Fiction Archive

The Test of Womanhood

Dr. Isaac’s words shatter me. More than half the syllables that leave his mouth have been shattering me, disintegrating the perfect mold of my life since the day I learned I couldn’t carry a child to term. Today, he says to my husband and I, “Mr. and Mrs. Akingbade, I think it’s time you both start considering surrogacy.”

It was a resigned statement, spoken with slight reluctance but punctuated by a bluntness that only physicians can produce. The words smother me as I mull over them, processing their meaning and assessing their implication. A typical response of mine each time Dr. Isaac metes out words that confirm the limitations and failures of my body.

I’m sorry, but it seems you are unable to carry a child to term. I hate to say this, but we might have to try IVF. Desola, the IVF didn’t work. We can try again during the next cycle. When can you come in for another round?

My fourteenth IVF attempt has just failed and now, I’m being told to relinquish my responsibilities to another woman. My husband, Dewale, shifts slightly in his seat, the only indication that the news we have just heard is smothering him as well. He has always been more skilled at processing bad news. Or maybe he pretends to be.

Even before he does it, I know what his next move will be. He takes my right hand from where it grips my seat tightly and presses a swift kiss on it before rubbing the spot with his left thumb. With his hand still holding mine, he attempts to speak first. Another force of habit when we come in for these heartbreaking appointments with Dr. Isaac.

Perhaps it’s my desperation peeking through, my refusal to accept the fate being presented to us, but this aspect of our routine is altered today. I hear my voice, squeaky and on edge, clashing with Dewale’s.

“C-can’t we try IVF again? I-I know the previous ones have failed, but we don’t know, no one knows, it just might work the next time we try.”

Dewale squeezes my hand tightly in an attempt to calm me. I’m almost compelled to wrench my hand free from his grasp, grab Dr. Isaac by the collar of his black-and-brown striped shirt and ask him to retract his words. To schedule another IVF appointment. To give my body one more chance to do its job. How on earth would I let another woman carry my child? Dewale’s child?

The wrinkles lining Dr. Isaac’s forehead mesh together in what appears to be a show of compassion or evidence of his struggle to re-state the truth I obviously don’t want to hear. He speaks now with more reluctance, his hands clasped and placed atop the wooden desk with messy files and a steaming cup of tea.

“Desola, I know you don’t think it’s the best option for you, but a lot of women have taken this route. There are agencies we can speak to. It’s not exactly a foreign process in Nigeria. People just don’t talk about it,” he says.

Dr. Isaac rambles on in that informed, stoic manner that I have come to dislike. The pristine smell of his office, of bleach, assaults my nostrils, strengthening my distaste for the news  I’m hearing. His words grow distant in my ears as I imagine wrenching the windows behind him open and hurling myself out of the office. Dewale poses some questions. I don’t hear what they are exactly because my mind is miles from the office. All I can hear is our fate being confirmed once more in his exchange with Dr. Isaac.

“We will take some to think about it and get back to you. Thanks a lot Dr. Isaac,” Dewale is saying. I feel him turn to me.

 “Babe let’s go home. You must be tired,” he says.

I force my legs to rise, mirroring my husband’s movement as he stands. We exit Dr. Isaac’s office and step into the waiting elevator. As we are transported to the ground floor, the elevator creaks loudly like a wailing child. A child that won’t come to me, to our home. Dewale mutters something mockful about the hospital’s clearly worn-down elevator. The elderly woman in the elevator with us laughs. I say nothing.

As we exit the hospital, I don’t hear Sade, the young nurse at the front desk, thanking us when Dewale presses some naira notes in her hand. I don’t notice the man with the bloody head being wheeled past us. All I hear are Dr. Isaac’s words and the painful jab in my subconscious that my body has failed me yet again. That I have failed the test of womanhood.

                                                              *******

The sounds of clanging pans and pots in the kitchen make their way upstairs, colliding with the deafening silence in our bedroom as I pull my wig off my head and place it on the mannequin before me. Dewale is making dinner. My favorite, he said. A tactic of his to cheer me up after the day we have just had.

I can hear him rummaging through the drawers even after shutting our bedroom door. We once joked, while making love, that it would be a bad idea to rent out any of the spare bedrooms to someone. Our house was huge. A three-story building in Lekki with five bedrooms, exquisite interior design but excruciatingly thin walls.

With one hand, I reach behind me and pull at my zipper. I let the ankara1 dress I am wearing sink to my feet before heading into the shower cubicle even though I would prefer to run a bath, sit in the bathtub, and let the warm water roll over my body while I sip gently from a glass of wine.

