From childfreeless

Miscarriage

From the editors: We’re happy to welcome back writer and artist Joyce Hayden. Her poem “Miscarriage” appears in her chapbook Lost Handprint, published by the Dandelion Review. You can read an excerpt from her memoir The Out of Body Girl here

Miscarriage

Yours is the death the tribe doesn’t recognize,
the death I witnessed alone.

By the time you hit the sheet,
you were ashes. I won’t forget

how cold that summer turned after
you melted or how my days developed

No Witness by Joyce Hayden

sharp edges or how, with time passing,
you grow older. You’re the girl I wasn’t

convinced I wanted, and there’s no
name for the landscape I stand on.

 

 

 

 

Joyce Hayden left her university teaching job two years ago in order to pursue her own artistic work. An assemblage artist, painter, and writer, Joyce is currently in the process of acquiring an agent to represent her memoir, The Out of Body Girl, which describes her 8 year relationship with a charismatic gambler and the dangerous road that eventually led to her freedom. Her chapbook of poems, Lost Handprint, is available from Dandelion Review. Joyce writes the weekly column “Must Reads” for Roar. A freelance editor and writing coach, Joyce’s writing services and a selection of her artwork can be found at her website joycehayden.com. Joyce is available for commission art work, including celebration shrines for loved ones and pets.

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The Facts of Life: an Interview with Paula Knight

Editors’ note: Dr. Elizabeth Starr recently interviewed graphic memoirist Paula Knight about her new book. Read on to learn more!

Paula Knight’s graphic memoir The Facts of Life is a powerful example of women’s work in autobiographical comics.  Recounting her childhood in Northeast England, The Facts of Life explores how we form expectations about fertility that then shape our adult lives.  Knight’s work illustrates the experience of miscarriage and living with ME/CFS/Fibromyalgia and offers alternative ways of valuing women’s lives beyond motherhood.  We’re grateful that she took the time to talk with MotherShould?.

ES: You studied Graphic Design and Illustration in college and have been writing and drawing professionally for many years. Did applying those skills to a graphic memoir about fertility and womanhood seem like a natural step—how did that come about?

PK: It was perhaps an odd step to go from illustrating children’s books to writing a book about not having children. Of course, some of those skills were transferable – certainly in terms of being able to structure and craft a cohesive narrative with so much information to juggle. My growing interest in graphic novels just so happened to coincide with the time in my life when I was trying for children (and ensuing problems), and it soon became the medium I wanted to use to tell my story, especially when I realised that other women my age were creating autobiographical comics. I began to read many more graphic novels about tricky autobiographical subject matter, especially health-related, and this made me feel that there might be an audience for my work in this medium. I also entered Myriad Editions’ (my UK publisher) First Graphic Novel Competition in 2011, and an extract from my book reached the shortlist the following year. This gave me the confidence to get on with the job after many years of ‘starting’ my book!

from “The Facts of Life” by Paula Knight, 2017

ES: There is so much silence surrounding the experiences both of dealing with miscarriage and living with a chronic illness, and there seems to be a lot of blame assigned to bodies when they aren’t working perfectly.  Your comics, for example, draw our attention to the language of carelessness or failure that is often used to describe miscarriage.  Chronic illness can also bring on feelings of self-condemnation or doubt, especially when there’s a delay in getting a clear diagnosis.  Do you think we tend to treat miscarriage and chronic illness in similar ways?  What was difficult or liberating in trying to break these silences?

PK: Yes, there appears to be just as much stigma surrounding the illness ME/CFS as there is around miscarriage, although the roots of the stigma are different. ME is a highly misunderstood invisible illness and miscarriage suffers its shroud of silence – possibly connected to shame around women’s bodily functions, and our fear of blood and death. There are also similarities such as feeling desperate to know the cause, and wanting a cure, when medicine can’t tell you what’s wrong or provide treatment, for example. Then, in absence of a satisfactory answer, the next step is to blame oneself. That vacuum also serves as a gaping receptacle for ignorant unsolicited opinions of others, unfortunately – if there is any room left in there alongside all the self-blame: Everyone gets tired; You can always try again, etc. It’s safe to say that neither miscarriage nor ME/CFS are patients’ fault – they are health issues that medicine doesn’t (yet) know how to treat fully. I try to fill some of that vacuum with comics, which, with its unique interplay of words, pictures and panels, is a medium well-placed to tackle subject matter that has traditionally been unspoken. I felt tentative about sharing the work online at first, but ultimately it was very connecting, and it encouraged conversations I would never have had otherwise. It felt very gratifying to receive emails telling me that my work has expressed something on behalf of people who was unable to.

ES: The Facts of Life makes such a persuasive argument that we could all benefit from getting out from under the sway of pronatalism: what are the things that help you do that?

PK: I’m interested in wildlife and the natural world. Environmental issues and the idea of the Anthropocene (the point in time at which human existence on earth is said to have caused ecological damage beyond repair) go a long way to comfort me over the fact that I didn’t have children. Human population growth is the greatest threat to the wellbeing of our planet and to our very own existence on it. I have a growing interest in organisations such as Population Matters and Eradicating Ecocide. Having said that, I’m not anti-natal either – I think extreme policies either way are a threat to reproductive rights (extreme pronatal policy might involve limiting access to abortion and contraception, for example). Of course I still have times of grief over not having children, and no doubt my child would surely have been a brilliant scientist who discovered new ways to feed everyone without harming ecosystems…. I also planted some trees as a memorial to the child I didn’t have. It seemed like a positive thing to do – trees last longer than people and are far more beneficial to the environment. The ritual of doing this helped immensely in our grief, too, so win-win!

ES: Some of the most powerful visual scenes in this graphic memoir depict how the ability or the inability to have children shapes the way people talk to you at parties or at work.  These casual encounters can happen so quickly, but can be so traumatic.  What do you want to say about how to talk to people who don’t or can’t have children?

