Still Literary Contest Judge's Selection: Frankie Finley
Frankie Finley is a proud Momma and an Appalachian writer. She was the first woman editor of the long-standing Appalachian literary journal, Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel. Her essays have been published in regional literary journals, and she was recently named a finalist in the Next Great Writers Contest for her fiction. Frankie received a 2011 Kentucky Foundation for Women Artist Enrichment Grant for her current memoir project about co-parenting after lesbian divorce, from which “Squirt” was adapted. She lives in Lexington, Kentucky, with her daughter, Aedin, who is now 11.
“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
“I am sooo ready to get pregnant!” Maia tossed the pen down onto the legal pad in front of her. The margins were full of squiggles framing strings of numbers and random adjectives that were starred or underlined here and there. She pushed her chair back from the table and crossed her arms.
I could feel her emotions welling up again behind me, so I spun around in the computer chair to face her. Maia generally tried to hide her sadness and disappointment, but she sometimes broke down into tears that were hard to stop. The process of finding a donor was getting to me too, but I only felt frustrated and determined to fix things. The monotony of it all was making it hard for me to stay excited about the search, however.
All the donor profile screens seemed to be designed with the same color palette used by institutional interior designers. Sage green. Cable blue. Warm gray. Khaki. I guess it was supposed to be soothing, but it just gave me a headache. The text was all monospace, unexpressive, nondescript. Just like the men in the profiles. Maybe that was to make it all objective, but it just made me confused. I couldn’t keep one straight from another. I wanted Maia to be pregnant too, but I never would have guessed we’d spend months surfing through sperm donor profiles on the Internet.
I rubbed my eyes and yawned. “Well, it’s not going to happen tonight, so let’s go to bed. It’s almost two already.”
“Time flies when you’re having fun. Not!”
I grabbed her knees and rolled myself over toward her. “What? Looking through sperm donor profiles until you go cross-eyed isn’t your idea of hot date night?” I raised my eyebrows up and down a few times.
Maia sighed. “It just seems hopeless.” She raised her hands and rubbed the tears out of her eyes.
“It’s not hopeless. We’ll figure something out. We always do.” I wrapped my arms around her and started covering her with kisses, making obnoxious Pepé le Pew kissy sounds until she laughed.
“Yes we do.” She squeezed my hand and gave a half smile, but her gray eyes drifted back to the sage green screen behind me.
Maia and I met and fell in love at 19 and tried to legally marry at 20. We talked about having children from early on in our relationship. So many nights, we fell asleep talking about what our kids would be like, how becoming moms would change our lives, the kinds of things our family might have to face in society, and all of our ideals on good parenting. We never had any doubt about who would be the biological mom. Maia had a yearning to be pregnant that I couldn’t understand if I wanted to. Sure, I wanted a baby, but biological ties weren’t all that important to me. I was also pretty ambivalent about having an alien life form growing inside of me, feeding off of me for 40 weeks, to be followed by excruciating pain that I might or might not remember. But, for some reason, that sounded like a great time to Maia. Our dream was that she’d be the stay-at-home mom, so we wouldn’t have to deal with child care, and I’d be the working mom. Just after we turned 23, we decided it was time to turn our dream into a reality.
Plan A was our friend from college, Isaiah. In the mid-1990s, the three of us had made a pact to have a “radical family,” which was radical only because we’d never heard of anything like it before. Our kids would have three queer parents (four if Isaiah ever found Mr. Right), all involved in the upbringing and decision-making. With all the debates and psychological studies going on in the 1990s that questioned and studied the fitness of gays and lesbians as parents, I think we took Hillary Clinton’s “it takes a village to raise a child” message to heart. There was no blueprint for our plans, but it was a trail we were all looking forward to blazing. I sometimes imagined it could be an idyllic communal parenting effort, and at other times, I imagined it would probably be more like a series of parent-parent-parent committee meetings.
Regardless of how the day-to-day parenting experience would pan out with three parents, what I looked forward to the most was experiencing every little step ahead of us. I couldn’t wait to see the changes in Maia’s body from the pregnancy, and I knew I’d never anticipate all the missteps we were likely to take while learning to be parents or the curveballs our children might throw our way. I had no doubt that because of our different strengths, Maia and I would complement one another as mothers just as we did as partners, and that our kids would be very well-behaved. After all, how could they get away with anything if they had two moms? Our kids would be surrounded by love—supportive grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and a whole bunch of kinfolk from three different parents. Maia and I never made a back-up plan because we never had a reason to doubt that Isaiah would be the father of our children. He was the one to introduce the two of us in college, and we’d all three been close since.
But we hit a snag with Plan A. When we sat down with Isaiah to discuss our pending plans, he ended the conversation quickly, saying he needed to think things over. As things turned out, Isaiah was ready to start a new adventure in life, to go out to California for a new job. He wasn’t ready to start our radical family just yet, and he didn’t want to be an absent father. Maybe in a few years he’d be ready, but he had to see how things went with his career.
