April 1, 2015
When my mother died, I stopped seeing in color. I was 14 and afraid to tell anyone. Our lawn, which had never been particularly emerald, became gray-white. Our modest postwar house, once mustard, was now bleached sepia. Our ancient Dodge Dart, which actually was white, remained so—but its glacier-blue interior looked ashen. I memorized the one detail without which I could not survive: red was at the top of the light; green was at the bottom.
Suspecting a neurological problem, I feared I might have to go to the hospital, which was out of the question. We were broke. My mother had entered Long Beach Memorial Medical Center in Long Beach, California, in March 1970. Her doctors had not expected her to survive until April. But she lasted until Labor Day. My father’s insurance did not cover this length of stay. Oppressed by the bills that arrived after her death, he was forced to sell the one object he and my mother had most cherished: their house in La Jolla. The house where I, their only living child, had been born five weeks prematurely on the kitchen floor. The house under whose avocado trees I was photographed in a sailor-themed hat at Easter and in a red stocking cap at Christmas. The house we’d had to leave when my father lost his aerospace job in San Diego and found another one near Los Angeles.
In a rented house, the colorless one, I learned the dark side of mothering—caring for the 65-year-old toddler who was my father. He had designed the flight controls for the HL-10, one of NASA’s first lifting bodies, a precursor to the space shuttle. But he claimed not to understand the controls on the washing machine. Or, for that matter, on the stove, vacuum, and steam iron. Not to mention the basic principle of the hamper. He dropped his socks and shirts on the floor wherever he removed them. I honestly don’t think he did this to torture me. For his entire life, some woman—his mother, my mother—had picked up after him. They had cooked for him. He had no clue that another way was possible. We couldn’t afford a housekeeper. After one of my inept meals—some components were burned; others sickeningly undercooked—I asked him why he never even tried to throw together a dinner. “Men don’t do that,” he said.
c. 1970: Wearing a space helmet her father gave her, Lord delivers a presentation about the space program to her Girl Scout troop.
A teenager focused on quick solutions might have become a heroin addict. But I plotted. I had greater aspirations than housekeeping and adult-infant care. And my mother had had greater aspirations for me; I knew she had secured a savings account for college that my father couldn’t access. Somehow I found time to edit the school newspaper, serve as senior class president, weather exhausting swim-team workouts, generate endless homework, and get myself into Yale, which, miraculously, was three thousand miles away from Long Beach.
This admission changed my life. In the 1970s, many people viewed New Haven as an emblem of urban blight: crumbling, crime-filled, edged by brutal public housing. But to me it was a Technicolor wonderland. I remember the postcard blue behind the tawny masonry of Harkness Tower. I remember the bottle-green grass on the Old Campus, the verdigris lions guarding Wright Hall, the scarlet foliage that burst out everywhere in October. I remember the frail orange light inside the marble walls of my favorite structure, the Beinecke Library.
For the first time since my mother’s cancer diagnosis, I saw rainbows—in their full, giddy, ROYGBIV splendor. Each day, I worked hard, astonished that I did not have to plan meals, do other people’s laundry, or scrub the bathroom floor. On the university health plan, I saw a therapist for the first time—as well as a neurologist and an ophthalmologist. We discussed my sight. They found no physiological problems. Acute depression, the therapist speculated, may have caused my plunge into black and white.
My color vision remained intact for more than 35 years, some of which were bumpy. They included professional false starts, a 14-year marriage, a divorce, and a breast lumpectomy. They included deciding after my divorce to date women, and conveying this confusing information to some less-than-welcoming friends and relatives. They included a move from New York to Los Angeles for work. But no pothole was so deep—no incident so traumatizing—that it robbed me of color. Until two years ago, when my then–life partner unilaterally decided to adopt the fifth offspring of a 22-year-old middle-school dropout in Florida, a woman whose biological mother had herself died in her 20s of a drug overdose.