EK: Perhaps we could try to steer clear of the more direct and intrusive questions. I understand that for people with children these conversations can be very connecting, but you don’t need a degree in psychology to read between the lines. Perhaps try more open-ended ice-breakers, such as: How are you?; What have you been up to recently?; Did you see Game of Thrones this week?; Where do you come from?; or How do you know *person*? This gives more scope to steer a conversation away from talk about children and avoid the risk of opening up raw wounds for someone who is hoping to have a nice relaxing evening out. Never ask why someone didn’t have children, or offer unsolicited advice. I wouldn’t ask someone why they didn’t ever do X job; or why they don’t own a bigger house, or have a partner, for example. Why didn’t you ever succeed in becoming an astronaut – whatever went wrong there? Why don’t you try buying a space suit and jumping up and down on a trampoline instead? Having said that, there was a very clever lad at my school who wanted to be an astronomer, and I would really like to know if he made it. It’s natural to be curious, but you don’t have the right to know personal details about someone’s fertility problems – and that’s what you might find yourself inadvertently poking around in when you ask someone if they have children.

ES: Do you have any advice for women who “can’t draw” but might want to after reading your book?

PK: I don’t believe in ‘can’t draw’ – anyone can! You don’t have to be a trained artist to draw – you weren’t when you were a child, after all. You didn’t care if it looked right then, so why now? It’s still possible to communicate an idea or emotion using stick figures or very simple drawings. Don’t let draughtsmanship, and not being able to represent subject matter accurately, put you off. It’s good to carry a small sketchbook and pen/pencil around at all times and that way you can fit in some drawing whenever the opportunity arises – in a café, work canteen, or on the train etc. Drawing from observation in this way is great practice, and you’ll never forget an idea if you always have a sketchbook or notebook with you.

Learn more about Paula’s work at her website, and follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram

 

 

 

Elizabeth Starr teaches writing and literary study at Westfield State University. Her academic work brings nineteenth-century narrative techniques into conversation with contemporary literature, specifically in terms of how we tell stories about illness. She is especially interested in writers who open up new ways of thinking about illness and health in their creative work.

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45 Makes Me Regret Not Having Kids

On January 21, I looked around me at the Hartford, CT Women’s March Rally, and I felt regret, deep like a splinter from an un-planed board. I was there with my friend Sarah and her 12-year-old daughter Ella. It occurred to me that by not having children, I deprived myself of the opportunity to raise humans who would be thoughtful, critical, committed citizens. Of course, the beliefs of parents do not always become the beliefs of their children, yet I was struck by the lost opportunity of passing on values that I believe are the very ones that make America great: tolerance, questioning authority, willingness to stand up for not only one’s own rights, but more importantly, the rights of the marginalized. Despite my regret, the number of children at the rally heartened me.

After the rally, Sarah and I exchanged emails about how and why she included Ella that day. Sarah wrote about bringing her daughter and son with her every time she votes, as well as family discussions about current events, politics and community. For her, it is vital that her kids understand the responsibility that goes along with their privilege.

While Sarah’s husband and son decided to forgo the rally, in part to avoid the overstimulation of the event, Ella decided, after much conversation, that she wanted to participate. Sarah did encourage her, sharing with me, “I told her that this would be a significant day for American women. I didn’t want her to miss out on the chance to be a part of such a special day. Ultimately, I hope that my daughter saw that there are things that we can not sit idle and accept.”

As we drove to Hartford, I got to see Sarah’s strategies for raising an active citizen. Ella, pussyhat proudly perched on her head, encouraged me as I knit as fast as I could to finish one for myself. Sarah made a point of reminding us that we should be prepared in case the media asked to interview us. She encouraged Ella to practice what she would say about why she was at the rally. I was impressed by her enthusiastic, smart answers about human rights and immigration issues. Clearly, making posters with her family, hanging out as her mom churned out pussyhats, and months of post-election conversations impacted Ella’s views. I could see that Ella had a sense of the rally being more than a new experience; she understood the protest she was about to voice.

About a month later, I asked Sarah what affect she felt the rally had on her daughter. She wrote, “It certainly normalized protest as a reasonable reaction to policy we find objectionable. She is also thoughtful about articulating the ideas that upset her and why. Ella got to see you, me, her grandparents, her ballet teacher, a friend and her mom among many other people in our community at the rally because there are ideologies that need protesting. Long term it remains to be seen if this creates an inner sense of civic responsibility, but I think it will.”

In the weeks since 45 has taken office–weeks that feel like decades–I’ve vacillated between relief that I don’t have children who will inherit this mess, and the same regret I felt at the rally. I feel encouraged, though, that there are legions of parents who are woke, and even more young people positioned to stay woke. And I see that my role in the lives of the young people I know is to be yet another adult who is unafraid to use her privilege and raise her voice in protest.

But what about my sisters who are on the fence about having kids? How is this administration shaping their decisions?

MotherShould? writer Ada Kenney weighed in, saying, “45 and the current Congress haven’t necessarily changed my plans about motherhood. Rather, they’ve heightened my ambivalence. I didn’t want to get an IUD before the inauguration as so many women did because I only have so many (if any) fertile years left, and seems like a waste to get it for just a year or so. But I also don’t want to raise a child alone with less of a social safety net than we currently have, and unless I meet The One really soon, that may be my only path toward motherhood.

“I have considered fostering or adoption before, and I fear those systems will be weakened in the next few years, so maybe I will do that. It would be a better move than having a baby in the face of the threat of nuclear war.”

In a recent episode of The Longest Shortest Time, Hillary Frank hosts a roundtable during which, among other topics, two lesbian couples examine the question of how 45’s administration affects their thinking about having children. Even within one couple, the partners’ views cover a wide range: eager to raise radical children vs. afraid to bring a child into the world where the parents (Black, queer) feel hatred around them.

How about you? Has the new administration muddied or clarified the decision for you?

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Selfish, Careerist, Regretful? Not the Childfree Women I Know

In this season’s House of Cards there’s a memorable scene between first lady and VP candidate, Claire Underwood and the presidential opponent’s wife, Hannah. The two  women are sitting across from one another drinking coffee in the White House residence and although they are on opposing sides, they are finding common ground around gun control and making the role of the first lady meaningful. Hannah manages to soften the normally rigid Claire by telling her she is a role model and that if she wins she’ll make an excellent vice president.

This moment of female bonding is interrupted when Hannah’s son jumps up and loudly asks for a drink. When Claire says that Hannah’s son is cute, Hannah unthinkingly ask Claire if she regrets not having kids. Claire’s stony face makes Hannah immediately apologize for asking a question that she admits is “too personal.” Claire pauses and responds pointedly in between sips of coffee: “do you regret having them?” And the scene ends.