But I since learned to abandon wine since we started trying for children. Except for those long months following the death of our first child, and our second, a year later, when I spent long, arduous hours, sitting in the bathtub, crying feverishly into my hands, occasionally slugging an uncorked bottle of wine while I ruminated on what I did wrong. It was in those moments I was confronted with the brutal realization that depression wasn’t a Western thing.

After washing away the stench of the day’s sweat from my body, I reach for my pink nightgown. I slip it on and pause momentarily before cinching it at the waist, letting the ropes drop, partially exposing my nakedness. In the vanity mirror, voluptuous curves peek through the nightgown, straining against the thin material.

In secondary school, I was one of the first girls to be greeted by puberty, and in university I drew men to me like flies even when I didn’t roll my hips. Because of my full hips, my mother was convinced that I would have no trouble bearing children. She was sure of it.

After all, how would a child make its way into this world when its mother had barely any room for it to pass? I always scoffed when she said this. Perhaps, she has come to realize the absurdity of her conviction.

The smell of fried plantains fills my nostrils as I step out of the bedroom. Just before I begin my descent to the dining room, I stop at the room that is to be the nursery for our yet to be born child. Even when I want to avoid it, it always feels like a force is drawing me in. The familiar sight of softness and ambience greets me. The princess-like crib, the framed pictures of animals hanging from the cream-colored walls, the walker propped against the closet.

The nursery decoration was an act of faith, a way of speaking our unborn baby into existence. Just like a woman my mother told me about who had gone to her village in Kogi and bought gifts for all the children there, hoping that her act of kindness would prompt her baby to enter her world. So far, our act of faith hasn’t paid off. Perhaps, I should do what that woman did.

                                                                 *******

The foot of the chair scrapes loudly against the tiled floor as Dewale pulls it out for me, urging me to sit. This is one of the rare moments he cooks, and I can tell he is excited for me to try what he has prepared for dinner; white rice, fish stew, and plantains just the way I like it. The sight of the food is appealing but my appetite is non-existent.

“Are you considering it?” I ask him.

I sneak a look at his face before shoving a piece of fish into my mouth. Surrogacy has never come up in conversation and I am curious to know what he thinks about it.

“What Dr. Isaac said?” he asks. I know he is stalling, probing his mind for the right answer to give. Another force of habit.

“Yes, and you can be honest.”

  “Umm….. It’s not a completely terrible idea.”

“You wouldn’t mind another woman carrying your child?” I probe in a tone teetering on the brink of anger. I grip my spoon tightly, reminding myself that it’s a simple conversation, but I know it’s not.

Dewale sighs then says tiredly, “I think it’s something to consider. We’ve tried IVF several times. I don’t want to put you through that pain again.”

He reaches across the table and squeezes my hand before picking up his fork. I can feel something rising in my throat. Something solid, amorphous. The back of my eyes burn with what I know to be the early beginning of tears.

“I don’t like the idea. I just can’t imagine…It just won’t feel the same you know….”

I can tell that my words are breaking Dewale, that my sadness is infiltrating him. His hand is back on mine, rubbing my knuckles in circles.

“This doesn’t mean we are giving up. It just means we are trying another option. You would still be the child’s mother and I it’s father. It won’t change anything.” His words are carefully constructed to comfort me, but they have no effect.

“I just feel like I’ve disappointed you. Like I’ve failed us.” My voice breaks on the last word.

“Why would you think that?” Dewale asks, puzzled.

“I see the looks some of our friends give me. And the comments in church. The invitations for fertility prayers like I’m carrying a curse or something. Even with IVF it’s felt like I didn’t have enough faith. I’ve had people tell me that. Imagine what they will say when we tell them we want to try surrogacy.”

“Babe, you know I don’t care about what people say, and you shouldn’t either.” Dewale stands and comes over to my side of the table. He kneels by my feet and tilts my face to meet his gaze.

“Do you really not care?” I ask.

I stare at him in genuine puzzlement. His optimism about this slightly irritates me. Perhaps, I want him to say that he is disappointed that we have to take this route and that his dream of being a father has been shattered.

“Desola, I’m an adopted child, and I grew up with such wonderful love from my parents. This connection thing or whatever you are worried about, you don’t have to. Dr. Isaac explained the process to us. The child is ours. It’s just being born through another person’s body.”

