The day Sydney’s COVID numbers broke 600, I booked in for a week-13 structural ultrasound. Becoming pregnant during New South Wales’s COVID-19 pandemic has been a struggle. Weeks on end of lockdown, without hope of seeing family or friends, removed from the world as much as possible. The heaviness of lockdown sits deep inside the body, a weight carried in the bones. Sitting also in my body is a strange, emerging life, one that I had never imagined hosting.
The week of the ultrasound, Sydney’s COVID numbers soared beyond 900. The room in which the ultrasound takes place is softly lit, warm pink tones paint the walls. Ahead of the examination bed is a big screen. I lie stretched out on the bed. ‘It’s cold,’ the technician tells me as she rubs gel on my stomach and places the device against my skin. I look at the screen, stare at the familiar and unfamiliar. Familiar: name, address, age. Unfamiliar: what looks like a little jumping bean, bouncing around, black and white lines melting into each other like moving Rorschach images. The technician calls out names of body parts—kidneys, spine, brain—and I nod, pretending to understand that I can see where, in this shifting blob, a flicker is a kidney, a blotch is a brain. She turns up the volume and a heartbeat that isn’t mine but in some way is also mine breaks through the machine at 145 bpm. Later when I search online for information about foetus heartbeats and ultrasounds the internet will describe this sound as ‘the thunder of galloping horses’ or ‘a watch ticking underneath a pillow’. There’s a lot of space between a galloping horse and a ticking watch, but to me, it sounds like being in a pool and pushing your head under the water, when everything outside is muffled and inside the blood rushing in your brain fills your ears. That is the sound of a foetus’s heartbeat.
I’m crying now when I write this as I cried then, in the mood-lit room with the soft walls, as I watched flickering white dots that the technician informs me is a spine but can also be mistaken for pauses between words on a page bouncing in a dark space. That dark space is my womb, and it fills the screen. I’m crying because I’m alone. I pretend in my head that it’s the 1950s and male partners are exempt from pregnancy examination rooms. This is my first pregnancy, and I am alone, my family is halfway across the world, and we are separated by oceans and a global pandemic.
Outside the medical centre my boyfriend sits in the car, waiting for text messages with images from the ultrasound. The technician plugged his phone number into the machine so that he can also see the pregnant pause that’s squirming around inside me. It is his first baby too, and I beg the technician to let me record the sound of the heart beating on my phone. I think about telling him to imagine the sound of horses galloping or a watch ticking underneath a pillow or the blood rushing in your skull as you scream underwater, but the truth is that it doesn’t sound like either of these—it is the sound of life and not life, the sound of a promise, of existence materialising. This is the sound that makes real what is so beyond my comprehension—life inside life. I am alone but I’m also not alone, a host to a bouncing alien. The technician relents, she knows how difficult this is. I hold my phone up to the machine and hit ‘record’.
• • •
For months I refused to share the news of my pregnancy with people other than immediate family. Not for superstitious reasons (which is very unlike me—I am superstitious about anything, from the evil eye to a particular way of hanging clothes), but because I wasn’t ready for the reality to set in. ‘You can tell people from the second trimester, it’s safe,’ people said. But nothing feels safe—we are isolated, alone, without family and friends, bringing new life into a world that is quickly shedding other life.
A friend and I spoke in the months before the pregnancy began. We were both coming to terms with where we are now in our lives, and what’s next. For years I had a notion that I wouldn’t be a parent. For many years I was single without the hint of a possibility of a relationship, and as a precarious academic, did not have the financial means to imagine sustaining a child as a single parent, let alone afford to be out of work for months after birth. Then came 2020, the year a global pandemic began spreading like wildfire, but it was also the year I finally left the precariat and met my boyfriend. Suddenly, the reality of having a child seemed less distant than it used to be, with my age—fast approaching 40—as the only tangible obstacle in the process.
In my reflections on the possibility of being pregnant I felt a strong sense of ambivalence, if ambivalence can be felt strongly. This is in comparison to those who know they want to be parents—for whom parenthood is a natural progression of life, embedded in one’s life decisions. I imagine that parenthood is, for these people, a goal rather than a shoulder shrug. I feel guilty about my ambivalence. Guilt for not knowing without doubt that—yes—this is what I want. Adrienne Rich says of her own entry into motherhood, ‘I had no idea of what I wanted, what I could or could not choose.’ And this is where I find myself too, only, unlike Rich, who comes out in a treatise against patriarchal forces shaping mothers’ experiences of themselves and society’s attitudes to mothers, I just have no idea what I want. Not out of a noble feminist protest but simply because I do not know.
