How I Got From My Not-baby to Everyone Else
Nov 10 ● BY Sarah Cook
My desire to have a baby and to not have a baby is what makes me feel sorry for Donald Trump.
Babies do the best they can, because first, more than any other fact of their identity, all they care about is survival. They learn to survive and then, much later, they learn to care, in broader as well as more specified directions. They’re trying. Little essays written in flesh.
Donald Trump the baby survived, and for that I am grateful. Or rather, there are fleeting and fraught moments in which I can achieve at least a passive, observational stance on Donald Trump the baby’s survival.
I’m trying to walk the line forward to see how far my empathy will go, to find the moment where it becomes something else, something new, or perhaps something very old and forgotten.
When my period comes, I tell myself to appreciate this pain: that my body, already emotionally and mentally tripled and quadrupled, will not double. But I almost always immediately forget my gratitude as I curl up like a newborn, the Hollywood version of a little baby body nervous to greet the world. Me on the bed, perfectly sideways as if on cue, anxious for nothing. I’m curled into myself, trying to forget about my pain by thinking about Donald Trump—rage creates context—and then immediately trying to forget about Donald Trump and succeeding only by the thin membrane of imagining Donald Trump, the baby.
He must’ve been a baby, at least once.
His problems are not singular, and neither are mine.
At the coffee shop, I sit with my phone to avoid feeling stupid and lonely. There are women talking around a long table adjacent to my own. Their hair sits on their shoulders. Their words, however wistful and various, repeat. I write them down on a piece of scratch paper—“oh motherhood,” “oh fixable body,” words that float out of their mouths and startle my ears. I captured as many as I could, thinking that at a later date, I might trace the condensed record back to this precise moment and try to understand something about the space between myself and them: the smell of coffee, my feeling of disconnect, the curiosity of these women and their predictions. Is empathy spontaneous, or conjurable and by design? I could not separate my interest from my criticism, so I listened to the women as the two competing factions grew within me.
Bodies aren’t born out of their own desire, and there’s something about this fact that I wasn’t able to capture while listening to the women around me that day, an observing island. I look over my notes and struggle to find anything but disgust (toward myself? the women?), so I cross things out and make little abstract comments that do nothing but fill up the page. When we’re scrambling to fill our buckets and pails with the stuff slowly sinking our boat, how often are we just pouring them out at our feet?
It’s hard to be a person. What is our responsibility toward each other in this regard? Our production and our repetition, our differences in tone and desire and scope.
Why do we pretend that the opposite of not having a baby is having a baby?
Some days, I feel different and new at every stroke of the hour.
I do not have a baby because of a sense of responsibility.
I do not have a baby because of a sense of social and personal and generational insanity.
I do not have a baby because of a lot of hungry and sad people, even those held in my aloof imagination.
I do not have a baby because of privilege that isn’t acknowledged.
I do not have a baby because of privilege even now, safe uterus.
I wish my uterus was at least made of paper money.
I wish my uterus had a better exchange rate.
I wish I could exchange my uterus for a baby, and then back again.
I thought if I wrote down their original sentences, even just one accurate line, I could retrace my thoughts back to their empathetic creation. But it feels so far away from me now: that initial moment when my stomach started filling up with not-baby ideas, as I felt myself getting farther and farther away from the women drinking coffee around me, a private balloon; when I saw the outline of my belly pointed at everyone other than the duplication of me.
I guess my not-baby has something to do with expanses.
I guess my not-baby has something to do with agriculture.
I guess my not-baby is itself a fertile landscape, so long as I remember the sadness of my own mother, and remember how angry I can sometimes be, and remember my small, unwanted body turned bigger, and remember my mother’s sadness throughout the whole act of turning; only to remember, in a culmination of memories, that people are probably a lot alike.
Why can’t I carry these words with me everywhere I go, put them to better use, bear them as leverage for hoisting up a better public space? Or hold them in the frame through which I encounter every person, so that I may find myself wondering about the circumstances of their own cells and making. I could even baby them—the words, the person—I could help them be more or less like me.
I look at the scrap of paper and cannot trace my original sentence back to its initial point of empathy. Nor can I remember why I trusted that I would, but I’m sure I once believed it possible. Is motherhood its own stark line? Is it blind faith? Would I be different?
Almost daily, I scatter notes all over my house: in purses, on nightstands, under rocks on dirty counters. I never remember what was meant by the short words and phrases, can never retrace those initial moments of desire. And yet I made them: here are the words, haunting me. With their need and their confidence. With their longing to record something new: how words hold possibilities that can be sown into scratch paper, marinating until ready for the world. I return to the seed and find miracles or junk—mostly junk.