This scene was so striking for a couple reasons:

First, it brings into sharp focus the assumptions our culture has about women who do not have children: they regret it.

It was actually on an episode of Oprah that I first confronted the powerful narrative of “woman pursues a career and regrets her decision not to have kids when it’s too late.” I was so frightened by this possibility that I remember the moment like you remember where you were when someone important died. I was in my late twenties, lying on my faded couch, hungover, in my Brooklyn apartment watching Oprah. I didn’t typically watch Oprah, but it was the comfort food my hangover brain craved. On Oprah’s stage sat a group of sad women in their forties; whether they were or not, I remember them dressed in suits. These women, in pursuit of their careers, missed the baby train, and they were gathered on stage to share their stories of regret. While I don’t remember their individual stories, the emotional weight of their collective regret stuck with me, and ten years later it motivated me to jump off the fence and get pregnant.

While this narrative helped nudge me in the direction that was right for me, for women who do not have kids it can be painful to have people  assume you live in regret. (See Ambivalent and Grieving and My Mother’s Day Wish.)

Second, the moment between Hannah and Claire depicts the divide between women who have children and women who do not. Perplexed by a woman’s choice to remain childfree in a pronatalist world, many mothers don’t really know how to talk to childfree women and as a result we judge, we say things that are unintentionally disparaging, and we ask questions we shouldn’t ask.

My husband and I both cheered at Claire’s response to Hannah, which  was dubbed a “feminist moment” by Bustle Magazine.

But while her response rang feminist, at another level this show is just reinforcing the confining narratives that exist for childfree women. Claire fits into the stereotype of the cold childless woman whose DNA is sequenced for ambition rather than motherhood. Just as there’s the virgin/whore binary, there’s the mother/ice queen.  As if to emphasize how anti-maternal she is, Claire’s character has had not one, not two, but three abortions. Claire is ruthless in her ambition–while she does not commit, she does condone the murder of people who stand in the way of her and her husband’s ascent to the White House.

So established is the stereotype of the selfish childfree woman that Meghan Daum titles her edited collection of essays of thirteen childfree women writers, Shallow, Selfish, and Self-Absorbed to mock the negative stereotype of women who chose careers (in this case creative careers) instead of motherhood. This book shows us that the decision not to have children tends to be responsible rather than selfish. After all, what good does it do a child to have a half-hearted mother? While Daum’s collection turns the selfish stereotype on its head, as a collection of essays by successful women writers, it reinforces a parallel narrative that has emerged: the super successful childfree woman.

This is the story, too, in Hillary Frank’s recent interview of Terry Gross from NPR’s Fresh Air about her decision not to have children on the wonderful podcast the The Longest Shortest Time. Gross explains that she did not have any models for leading a successful career AND having a family, so she decided to pursue a career. She feels that her decision not to have children and pursue her career was a feminist act. I agree. Gross was a maverick.

That said, there was an underlying  if unintentional message in this interview and in Daum’s collection: if you are a woman choosing not to have children then you better be EXTREMELY successful, otherwise, how do you justify your decision? How do you justify your life?

So what roles are available for childfree women?

There’s the spinster and/or cat lady. One of my unmarried childfree friends who LOVES cats actually googled “how many cats can you have before you become a cat lady?” When the answer came back as “three,” she decided not to adopt a third cat.

There’s the successful woman–selfish or not– and she typically dislikes children. Then, there’s the woman who has achieved success but regrets not being a mom.

The stories we tell are powerful. These stories shape us for better or worse  (I had a child and my friend didn’t adopt a third cat), and they shape how we interact with one another. It is always the case that when a group is marginalized or othered, the roles available to individuals in those groups are limited. Acknowledging these limits and checking our assumptions when we interact with people from marginalized groups is a step in the right direction. What else do we need? We need more stories of typical childfree women who are just living their lives.

Sure there are wildly successful childfree career women, and some of them, like Terry Gross, might not want to snuggle babies. Sure there are old, childless women who have houses full of cats. Sure there are women who are consumed with regret for not having kids. But I don’t know these women.

The childfree women I know live rich and meaningful lives. There’s my friend Shoshannah, a metalhead with a black belt in karate, who regularly visits her mother who has had Alzheimer’s for nearly ten years. There’s my friend Melissa, a teacher who adopts and fosters dogs and regularly visits a youth detention center to offer pet therapy. There’s my friend Kerri, STEM teacher of the year and tireless Zumba instructor. There’s my friend Stephanie, writer, editor, bartender, PhD, and trailblazer. There’s my friend Jocelyn, a vegetarian, an animal lover, and  an artful wedding and family photographer whose calming presence enables her to capture genuine moments of connection. There’s my friend and co-editor for MotherShould?, a teacher, writer, knitter, sewer, crafter, perpetual student, and convener of porch nights for a community of friends.

The lives and stories of childfree women I know don’t adhere to the stereotypes yet the narratives persist. Likely, as more and more women make the choice not to have kids, childfree women will be able to just be. And that’s a good thing.

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My Mother’s Day Wish: Being Childfree Accepted as a Cultural Norm

It was Mother’s Day, 2003. On the Sundays when I was at home, I attended the Episcopalian church where I was trying to rebuild my faith and connect to a spiritual community as I had as a kid. I was newly separated, working as an adjunct professor at a prison college program in the evenings after my full-time grant-writing job was finished.

Ushers walked through the sanctuary with flat florist boxes filled with carnations, as the priest, Mother Claire, invited all of the mothers to accept one. I sat in my usual aisle seat, distracting myself with the Book of Common Prayer during this part. When an usher stopped, I shook my head to indicate I was not a mom.

Instead of the moment passing unnoticed, Mother Claire strode over, took a carnation, and thrust it at me.

“But you do mother,” she said. “You are a teacher. You mother your students. You deserve this.”

I was too embarrassed by the attention she drew to me to refuse. The priest had counseled me when my marriage started to dissolve, and she knew that I had been poised to shift my thinking and try to have kids. Her insistence felt like salt in the wound of my failures made more upsetting because I have never believed teaching to be a form of mothering. I took the flower, put it down next to me. Later I shredded the petals, threw them on the ground.

