I learned in my mid-30s that I was probably infertile because of a hereditary condition. I say “probably” because I might have become pregnant through some fertility measure, but I never tried. I was OK with my childlessness for a long time. I’d always been ambivalent about becoming a mother because, from the time I was a teenager, all I wanted to become was a songwriter. I thought I’d probably have a family someday but much later, after my more pressing dreams had been realized.
I devoted my life to playing music, and it worked out. For almost 20 years, I wrote songs, made records, played concerts and traveled. My boyfriends were guitar players, bass players and drummers. If we talked at all about marriage, it was in a joking way. There was no discussion of the future beyond the next gig or the next month’s rent.
When I learned about my fertility issues, I didn’t feel concerned. I didn’t have the kind of life that one brought a child into. I supported myself by keeping my overhead low and my needs simple. Life was overwhelming, even without kids. I couldn’t see how anyone had the courage to bring a child into the world.
But in my 40s, something inside me began to whisper, and then to speak louder. Sometimes the voice wasn’t a voice but an ache that noticed every child on the bus, babies in strollers, infants wrapped in pastel blankets.
I fell in love with a man who wasn’t a musician, someone with a real job. Suddenly, I was living a different kind of life, and I liked it. I began to question the wisdom of having chosen career over family. It occurred to me that the choice I’d made was to forgo love.
Maybe it could still happen, I thought. Maybe we could adopt or explore surrogacy. My boyfriend and I discussed it, but he wasn’t ready, and as the years passed it seemed less and less likely. We broke up as I was turning 50.
In my 50s, I began to accept that life goes by in its own crooked way, and that I needed to enjoy mine as it was. I got a dog. I named her Doe because she’s long-legged, like a deer and has big brown eyes. At night, she pressed her little body against mine, and in the morning, there she was, wagging her tail.
I wasn’t as interested in playing music anymore, and I wasn’t sure what to do next. One day, I sat down at my old table and wrote:
You were the first, Little Fish.
I wasn’t sure why I’d written those particular words, but they felt alive, full of possibility, so I kept writing. Sentence by sentence, I found myself addressing her, this “little fish,” who came to be called Minnow, a brown-eyed girl who had never been born. I wrote to her every day, telling her about the past, describing the beauty of the world, inventing an alternative life for us. And, I swear, she came alive: a daughter with nutty-brown hair who held my hand, skipped when she walked and loved prime numbers.
In my neighborhood, there is a sign for a place called the Advanced Fertility Clinic. I pass it all the time, walking Doe. Thinking of Minnow, I liked to fantasize that there was a time machine inside. Now wouldn’t that be some kind of advanced fertility treatment? A device that could take me back 30 years, to a time when motherhood was still possible. I walked Doe and returned to my apartment and wrote. I put all that love, wishing and imagining into my story, and after a year something miraculous had happened: I’d written a first draft of my novel.
I have friends who have devoted their lives to supporting families and being mothers but neglected the poems they needed to write. Some friends, former musicians, married and had families and left New York to take teaching jobs in the Midwest. One of those friends said to me recently, “You’re living the dream,” referring to the fact that I’ve had a long run as a musical artist and now my book has been published. I know that I’ve been lucky. It was, and still is, my dream to have an artist’s life. I’ll always wonder what it might have been like to have a child, but I know that no one gets to live out all her dreams. It’s tempting to wonder “what if,” to imagine a different life, but I think the choices we make are probably built into who we are. If by some magic or science I could go back, I suspect I’d choose the same things again.
Lori Carson is a singer and songwriter. Her book, “The Original 1982,” was published in May.