Somehow the biggest decisions you’ll make in your life take the least amount of time to decide. Opportunities present themselves and we walk into open doors grasping offerings with both hands. We spend longer deciding what to have for dinner than what and where to study, live or work. I swear, the time I wasted standing in the dip aisle weighing up the merits of beetroot over chunky chilli … olive or taramasalata. Hours of my life tied up in indecision in the dairy section. Yet I am here, in the colony of so-called Australia, as the result of a spontaneous decision—on a whim, applying to a university. Weeks later, I found I had been accepted. Days later, I had packed my bags. It took me longer to decide what book to buy at the airport for the two-day flight.
I do/nt want a child. This is all I know. In a sense too I’m consumed by fear: pregnancy amid a global pandemic, the threat of an unstable changing climate. How can I justifiably bring a life into this world? What future am I condemning this child to? These thoughts are indulgent in many ways, I recognise. My life in the Australian colony is secure, my world is stable. And yet …
Without much reflection I stop taking birth control, part of me not quite believing that anything can make a home inside me, inside a body that over my lifetime I have starved, hurt, wounded, neglected. Month after month I acknowledge the stinging pain in my lower back signalling impending bleeding with unexpected grief; can grief be ambivalent? What am I grieving?
Then, when the pain and blood don’t come and a pregnancy test confirms my suspicion, a different reality strikes: this is real. Later my GP will say ‘don’t tell anyone yet’. Given my age, the chance of miscarriage is high. There are other risks, too: pre-eclampsia, gestational diabetes, low birth weight. In some ways, these risks push aside any need to process this invisible growth inside me. I don’t tell, but not because the risk is high. It’s because I’m not sure of the reality gestating in my womb. To say is to acknowledge, call into being. Make real something that I am so removed from.
My counsellor calls it dissociation. She says it is a trauma response. In our first session a couple of years ago she asked me to name emotions. I named anger and sadness. Those were the only emotions I could think of. We joked that next session she would bring a list with other emotions that I can study, and at the end of the joke she said I dissociate because of trauma. I live in my body/not my body. Inhabit space that is/isnt embodied. So, how can I acknowledge the being that is growing inside the body that I have trained myself for decades not to feel? Perhaps I don’t feel pregnant because that would require me to be present in my flesh. Perhaps this being is also calling me into being, demanding my concentration, urging me to experience. Joke’s on you, baby. I’ve dissociated for so long that I basically float on the surface of my skin. Good luck getting me to feel
• • •
Inevitably the breakdown occurs on one unassuming day, as I ascend the hill at the end of my running route. In one moment, the truth that has been forming inside my body extends itself, reaches through to my mind, pulling the heart out of
Until this point, I could measure my life from beginning (birth) to a future end (death). Considering that I’m a few short years off middle age, death isn’t an abstract concept. But now this is changing: I have committed to life on this earth beyond my lifetime—not 40 more years, but 80, 90 … G-d willing. This child extends my own life, which means that it too will also need to reckon with climate change, with a volatile capitalist economy, with hunger, injustice, violence. Pregnancy has brought with it a reimagining of mortality. I picture sitting in a doctor’s clinic being told that I have cancer, a child on my lap. This is the moment I collapse. I struggle to breathe as my throat fills with tears; the air that breaks through into my lungs is sharp. If I die now, it’s just me. It’ll suck, it’ll be painful, but you’ll be fine without me, I know it. If I die in ten years, I will be the cause of trauma for a child who deserved better. Years later their therapist will diagnose them … dissociation, they’ll say. It’s a trauma response.
Emmanuel Levinas speaks of responsibility for the other in the face-to-face encounter, arguing that we are morally responsible for each other. And this is true. But I never thought to consider responsibility when the face gazing back is half my own. Shit. To top it all off, my boyfriend still hasn’t heard the heartbeat. Hasn’t seen the radiant blob moving on the screen. A phantasm or bare life, I am yet to decide which.
• • •
At 29 weeks pregnant, my boyfriend and I sat masked in the doctor’s office. We’re waiting to be told of the cause for my engorged and painful right breast, a relatively new phenomenon that, when it occurred a month earlier, came with some sort of relief after two trimesters of having no pregnancy symptoms other than knowing that I was pregnant—finally, a real pregnancy symptom! Not nausea, or fatigue, or cravings, but tender breasts.
