double doors that have just swallowed my son as he filed proudly into the massive building with the rest of his class, his new red backpack bouncing on his back.
She’s trying to figure out our family. When we’d first arrived that morning, my boy had happily greeted her son in recognition – one of his first friends from yesterday – and she didn’t know what to make of me. I’d sensed her giving me the once over while we made small talk, as though she were trying to place me. Then, finally, she’d asked, “Are you his mother?”
“Then who was that other woman with him yesterday, on the playground?”
“His other mom.”
“Oh,” she’d said, clearly startled. “You mean, you’re, like — partners?”
“Yes,” I’d smiled, willing myself to be patient. “Amanda is my wife.” It wasn’t as though she was trying to be rude – her heteronormative assumptions had simply been smashed by my family unit and, to her credit, she was doing her best to take it all in stride. But today, the heaviness of my son’s first proper day of school weighed on my heart, and I wasn’t in the mood to explain my family’s queerness. In fact, at that very moment, I was irritated by the fact that I perpetually have to do so.
And now, the question about my son’s birthmother. I hesitate a beat, wary of where this is going:
“I am,” I say.
“I thought so,” she smiles, knowingly. “I couldn’t help but notice you tearing up as you watched him go in.”
I blanch – was I that transparent?
“I was the same when my daughter started kindergarten,” she gently confides. “It’s so hard when we’ve carried them in the womb.”
I find myself at a loss for words. Clearly, she’s just trying to be sympathetic, wanting to forge a connection with a fellow mother. But she’s unwittingly pushed some major buttons. Yes, watching my son take this crucial step away from me towards independence is heart-wrenching – but his transition into kindergarten has also been really intense for Amanda, his non-biological mom. And having watched queer friends go through the same process with their adopted son a year earlier, I know that it’s equally loaded for adoptive moms, too.
I want to say something, but today I’m just too tired. Today I just want to be left in peace, to deal with own feelings around my son’s fleeting childhood – not deliver a crash-course on Diverse Families 101.
“Don’t worry,” she says, patting me on the arm, completely misreading my silence. “It’s much easier with the second one.”
And now – little does she know it – she’s just run a skewer straight through my heart.
A week before our son started kindergarten, our doctor at the fertility clinic had confirmed that our conception journey was well and truly over. After trying for Number Two for over three years, it was time to get off the fertility rollercoaster for good. Too much time had now elapsed; the most recent round of tests suggested ovarian failure. Even though we still had a final vial of donor sperm in storage, there would be no “second one.”
And so, as my son started kindergarten, I was not only coming to terms with the end of his early childhood, but also the end of hopes and dreams of a sibling, of parenting another little one through those precious, early years.
I’d wanted to be done with our fertility journey well before kindergarten began, so that regardless of outcome, I could be fully present and ready to step forward with my son into this new phase of his life. Amanda and I had planned for a final cycle in May-June, for closure, but due a bizarre series of twists that were completely beyond our control – including the sudden, permanent closure of our long-standing fertility clinic less than two weeks before we were due to inseminate, which precipitated the long, arduous, costly process of getting our records and donor sperm transferred to a new clinic – the end kept getting postponed.
And now, here we are. It’s the first week of kindergarten and I’m raw with grief. I can’t even begin to explain to the well-meaning mom standing next to me that the tears she’d just witnessed, moments earlier, partly have to do with the fact that there won’t be a second one – that my son is my one and only. That as he walked away from me into the school, I was impacted by the enormity of this milestone not only because it’s the first time, but also because it’s the last.
As I struggle to relate to this other parent, it occurs to me that it’s much easier to be out in my life as a queer mom than as a woman with secondary infertility. I had no qualms clarifying to this individual that Amanda is my partner and that my son has two moms. But secondary infertility, like primary infertility and pregnancy loss, is such a private, personal struggle. An unrecognized, unspoken grief. I wasn’t even going to begin to go there with a virtual stranger.
To fellow mothers who’ve never given their fertility a second thought, women like me are invisible. To women with primary fertility, my pain is often misunderstood: “At least you have one.” And yes, I feel truly blessed to have my son – in fact, now more than ever – but this does not diminish the anguish I’m experiencing after the countless attempts to conceive, after subjecting myself to escalating interventions that have left nothing but financial debt and an incredible physical toll on my body, after three years of a hellish rollercoaster ride, lurching me and Amanda at break-neck speed from hope to despair and back again – up and down, up and down, with both the peaks and the valleys progressively plummeting with each crushing disappointment until, finally, we’ve been forced to jump off before we completely crash.
As I stand there, stricken, in the school ground, it also occurs to me that I’m seeing everything through the grey lens of my infertility at the moment, which is not only why my son’s transition into kindergarten seems so heightened, but also why a casual exchange with another parent can make me instantly irritated and vulnerable. It explains why I bristled so intensely at said parent’s earlier comments and assumptions about birthmothers – because while my tell-tale tears had nothing to do with being my son’s birthmother, they also had everything to do with being his birthmother, and the fact that I will never get pregnant and give birth again.
So, in this painful moment, as the mother of my son’s first new friend at school has just told me that the transition into kindergarten is less painful with one’s second child, I simply take a deep breath and muster a smile:
“That’s what I’ve heard,” I say carefully, choosing words that both speak to my truth but don’t fully out me just yet. Praying that she doesn’t notice me blinking back tears a second time.