There are so many ways for humans to hurt each other, so many ways for women to undermine each other. This moment seems petty to me when I’m in full buck-up-I’m-a-stoic-New-Englander mode. Other times, though, it enrages me. Once in awhile, it saddens me.

I’ve never been clutched by the all-consuming need to have children; during the times I have wanted them, the prospect was like considering a long-term adventure, one that I felt more confident about with my new husband as my partner in parenting. Ultimately, my husband and I decided not to have children. Even though we consciously came to this decision together, I grieved for months. Once the possibility of motherhood was foreclosed, Mother’s Day went from being neutral to being charged, as it had been that day in church. The year we decided to not become parents, I could not even bear to go to the grocery store for fear of being stung by an innocent cashier wishing me what I would never have. Every time I have to respond to someone that I do not, in fact, have kids–whether I am grieving the decision or not–I am reminded that I am not the norm.

I delight in fixing a festive brunch for my mother and mother-in-law to celebrate them on Mother’s Day. Most years, I can keep my focus on the women most responsible for the life I have now. Most years, I can smile when a cashier says “Happy Mother’s Day.”

Even during those times, though, I chafe at the cultural norm that means a woman of a certain age is assumed to be a mother. A common reaction to my being childfree is pity. Mother Claire’s insistence that I take a flower upset me not only because it felt like betrayal of my trust; her pity was as unwanted as the flower. When a friend who had been trying to conceive shared the good news that she was pregnant, I could see her concern as she told me. She wanted to be kind, to be sensitive, but those well-meant feelings translated into pity, which was far worse than my feeling a moment of remorse that I would never have such news to share. Her pity made my sincere good wishes ring hollow.

I’m an anomaly, though the tide is shifting. By choosing not to have kids, I have chosen, unwittingly, to leave myself open to unsought opinions, bromides, observations, and advice offered, usually, by women who have had kids. Little thought is given to whether I might have wanted kids and couldn’t or if I might have lost a pregnancy or if I weighed the trajectories, considered what I know about myself, and made a decision that allows me to be the human, the woman I want to be.

Let’s start with Mother Claire’s comment that as a teacher, I am a mother. I suppose, seen through the triple goddesses as a lens, a teacher can nurture, and as a childfree woman who seeks knowledge as we–some of us who have been called selfish for pursuing our educations–teachers do, I should accept that title. But I work with young people a few hours a week, sixteen weeks a semester. I’m not guiding their lives. I’m not imbuing them with my core values. I’m teaching revision strategies and passion for communication at best. I would never claim to understand the bond of a mother to her child based on the relationships I have with even the dearest of my students.

When I asked a group of childfree women to tell me what kinds of comments they had heard, one of the common ones, and one I have been told myself, was this: you’ll never know love until you look in your newborn’s eyes. Take your own variation on it.

It’s hard to respond to a statement like that when you aren’t a mom. Maybe I won’t know what love is, or I won’t understand real love, or I won’t ever feel deep love. Since I won’t be a mom, I can’t argue. I can, though, consider what I believe love is, and I can determine if I have felt such a thing for another and from another.

When I was a girl, I once asked my mom how you know you love someone. My mom is not a person who waxes eloquent on such things–I come by my stoic-New-Englander persona honestly. But that day, as we sat at the kitchen table, she patted the two hand towels in front of her. See, every day my mom washed my dad’s hair in the kitchen sink and then washed her own. The towels would wrap their heads until they dried their hair.

“Every day, I put out the towels, and I put the nicer one on top for daddy to use,” my mom said. “And every day, when my hands are wet and I grab a towel for him, he’s moved the shabbier one to the top so I’ll have the nicer one. That’s how you know you love someone.”

That daily moment between my parents echoes what the founder of Mother’s Day in the United States wanted to celebrate. Ann Jarvis’s intent was to honor the sacrifices a mother makes for her child. Ultimately, it is this willingness to help another person be their best, to give them our own best, that makes me believe I do know what love is, even without a child.

I am not opposed to Mother’s Day. The shift I long for is not simple. It isn’t that I want people to avoid the sentiment of celebrating mothers as a way to avoid hurting women who aren’t mothers. True, I, and many of my childfree friends, have often been made to feel uncomfortable, like something apart, something not normal because of our choices. Rather, I long for a shift where the decision to not have children is considered as valid as the decision to have children.

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My Brood is a Bike Team

From the editors: Writer Bridget Crenshaw Mabunga chronicles her transition from childless to childfree and shares how she funnels her nurturing energy into an at-risk youth bike team.

The doctor says if we conceive naturally, “You’d better name the baby Jesus, cause it’ll be a miracle.” We laugh, an authentic response to a good joke. I don’t feel the bruised ribs until later.

No IVF: I don’t want to shoot myself in the ass, nor do I want to see myself hopped up on hormones. Even for the chance to feel it flip inside my belly. No Donor: I cannot find anyone good enough in the pages and pages of bios though there’re plenty with straight black hair, sepia skin, smarts like his. I can’t find one because the only one I want is sitting next to me. He holds my hand as I search and feels more disposable with each click. No Adoption: I peruse sites and blogs languishing over all I’ve got to learn, all I’ve got to earn in order to make one of these unwanted babies mine. Forty thousand and a high risk of drug addiction in utero. I put the computer to sleep.

All my friends get pregnant. My sister first, in fact she announces just after I’ve learned I can’t. Her belly bubbles up expanding every month until I can no longer enter the room. I neglect calls, texts, visits. But I host the shower at my house, fill it with baby blues and ribbon. Family gathers and swoons as she thanks everyone for welcoming her into the world of motherhood. I sink behind my camera.

Each month I wonder, will we get a baby Jesus? If we do, I’m not naming it Jesus. I am not religious, don’t look to a book or a prayer, just wonder if I’ll ponder this same question until my body no longer releases, until after all the petals drop. Boobs swell so heavy, so sore I know this time might be it. My period’s late, so I look for swollen nipples, glowing cheeks, stomach gurgles. This happens so many times I think I might become hysterically pregnant like Percival Everett’s protagonist’s mother, only she actually gave birth.