Maia was heartbroken, and I vacillated between frustration and insecurity. Besides having a positive male role model, there were legal issues that made it ideal to have a biological father involved in parenting our child. We lived in Ohio, one of the many states in our land of the free with legislation prohibiting same-sex marriage, second-parent adoption, and de facto parental rights for non-biological parents after a partner’s death or a separation. The laws had already been tested in the Ohio Supreme Court. Two women who’d been together for 17 years separated and the biological mother refused custody arrangements for the couple’s 11-year-old daughter. When the non-biological mother sued for joint custody, she lost—the court case and her child. Having simple legal documents like guardianship, medical power of attorney, and wills seemed a little flimsy in the face of such a big court decision. Having a father with legal rights could help protect my rights to our child in certain situations. I had to place deep faith in Maia and her family that I’d never have to face such a tragedy, that my rights would always be recognized, no matter what.
Maia and I weren’t willing to wait for Isaiah to be ready, but neither of us could produce sperm. So we started thinking about our options. Maia found an article on the internet about some experimental procedure that was being tested in Australia—fusing two women’s eggs to create an embryo. “That’s awesome,” I said, thinking they must have based the research on those lesbian lizards from the U.S. Southwest. I’d seen some nature show about how this type of lizard species was made up of only females that swapped chromosomes to reproduce asexually. Problem one with this plan—we didn’t live in Australia and it’s expensive to fly there to try to track down a private study that didn’t publish contact information. Problem two—we weren’t lizards, so we were up against another biological impossibility.
So, it was on to Plan B. Sperm donors. We found ourselves spending hours each week researching sperm banks, local and out-of-state. We searched through their databases, checked their pricing structures and policies, trying to understand the overload of facts we were dumping on ourselves with each search. How could we select a man to donate half our child’s chromosomes based on little more than biological statistics and some personal essay-type answers to a few random questions? Maia and I wanted to know the donor’s personality.
“It’s so hard not knowing what they’re really like,” I said to Maia one night when I was feeling especially defeated by the khaki backgrounds.
“I know,” she said. “I keep wondering about random things, like whether they make weird faces…or worse, repetitive sounds all the time. That would drive me crazy.”
I nodded, knowing that Maia’s pet peeves included things like obsessive pen clicking, gum popping, and out-of-tune humming.
“Even if we had just a little more information, how could we weed out quirks from compulsive behavior? How could we tell if they were being honest about everything, stretching the truth, or just flat-out lying? How could we tell if they’re serious or goofy or super suavé?”
I smirked. “Or a combination of those. Like me.”
Maia laughed and kissed me. “Yes, all of the above.”
“Wouldn’t it be great if we could hear their laughs?” I said. “If I could only pick one real thing to know, it would be the sound of their laugh.”
“Yeah, we could weed out the ones that are annoying.” We both laughed as we took turns demonstrating the laughs that we’d hate to hear coming out of our child. High-pitched looping squeals, nasally machine-gun ha-ha-has, chimpanzee-style hooting.
“Mua-ha-ha…” Maia gave her best evil laugh.
“Oh, crap. How are we going to weed out the creepy ones?” I pretended to joke.
We pondered what the code for “single white male, lives alone, keeps to himself” might be on a profile, what wording in a personal statement would be a dead giveaway that the donor was a creeper. As we got ready for bed, all I could think was you never know what you’re going to get.
That night, I dreamed I was at the park with a child, a little girl in a dark dress. I was chasing her around trees. Her giggles floated back on the wind with her long hair. I was laughing, too, enjoying the chase. After a while, she ran behind a big tree and the giggling stopped. I ran a circle around the tree and spun around, scanning the park for any sign of her. She’d disappeared into thin air. I began to panic, unable to call out a name I didn’t know. So I kept running around, frantically scanning every face in the park, feeling the world spinning around me. And then I spotted her, standing off to one side near a hedge, her back turned toward me. I ran to her, relieved, but before I could pick her up to hold her, she snapped her head in my direction. Her black eyes sent a chill through me. I wanted to run away, but couldn’t move.
I woke up sweating and gasping, heart pounding in my ears. I sat up with a scream hung in my throat, but the familiar silhouettes coming into focus pushed it back down. I shivered as the goose bumps rose on my arms. That wasn’t real, I had to tell myself a few times before I really knew it. The dream—the nightmare—felt more real than the sheets wound around my legs.
I had variations of this dream over and over while we searched through the sperm bank databases. In every dream, the gender and appearance of the child was different, but my dream self always chased a laughing child that disappeared into thin air. Each time, I’d wake up right after I found the child, its squinty eyes and a slight smirk flashing a warning, a look that brought to mind Macaulay Culkin in The Good Son or that Damien kid from The Omen.