Eight years ago, when I met Helen—which is what I will call my former partner to protect her privacy—we clicked. Such clicking was not, for me, a frequent occurrence. She was smart, well educated, and droll enough to make me laugh. I was 50; she was 41. I responded to a profile on an online site that she had planned to delete but somehow forgot. Its headline, as I recall, was “Soprano Seeks Mezzo.” I think I signed my email “Octavian,” and she knew I was alluding to Der Rosenkavalier, my favorite opera. Having weathered many apocalyptically mismatched dates, I found this knowledge so stunning as to be a sign from God.
Helen had studied film, music, and art history. She had worked as a music editor for film and television. We obsessed over identical things. Well, almost identical. Even eight years ago, she dreamed that she would one day be someone’s mother. I dreamed that I would one day win the Publisher’s Clearinghouse sweepstakes and a Nobel Prize. I was flippant about my “dream” and assumed she had been the same. But she wasn’t. Three years ago, she became deadly serious. We were collaborating on several projects, but suddenly—and, for me, bafflingly—engaging work took a backseat to a new fixation: securing a human newborn.
Many women who lost their mothers as children go on to flourish as mothers themselves. Some claim to have healed their grief through parenting. I wanted to be one of those women. When the prospect of a baby loomed on my horizon, I felt pure horror. But I thought I could white-knuckle my way through this and become a different person, a better person. I pictured myself not so much as a co-parent but as a benign auntie, who would take care of Helen—making sure she ate and even occasionally slept—while she took primary care of a newborn. The simple acts of diaper changing and feeding might connect me with an infant; I would finally understand and feel an attachment that I didn’t believe was possible. My body, however, was not onboard with this plan. It slowed me down. It gave me weekly 18-hour migraines. Then it clobbered me with its nuclear weapon: loss of color vision. It gave me no choice. I had to look back at my past to discern why I could not move into the future.
Even as a child, I never wanted to nurture. I hated baby dolls, but not nearly as much as I hated actual babies. They stank, yowled, and interfered with my greatest pleasure: reading. In elementary school, my mother helped me memorize multiplication tables and write book reports. She had, for reasons she never made clear, dropped out of graduate school in chemistry. But she loved to explain science. When she squeezed fresh orange juice, she pointed out the molecular difference between ascorbic acid (in citrus) and acetylsalicylic (in aspirin), molding me into the pedant that I am today. She co-led our Brownie troop, and held me hostage in the backyard for a week while she taught me to hit a baseball. She was a natural athlete, a good tennis player, and her daughter would not be the last chosen for a team. (I became the second-to-last.) For all these gestures, and for just paying attention, I loved my mother. I know I survived my difficult years, the years after she was gone, because I had once felt so deeply loved by her.
Lord, 3 years old, with her mother.
At home, she toed the party line: “The greatest calling for a woman is to be a Catholic wife and mother.” But I sensed that she hated the 1960s convention of stay-at-home motherhood. In my 30s, when my father shipped me my old Barbie-doll cases that had been sealed in storage since my mother’s death, I found evidence of her unhappiness. My Barbie stuff was a mirror of her values. She never told me that marriage could be a trap, but she refused to buy my Barbie doll a wedding dress. She didn’t say, “I loathe housework,” but she refused to buy Barbie pots and pans. What she often said, however, was “Education is power.” And in case I was too thick to grasp this, she bought graduation robes for Barbie, Ken, and Midge.
I also got the sense that giving birth was the worst hell imaginable. People say mothers “forget the pain,” but mine didn’t. It wasn’t that she told people about her excruciating 36-hour labor with my older sister, who was born with Down syndrome and died two weeks later. But she would recount my birth as a comic monologue in contrast to it. In November 1955, feeling what she thought might be labor, she rang her OB-GYN, who scoffed that I wasn’t due for at least a month. Shortly thereafter, I plopped out on the kitchen linoleum. Our next-door neighbor ran to help. But at the sight of blood and amniotic fluid, the neighbor passed out. When the EMTs arrived, they found two women on the floor. “Which one do we take?” they asked. Nor did my mother convey that a child with developmental challenges—a child like my dead sister—was something to be sought out. My mother was not a social worker. “If the Lord sends you a trial,” she told me, “you rise to meet it.” But you’d have to be nuts to take on an unnecessary trial.