My mom and his mom envelop me with words: it’s best; you’d never write; your relationship will change, maybe get ruined; you’ll never have time for him. My sister, bouncing on yoga ball, eye bags practically resting on shoulders, sweet crying baby boy thrashing in arms: You’ll be the one to help all of us struggling moms; we’ll appreciate it so much; besides, there’s your writing. And my husband: I’m fine with it; I don’t even want kids, too much responsibility; we can travel, take off whenever we want; besides, we have Maverick. Not one person pressures me to procreate in whatever fashion necessary; in fact, they all seem to think it’s better I don’t. Which makes me worry.

Bellies swell and swaddled babies land in my arms almost weekly, it seems. Friends try IVF, miscarry, try again, succeed. I re-consider, refuse again. Friends get pregnant naturally and miscarry; part of me feels vindicated. They want it more than I, so they try until they succeed. But seeing the struggle keeps them in my corner until they enter the land I never will, the club outside which I’ll always sit waiting until they’re ready to play again.

It takes four years to settle into a regular thought: I’m glad we don’t have kids. This is not an angry thought. It’s an honest one. Too many nights I’m home alone. Who would save me from the tantrums? Too many evenings I settle into the computer, create worlds. Who would put the kid to bed? Sometimes I can barely remember to feed Maverick.

Then, my ten year-old nephew passes away, and my family spends a week in a house together, calling friends, planning the funeral, sleeping on air mattresses, huddling in one room so none has to be alone. After the funeral, Bob and I return to a too-empty home. I see Thomas in my dream; he stands next to my bed, reaches out. I try to go back to work but have to walk out of class during a lesson, tears spilling over. My students give me an air plant and a card. I try not to cry again. When the quiet becomes too much, my husband volunteers us to help with the floundering Sacramento Police Department bike team, which serves teenage racers cold cereal for lunch while the wealthier kids, flanked by parents and well-paid coaches, walk by in matching jerseys eating multilayered sandwiches.

I become the mother of nine all at once. Nine teenagers, all boys but one: the princess my husband had always hoped for. I love the girl like I love the boys; though none seem particularly fond of me. Yet I’m more than fond of them because I know their struggles, recognize their emptiness as familiar. At-risk they call them; help support, mentor, keep active, keep out of gangs, expose to new possibilities. I write these words over and over as I seek money, hope they grant my kids bikes, helmets, socks. The other kids ride $10,000 Specialized; ours ride Frankenstein bikes that break down causing DNF’s and tears.

Sometimes I feel crushed by the gaps: money, poverty, drugs, gangs, holes in shoes. Some days I want to quit because I can never do enough. But then another race looms on the horizon and I rally. I assign duties, quiz them on the big three, tape Goos to handle bars, give pep talks and push-ups. But mostly, I make lunch. I chop and slice and lay out massive quantities of fruit and turkey burgers. I promise turkey tastes just like beef, hide the cookies until they’ve raced and push oranges over extra cheese. They do not seem to care. They barely look me in the eye, ignore me until I stand in front of them.

But when they fall, I’m there. And they do fall; they crash, flip over bikes, slam helmeted-heads into trees, collect rocks in knees, slice arms and fingers. On the way to the hospital, I have to call their mothers.

Yet, every other Sunday throughout the season, I am their mother. I know who’s been to prom; I know who wants to sit next to whom in the van; I know who likes grapes; I know who really wants to finish the race and who’s being too easy on himself—and I call him out.

I also protect them. When she crashed and it came through on the radio, I ran half way around the eight mile course to find her. I didn’t find her, but something told me to turn my head at the exact moment she came racing down the hill through the finish. I saw that green blur and knew she’d recovered, faced her fear.

I cheered him on as he shot down the hill—before the rock. He tumbled over and slammed down, got back up and raced away. I ran to the other side of the course to capture his arrival. Instead, he stumbled off his bike, face sheet-white. I called for a medic, followed him to the tent, patted his leg and pretended not to notice the tears.

Now, I occasionally wonder if by some bizarre chance, I might get a baby Jesus. Mostly, though, I’m thankful I don’t; if I did, I’d no longer have time for the team. Who would notice the slight intonation of an argument about to begin? When they call each other names, who would challenge them to appreciate difference, to work as a team, to be better than they were last week?

Working with these kids has allowed me to nurture in a way I never imagined possible, filling a gap in me and a gap in them. I’ve discovered parenting is more than birthing and raising a child, and that’s gratifying. So to those who continue to ask when, not if, we’ll have kids, I say: Let that miracle baby grace someone else’s nest, for mine is chock full of teenagers.

 

 

BridgetMabungaBridget Mabunga earned an MA in Creative Writing from Sacramento State, where she won a Bazanella award for graduate creative nonfiction, and her work has appeared in Under the Gum Tree and Kartika Review and is included in the 2012-2013 Kartika Review anthology. She’s been a featured reader at True Story, Sacramento and Assistant Editor for Narrative Magazine for over four years. She’s currently a Writing Specialist at UC Davis and recently finished her first novel manuscript.  

Photo credit: Madeloni Photography

 

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“Natural” vs. “Unnatural” Women: Motherhood as Woman’s Duty

From the editors: Dr. Shoba Sharad Rajgopal explores cultural expectations of motherhood she faced and resisted with the support of her mother (pictured with the author). 

I do not have children of my own, and, in fact, prefer the company of the young of other mammals, such as puppies and kittens. That may not sound unusual out here in the U.S, but it was seen as extremely odd when I was a young woman growing up in India, as most countries from the developing world tend to be extremely supportive of women as mothers, and dismissive of those women who are “barren,” and either unable, or unwilling, to produce offspring.

It is a far cry from the sane attitude of some other animal species such as elephants, where the role played by “aunt” elephants are as critical for the wellbeing of the herd as those of the mothers.

The good side of traditional societies is that no eyebrows are raised if a woman decides to discreetly feed her infant in a public place, and women there are adept at doing so. Here on the contrary, it is astonishing to see the brouhaha over this very natural act of a mother. Society appears to have forgotten that the function of the mammary glands are not to titillate the male species, but to feed the infants of the species.

But the bad side of traditional societies is that women are expected to yearn to become mothers from the time they are little girls. They are gifted little dolls for this very purpose, which they proceed to treat as their own infants. This is of course, a worldwide phenomenon and not just specific to my culture. However, what is specific to my original culture is the obsession that families have with parenthood. The pressure placed upon young couples by the husband’s parents is astonishing. From outwardly innocuous remarks like the jocular “Any good news? “ (accompanied by a knowing smile) to the more obvious and semi reproachful query, “When shall we hear the patter of little feet?”