Though I knew it was highly unlikely that we’d end up with a completely sociopathic or demonic child if we picked the wrong sperm, the maze of choices was overwhelming at times. Would the 6’1”, 185-lb, athletic-bodied, African-American man that held an MBA be a more sure choice than the 5’10”, 145-lb., average-bodied man of mixed English and Cherokee ancestry that held a PhD in Chemistry? What about the 5’5” American white “mutt” with a computer science degree? What were our criteria? We made list after list, and it kept changing. How could we make sure that we chose someone who would give us, by nature, a healthy, intelligent, artistic, beautiful, self-confident child? How important was the sperm to defining all those things?
And then there was the cost. At $300 a pop and no guarantees, it made buying random vials of sperm an even bigger gamble. There were shipping fees for each vial, and if we had several, we had to pay a storage fee each month, which could add up if getting pregnant took a long time. How many vials would we need? Were we sure that we only wanted one kid? If we decided later that we wanted a second kid, would it be important to use the same donor? What if there was none of his sperm left? If I had a change of heart and wanted to get pregnant the next time around, would that mean our children wouldn’t be recognized as siblings should something happen to both of us—even if we did use the same donor’s sperm? Did we have to know the answers to all these questions before we could go any further?
When we expressed our frustration to friends, we had a few offers to donate. Free sperm was tempting, and at least we knew these people—their looks, their family situations, their bad habits. We believed that a known donor would be better than an unknown one, but no one we knew would work. All the offers came from men who were straight and single, and we knew that we’d rather have a gay father for our children, since straight fathers always won in court cases against lesbian mothers. Not that we thought it would ever come to that, but it didn’t hurt to plan for the worst. Plus, if they ended up married later on and we still wanted another child, there was no guarantee that their wife would be interested in sharing her husband’s sperm with a couple of lesbians. So, we plowed through hundreds of profiles on sperm bank databases evening after evening, dragging our frowning, sleepy selves to bed much too late at night. We finally got to the point where we decided to take a break and let the universe give us a sign.
Many children are conceived at or after concerts (I’m pretty sure I started out as a fertilized egg after my teen parents heard Foreigner sing “Hot Blooded”), but ours was a little different than most—it was not a conception made of flesh, but of shared intent. In the fall of 1999, we went to see Moby with our best friend, André, who was like family. Excited about the energy of the concert and the pleasure of meeting Moby afterward was such a rush that we stayed awake most of the night sitting half-lotus in the front yard and talking.
Our conversation inevitably turned to our frustration over how to get pregnant. André had been supportive of our decision the whole time, mostly just listening, nodding, and encouraging us. That night, he listened like he always did, but instead of his usual relaxed posture, he crossed one arm across his chest and cradled his elbow. His brow knit and his forefinger pressed against his bottom lip while he looked at the ground.
“Why haven’t you asked me?” His voice trembled a little.
Maia and I looked at him, then each other, then back at him. He was serious, not his normal bubbly self. And he seemed hurt, too.
After what seemed like ages of silence except for the buzz of the street lights, I found my voice. “Because you said you never wanted kids.”
“I’ve been thinking otherwise lately. I love you guys like family and I want you to have the family you want. You’ll be great moms.”
Maia and I looked at each other again, this time both smiling. I wasn’t sure how she felt, but I knew it was right. André was one of those rare finds in life, a friend that you can feel a deep connection with from the beginning. He was a good choice in so many ways—healthy with a healthy family, a gifted pianist and composer, highly intelligent, personable, fun, and good-looking. Plus, we already loved him, so why wouldn’t he give us a wonderful child with whom to share that love? Excited about our decision, we stood in a circle and hugged with our foreheads all together, our hearts open. No matter what the future would hold for our family, that night, we made the most important and perfect decision of our lives.
Over the next week, the three of us spent more time talking about the idea, analyzing it from different angles. André wanted to be involved in the child’s life, but felt that day-to-day parenting decisions should primarily come from us, with him there for backup. He also had to think about whether he’d like to be “daddy” or “André” to the child. Maia and I thought that was fair, knowing that the child would eventually be the one to make that decision anyway. We weren’t planning on keeping André’s biological tie a secret, after all. We all felt comfortable with the plan, so Maia and I stopped researching sperm banks (which, in turn, stopped my nightmares) and started researching home insemination methods. We puzzled a little over basal body temperature and what size syringe to buy, but we expected that it might take a few rounds of experimentation to get it right. We calculated the optimal fertility date and circled it on the calendar, and then counted the days down each night at dinner. On the big night, Maia, André, and I had a glass of wine to toast to the success of our little home-science experiment.
