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On Not Getting What I Wanted

I already had a baby. But I wanted another.

Elisa Albert
February 14, 2023
Franziska Barczyk
Franziska Barczyk

What I wanted was a baby. It was not a logical or defensible want. I already had a baby; a wonderful son I hesitate even to mention for fear of exciting the evil eye. But I wanted another one. Another baby. All the mom-people I knew kept having other babies, more and more babies. Everyone knows you have to have at least two, otherwise it’s not a real family, and why even bother with the whole endeavor in the first place?

We were lust-crazed morons when we’d had our first baby, our wonderful son, but we’d learned so much, risen to the occasion, grown up, evolved, and now we wanted another baby, a celebration baby, to come from our hard-won stability and contentment.

By “we” wanted, I mean “I” wanted. He wanted another baby, too, and claimed he was very much looking forward to the existence of the other baby. But the thing is, he never wept inconsolably when it didn’t happen. The inconsolable weeping was all mine. It’s really surprising how many tears a person can weep.

I didn’t tell a lot of people about my wanting because A) I did not want to be defined by it and B) It hurt so, so bad. Of those I did tell, a few were kind and circumspect, but most were somewhere on the insensitive-to-fucking-asshole spectrum. So it goes. Do you know that there are people in the world who, given any opportunity, are ravenously eager to pity others in attempting to make themselves feel superior? They’re called sadists, and they’re everywhere!

It crushed me when people said crappy things and boy did people say crappy things. Well I’m just so glad mine have each other. Don’t you think it’s cruel to just have one? Only children are weirdos! I know how you feel because I only had three boys and what I really wanted was a girl. It was pretty astonishing, how much cruel, stupid shit people said to me. A reflexologist said I didn’t want it bad enough. A nutritionist said I wanted it too much. A foul douche cousin said I would never trust an only child. One time, I overheard a kid from down the street in conversation with my son: “What’s it like being an only child? Seems like it would be super lonely.” I had to clutch the kitchen countertop, close my eyes, and take a very deep breath to stop myself from popping in to be like hey kid, what’s it like having an alcoholic for a mom? Seems like it would be super toxic!

Here are the kinds of people who have only one child: people disallowed more under fascist government, coldhearted selfish career-obsessed bitches, people who loathed the experience of having the one, people with biological incapacity, and mothers of such advanced age that having even one was a dystopian miracle.

You have to have at least two. Why did I constantly look at other families with multiple children—even when said families were wildly dysfunctional and/or broken and/or blatantly miserable—and think: well, at least they’re a real family. Needless to say, I had to mute everyone I know who uses social media exclusively as a means of showcasing offspring. No big loss there, though, and honestly you guys: cut that obnoxious shortsighted exploitative shit out.

Let us pause to remind ourselves, in spite of our sitcom brainwashing and general cultural programming and absurd devotion to some bygone bullshit Rockwellian lie, that there is no such thing as a formula for a happy family. Some of every stripe in every configuration manage to fuck it up, and some of every stripe in every configuration manage to rock it. Maybe family happiness exists on a spectrum, like gender. Suck it, Tolstoy.

Anyway, anyway: I wanted a(nother) baby. And when the (other) baby declined to appear, I felt cursed and punished and blighted and tragic and enraged and impotent. I screamed into the void. I told God to eat shit and die. And I found out some interesting things about myself. Such as: I am in conversation with God!

Also: I did not want that other baby bad enough to sign my ass up for fertility treatment. I can almost, but not quite, imagine wanting it that bad. I one hundred percent did not want it that bad. That certainty was like a towering stone wall in my heart. I often rested my forehead against that wall. Its coolness and solidity provided great comfort and reassurance. That wall had always existed, long, long before I did. It was a primordial wall. It was covered in moss. It was an ancient, quiet, verdant, merciful, restful place. I spent a whole lot of time there.

Like I said, I already had a baby. A beyond wonderful baby. The most awesome baby. And still, I wanted another. How greedy is that? To “want” life itself. The more I thought about it—and hahahahaha, man, did I think about it—the more indefensible it seemed.

