A WEEK AFTER THE DOCTOR TOLD my husband Kevin and me that we had almost no chance of conceiving a child on our own, I wandered the galleries of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, alone. I was in the sort of haze in which meaning seems to hang in the air, waiting for me to attend to it. On the way there from my apartment in Berkeley, I caught my reflection in the BART train window as we went under the San Francisco Bay, and later in the window of the Japanese candy shop on Market Street. The woman I saw looked to me at once like a woman waiting for life to happen and a woman stuck forever in a frame.
On that day in the museum, I was on the hunt, as I often am, for paintings by women with female subjects. As time goes on, I am less interested in how men see other men, how men see women. How do women see themselves? See other women? See me? That day, it was depictions of motherhood, of pregnancy, of women’s bodies that drew me. If I could attend to another woman’s body remade by a child, perhaps I could see my own differently. This was more out of desperation than some intellectual project. I wanted to be a different person, someone whose life had a sense of forward motion, of weight, and I needed art to help me imagine her into being.
After an hour or so of wandering, a gold shimmering painting commanding half a wall drew me in—Breaking with Greater Resistance, 1978, by Helène Aylon. Linseed oil on paper, mounted on Plexiglas. It was the kind of painting that demanded a larger room and a bench to allow visitors to consider it.
Down the center of the painting was a golden figure, bleeding to the left and right onto the brown paper in inklike spills. Toward the bottom of the figure was an oblong circle with cracks along its edges, as if a crater had formed in the womb-space of the painting. I say womb-space not because of some desire of my own, but because the painter herself, in multiple interviews, likened it to an amniotic sac. There was a sense that weight had informed this particular crater. Oil had accumulated along the bottom of the metal frame. Even though Aylon painted it in 1978, there were still oil drops around the outside of the frame. The painting appeared to drip.
Kevin and I waited eight years to start a family, as we crisscrossed the hemisphere for work and education and adventure. The image of our lives with children seemed perpetually ahead of us, in some distant future that we might never catch up to. The timing was always wrong. Mostly we waited because I did not feel ready to be a mother.
I come from a line of women who leave their children. In a way, it is my heritage. My mother left me when I was three years old. Her mother left her older siblings before she was born, and her grandmother, my great-grandmother, left her mother. “It goes back even further than that,” she told me once on the phone when I asked. “Although I can’t remember how far back. It’s like we weren’t made to have children.”
My feelings about my absent mother—feelings I largely ignored, or tried to—made themselves known, as repressed feelings always do. They manifested themselves as fears around pregnancy: the way I wouldn’t have control over my body or over how the baby would leave my womb and enter the world. Childbirth itself. I convinced myself that I could not break the generational curse even though I wanted to, and when I woke up in the middle of the night after a bad dream, the thought that most often crossed my mind was that this is what pregnancy would feel like: uncontrollable, as dreams are uncontrolled.
And then, in the fall, Kevin and I decided not that we were ready to have children (whatever that means), only that we weren’t going to become more ready than we were.
After six months of negative pregnancy tests, I began listening to baby conception visualizations each morning. There was a different one for each day in my menstrual cycle, from a company called Circle + Bloom. A woman with an overly calming voice guided me through what I hoped would be happening that very moment: the egg is being released; the embryo is implanting in the uterine wall. “Yes,” I’d say aloud, like a believer praying for revival, willing it to happen.
Each morning I measured my basal body temperature and logged it in two different apps on my phone. Each month, even before my period showed up, I knew that my temperature indicated another negative test.
At night I became someone I didn’t recognize, roaming online chat boards filled with other women trying to conceive (TTC), together questioning basal body temperature (BBT) readings, whether a spike meant ovulation (O), or whether cervical mucus (CM) was adequate according to the book Taking Charge of Your Fertility (TCYF), a bible to women TTC. Women shared detailed menstrual charts—part of the tracking required by the BBT method—with complete strangers online. I lurked and shared nothing. I learned about fertility acupuncture on one of these forums; a few women said they conceived after only a few sessions. I took notes and researched. I roamed the message boards each night like a rabid raccoon. My husband would gently try to nudge me out of the dark living room into our warm bed. Hours later, I’d tiptoe to our room and slip under the sheets, mind ablaze.
Friends became pregnant and delivered healthy babies, and I sent them gifts and cards with overabundant exclamation points.
When the doctor called with the news that we would likely never conceive on our own, I was not relieved.
