A germ infested warehouse filled with bigger-than-life rainbow colored bounce houses, and we have the place to ourselves! Stomach-dropping fun for every child, a place of refuge for their tired parents, and a place of nightmares for most infertile couples. But not for us. We worked our way out of the nightmare to be the exception.
Some call us “childless.” Some even say we will never know true love.
My heart, full of a mother’s love, albeit longing love, begs to differ.
The soft structures breathe an undercurrent hum behind the happy squeals of the only two other children who are already there. Baby Ben is sleeping in his car seat. McKinley kicks off her Crocs, my husband Chad unties his shoes, and I unzip my boots, racing to see whose stocking feet can hit the bright red vinyl floor of the bounce house first. We both run after McKinley as she hurls her tiny, not-quite-three-year-old self into the soft structure.
“Wait for us!” I yell, already immersed in breathless excitement.
All I can hear are her giggles. I fall into the sides a few times before I have my bearings, but quickly, because McKinley is attempting to scale a wall that is way too big for her.
Her smile and laughter burst brighter than the colored world we are stumbling in. She flings her body in complete abandonment, jumping so high that our faces cramp from smiling so much. For an hour we trail behind her, playing, helping her up the ladders, so she can climb walls that are too big for her tiny arms and legs.
“Hold onto the straps so you can pull yourself up,” I say.
“Come on, McKinley. You can do it!” Chad says looking down at her from the top.
“Okay,” she assures me with a nod of her tiny head, grabbing the strap.
This small teaching lights a spark under her as she races up the ladder at double the speed. My knees ache as I try to catch up to her.
All three of us perch precariously at the top of a slide that is much bigger than I anticipated, as McKinley shouts, “Race!”
My stomach drops at the steepness of the slide and a laugh escapes my smile so loud I even startle myself.
“Again, again!” McKinley shouts.
“Okay!” I shout back in a high pitched goofy voice, much to her delight.
“Myself,” she states back, brimming with threenager attitude.
This time I wait for her at the bottom, my arms open for her. Her blonde hair sticks straight up as she catches wind on the way down, her face shining with unbridled joy like only a toddler’s can.
My thirty-six year old back is telling me I need a break, so I go over to the bench where my friend Casey is holding Ben. I take Ben out of her arms with a smile silently saying to her, thank you for letting me love your children, my chosen children.
At only eleven weeks old, he has the new baby smell that fills my nose with maternal love. His eyes light up and he cracks a huge smile imitating back to me my joy. I nuzzle him, smile at him and feel his warmth in my arms, making sure to soak in every scent, smile and snuggle that I can.
Casey asks, “Want me to take him back so you can go and play again?”
“I’m good for now,” I say.
“Need a little break, huh?” Casey asks, as if to say, we are getting so old aren’t we?
She assumes my body needs a break but it’s my heart that needs one most. I glance back at Chad picking up McKinley to help her make a shot in the basketball bounce house. They are both giggling and jumping everywhere. The thought creeps in ever-so-slightly, just like it usually does.
He would have been a great dad.
God, I wanted them so badly.
Two back surgeries and a year in a body cast annihilated the first rendition of our parental dreams. A couple of failed rounds of In Vitro Fertilization with a gestational surrogate, tens of thousands of dollars and three lost babies later we ended our journey without the desired, hoped for, dreamed of and paid for outcome of our own children.
Instead, all we have left of them is a black and white picture of their eight cell embryo beings.
In our world’s most accepted definition of the word “parent,” we will never meet the criteria. I will never birth a child and we are not adopting one.
But childless we are not. We are childfull parents, birthing a rare kind of parenthood. We must seek out, ask for and remain open enough to receive the gift of being involved in our friends’ children’s lives, our chosen children. This love will be our legacy, left not in biological children we raise but in our chosen children’s lives.
My mind wanders to a scene not long ago when two sisters walked into our home with the bright eyes of children who know they are getting an awesome gift. Hannah, the oldest, handed me a handwritten note with my name spelled wrong, yet phonetically right, that read, “Thank you for the costumes Justiene.”