After her first surgery for colon cancer, when she was 49, she took me with her to six o’clock Mass every morning. If anyone deserved a miracle, she did. And at 12, I enjoyed the liturgical component of the Mass: So many idioms in common speech had their roots in the Old or New Testament. But three years and as many surgeries later, when her cancer proved fatal, I raged against God. This troubled her. To my amazement, she had not, apparently, lost her faith. On the day before she died, she told me to hold my ear close to her face. Her five-foot-ten-inch body now weighed about 80 pounds. She had tubes and bruises everywhere. She clutched a jade-green rosary in one gaunt hand and held mine with the other. “I love you,” she rasped, barely able to form words through the morphine. I fought back tears. “God gave you gifts. Use them. And remember”—her weak voice became even softer— “God showed you one great mercy. He took your sister from us before you were born.”
Because of my sister, I had no illusions about childbearing. It is a gamble, as is most of life. Money managers use the “Monte Carlo method” to evaluate portfolio risk—and to keep that risk within an investor’s comfort zone. NASA never expects a risk-free launch, but it tries to fire rockets when they are less likely to blow up.
Similarly, when two healthy young adults conceive a baby, the baby may have problems—even if the mother shuns drugs, alcohol, and nicotine during pregnancy. But the odds favor a healthy baby.
In contrast, I knew that the biological child of drug-addicted felons might be at a higher risk for problems. But given how badly my partner wanted a baby, any baby, I wanted to believe that nurture could defeat nature. If a child with no genetic advantages grew up in a loving, cultured home with attentive parents (or an attentive parent), the child would turn out well. This idea gave me comfort—until circumstances conspired to prove that it was not necessarily true.
Sometimes coincidences are so strange and pointed that it’s hard to believe the universe is random. About a year after Helen began her quest to secure a baby, I agreed to be a judge for the National Book Award in Nonfiction. To do my job, I had to pore over stuff I otherwise would have avoided—books about recent breakthroughs in genomics and gestational biology, books that dwelled on the genetic determinants of behavior, books that examined the specific havoc drugs and alcohol can wreak on a fetus.
These books alerted me to things that I never wanted to see and, worse, that I couldn’t put out of my mind. Cigarettes, I knew, were bad for pregnant women, but I’d had no idea how little nicotine was required to cause intellectual disabilities or aggressive behavior in kids. “If a mother smokes during pregnancy,” neuroscientist and criminologist Adrian Raine writes in The Anatomy of Violence: The Biological Roots of Crime, this “not only has negative consequences on brain development, but it also leads to increased rates of conduct disorder and aggression in her offspring.” (One has to wonder how many behavorial disorders were undiagnosed in, say, the 1960s, when smoking during pregnancy was less stigmatized than it is now.) He continues: “Studies have documented impairments in selective attention, memory, and speed in processing speech stimuli.” More startling, “secondhand exposure to cigarette smoke predicted conduct disorder even after controlling for antisocial behavior in the parents, poor parenting practices, and other biological and social confounds.”
Studies of identical twins raised in different environments—a loving home versus a home rife with domestic abuse—revealed that the twins turned out the same. Their genes dictated who they were, not their upbringing. One Northern European study showed that not only did the home make no difference, but also that the children of criminals tended to grow up to be criminals. Raine’s book and others like it gave me nightmares. In one recurring dream, I saw an illustration from The Anatomy of Violence that compared the MRI of a normal brain and the brain of a child with fetal alcohol syndrome. The normal brain had coils and whorls; the fetal alcohol one looked like a cauliflower.