My job, then, was to learn to surrender want. I threw myself at this monumental task. I wanted to be worthy of it. What a badass undertaking. When you surrender want, you join the ranks of priestesses and seers. When you surrender want, you became a guru and a beacon. (But, like, ego-less.) I wanted to be totally fucking at peace with exactly what is. I wanted not to despise God whenever some odious jerkoff announced the birth of their second/third/fourth/fifth child. I wanted not to care when sadists parroted nonsense to me about “only” children. I wanted not to feel mortally wounded whenever some intimate stranger went on some dumb caption bender about how it’s Harlowe’s fifth birthday today and goodness gracious we don’t deserve her but God sent her to us and we’re just so grateful that she chose to complete our family or whatever thoughtless nonsense noise.

The essential nature of want is that it is infinite, and can’t ever be fulfilled.

I wanted not to want. I wanted it so, so bad.

I thought maybe the mikvah (Jewish ritual bath, look it up, I’m not your ethnic shortcut) might help me in my progress toward relinquishment of want. Or maybe … the mikvah would be the magical key to open the door to the desired pregnancy! UGH, so annoying, that reflexive, automatic want! Fuck off! I wanted to stamp it out, extinguish it. It caused me nothing but pain. Enough! No more! I was a prisoner of want, and I wanted to be free. Do you see my quandary? Wanting was everywhere.

I have a friend who bore 13 children. I can’t even fathom loving 13 people that much. How full can a heart get? Most everyone I know recoils in horror at the thought of 13 children, but I stand in awe. Not just because she bore 13 children (although, uh, superhero much?) but because she raised them all, with strength and decency and humility and love and self-sacrifice, which is something like governing a small country and something like running a school and something like being a top-notch nurse/administrator/teacher/CEO/cook/housekeeper. This woman has her shit together.

My friend with the 13 children agreed to tutor me with regard to the mikvah. She gave me books: Taharat HaMishpacha, The Waters of Eden. I already knew the gist; I’d immersed once before, in advance of a reckless starter marriage at 23, but the real-real turned out to be a fair bit more complex and interesting than I’d previously understood. I read up, and went over to her house on Tuesday evenings to study some more. We sat side by side at her table and read aloud together. She was a good teacher, a gentle woman. There was nothing in it for her.

The laws of family purity get a bum rap for seeming to imply that menstruation is dirty, and that women need to be cleansed/purified because we ourselves are metaphysically dirty/bad. Cue the automatic assumption that religion is inherently misogynistic and all observant women must be an oppressed bunch of self-hating victim/slaves. I believe this to be a pile-up of etymological misunderstanding, but what can I tell you: look at the texts and the texts about the texts and make up your own mind, or don’t. No skin off my nose, as the old saying goes. (I mean, a personal no thanks to the part about sending one’s used panties to a Rabbi for inspection if unsure about the precise color/nature of vaginal discharge, but to each their own.)

My studies left me dazzled and delighted. To my mind, mikvah is as radically feminist a ritual as they come, and by “radically feminist” I mean: enormously insightful with regard to personal freedom, the rhythm and care and life span of a soul inside a body with an unmediated menstrual cycle, hard truths about fertility, life, and death, and power dynamics within long-term monogamous intimacy.

Sex with the same person for years and years and years gets boring, no matter how much you may adore and respect and like that person. Without mystery and newness and romantic intrigue and the psychedelic dance of courtship, how can you possibly stay jazzed? Taharat haMishpacha has some answers: You quite literally do not touch your spouse for two weeks out of every menstrual cycle. You separate, and then you reunite. Said reunions are glorious. You cherish your weeks “on” and you savor your weeks “off.” You take clearly demarcated, finite breaks from being sexually desired and/or desirous. A human being cannot have or be had on every whim.

The mikvah is often described as the marking of transition. A movement from one place—one identity, one role, one state of being—to another. Marital sex, which for me had become routine, an exercise in futility, a hotbed of grief and anxiety and failure, could be thusly honored and reframed. Yes, mikvah said: sex can be boring and rote and pointless, and yes, it would be easy and fun to find someone new to do it with, but instead you are going to become new, which in turn will make your spouse feel new, which will ideally allow you to anticipate and enjoy relations for a long time to come.

Bleeding, which had become the embodiment of heartbreak and injustice, could likewise be thusly honored and reframed. Yes, mikvah said: Bleeding can be a recurring funereal curse. Now come and enact this ritual that belongs to you and belonged to your ancestors (oh ho, you thought we were going to get out of here without acknowledging the ancestors?), and allow it to wash away heartbreak and injustice, so that you may emerge fresh and intact and whole and fine, just as you are. You are not cursed or broken or blighted; you are alive in your very own body, which is, itself, an Eden, holy and sacred and worthy and fine, just as it is.