Helène Aylon, an American born in 1931, went through many evolutions in her art career before her death in April 2020 from Covid-19. This particular evolution, the gold shimmering painting, occurred during her time in San Francisco and Berkeley in the mid to late seventies. Her studio was just a couple of miles from where I write this. Breaking with Greater Resistance was created in 1978, part of her series called Breakings. For each of these works, Aylon poured nearly a gallon and a half of linseed oil in a straight line down the center of a six-by-eight-foot paper on the floor. Linseed oil is yellow, derived from flax. In Germany, pure linseed oil is drizzled on potatoes to add depth of flavor. High in omega-3 fatty acids, it claims a range of benefits: reducing cancer-cell growth, lowering blood pressure, improving heart health, reducing inflammation. Did she choose linseed oil for its visual glow, or was she saying something about nourishment?
The giant paper was affixed to a sheet of Plexiglas that rested on a wood block, propping it up ever so slightly above the studio floor. The oil weighed down the paper, pooling at the lowest point, like stormwater looking for the quickest way to the sea after a heavy rainfall. Over time, a skin formed on the outer layer of the pooling oil, and the paper buckled as it held the oil as best it could. Aylon waited months, like someone waiting for migratory birds to return, watching the oil dry on the outside but knowing that the inside was wet, that it would not be contained.
“My series The Breakings was all about bursting,” Aylon said. Once she decided that the oil was ready, she invited women to “come to a breaking…to midwife an image.” In her 2012 memoir Whatever Is Contained Must Be Released: My Jewish Orthodox Girlhood, My Life as a Feminist Artist, she compared the pooling of oil to a sac of amniotic fluid. When Aylon was ready, four women each chose a corner of the paper and held it up. “The women then raised the panel and leaned it against the wall. The wet oil would pool beneath the dry skin…and the sac, heavy with oil, would break before our eyes. Sometimes the liquid would gush out; sometimes it drizzled; sometimes it dripped.” Aylon later said, “The breaking of a liquid sac is indicative of the visceral, orgasmic, birthing body, as opposed to the Playboy body of the dominant culture.” It was like childbirth, life gushing out of the womb.
Sylvia Plath wrote a handful of poems about infertility before conceiving her children. In “Barren Woman” the speaker says, “Empty, I echo to the least footfall, / Museum without statues, grand with pillars, porticoes, rotundas.” The speaker senses life without the thing that she thinks will make life beautiful. Another poem, “Childless Woman,” begins, “The womb / Rattles its pod, the moon / Discharges itself from the tree with nowhere to go.” What is the womb when it isn’t gushing life? A woman’s monthly cycle is another sort of bursting: blood, the release of eggs that might have been life.
Each time I attempted to leave the gallery space, I turned around, wondering if I’d seen everything in the painting I could. A gallery attendant looked on. Upon a second returning, I noticed oil drops at the outside edge of the frame and on the ground. I asked the museum attendant, “Is that painting supposed to be dripping? It looks like it’s dripping on the ground.”
She walked over to the painting. “Wow, I’ve never seen that before.” Together we checked the date of the painting, 1978, forty-one years ago. “I’m going to call my supervisor,” she said. I left and returned thirty minutes later. “It’s always been like that,” the attendant told me. “It’s dried, no longer dripping.” I had wanted this to be a sign. I wanted to be part of the Breaking.
Of her conception of the Breakings series, Aylon said: “There were millions of artists who were making their marks.… I wanted to see what would happen if I was the artist who did not make my mark and let something tell me something that I did not know.” She didn’t want to approach a canvas to say something. She wanted the canvas to teach her something.
I was disappointed to leave the museum without a morsel of meaning to chew on—without an idea that I ought to think of my situation in this light or that light. Perhaps it was time to do as Aylon did and allow my life to tell me something I didn’t know. In bed that night, I tried on the idea that maybe I didn’t want children. I imagined traveling Europe, summers in Costa Rica, opening a bakery, Kevin and me doing as we pleased. I imagined writing anytime I wanted, sleeping peacefully every night for the rest of our lives. I wanted children. I wanted to grow them, nourish them, and birth them from my own body. I wanted to break open. I wanted to become like a god. I wanted to create.
Sarah Orner was a finalist for the 2021 VanderMey Nonfiction Prize and is at work on a memoir about motherhood, art, and the natural world. She currently lives in West Virginia. www.sarahholmesorner.com