“Pregnant on the first try?” We could hardly believe it when we looked at the pregnancy test two weeks later. To be honest, we’d already spent about 50 bucks on pregnancy tests because Maia wanted to start testing a week after insemination, but none had been a clear positive until the third day after she missed her period. Just like all the boxes said.
The three of us celebrated that night with a big vegetarian dinner instead of wine. Since our first shot at getting pregnant turned out to be lucky, we named our zygote “Squirt.” It started as a joke, but the name stuck all the way to the delivery date because Squirt never uncrossed those legs during an ultrasound, just laid back relaxing. One time, there was a slow streak across the monitor, a fetal version of a royal wave. Though most of our family had a good enough sense of humor to appreciate the nickname, the rest just called it “the baby.” All of them, however, seemed intent on finding out the sex so they could just have a name instead of the ambiguity. A transgendered friend of ours recommended picking a gender-neutral name, so we could start calling the baby by name…and also, to keep our child from having to change names altogether if he or she felt compelled to make a gender change later on (wink, wink). We laughed, but it turned out to be the only advice we took on naming.
Family, friends, coworkers, and even strangers offered up their “tried-and-true” methods on how to determine the child’s sex when the baby wouldn’t show the goods through the technology at the doctor’s office. Crystals, needles, and Maia’s wedding band both swayed and spun when dangled on a string over her belly. The way Maia carried the baby was supposed to be telling us something. There was a coin method that made no sense, and I think someone even consulted an Ouija board. Despite the questionable methods and inconclusive results, everyone believed all signs pointed to a baby boy. Even Maia thought Squirt was a boy, because one morning, she spooned up “I BOY” in a bite of her Alpha-bits cereal. None of this stuff convinced me, so I was the only one who thought Squirt was a girl, just knew it.
Before Squirt came into the world, I wanted her to know me. When I read or told her stories every night after the pregnancy was confirmed, I knew she was in there listening with her still-forming ears, the sound of my voice swimming in through the thump of Maia’s heart and the swish of amniotic fluid. Every night, I felt closer to her, as if I could see her just by touching the temporary barrier between us, the thick layers of tissue and organs. Maia and I lay together at night reading What to Expect When You’re Expecting, following Squirt’s progress from a lima bean with a tail all the way to a full-sized baby prepping its lungs to take that first breath.
As Squirt grew inside Maia’s belly, my connection to Squirt grew as well. I tapped the belly three times in tempo to “Oh, Sweet Pea” while I sang, and she tapped back three times. When I sang the Ramones to her or read Green Eggs and Ham in an animated voice, she wiggled a lot. When I talked to Maia about work or the news at night, Squirt stretched and stretched, probably yawning from boredom. I’d chastise Squirt for making Maia feel nauseated or causing strange late-night food cravings, and she’d just roll over. Squirt’s acrobatics and leg stretching toward the end of the pregnancy were enough to keep Maia up all night, battling heartburn, frequent urination, and sciatica. I spoke to Squirt in a soft voice and rubbed my hand lightly across where I could feel the hump of a spine until Maia could sleep. I began and ended every day with a kiss for Maia and one for Squirt.
When Squirt finally broke out bloody, shivering, and screaming into this world as a girl, I knew that the connection I’d felt all those months had been real. Everything around me faded out except the little scrunched-up face I’d tried so hard to imagine for months, and I only looked away from her when scissors were thrust at me. I had to use both hands to cut through the rubbery rope of the umbilical cord. Once Squirt became a separate person from Maia, I followed the nurse to check her vitals. At the sound of my voice, Squirt reached up and grabbed my finger. She knew me.
After Maia had some time with our daughter, whom we’d secretly decided to name Aedin only a few weeks before (Aiden if she’d been a boy), the nurse swaddled her and I held her while Maia was stitched up. I cuddled Aedin and stared at her, thinking about what to say to my daughter for the first time face-to-face. She was quiet, her dark blue eyes watching, her expression calm. I wondered if she was adapting to the world outside of the womb or if she was just checking me out. And then I began to talk to her and sing “You Are My Sunshine,” a song my mom always sang to me as a child. Her wrinkled forehead wrinkled even more and she made little sounds, like she was singing along. So I sang a few more songs. She seemed to like “Little Aedin” best, the song that I made up right after we decided on the name. After I finished singing, the two of us stared into each other’s eyes, communicating without words. It was a peace I’d never known before.
For me, holding our daughter in my arms made me realize how much love one person could have for another. The feelings I had ran stronger than any other I’d ever had. That moment of pure love was my first real step into that unknown realm of parenthood that lay ahead. Squirt had grown from an idea to a physical reality, and the two of us already knew that we were joined together as a family. I knew that Aedin was my daughter and she knew that I was her Momma, no matter whether or not society or the law considered our relationship to be “real.” It is real, and it is going to last forever.