Still, I did not break up with my partner. I didn't want to be this fearful person, saddled with inconvenient knowledge that I could not banish from my thoughts. I didn't want to see the world as it was. I wanted to see it through a rosy, hopeful scrim. I loved having a partner; banal chores like cooking and shopping became adventures when done together. I loved watching great episodic TV with her—shows like The Wire and House—and analyzing how the TV writers had achieved what they did. I loved writing with her, in forms that were collaborative.
If only I had been 25 years younger! A quarter century ago, when I was married to my ex-husband, I had tried without success to bring a baby to term. A biological child made sense to me then—wanting to continue my genes, even if those genes carried depression so intense it could steal color from vision. But at my present age, with not that many productive years left, the last thing I wanted was a child—especially, I am ashamed to admit, one that might have disabilities as severe as those of my sister.
In the second decade of the 21st century, popular culture focused on nontraditional families—families with gay parents, or it-takes-a-village childcare arrangements with “families” of nonbiologically related adults. In response to my hesitation about adopting this baby—and the weekly migraines that accompanied it—my partner proposed that we devise such an arrangement. When the baby arrived, I could live in my “office” (a loft I owned) and escape baby duty from time to time. To defray the costs of a private adoption, she proposed teaming up with a close straight male friend who lived nearby and longed to be a dad.
In retrospect, I should have left the relationship. I should have heard my body’s message. It knew who I was and how far I could travel from my core self without breaking. But my brain, or at least part of it, was intrigued to be part of a social experiment. My partner and the aspiring dad registered with an adoption lawyer and, after a few months, a birth mother on the West Coast contacted them. The biological father of the baby was in prison, but we were prepared for this sort of news. My partner had warned me that it was not unusual in this situation for fathers to be incarcerated, or for mothers to be uncertain as to who the fathers were. In choosing my partner to raise her baby, this birth mother seemed both open-minded and admirable. Unlike many women in her situation, she had made it to her 20s without having had any babies and was enrolled in a community college. She was eager to take prenatal vitamins and to submit to drug and alcohol tests during her pregnancy. Because of her conscientiousness, I allowed myself the luxury of hope.
What happened next is what often happens. The mother decided to keep her baby. Because she was not a drug addict, she was hit hard by the oxytocin that her body released when she held her infant daughter. (For active drug addicts, oxytocin can’t always compete with the pull of methamphetamine or heroin.) My partner was devastated—perhaps all three of us were. We had fleshed out a collective fantasy about making a “better” life for a kid, a life with love (from my partner) and financial advantages. We had to regroup.
Call me monstrous—and I’m sure some will—but after the disappointment, I was relieved that the mother had kept the baby. In the months that followed, the three of us rescued a dachshund-beagle mix, which mostly lived with the potential dad. To my shame, I hoped that dog would satisfy Helen’s desire to nurture.
Then the 22-year-old pregnant woman from Florida entered the picture. Even my therapist, who tends to see good in all things, sensed danger. The woman had given birth to four kids since she had left school at age 14. And while she appeared to have kept one or two of her children, some had been placed for adoption. In private adoptions, prospective parents may agree to pay the mother’s nonrefundable medical costs. But sometimes an illegal transfer of money also occurs, usually when the mother relinquishes the infant. Many people, I learned, refer to this illegal exchange as the “final shakedown.” Although the woman was well along in her pregnancy, she had no prenatal records that might have revealed drug abuse. The lack of a paper trail can be a red flag for adopters. My partner paid for some basic medical tests. When the results came in, my partner texted me, “No HIV, no hep, no drugs”—at least at the time of the test. “Smokes, but main side effect of smoking is low birth weight and baby is normal.”
The texts hit me like shots from an automatic weapon. I rolled into a fetal position on the bed. My partner knew well what I had discovered about nicotine and pregnancy. She knew everything that I (and science) knew about prenatal drug abuse. But she scoffed when I reminded her. She also knew what Hugh Laurie’s character had said in nearly every episode of House: “Everybody lies.” And addicts lie the most. Some people are energized by risk. There’s no reason why they shouldn’t be. But in a relationship, the risk tolerance of partners should match. To draw upon the wisdom of Aesop, ants should not marry grasshoppers. I am an unglamorous ant-deferring gratification, socking away money religiously and investing it prudently. My partner was a grasshopper seeking what she wants when she wants it, unconcerned by the threat of a rainy day.