For a moment, I wish I had his optimism. I think about the night I saw the texts on his phone. It’s my only proof that his optimism is a facade. When I don’t say anything he continues, his words soft like a lullaby.

“The child will be ours. I grew up not knowing my birth parents, yet I didn’t feel like I lost an ounce of love because my adoptive parents….”

At this turn in the conversation, I interject.

 “Why did you search for your birth parents if you didn’t feel like something was missing?” I question.

“Wait. What do you mean?” Dewale asks, his forehead burrowing in confusion.

“The trip to Benin. I know it wasn’t a work trip. I know you met your birth mother.”

At this revelation, he rises swiftly to his feet and parades the kitchen, running a hand across his face.

“Look, I’m sorry I lied, but I don’t like you going through my things. I’m trying to make you feel better, but you keep trying to paint me as the bad guy here.”

“I don’t want you to make me feel better. I want you to admit that it hurts that we can’t have children!”

“It will still be our child whether it’s..”

“No, it won’t, and you know it!” I shout.

“Desola, I’ll talk to you when you are calm. I can’t deal with this right now. I’m going to bed.”

Dewale storms out of the dining room, slamming the door behind him. The tears I’ve been holding back fall in torrents.

                                                                *******

Silence wraps itself around the house like a cloak except for the occasional sounds that emerge from the neighbor’s garden as Sam and Sarah, Mr. and Mrs. Adejobi’s children, spray each other with water guns. I am seated at the kitchen island, typing a review of Yejide Kilanko’s novel, Daughters Who Walk this Path, for the literary journal I work for. The words on my screen come out subpar, and I squelch the urge to fling my laptop away.

Across from me, my breakfast remains uneaten. Yet again, Dewale insisted he would eat at work even though we typically eat breakfast together. In the aftermath of our argument, the house still bristles with tension. It’s been two weeks of succinct conversations, brief hellos and goodbyes, and little arguments over the most minor things.

I know I hit a sensitive spot when I brought up Dewale’s birth mother. An apology dances at the tip of my tongue, but it’s shoved down my throat each time pride rears its head. I type furiously as though my speed might counter the thoughts churning through my mind and the heaviness nestling in my chest.

A call from my mother comes through when I get to the third page. It’s the fifth time she’s called this week, and I’ve been ignoring her calls and texts. I know her next move will be to visit, so I answer this time around.

“Desola! Why to fi gbe phone e2?” she asks, annoyed.

“Mummy, I’ve been busy. Sorry about that,” I reply with an ungenuine apology.

“So, you don’t have time for your own mother abi3?” she asks, resorting to guilt-tripping. I hate when she does this.

“Mummy I-”

“Have you done what Prophet Abisona asked you to do?” she interrupts.

Prophet Abisona is the tenth prophet she has taken me to, and just like the ones before him, he presented me with a set of instructions. Spray my body with the holy perfume he gave to me. Walk around my house seven times. Place the holy oil on the four corners of the crib in the nursery. All of this he said with exaggerated motions, assuring my mother that I would get pregnant on my next IVF attempt.

But of course, his instructions came at a cost; hundred thousand naira that my mother had willingly deposited into his bank account. I sigh at my mother’s question.

“No, I haven’t. I’ve been so busy…”

My mother’s frustrated hiss emerges from the line. I move the phone slightly, away from my right ear.

“Desola! Why haven’t you done it? Ehn? If you took these things more seriously maybe…”

“We might have to try surrogacy,” I tell her abruptly. Her shock is palpable as the line goes silent for a minute.

“Surro-kini4? Surrogacy keh5? O fe ki obinrin min gbe omo e6? Ha7! Aye mi o8. You want to disgrace me Desola?” she cries.

“We haven’t decided yet. Dewale and I….”

“Don’t tell me both of you are thinking about it? Decide what? Ha7! The enemy will not put me to shame. First IVF. Now this. What else will you people try?”

I can feel a headache brewing at my mother’s theatrics. I know she’s about to delve into another tirade on how she regrets the role she played in kickstarting my journey towards childlessness. She regrets agreeing to Dewale’s mother’s request, ten years ago, that she introduce her son to me. Her serial trips to prophets have done nothing but solidify her conviction that my mother-in-law has placed a curse on me, after all, my mother-in-law struggled to have children for years before she adopted Dewale. When my mother is done voicing her disapproval and insisting that I follow Prophet Abisona’s instructions, our conversation ends.