In fact, young couples are pressured to feel that it is their duty to provide children / grandchildren for the aging parents and grandparents. This attitude leads to immense psychological pressure upon couples who are unable to perform their duty and produce offspring upon request. And of course it is expected in most communities, regardless of religion, class or caste, that the first born be a boy.

No doubt all these attitudes led to a reaction on my part as a rebellious young woman not to have children of my own, or rather, biological offspring. Any man I chose to spend time with would therefore be regaled with this decision. Small wonder then that most took to the hills. After all, who would want a wife who was not just an “uppity woman,” but “an unnatural” one, to boot?!

I recall the very hurtful comments made by a close male friend back in the days when my biological clock was supposed to be ticking: “You are an unnatural woman!”

I managed to cover up my feelings of hurt with a sharp quip, “And you, being a man, know what it feels like to be a woman?!”

But deep inside, I was hurt, very hurt. At weak moments I even asked myself, was it somehow strange of me as a woman not to feel this apparent universal urge to produce offspring? Did it even, in some way, make me a bad woman? When I came upon Simone de Beauvoir’s ruminations on the societal construction of womanhood I began to feel much better about my decision. But how many women of my generation back then had access to such literature in the first place? Most have access only to the sexist dictats of Manusmriti, the infamous Codes of Manu, the Lawgiver of ancient India, which were enforced by society in general, through the entire extended family, teachers, astrologers, the works!

In my case a casual visit to the family astrologer ended in disaster when the man concerned pronounced judgment upon my decision to stay single with a sneering accusation,”how selfish of you! You do not care for the suffering of your aging parents!”

My polite response that the parents concerned were not suffering but in fact were quite content to let me make my own decisions was met with horror. What kind of woman would behave this selfish? And how dare I wait so long and refuse all these offers of (arranged) marriage that had come my way? A sure sign of great arrogance! As to the lax attitude of my parents, no doubt this poor upbringing had contributed to my willful behavior.

As the years went by and I focused on my career and took up what appeared to be a permanent abode on the proverbial shelf, my mother stopped collecting items for my “Hope Chest,” (Or trunk, if you will, where jewelry, crockery and sundry other items would be collected by mothers for their daughter’s marital homes). The aforementioned “Hope Chest” became the family joke as “The Hopeless Chest!” Any conversation about my getting married or having a child was long dropped, to my great relief.

My mother even reassured me once, when I was in my late 30s with a pithy comment: “Marriage is not the be-all and end-all of life, my dear!”

It is only now, looking back on it, that I realize what an unusual woman she was of her generation, or even of generations to come, to possess such an unorthodox attitude towards life. For women in traditional South Asian society are usually led to believe that it is their bounden duty to get married and then produce children, preferably male.

I did eventually fall in love with a man who I went on to marry, once I had finished graduate school in the U.S. But we chose not to have children, partly because both of us travelled a lot, and rearing children under those circumstances would prove difficult, and partly because we were not eager to become parents. I am fortunate to have been born into a liberal and supportive family where a woman’s life is not equated to motherhood, but it is not the norm in my society even today.

However, I will add this caveat: I have discovered that society’s expectation of women is not that different even in the “modern, progressive West,” and not just in the developing world. Let us not forget that it is not just in Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s USSR that women were forced into motherhood, to produce good Aryan babies for God and the nation. That was the case in the U.S too, where, forget abortion, even contraception was banned right into the second half of the 20th century. The position of many world religions too has been that woman’s duty is to become a mother, and produce as many offspring as possible at that.

We do live in a brave new world where women are not forced into motherhood, overtly, that is. But what about the covert message of the mainstream media? Indeed, as numerous television serials and Hollywood films continue to show, women who are content with their careers and other pastimes rather than yearning for motherhood are portrayed as unnatural (yes, that word again!) Yet, somehow the most unnatural woman is redeemed eventually when she goes ahead and births a child. Although there is little support for either the mother or the child once she has gone ahead and had it, with working mothers reporting huge levels of stress trying to juggle work and home without much access to childcare in most jobs. But that is a different story.

Women who have abortions are still represented in a negative light in Hollywood films in this day and age. Candice Bergen’s Murphy Brown may have incurred Dan Quayle’s wrath in the 1990s, for being a single mother. But she was a mother nevertheless, not a woman who had resolved to remain childless, and, moreover, a content childless woman at that. Even films that masquerade as progressive such as the Indie film Juno (2007) have a dark side when they enforce the hegemonic view that woman’s natural calling is to be a mother. And God forbid that a popular television series show a woman reject the role of motherhood and get an abortion.

We may seem to have come a long way since the dark days of The Feminine Mystique (1963), when Betty Friedan wrote of the oppressive standards that women were expected to uphold within American society. Women in this part of the world today can do anything, take up any profession, be whatever they want to be. And yet, as our television serials never cease to remind us, the one thing we deeply yearn for, regardless of all our outward posturing, is to be mothers. Small wonder, then, that women who have postpartum depression or parental ambivalence even years later feel abandoned by society, as they are made to feel they are not “normal.” Because, isn’t it “normal” to feel complete as a woman only when one has become a mother?

Perhaps East and West are not so different after all…

Shoba Dr. Shoba Sharad Rajgopal x received her Ph.D. in Media Studies from the University of Colorado at Boulder, Spring 2003. She moved to the East coast to take up a position as the Coordinator of the then Women’s Studies Program at Westfield State University and is currently in charge of the Women and Gender Studies Minor in the Department of Ethnic & Gender Studies, where she teaches courses that focus on gender issues and religious extremism in South Asia. She has worked with colleagues across campus and helped develop an Asian Studies Minor at the university. Dr Rajgopal traveled widely across Asia and Europe in her previous avatar as a broadcast journalist and reported for the Indian networks and for CNN International from various international locations.

Three Poems

 

From the Editors: Poet Leah Nielsen explores the tension between being childfree and childless.

 

 


Pantoum on the Children We Never Had

Maybe it was the hand of some god,
or maybe the stars could not
get it together, maybe in deciding
to postpone the decision we made a decision

or maybe the stars could not–
who knows if my body could.
We postponed the decision, made a decision.
Maybe we never wanted to anyway.