I’m thinking about empathy as the generous transgression of a boundary. I feel myself right up against a thing that is not myself: you. And how quickly the things born of us become additional yous. Maybe this is why an investigation of empathy is bound to involve direct reflection on the writing process itself—the ways we try to make sense of ourselves using things that are outside of ourselves, but began on the inside.
Am I feeling empathy for mothers? For my own? For the irresponsible choices women do and don’t make? Women, who first began as bodies, out of control, born into or at least from a desire not of their own making.
I can hardly believe that bodies come from each other, one after another; that there was a time where I may have been fastened to another person’s body, outside their head.
I used to tell my mother where my body went, where it came from, even some of the places a hand might linger or escape.
Did my mother ask to be born? Did she confuse my own tiny growing limbs with something medicinal? Was my mother born a mother?
Made and unmade—my mother had no preferences between singular and doubling. Here I am perpetuating a familial lack of control, just by existing.
That feeling at the edge of your ribcage, in the center of your stomach—pure, tumbling weight. I used to tell my mother about every single feeling that passed through me, and I thought myself a good daughter through confession and revelation, through clean words and limited intrusions, through small defined bubbles that I could see wholly and define entirely at any given moment, the clear translucent space of girl desire. Many of my feelings revolved around intimacy. I soon learned to define my feelings against each other, sure of their potential for excess; how girls come to recognize and even fear our too-much-ness, having parroted the outside world.
Sometimes survival means defining yourself against the very stuff you came from.
People used to tell us, over and over again, how much we looked alike, and this was understood as a compliment for my mother. How we must be sisters, born not of each other but from the same source. Words make the difference sound smaller than it felt.
I carried the feelings and the words until I couldn’t, until they’d grown large enough to exist outside the privacy of my womb. I mean brain. The writer’s dilemma—where do our babies come from?
Absence makes the heart grow fonder, but of what?
There are so many people alive that I take them all for granted, invisibility born of too-much-ness. There are so many songs on Spotify that I never know what to play.
I repeat the same things because I know the comfort of familiarity. Isn’t there some semblance of danger in imagining that my not-baby would become a baby, and would be, through the act of my own body discharging itself forward into my arms, my arms in which I tell myself only good things will end up, that my not-baby turned baby would be, somehow, a familiar thing?
And what of treating an unfamiliar thing as something you already know?
And what of treating a familiar thing with unfamiliarity (most people, certain kinds)?
And what of the moment when one’s familiar grasp is challenged, and you give up?
What is the relationship between giving up and baby <—> not-baby?
I worry about my not-baby because of my own instability as a person, my fluid desires, my complicated feelings, my highs and middles and lows. I worry about my not-baby because I secretly mean that I’m worried about myself. What if my not-baby became a baby during a high, then was followed by a middle? What if my not-baby became a baby, and I became low?
I care so much about my not-baby, openly and otherwise. Just imagine this care turned real (all care). I strum my not-baby like an air guitar melting into a song that goes, baby, oh baby. Just imagine if the song made real sound. These are the questions I never let myself ask outright, my body slowly beginning to wonder why it has never been beach-ready, baby-ready.
When I imagine following the desire to have a baby—already such a fleeting and limp thing in me, only in parts of me, close to my skin but never quite landing on it—my imagination floods with all the real bodies I see and turn away from, and drive past angrily, and order food from resentfully and sympathetically and in turns: miserable, then ok, then miserable, then ok. Me, or you? From where are such lines habitually drawn? How long ago were you just a baby, too?
We are complicated trains, all of us, carrying things of value and barreling along despite our history of derailment, trying not to spill when we mean only to deliver. Baby or otherwise, our commonalities are ferocious.
And why shouldn’t I till the landscape of my own dirt in order to reproduce something more contained, something less damaging? If I plant my not-baby in the ground of me, if I refuse to be afraid of letting things g/r/o/w in me.
And the swelling of my heart as it imagines life, even the life of my not-baby, how my heart bubbles out, it swells, it gets big and bumpy. Why aren’t more strangers asking if they can hold her?
If I can remember that people sometimes want to have babies, I can remember, too, that those people exist in the first place.
For years of our adult lives, neither my mother nor I could turn toward each other with any kind of consistency, with any sense of having once shared a perimeter. And though my focus and my patience toward my not-baby is more resolved and more consistent, my not-baby, in some sense, barely exists.
I am naked in front of my mother every time I am in front of her, do you know what I mean?
It’s hard to have a baby, though I admit I have never tried.
My not-baby gets to listen to all the music that I love, and learn all my idiosyncrasies, and see my face the way I hold it, and curl her body in the tunnel of my own turn.
My not-baby pretends to be everyone else, and I, on my best days, take such good care of her. Not even a train could replicate our spilling.