For a few weeks we had speculated that the pain and lumpiness in the breast were due to a blocked milk duct and transforming breast tissue. Breast changes are normal in pregnancy, every pregnancy book and blog assured us. So we dealt with it as the books tell you, my dutiful boyfriend diligently massaging the mass in my breast, trying to unclog the blocked duct(s). Hot showers, hot compresses, even sliced potatoes laid on the skin as suggested by a lactation consultant (whom I couldn’t see in person). A friend said we should try cabbage leaves. Once we run out of potatoes we might try pak choy, we laugh.
We park in the two-hour parking spot, prepared to receive the biopsy results, expecting by now some kind of pregnancy-related tissue mass, or at worst a benign tumour. In the whole pregnancy, this is the first doctor’s appointment that we can attend together. We’d been lucky enough to have one ultrasound together.
‘The biopsies from your right breast and lymph-node both came back positive for cancer,’ the registrar said. ‘I’m going to get the surgeon in now’. It turns out potato slices are ineffective for tumours.
People talk about time standing still. For me, it wasn’t that time stood still, but that it became thick, almost palpable. Seconds, minutes, stretched around us, heavy and dense. The office, now empty except for the two (three) of us, was tense—past, present and future filling up space with their heaviness, and my breath waded through the palpable temporality of space-time. This was the moment I had dreaded, and here it is. I sit at the doctor’s office, not with a toddler in my lap but with a foetus gestating in my womb and find out I have cancer. I am here now and also in the future that I so dreaded. Moreover, the future makes itself known and embodied in the movements of the foetus swimming inside me.
We sit in the office for an hour that could easily be four hours, the room fills with people and then empties and then fills again. I notice my boyfriend writing notes and crying and I don’t understand what you are writing … what is being said and to whom … people look at me and the weight of space-time around me stuffs my ears like cotton balls and I breathe and nod and gasp and stare while I am touched and examined and handed instructions and referrals and how is it that time is so heavy, that it makes present our fragile mortality. How your whole life transforms in a room with air thick like honey.
The diagnosis is of an aggressive breast cancer, the kind that grows practically overnight. It is serious, we are told. Mornings I wake up and run my hand on my belly to see how the pregnancy has grown, and I run the same hand on my breast to see how the tumour has grown. The cancer has demanded my presence, it demands that I attend to the foetus in new and frightful ways—is it moving, during chemotherapy, with toxins pumping their way into my vein? And after? Is the baby okay, people ask. The foetus is doing fine, I explain. Only the incubator is faulty.
• • •
Cancer demands reckoning with mortality. Can I even envision my child’s first birthday? Am I there? Do I walk them to school, do I carry them from the car, a sleepy head resting on my shoulder? The future, virtual as it may be, extends beyond my reach.
Cancer manipulates time. We no longer have months of waiting until the baby arrives. Urgently, we must bring forward the months and fill them in a matter of weeks. We walk around the apartment in shock and dread, how best to fit new life into a space taken over by grief and illness? Life is slippery. My beloved and I hold each other steady through the storm and yet the fragility of life has never been more present. The vessel inhabits life and decay, both competing for room. Of course, this is how it always is—to live is to decay—but the experience of gestating cancer and foetus at once transforms temporality. A host split in two, embodying dualisms: life and decay exist in tandem. Each breath sustains both.
One day we take a walk along a river and we stop to look at the tide. My boyfriend points out little crabs huddling along the rocks. ‘Do you know that in Hebrew,’ I say, ‘they’re called sartan [ןטָרְסַ], and sartan is also the word for cancer.’ Silent, we stand there looking at the little crabs tunnelling their way into the moist soil. The next time we walk down there he’ll grab my hand and exclaim,‘Let’s see if we can find cancer!’
In the final interview before he died of pancreatic cancer, philosopher Jacques Derrida ruminates on the spectre of death that has haunted his life: ‘I am never more haunted by the necessity of dying than in moments of happiness and joy. To feel joy and to lament the specter of death, for me is the same thing. When I go over my life, I tend to think that I had the chance to love even the unhappy moments of my life, and to cherish them. Almost all, with almost no exception. When I think of the happy moments, I cherish them too, of course, at the same time that they guide me toward thoughts of death, toward death, because it’s over, finished …’
And of course, it is not finished. New life is coming, I feel it inside me like an oasis, a spring of water, sustaining and serene amid the storm. I let life anchor me now, in this moment, because it is not finished. I am not finished. •
Na’ama Carlin is a sociologist, lecturer and writer who lives on the stolen lands of the Eora Nation.