Who knows if my body could
have handled it. Maybe it couldn’t.
Maybe we never wanted to anyway.
Maybe I never. Maybe we could

have handled it. Maybe not.
Maybe there was a point at which.
Maybe I never, maybe we could.
The door was just shut–

maybe there was a point at which
we decided separately–unspoken–no.
We just shut the door.
I don’t know anymore. I don’t think

we decided separately, unspoken. No,
maybe at some point someone said maybe someday.
I don’t know anymore. I don’t think
it helps to think on it.

Maybe at some point someone said someday
when we get it together. Maybe in deciding
it helps to think on it.
Maybe it was the hand of a god.


 

The Poem I’ve Been Writing for 10 Years Finally Speaks Up

What if I was just wrong from the get go.
What if you go two more decades without
getting me right. What if that fat fuck
of a proctologist was right. What if that spot
on your liver was a thing to think of as a thing,
not a freckle as the second opinion said.
What if it’s not very nice to call people
fat fucks. What if your birth control pills
were causing the liver spot. What if it’s a matter
of meter or just a word choice here
or there when you’ve been toying
all these years with scene and voice.
What if you had it right two drafts ago. No,
I agree. It was too peopled, too plump
with intent, no room for words to work,
no happy accidents, no happiness. Yes,
you have a point in that I am about a doctor
questioning what he should not have questioned
in a manner he should not have employed.
How much happiness can happen. So what
if he said, Maybe you haven’t thought about this.
Maybe you really do want kids. So what if he questioned
what your husband might want, questioned
if you’d bothered to have a conversation
about him, checked your chart and mentioned
the phrase geriatric pregnancy. So what of the Bible
on his desk, the cross on his wall. What were you
to do beyond tears. Write a poem about some woman
being stupid enough to wed that Weeble.
Some woman wanting a Sak’s card and a Benz so badly
she’d have five kids. Some woman who fucked him
at least five times. Who is she. You couldn’t
write that poem. You shouldn’t write it now.
You were wrapped tight in manners and billboards
about damnation.

Try beginning this way:

Nothing was wrong. Nothing but a freckle on your liver.
Nothing came out but nothing when the clinic assistant
asked what was wrong as you paid your bill through tears.
Nothing happened but your words failed you
and there’s nothing you hate more.


 

So the yard storing old toys

from the kids who used to
live there– a naked Barbie
with a butch haircut, a few
chewed army men the dog
dragged in. Was that all.
What about the tree fort
zip line into the camellias.
About the tire swing swung
over an old oak limb. What
about the neighbor’s grandson,
the only one who swung there.
The two lion statues guarding
the drive that that kid broncoed
when he was tired of the swing.
About the porch swing so right
for watching azaleas light the street
on fire. About the two dogs. One
we chose. The other chose us.
Who chose the herniated disk.
Who chose chronic and Percocet
and clean baseboards and pressed
shower curtains. Did someone
choose words. What words were
there. Did we choose a commuter
career. What was a gift. What
did we make into one. What was
a curse. How do we mold it now.

 

LeahNielsenHeadShotLeah Nielsen earned her M.F.A. from the University of Alabama. Her first collection of poems, No Magic, was published by Word Press. Her chapbook, Side Effects May Include, which examines the state of permanent patienthood, was published in 2014 by The Chapbook. Among other places, her poems have appeared in Crab Orchard Review, Indiana Review, and Rattle. She lives and teaches in Westfield, MA.

 

The featured image is “Reclining” by Karen E.D. Peterson, who received her BFA in Studio Fine Arts and Art History from Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts in Richmond, VA.  You can find more on her work at kedpeterson.com.

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Bearing

From the editors: we are delighted to share this piece from poet Jessica Temple. 

 

 

 

 

My favorite part of baking is before:
the batter dripping from the paddle,
or the yeasty dome rising in the metal bowl.

*

Last week my aunt called to tell me
it’s alright that I’m not pregnant.
I started to think maybe it’s not.

*
Once, as warning, grandmother told us about
her first husband – married because they had to.
Miscarried after a fall. Said she’d prayed for it.

*

One of those summers when heat
came early, a goat returned from the woods
with only one newborn. From the bulge

her belly had been, I knew that she
should’ve had two. I found the missing
by smell, just far enough in to stay shaded.

When I came back from shoveling,
it was already just a mound of fur,
wriggling as maggots danced inside.

*

My youngest sister asks me for recipes,
help with grammar. And when her doctor
said the pregnancy wasn’t viable

she called me first, disquieted.
I could not say to her This
is how to lose your baby.

*

Both my sisters now busy themselves
with the making of people. I’ve seen
the work of it, the pulling back

from the edge. One kept it covered
for months – hidden like shirt stays
under starched white trousers.

My nephews will be born
in Indian summer. One
will have dark skin, dark hair.

The other will be fair and
fearless. Both will grow tall.
They will not look like me.

 

JTempleJessica Temple earned her PhD in poetry from Georgia State University. She writes and voices shows for the syndicated poetry college radio program melodically challenged  and teaches at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. Her work has recently appeared in Aesthetica; Blast Furnace;Canyon Voices; and Stone, River, Sky: An Anthology of Georgia Poems from Negative Capability Press, among others. Her chapbook, Seamless and Other Legends, is available from Finishing Line Press. Find out more at jessicatemple.com.

 

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Dear Pope Francis, I’m Not Selfish

From the Editors: Writer and Professor Lisa Whalen shares her response to Pope Francis’s declaration that the decision not to have children is selfish. Continue the conversation in the comments!

I didn’t want a kitten. I made that clear when I began volunteering and fostering for the Animal Humane Society (AHS) years ago. Contrary to predictions by everyone who knew me, I had no problem returning the kittens at the end of their foster period. In fact, I often found myself relieved, even though I’d grown fond of them. I preferred adult cats.

When I agreed to foster a two-month-old stray, Ziggy, and continued saying I didn’t want to adopt a kitten, everyone assumed that it was grief talking, that I’d change my mind. The recent death of my 17-year-old orange tabby sucker-punched me. From the moment he entered my life as a six-year-old, we simply “got” each other. I could predict his moods and movement; I always knew what he was thinking. I often worked from home, so he and I spent most waking hours together. I spoiled him as if he lay at the center of my life. So, yes, I mourned. But that’s not why I remained reluctant to adopt Ziggy.