So, for the first time in years, I visited the mikvah. A little unmarked building in the far corner of the parking lot at my local JCC. How many times had I seen it without registering it, without even wondering what it was. A lovely shomeret was there to observe and assist. I said the brachot and completely immersed, three times, in the collected rainwater.

I won’t bore you with tales of mystical rebirth; it’s feckin’ private. Suffice it to say, everything about it felt good and right. Every bell was rung.

The wanting didn’t magically go away, but it did fade some. Wanting’s a tricky bitch; it waxes and wanes. Wanting is like an odor; it can find its way through the tiniest cracks. Wanting is like a weed; it self-sows. I am a person of some privilege who came of age in late-stage capitalism, so I am not well conditioned to, like, chillax with not getting what I want. (Dial up cinematic Veruca Salt from the original Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: “I want a party with roomfuls of laughter, ten thousand tons of ice cream … and if I don’t get the things I am after, I’m … going … to … SCREAM!”)

I kept thinking I’d return to the mikvah, dip on the regular, make a proper habit/practice of it. But you know how it is … there’s soccer practice or the dog hasn’t been walked or you’re going on a trip or there’s an event you have to attend or—whoops—pandemic time. Or you’re just beat from trying to meet a deadline or advance yourself in some way or keep abreast with everyone and their mother on whatever platform holds you in thrall.

Still, my awareness continued to shift. I keep distance from my spouse during niddah, the days during and immediately after menstruation, and I notice that I tend to instinctively dress differently during that time, too. Less likely to put the precise contours of my body on public display. Less likely to advertise what nice tits and ass I have. During that time I do not exist for the pleasure or approval or appraisal of anyone else. It’s my time to be an independent creative entity, a fundamentally human animal more than a socially constructed and perceived “female” object. (I’m happy to show off my tits and ass the rest of the time, though, rest assured! I’m not like an anarchist or anything.)

I’ll probably always have a very tender spot where resides the lack of what I wanted, and that’s okay. I might even go so far as to say it’s good. Does the world really need more checked boxes, more acquisition, more staged holiday photos, more general smugness? Have we not seen the devastation wrought by certain classes of people in certain sorts of societies getting everything they want?

Not getting what we want can leave us soft, bruised, gentler, quieter, and maybe a little more watchful and humble than perhaps we’d otherwise manage to be. Maybe not getting what we want can make us more grateful for what we do have. Isn’t that just so nice and tidy? Well, no: it’s also hard, messy, awful, and frustrating. It really is quite insanely hard. I still admittedly have a lot of trouble with certain Instagram narratives.

I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought, quoth a Shakespeare sonnet I scrawled on the inside cover of my diary as a lovelorn teen. Back then I was pouting over unrequited love, as yet unschooled in deeper realms of thwarted desire.

I. Wanted. Another. Baby. For a long time it was impossible to even speak the words out loud: I was too desperately vulnerable: you could snap my spine in half like a twig. Even now, I can type it, but I probably still couldn’t say the words out loud. How unfair it seemed, how wrong it felt that I didn’t get that other baby. Only losers don’t get what they want. And I really did not want to be a loser. But I also did not want to be lost in a vortex of thwarted desire forever, so. You find ways to move the fuck on, and you thank god you aren’t one of those programmed shmucks who think there’s some prefab equation for a full or happy life.

By the way! The essential nature of want is that it is infinite, and can’t ever be fulfilled. Visit an AA meeting sometime, and see for yourself.

I know people with two children who yearn for three. I know people with three children who yearn for four. I even know someone with four children who years for five. I wonder if my friend, my kind teacher, the mother of 13, ever indulges in wistful imaginings of what number 14 might have looked like, or smelled like, or how it might have felt to touch her lips to that nonexistent baby’s sweet, sweet brow.

Excerpted from Wanting: Women Writing About Desire, edited by Margot Kahn and Kelly McMasters, copyright 2023, Catapult.

Elisa Albert is the author of three novels and a story collection. From 1969 to 1980, her stepfather was an active member of Kibbutz Be’eri, where Hamas carried out mass civilian slaughter on Oct. 7.