"This funny and frankly personal book is a departure for Greene, whose previous work has been sober and measured," writes book critic Jennifer Reese of Melissa Fay Greene's No Biking in the House Without a Helmet. It follows There Is No Me Without You, her engrossing portrait of the Ethiopian orphanage from which Greene and her husband adopted four children orphaned by AIDS, in addition to their five other children. "No Biking in the House Without a Helmet — her
Melissa Fay Greene, author of Praying for Sheetrock, weaves another pursuit around writing award-winning journalism: raising her nine children. Her new book shares the story of adopting and raising a family, since she felt "most thickly in the cumbersome richness of life with children underfoot."
It was uncanny that he’d asked this. A few years earlier I had struggled with the question of whether I was too old to give birth to a fifth child, and as it turned out, Donny and I were but a few months away from wondering if we might adopt a fifth child.
I’d been surprised, as I turned forty-one, by a sudden onset of longing and nostalgia. The older children were thirteen, ten, and six. Lily was only two. But she’d moved to her “big girl bed,” and the crib stood—now and forever?—empty. Why did I hesitate at this moment to leap across the great divide—from childbearing years to non-childbearing years? Sometimes, standing at the kitchen sink, looking out the window into the front yard and the shade of the massive tulip poplar where the children lay in the deep grass, chewing on weed stalks, I wanted it never to end. If our home were a houseboat, we’d started to throw off the ropes and rumble away from the dock, but what if one last child were racing down to the pier, hoping to leap onto the deck?
On my mother’s side, I have one female first cousin, Judy: she gave birth to her fourth child at forty-two. That long-ago baby had been greeted by merriment and snickering among the medium and upper branches of the family tree. As I turned forty-one, I knew that having a last baby at forty-two was within the bounds of physiological possibility and ancestral sanction. At forty-one and a half I pressed myself to make a now-or-never decision.
Donny was surprised.
“I kind of feel we’re set up to handle a larger population here,” I said. To assist, he wordlessly extracted from a closet shelf an explicit wooden figurine he’d lugged home from a summer trip to Europe twenty-four years earlier. Shops offering African jewelry, sculpture, and dashikis weren’t then ubiquitous in American shopping malls, and this item had struck the shaggy backpacking seventeen-year-old as a real find. A foot and a half tall, the rough-hewn fertility man-woman had sharp, pointy breasts, a pregnant belly, and an erect male genital. Young Donny, back at home in suburban White Plains, had glued tangles of black thread to key locales to serve as the statue’s pubic hair. Now he brought it down from behind his sweaters (I’d forgotten the thing existed) and stood it up on his night table beside the clock radio.
Having his/her sharp parts all aimed at me felt threatening rather than encouraging. And I felt deeply undecided.
Other than Donny, I could find no one who thought it was a good idea to try for a fifth child at forty-one. The months scrolled by, narrowing my window of opportunity. Then I turned forty-two. Then I was forty-two years and one month old. I made my first-ever appointment with a psychologist. “I need help deciding whether to get pregnant again,” I told her. “I have two months left to decide.” But she wanted to talk about every sort of unrelated thing! She wanted to hear about my marriage. She said, “You know, I used to be afraid of empty nest, too, but it can be an absolutely wonderful time for you and your husband to find each other again.”
“I haven’t lost my husband,” I said. “We’re very close. Can you just tell me yes or no here?”
“Many women find that once their children are raised, they have a chance to discover their own gifts and to pursue their own career aspirations.”
“Yes or no?” asked Donny that night.
“She’s not telling me until next week. Meanwhile, could you please turn that thing to face the wall? I don’t like the way it’s looking at me.”
The following week the therapist wanted to explore my relationships with my parents. “You’re not going to give me a yes-or-no answer, are you?” Honestly, I knew this wasn’t how therapy worked; still, I’d hoped for just a slender clue about which path to take.
“The empty-nest years can be a very fulfilling time of life for a woman,” she replied.
“The answer is NO,” I told Donny that night.
Of course I didn’t have to listen to the therapist, but in the light of her disapproval I began to picture myself as an old, gaunt mother struggling to shove a stroller up the sidewalk while the professional achievements and the season symphony tickets enjoyed by my friends remained out of reach for decades. By April 1994 it was too late to conceive a baby to whom I could give birth at forty-two. With gratitude to the universe for our four glorious children, I moved on. Donny stuffed the wooden fertility figure back on the closet shelf so it could return to the business of poking holes in his sweaters.
Four years later—a couple of months after Lee asked his question about whether I’d just adopted somebody very sweet and I handed him a bike lamp instead—I stood in front of an audience, giving a talk, when I suddenly wondered what had become of my menstrual cycle. Was this menopause? On the way home I detoured to CVS to pick up a pregnancy test that would rule out the unlikeliest scenario. A pregnancy test is an embarrassing item to show a drugstore cashier at any age, but especially at forty-five. “You will not believe what I just bought,” I called laughingly to Donny as I came in and jogged upstairs to rule out the ludicrous possibility that … oh my God I’m pregnant. The timeline that came with the package estimated that I would give birth seven months hence, at the age of forty-six.