You will give birth like the Hebrew women, was what she used to say to me in the early days of my marriage when hope was still fresh and strong. Surrogacy is an extreme deviation from her vision for me. An extreme deviation from convention. With deviation from convention, loneliness festers within the deviant, but with the companionship of other deviants, it is temporarily silenced. This is what prompts me to turn to my online support group.

For the first time, I put out a post, hoping that the words of other deviants can comfort me. I take solace in the words of other women who have gone through this process. From these women come proclamations of undying love for their children, a love that isn’t hindered by their deviation from convention.

I take their words with me as I tidy things around the house, complete the review of Yejide Kilanko’s novel, and cook Dewale’s favorite meal, but at midnight, a post from a user renews my fears and awakens the heaviness in my chest.

Tufiakwa9! That just means ultimate failure as a woman,” the user says in response to my post on surrogacy. The user is immediately blocked and apologies made by the admin, but my mind is fixed on that comment. Ultimate failure as a woman.

                                                                 *******

From our mothers and their mothers, the test of womanhood is passed down. For years, I subconsciously took on the weight of this test, but there comes a point when exhaustion takes over and you eventually shirk this weight off. These were my thoughts on the day Dewale and I decided to proceed with surrogacy.

The months that led up to this decision were filled with a new level of intimacy that now defined our marriage. We ironed out our concerns, worked out our worries, and shared secrets we had kept from each other. We agreed there was much to be straightened out if we were to successfully move into the next phase of our journey as trying parents.

Today is the day we meet our surrogate. She is waiting for us at the Ikoyi Fertility Agency, and some of the information we have on her is this; 38 years old, Yoruba, 5’7, single, 3rd time surrogate, low-income, no criminal records. All of this we know through the background checks because we want this process to go without a hitch.

In forty-five minutes, I see the woman who will carry our baby. This woman whose body will supersede the limitations of mine. I squeeze Dewale’s hand as we all say our greetings. The agency owner is grinning, happy that all parties have finally met and waiting for us to line his pockets with cash. Dewale makes the transfer while the surrogate and I sit next to each other and attempt to make awkward conversation.

Her name is Adunni. She offers me a saccharine smile that lights up her pretty face. Her face is devoid of makeup and defined by a smattering of red pimples on her forehead. She has a demure personality; shy, sweet, reserved. Her eyes don’t meet Dewale’s when he thanks her for doing this for us, and she gives short answers when I ask her questions.

In the days that follow, we accompany her to appointments at Dr. Isaac’s. On the fourth appointment, I watch from a distance as our embryos are slipped into her. I dig my hands into my sides. The back of my eyes burn.

Three months later, we are soon looking at our child through the greyish-white film of the ultrasound. We’ve just been told it’s a boy. Dewale pulls me into a hug. Adunni is lying on the bed, her body angled in a slightly awkward position. Her mouth shifts into a shy smile, and her eyes glisten. I let my tears fall, brush them away, and then I take Adunni’s hand. She simply nods in understanding, in acceptance of my gratitude.

                                                      *******

When Adunni is six months along, Dewale and I ask her to move in with us. Before now, we made constant trips to her apartment on the mainland where she lives alone with her children being away at university; we tried to build a relationship with her just as the agency had advised us to. Adjusting into this new routine wasn’t an easy feat. However, with constant effort, it got easier. On our visits, I sometimes cooked for Adunni while Dewale purchased the basic essentials she might need.

Adunni often asked us not to do this since the agency already catered to most of her needs. Still, we insisted. It was a push of responsibility and in a corner of my mind, it amazed me, the ease with which I had come to feel responsible for someone else. It made me reflect on my earlier pregnancies and how Dewale was often at my beck and call, getting me all the food I craved and giving me massages even when I didn’t ask.

Each time we visited, Adunni informed us of our baby’s progress. There was a brightness in her eyes when she talked about his constant kicks and turns and how he seemed to like the cartoons on TV when she turned it on. I lived for such news, and when she let me feel his movements, tears flooded my eyes. It still amazes me that the baby in her womb is ours, and it’s sometimes hard to wrap my mind around the fact that our baby won’t be born the conventional way.

When Adunni moves in with us, we slip into a new routine. On the weekends, we often sit together in the living room, chatting about the most mundane things, and taking turns to gush about the baby’s antics. On days when Dewale is at work, Adunni and I spend hours in the kitchen trying new recipes and watching funny baby videos on YouTube at the kitchen island.

