The Best Literary Writing About Mothers and Motherhood

Tantalus and Me by Heather Davis

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In between fertility treatments, every time my husband Jose and I have half-decent sex when I know I must be ovulating, this stubborn little part of me still thinks we might have conceived naturally, that maybe the stars have aligned and overcome every obstacle.

I try not to think too much about it in the two weeks that follow our “date night.” I let myself drink a little coffee, have a beer here and there. I don’t get my knickers in a twist worrying about it. And then the big day gets closer and closer—the day when Aunt Flo is supposed to arrive in all her garishness.

As she approaches, I start to believe in the possibility of success a bit more despite myself, to tighten my fingers around a sliver of the miraculous. I carefully ignore my bloated body, all the signs of PMS—they are so similar to pregnancy symptoms, after all. It almost makes me feel young and in control of my life, fully fertile and powerful again. Maybe I should buy a pregnancy test I start to think. Maybe I really shouldn’t drink that second cup of coffee.

Then I reach the day when the blood is supposed to start gushing and nothing yet. So I do buy the pregnancy test or maybe I mention something to Jose or maybe I imagine how it will feel to be nauseous all the time again and how enormously huge I will get—how great that would be.

And as soon as I think these things, the very second these thoughts enter my mind, it’s all over. I go into the bathroom to pee and my eyes are assaulted by the crayon bright fluid that has left my body. Sitting there so smugly on my pantyliner, the smear is an ancient rune, a hieroglyph, an alien signal—succinct and eloquent, mysterious and all too easy to read.

Then I know I am a fool, duped once again. I shoo any daydreams of another biological child under the rug. I pretend I never had them. I think instead of how, if I never carry another child, my body will be happy and I can become a Yoga freak or a Judo instructor, finally get into shape.

Still, I can’t help noticing the young mothers everywhere in this small southern town, the teen or early-twenties moms with their bags of McDonald’s French fries and dangling cigarettes, or the wholesome ones with their scrubbed clean faces and shiny cross necklaces. I watch them, so envious I could scream, even though I can’t believe I am envious—I never wanted to be like these girls when I was young. Pregnancy was the enemy back then.

Maybe I shouldn’t even be here, in a place where career-minded, birth-control wielding women are a rarity and big broods of kids are common. I float like a cloud, amorphous and full of regret, gazing at the teen moms as they whisk their strollers by the Confederate memorial downtown or across the busy highway, forcing our car to stop nowhere near a cross walk.

Suck it up, I tell myself. Until our next treatment, there’s no harm in trying the old fashioned way. We just shouldn’t grasp too eagerly for that ripe fruit seemingly close enough to pluck.

Maybe, one of these days, we’ll try a different tactic—donor eggs or adoption, maybe an elaborate voodoo ceremony, something that will not get us a fully biological offspring but could get us a child.

Today, as I check my cervical mucous for the millionth time, I’m thinking that we need to make a decision soon, because, as Tantalus knew, false hope is a mean-eyed, skinny-ass bitch—you can’t entertain her forever.


Heather Davis is the author of The Lost Tribe of Us, which won the 2007 Main Street Rag Poetry Book Award. Her poems have appeared in Cream City Review, Gargoyle, Poet Lore, Puerto del Sol, and Sonora Review, among other journals. With her husband, the poet José Padua, she writes the blog Shenandoah Breakdown at


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