Four times before, Donny and I had rejoiced at such news; we’re not dancing people (he’s not), so our only spontaneous pas de deux have occurred at these moments with a brief turn about the bedroom. But now I exited the bathroom and threw myself stiffly facedown on our bed. As every previous time, Donny was amazed and thrilled, his eyebrows raised in happiness, his round cheeks red beneath the beard, his lips parted for a great laugh. Seeing my woodenness, he froze. “I want whatever you want,” he offered quickly.
“Can we even handle this?” I moaned into the bedspread. “Financially, I mean?”
“A baby?” he roared with happiness. “Of course we can afford a baby!”
Case closed! as we say in this family in which the father is a litigator.
My elderly obstetrician, retired, agreed to meet with me for old times’ sake. Creeping into his long-ago desk chair, he confirmed the physical toll and genetic risks foretold by the data. “I don’t know if I can do this again,” I told Donny that night. “It’s not healthy for me or for the baby. It’s a high-risk pregnancy in every way.” I thought, but didn’t say, What would I even wear? Sentimentally, I had saved my favorite maternity T-shirt, billowing white and dotted with small pink storks. It was a seventeen-year-old shirt, older than Molly. I got it out and looked at it but didn’t try it on. While elbow-deep in memorabilia, I pulled out Lee’s baby book. Here he was moments after birth, full of soft-lipped, plump-cheeked sweetness and the round-eyed promise of good humor. Just looking at the picture reminded me of the sucking, slobbery, exhaustive needs of newborns. Donny looked at the photo and drew a different conclusion. “There’s our answer!” he yelled. “SO CUTE!”
We took a moment to banter about names, always one of our favorite parts. “Finally we can name a child Gideon!” I said. “Giddie! Such a great nickname!”
“You think Gideon Samuel sounds too Jewish,” I accused, and he declined to comment.
“I still like Kenny,” I mused.
“I still like Miranda for a girl.”
I said this only as a prompt for his reminder: “A criminal defense attorney cannot name his daughter Miranda.”
But I was worried. This child was so much younger than the others that he would be an only child by middle school. (I felt it was a boy.) Instead of food fights at dinnertime in the noisy kitchen, there’d be a poorly lit dining room heavy with the silence of impeccable manners. Instead of raucous Hanukkahs and crowds of mittened friends stomping into the front hall, there would be long winter weekends during which the pale fellow wandered quietly from room to room, turning the cold pages of coffee table art books while his elderly mother upstairs took a three-hour nap.
“I’m not sure this is a good idea,” I said the next day. “I’m not sure I can do this again. I can’t really picture this kid’s childhood.”
Donny, taken aback, nodded somberly, tactfully.
It was a weekend of hard rain and high wind. I sat at the kitchen table anguished by confusion and fear. The children were mystified by my sorrow. “Look! Look at Dad!” yelled Seth, fourteen. Below the kitchen bay window, on the brick patio behind the house, Donny, in the downpour, was wrestling with contraptions and wire.
“What on earth?” I said. “Run, help him. What is he trying to do?”
Eager to cheer me up, Donny had driven to a garden store and purchased a bird feeder. Now he was jerry-rigging it so that he could hoist it by wire ten feet above the patio to swing in midair beside the bay window where I miserably sat. Engineering is not one of Donny’s strong points, nor is he happy when wet. I watched him struggle in the rain, drenched, calling out instructions to Seth as if they were sailors trying to turn a boat in a gale. It was the most loving gift, the most romantic thing I have ever seen.
The next day, I started to lose the pregnancy. I hurried to bed and elevated my feet. I called the doctor’s office. I drank herbal teas and hugged a hot-water bottle. As I was losing the baby, I suddenly realized how much I wanted it, how much I wanted him. Far from a goofy and embarrassing situation to have conceived a child in my mid-forties, it now seemed brilliant, miraculous, one in a million. Gideon! I held my belly. “I’m sorry I said this would be too hard. Really I wanted you. I do want you. Please stay.” But it was over.
I was overcome with grief and remorse. Why had I not welcomed the new life wholeheartedly from the first second of its delicate touching down? I’d been offered a gift beyond measure, and instead of rejoicing, I’d whined. I’d made wisecracks. Now I blamed myself. Five was a marvelous number of children to have! It was a prime number, too, and prime numbers were Seth’s favorites! What had I thought was more important? What “data” had I thought it was urgent to collect, to weigh what kind of decision? Now it was too late.
Life was short—for the little zygote, life had been six weeks long. Life was short, and our family capacity was big: both Donny and I had started to make room for a fifth child. Again he longed to cheer me up, but he doubted that another bird feeder would do the trick. “Listen,” he said one night as he punched socks into his overstuffed dresser drawer and I lay mournfully on my side in bed, my stack of books untouched, my lamp turned off. “If we really want another child, why don’t we adopt one?”