I suspect that when she flew from Los Angeles to meet the pregnant woman, she was fueled as much by risk as by her urge to be a mother. Back home in my loft, I felt unheard and abandoned—because I was. I did not even log on to read email. At dusk, I curled up on my bed, watching the light and color drain from my loft.
In the morning, when the sun came up, the color did not return.
One monochromatic week became two. I had kept the jade rosary my mother grasped at the hour of her death. Sometimes I held it when I sat cross-legged to meditate. It was now dark gray. Strangely, I did not break up with my partner. I threw myself into work, spending most days with students or colleagues at the university where I teach. I told no one about the loss of color. But I couldn’t keep the migraines entirely to myself—I had to explain why I sometimes missed a meeting. Blessedly, I never had to miss a class.
One night, after an evening class, I opened up to a colleague about what I was going through. We were sitting in a gastropub near campus. “I can’t do it,” I told him. “Not knowing what I now know from reading those books I never wanted to read.” The anxiety—the risk—was causing migraines. With the first prospective child, at least I’d had the comfort of the birth mother’s regular drug tests. That fetus, I knew, was not awash in bourbon and crystal meth. But this birth mother had no comprehensive medical records. The baby had no known father. The birth mother was herself the child of a woman who had died of a drug overdose. “I want to believe that nurture trumps nature,” I said with desperation.
Instead of reassuring me, he told me a story—his story that may not have been easy to tell. He is a brilliant gay man and an accomplished screenwriter who grew up in North Carolina. His childhood home was filled with books and music and art—all of which he devoured from at a very young age. He has two older adopted siblings, however, who, he said, ignored these cultural resources. Nor were they good at or interested in school. As adults, they have both become members of a homophobic Christian cult. And they have since severed all emotional ties to my colleague—their brother—because he is gay.
This wasn’t what I wanted to hear. In real life, nature could be as powerful—and as harsh—as it appeared to be in scientific literature. I recognize now that every adoption story is different, that this was his family's experience. And I don't know more details than what he was generous enough to share with me. But it was, in a way, the confirmation of what I long suspected, and what I needed to hear then: that I could no longer continue to be in a relationship with someone who aggressively disregarded my informed opinion. I broke up with Helen. The headaches stopped. Again I saw in Technicolor.
As it happened, my now ex-partner did not get the infant whose problematic provenance had caused our split. The mother decided to keep the baby, or perhaps ditched one prospective parent for another. Eventually, Helen adopted a baby from a different faraway state. I hope this child is healthy and happy. But my former relationship was beyond resurrection. I had escaped.
God, as my mother might have observed, had spared me yet again.
Sometimes clichés are true. It does, for example, take a village to raise a child, and my role is to be a mentor. My students tell me that I’m good at this. Nor do I just teach graduate students at a private university. Last summer, I volunteered as a writing coach with high-achieving financially disadvantaged high-school students. If they can do well against all odds—in homes where no one went to college and where English may not be spoken—they deserve my help. I also think our planet needs responsible stewardship, or there will be no planet for the kids growing up today. So I donate time and money to a marine mammal rescue center. Neither tutoring nor rescuing is a huge thing, but they make me feel less powerless against economic injustice and environmental destruction.
After I broke up with my partner, a friend told me something that was inadvertently cruel. “You would have been a great parent,” she said, “if all those tragedies in your childhood hadn’t happened.” But they did. They made me who I am—not a hypothetical perfect person but a flawed mess, who is trying, however inadequately, to leave behind a better world than the one through which I have had to make my way.
"You'd Be Such a Good Mother. If Only You Weren't You" is adapted from the essay of the same name which appears in the anthology Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids, edited by Meghan Daum, published 2015; reprinted with permission of Picador Books.