I find Adunni’s presence in our house refreshing. The silence isn’t as suffocating, and it’s nice to talk to someone when Dewale is away. Once, when I showed Adunni my writing, she revealed that she used to work as an English teacher at a secondary school on the mainland. It was a pleasant surprise, and we spent hours gushing over our favorite novels and writers.

The most difficult aspect of this new routine of ours is adjusting to the reactions of others. Some friends express their disbelief at our decision, words that are often followed by how bold and strong Dewale and I are to have taken this route. You guys have mind o, they often say. Others aren’t as open with their opinions, but I don’t miss the furtive glances they send Adunni’s way when she is in the vicinity.

I also don’t miss the look of pity in their eyes when they look at me even though they try so hard to hide it. Amidst all this, it is my mother’s reaction that hurts the most. She rarely visits and when she does, she cries and tells me I should have had more faith. I simply turn my face away and remind myself of Adunni’s words one night when we talked about faith and surrogacy.

“This is how I see it, Desola. God has granted the doctors wisdom on how to navigate infertility. If he has blessed them with this wisdom and given us this alternative, why not take it?”

                                                     *******

Adunni and I are standing in the middle of Eko Market, haggling with a sugar-cane seller when Adunni’s water breaks. The baby is due in a month, so we don’t expect this. My voice is rising as I threaten the sugar-cane seller when I feel a tug on my sleeve. Adunni is pointing at her leg. I see the colorless fluid slipping down and pooling on the ground beneath her feet. I see the blood slipping down my legs when I bend to toss a plantain peel into kitchen bin. I see our fourth child slipping away.

Adunni pulls tighter at my sleeve, screaming my name in a panicked voice and asking me to take her to the hospital quickly. This is enough to pull me back to the present, to shift my mind from the lost children and focus on saving the one that will be here soon. I urge the sugar-cane seller to assist me in transporting Adunni to the parking lot where my car is. The drive to the hospital is quick. I speed like a mad woman, ignoring warnings from angry policemen and LASTMA10 officials.

 In the waiting room, I start to pace, making calls to Dewale and my mother. Dewale arrives after thirty minutes, his face drenched with sweat and his tie askew. He helps me sit, steadying me, assuring me that our baby will be fine, that Adunni will be okay. The helplessness is crippling. Minutes feel like hours. Hours like days. My heartbeat returns to its normal rate when Dr. Isaac approaches us after almost two hours of waiting.

“Your boy is here,” he says, grinning from ear to ear.

We rush past him and dash into the ward. It’s Adunni I see first before I spot him in the cot next to her, wild cries tearing from his mouth. I see Dewale’s face in his. I see my resilience in his tiny frame. My face is wet, and my hands are trembling as Adunni hands him to me, her face ashen with sweat, with the difficulty of labor. I hold him and show him to his father, letting him peer into Dewale’s eyes that are so like his.

There is a weight in my chest. There has always been. However, this weight has metamorphosed into one of love. My fears have been assuaged because I feel that bond, that pull that won’t let me let go of the bundle of joy in my arms. Reluctantly, I let his father take him and turn to Adunni. Her face is wet as well. I pull her into a hug, and she returns my embrace. We say nothing to each other, but I know she senses my gratitude.

TRANSLATION INDEX

  1. Ankara: A type of traditional, Nigerian attire.

  2. Why to fi gbe phone e?: Why didn’t you pick up your phone? in Yoruba language.

  3. Abi: A form of Nigerian exclamation.

  4. Surro-kini: Kini means what in Yoruba language. A form of exclamation in Yoruba language.

  5. Keh: Another form of Nigerian exclamation.

  6. O fe ki obinrin min gbe omo e?: You want another woman to carry your child? in Yoruba language.

  7.  Ha!: Another form of Nigerian exclamation.

  8. Aye mi o!: My life! in Yoruba language.

  9. Tufiakwa – An exclamation that is often used to reject or disprove something. It’s also a way of saying God Forbid.

  10. LASTMA – Lagos State Traffic Management Authority. Traffic management agency in Lagos, Nigeria.


Illustration by Cassandra Orion

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Filed under: Fiction Archive

by

Oreoluwa Oladimeji is an MPH student at Drexel University. Originally from Nigeria, she obtained her bachelor’s degree in Biology (pre-medicine) from The Lincoln University of Pennsylvania. When she isn’t dealing with the familiar rigor of school work, she enjoys penning down her thoughts in the form of stories. She will be starting medical school next fall and is in the process of choosing a school. Her work is forthcoming in the Kalahari Review.