“Can we try them on now?” she asked.
The house was filled with the familiar smells of Thanksgiving dinner, our first with our new friends and their three daughters. “Let’s eat first, then we will have the most awesome fashion show ever,” I said.
After lunch, we all rushed to the basement. Hannah and her younger sister Maya squealed with excitement at the site of the huge trunk filled with a lifetime of my dance costumes. “We can have all of them?” Hannah asked.
“You can! But only if we make up dances and have a recital when I come over to play.”
“Thank you,” they both said without being prompted by their mom.
“You’re welcome,” I said.
I helped the girls try on all the costumes for the next hour, tap shoes, tiaras, tutus and all. I looked at their mom Izzy with gratitude, Thank you for letting me love your daughters.
All while thinking, God, I hope we’re always allowed to be such active parts of our chosen children’s lives.
“How old is he?” a very blonde mother asks, interrupting my thoughts. I notice quickly she is playing on her phone while her two kids run and bounce away.
I give myself permission to think the first thought that comes as the woman who can’t have kids, Play with your kids, lady. You get to have them.
I know all-too-well how little time and care most mothers provide for themselves, especially as a mental health therapist. Most of my work with mothers consists of teaching them how to take better care of themselves, so they don’t end back up in my office in their fifties lost and completely empty. I quickly practice my empathy and think, I’m so glad moms have places like this to entertain their kids a bit so they can get the occasional break.
“Eleven weeks,” I smile and reply to her question.
“Oh my gosh, you look aaaamaaazing!” she exclaims.
“Oh no, he isn’t mine. We’re in town visiting.” I point to Casey and say, “That’s his mom, my friend Casey.”
“Oh, well, you look great too!”
We all exchange obligatory smiles and I walk away before she can ask me where my own kids are.
Shit, Justine, don’t get sad. Breathe! Stay present.
Standing with Ben in my arms, I shift my focus back to Chad and McKinley bouncing away, as I allow the sadness to well up inside of me. Some days it comes in waves like this, waves of sadness triggered by thoughts like, It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Other days it is the longing for my three children who never took a breath of this earth’s fresh air.
Always, I acknowledge the thoughts and the feelings, giving myself permission to feel them all.
I am simply too afraid not to, because then it is like they never existed, and they are our children. Even if the only thing we have left of them, besides our longing hearts and changed lives is a picture from our infertility clinic.
I fight to take a breath and look down at Ben. He is a true miracle in my life. I take another breath, deeper and more knowing, and look back at Chad and McKinley jumping like crazy in the bounce house together. With yet another deeper breath, a space begins to open up within me, allowing the sadness to move just enough to grant space for another choice.
I am so grateful.
I am grateful for this life.
I am grateful we were given our never-to-be babies. I am grateful we were chosen as their parents if only to love them from afar.
Because they are what we have.
And, don’t we love what we get at the end of the day?
Those three babies, who I never got to meet, made me a mother; a mother who loves endlessly and who loves well.
A love with lifelong wonder of who they would have been and who we could have been as parents. A loss, I must choose, every damn day, in how it defines me for the rest of my life. Because who I become because of them is how I choose to honor them.
McKinley runs full force past me into another bounce house as Chad takes the baby from me. “Go play for a while,” he says as he kisses the top of my head.
“Thank you,” I reply allowing him, and only him, to see my eyes glistening with the slightest of tears. I run to catch McKinley headed up the ladder to the big slide. We reach the top together, Chad waiting at the bottom for us holding one of our many chosen children. I feel the pull of my forever longing and my gratitude, all at the same time. We make eye contact to silently say to one another, It is okay. We are okay. And, this is amazing still.
I hold McKinley’s hand tight, throw my head back, let laughter explode from my gut and fill my soul, as we slide down together one more time.
I wrote this piece over 8 months ago, in fact baby Ben just turned one year old! After working with my friend Laura Munson editing it and submitting it to well over 20 platforms and magazines, I decided I had been rejected and waited enough. Because I love this piece and I love these children. So I brought my bounce house home to Ever Upward, where it has belonged the whole time.