Reorientation is author JS Lee’s monthly column about reclamation & actualization as an unwilling Korean import to the US. CW: miscarriage
Motherhood has always been a complicated topic. It took a long time for me to dare aspire to it. But as my forties approached, my husband and I decided to try for a child. It was easy for him to arrive at this choice. All of his close friends were already parents. He was raised by those who conceived him and although things weren’t perfect, he always felt safe and loved. In contrast, none of my closest friends were parents. I was raised by two White people amidst a sea of their children in an environment that never felt safe. It took decades to understand love.
Nevertheless, I embarked on one journey with my partner and another on my own. Time was not on my side, so they occurred synchronously. Ours was to conceive, and mine was to unpack my prior aversions. I discovered there were plenty of reasons why motherhood never felt right for me.
At therapy and in meditations, I was asked to conjure up who I was before trauma. The idea was to connect with a purer self, but I tried and could not. If you never experienced life without trauma, it can be hard to imagine one. For some, trauma begins inside the womb or soon after birth. I believe I was always afraid that if I had a child, they’d suffer as I have. Through consistent introspection and trust-building, I got to a place where I could allow myself to hope and dream of what motherhood could look like for me. Believing it possible was another story.
My body also seemed averse to motherhood. Trying for a child exacerbated the pelvic pain I’d lived with for twenty years—since the first doctor suggested endometriosis. I’d heard the words “there’s not much you can do” countless times from medical professionals, which conditioned me to accept the pain. Diagnosis almost always requires surgery as it can’t usually be detected otherwise. Since there’s no known cure, I was told treatment would be the same whether diagnosed or not—which consisted of various forms of birth control that wreaked havoc on my body and mind. There’s a huge movement against removing organs for endometriosis, and for years I was led to believe hysterectomies were cruel and pointless.
Some suggested the pain was psychological—which seemed plausible to an extent, but minimizing and offensive. I went to therapy when I could afford it, joined support groups, spent hundreds on supplements each month, practiced yoga, and tried several diets. Just when I thought it impossible to conceive, we had.
Immediately after booking my first acupuncture fertility treatment, the second pink line started to appear on the pregnancy tests. I remember holding the thin strips to the light in the bathroom and then to the window. For four consecutive days, I showed the strips to my partner for confirmation. It felt too good to be true. The day of my first acupuncture session, I started spotting—which is actually quite common—but something felt very wrong. The acupuncturist gave me a soothing treatment instead of what I had booked. Midway through the session, I had the distinct sensation that I was losing my baby but didn’t want to believe it. I still hadn’t fully accepted the pregnancy. As I left, she urged me to see a doctor that day.
I recall the sharp pains, the confusion and outright delusion. The way my brain tried to protect me from suffering the totality of it. I nonchalantly texted those I had plans with that night, “I might be delayed,” as if what was happening was a glitch I could move on from within a few hours.
It wasn’t until the nurse’s IV needle mishap caused my blood to projectile squirt that I snapped out of dissociation. During the ultrasound, I cursed myself for doubting the pregnancy from the start. I thought back to my lack of confidence in the test strips and blamed myself for not believing—as if that were the cause.
Back home in bed, I felt oddly connected to omma. I wondered if what I was feeling was similar to how she felt back at home for the first time without me. Did the sick, unnatural cold expand inside her emptiness the way it expanded in mine? But because I was born, surely she could someday have another—and maybe she has. Despite the ER doctor’s confidence, I wasn’t sure that I could.
After the miscarriage, my pelvic pain grew unbearable over the following years. It felt like being punched with fists of broken glass. None of my efforts or acupuncture treatments eased the pain or resulted in another pregnancy. In early 2020, I took so many pain pills that I destroyed my stomach lining. It was clear that I couldn’t carry on as things were.
As my partner and I are both technically freelancers, we had taken the year off of health insurance premiums to save money since pregnancy was highly unlikely. Once we understood that I couldn’t handle things on my own anymore, we crunched the numbers to get reinsured with surgery as the goal. Thanks to the pandemic, I was able to re-enroll mid-year. I took out the most expensive healthcare plan, which was the only way to afford what my research informed me was needed. I stacked my medical team with nearly all practitioners of color who took my pain seriously.
Because my condition had progressed so far, what normally required surgery to diagnose was now visible via ultrasound. My uterus and ovaries were so engulfed by endometriosis that my organs were glued to each other and I had signs of adenomyosis.
While others cringed at my news, I was relieved to finally have proof. Before the diagnosis, I felt gaslit by the medical system and seen as a hypochondriac by some friends. I owe so much to one doctor of color who helped expedite my care after a White doctor that I hadn’t chosen nearly threw me off course again.
This past September, I had an endometriosis extraction and hysterectomy, removing everything necessary to better my chances of living without chronic pain. There’s still the risk it can return but so far, it seems a success.
I don’t feel any less of a woman because I don’t view gender in terms of reproductive organs. I’m thankful to finally be on the other side of this ordeal as my body adapts to a new kind of wholeness, and the rest of me adjusts to living without the hope that logic should have removed but hadn’t completely. In some ways, I’m relieved for this closure. I can finally move on knowing what’s truly nonviable. In other ways, I still mourn the loss of motherhood.
During my unfruitful journey, I realized that I struggled to feel ready to have a baby because the child in me craved being the baby. I wanted so badly to feel that impossibility; to experience being kept, held, and loved by omma. My body and brain hadn’t released that desire, and in effect, was still waiting for it.
The lack of bonding with the parental figures I was sent to left me feeling as if I was broken. Subconsciously, I also felt motherhood wasn’t for me because I was told omma decided it wasn’t for her. As she was and still is an almost mythical being to me, I’ve often conflated our lives. I still don’t know my abandonment as fact. This is but one way it’s cruel to take a child from her mother and deprive her of her origin story. What we are told and what we tell ourselves—truth and lies—can have unending impact.
As I explore the losses from familial and cultural displacement, I’ve wondered how different my life might have been had I been raised to believe I deserved certain answers and care. I see how being deprived of my own history affected my persistence for medical treatment, which felt as equally overwhelming and pointless. I’ve stopped blaming myself for not pushing the doctors harder before it was too late, but am aware of what I might not have lost if my pain and condition were taken seriously sooner.
On social media platforms, I witness adopted people parenting every day. I hear how it enables them to heal. I marvel over what it must feel like to look at someone who is genetically and undoubtedly yours. It gives me hope to see them giving the love and belonging that all children deserve.
Sometimes I think I’d have been a great mom. Other times I’m filled with relief. I fear I’d have always been paranoid that my child would somehow be taken from me. I still feel undeserving of family, and I’m not sure motherhood could have repaired that.
Living childless causes me to consider my life’s worth. While I do believe I have purpose and a right to life, I often feel more disposable to society and myself. How might it affect my future activism and art? For whom am I organizing my photos? When I’m gone, there won’t be anyone who will care about the life that I lived or the memories I made. For now, I keep them for my future self and let that be enough.
Maybe that’s what it really comes down to in the end: Learning to believe that I, myself, am enough. As I move through this new chapter without an ounce of hope for motherhood left, it’s a chance for rebirth—or a reconception of self. If nothing else, it challenges me to accept that I’m worthy of the love, nurturing, and compassion that I’ve always craved.