I knew from experience that kittens are far more like human toddlers than most people would like to acknowledge. They demand 24-hour attention. When they don’t get it, they misbehave. They don’t understand boundaries and don’t care for rules. I knew I didn’t have it in me to give a kitten what he needed long-term, so I avoided adopting one.

My husband, Chad, along with everyone who met Ziggy, grew enamored. Chad wanted to adopt, but since I do the care-taking, he left the decision to me. I watched Chad bid Ziggy a sad farewell the morning I was to return him. Then I caved.

I regretted it. And didn’t. Then did again. Now I ping-pong between amusement, protectiveness, irritation, affection, and anger from hour to hour. I try to work; Ziggy chases my fingers across the keyboard. I wash dishes, he climbs my leg and bites my ears. I set the table, he jumps on my feet and trips me. I lie in bed and he . . . curls up on my chest. I smile at his tiny white paws, his gray stripes that expand and contract with each sleepy breath.

Then he pounces and bites my feet through the bedspread.

I glimpse a fantastic companion hidden beneath his frantic exterior, but it lies at least 18 months in the future. I worry impatience will push me to return him. I wonder if that might be better for him. I’ll wait and see how things go, I decide. Then I’m ashamed. That’s not the kind of pet owner I want to be.

My ambivalence toward keeping Ziggy confirms doubts I’ve long held about my suitability as a parent, which is why I’ve chosen not to have a child in spite of conflicts that decision generates with my Catholic faith. Catholic doctrine contends that sex between married couples must remain open to procreation because God and nature have selected procreation as the purpose of marriage. The Church bans all contraception except natural family planning (i.e., the rhythm method). Since I don’t intend to have a child, I’ve ignored that ban.

From the moment Jorge Mario Bergoglio selected “Francis,” patron saint of animals and the natural environment, as his papal name, I felt a stirring of hope. His choice reflected a focus on compassion for all living beings. It also hinted at a willingness to buck authority and flout rules when conscience demands it, for his namesake defied parental mandates to work in the family business, rejected familial wealth, and spent the majority of his adult life living out a vow of poverty and serving the poor. Perhaps Pope Francis would lead the Vatican away from its obsession with “the letter of the faith”—rule, ritual, and papal infallibility—and toward “the spirit of the faith”: love, service, forgiveness, and inclusion.

My initial hope seemed well-placed. In addition to eschewing the trappings of his office and seeking personal connection with society’s least fortunate at every opportunity, Pope Francis upheld the primacy of conscience, asserting Catholics’ right to do what their inner relationship with God tells them is right, even if that conflicts with Church doctrine. Like his namesake, Pope Francis recognized that practicing selflessness and love sometimes requires breaking rules. I took comfort. He seemed to assert that Church doctrine was not infallible or absolute. Perhaps he and the Church might recognize my decision not to have a child as one based on careful reflection, on a desire to do what was right not only for me, but also for any child I might have as well as for the society that would educate and employ him/her.

I grew even more hopeful when, in February 2015, Pope Francis declared that Catholics need not reproduce “like rabbits”. He urged them to space out children’s births by a few years. I took these comments to mean Pope Francis acknowledged the value of self-awareness and the ability to make individual moral decisions, that he didn’t share his predecessors’ disdain for contraception. I dared think he might change Church doctrine. But two days later, he walked back his initial comments, upholding the ban on contraception.

Worse, Pope Francis claimed that not having children is “a selfish choice”. I disagree. In fact, it’s exactly the opposite. My conscience tells me that every child deserves to be raised by a parent who cherishes him/her; who can provide for his/her physical, emotional, and spiritual needs; and who relishes the opportunity to do so. I don’t meet those qualifications. Self-awareness leads me to that conclusion; primacy of conscience tells me that given what I know, to try and fail would be irresponsible, regardless of Church doctrine. Putting the child’s needs ahead of my own desire to leave a part of myself behind after I die is decidedly unselfish. Chad and I risk having no one to care for us when we’re old; therefore, we save aggressively, unselfishly wanting to avoid becoming a burden on the rest of society’s children.

According to Pope Francis, having children is not “an irresponsible choice” because births enrich rather than impoverish; that’s why all Catholic married couples are to have them . That may be true in many cases, but not all. Put bluntly, children are expensive. Many suffer the effects, through no fault of their own, of being born into families or societies who can’t—or won’t—provide for their needs. That seems a more irresponsible choice than using artificial contraception. And testing, measuring, and documenting in an effort to manipulate the body’s reproductive process, as is required for natural family planning, strikes me as anything but “natural.”

Even as Pope Francis urges us to care for our planet by combating climate change, he seems, at best, ambivalent about unchecked reproduction—one of the greatest threats to any ecology. More people consume more resources.

The sole purpose of organizations like the one I volunteer for (the Animal Humane Society) is to improve society by caring for its animals. Animal shelters witness every day how individual animals suffer because of overpopulation. Not enough caretakers exist to meet all animals’ needs, so many end up suffering neglect or living as strays despite having lost natural survival instincts through domestication. At some animal shelters (not AHS), unwanted animals are euthanized due to lack of resources. This is the result of unchecked procreation, not so different from what the Catholic Church seems to advocate.

Research shows the best way to improve animals’ lives is to prevent overpopulation, so many shelters spay/neuter pets before making them available for adoption. I would never advocate such practices for human beings, obviously, but I find it ironic that the Church won’t allow its members to prevent unwanted pregnancies with artificial contraception even as most of humanity agrees preventing unwanted pregnancies is the most humane and effective way to improve animals’ quality of life.

Ziggy dozes on my lap as I write this. I anticipate with a measure of annoyance the fact that he’ll soon wake and begin clawing at my hair, which reaffirms for me two important lessons: 1) I was right not to have children, for their sake as much as mine, and 2) I appreciate these sweet, serene moments all the more, knowing they’ll be rare for quite some time.

Lisa Whalen HeadshotLisa Whalen teaches writing and literature at a Minnesota college and volunteers for the Animal Humane Society. Her writing has been featured in An Introvert in an Extrovert World (Cambridge Scholars), Before and After the Tutorial(Hampton Press), WorkingUSA (Wiley & Sons), and several peer-reviewed journals. She is writing a memoir, currently untitled, set to be complete in 2016.

 

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