Someone at the Midsummer Gathering muttered ‘breeder’ as they passed my stand. Another ambled by and said ‘bratgetter’. I was sitting on a metal chair in front of my birth-themed paintings at the time; legs crossed, waiting, maybe I was playing with my hair a little.
I thought these were weird things to say. The women didn’t know me and if they thought my irreverent exploration of pregnancy and birth meant I was all about babies then they were not only presumptuous, but ignorant as well. I decided it was better to blank them.
To be honest, actual babies didn’t interest me. Even as a babysitter I found them boring. I didn’t like holding them, so heavy and dense. The erratic, clumsy movements. The dazed, vacant looks. You never really knew what they were thinking. Or what they might do next.
Just to be clear, my teenage diagnosis of MRKH was not an influence. Even though I would not in a million years be able to give birth, this had no bearing on my feelings. There was no animosity, no emotion attached. Simply, they were not for me. But I liked the thought of painting unexpected narratives about them. Of making them into something more than just babies.
I had been asked to exhibit at this gathering by a friend. Someone on the committee who liked my work and thought, due to the subject matter and tone, the people attending would too. At that time the general mood in the community was more militant than broody and this was fine with me. I had always been a little on the belligerent side myself; hating authority and any mention of ‘following the rules’. Here, women were exerting their rights and voicing opinions and no one I knew had the slightest interest in finding the right sperm to complete them.
The diagnosis came about because at sixteen I still hadn’t gotten my period so was carted off to the doctor to find out why. “Womanhood. So overrated,” I remembered thinking. During the examination the room filled with silent concern. The doctor’s large glasses magnified his blue eyes into a stare, making the situation seem a lot more ominous. When he finished the exam I sat up. In almost a whisper, as if he was trying to soften the blow he said, ‘this isn’t normal’, to which I thought, what is ‘normal’. They scheduled me for a procedure but that didn’t work. Turns out I was missing a bit of plumbing, including a uterus. I was told flatly, clinically, ‘any children you may want in the future will have to be through adoption’.
I sat in the backseat of the car on the way home. I watched the trees turn into a mesmerizing green blur, the houses sped past, the other cars flashed hot and bright in the summer sun, wondering why all of this would matter to someone my age anyway. I didn’t give it another thought until I was told by the doctor a few weeks later I would require surgery.
The Gathering took place in late June each year and was held in an unused theater. It was part social event, part community meeting. A way to get like-minded people together for support and culture. I was asked to hang my work in the second floor gallery. There was a view of the main function room downstairs from up there and I could see other artists setting up, the caterer was dressing a long trestle table in white, the organizers scurried around with clipboards holding coffee in paper cups. I was hoping it would be a good day.
Some people had said my paintings were odd and desolate but everyone knows that art is subjective and in the past, plenty of people bought my work. Just because the colors were sombre, the shadowed images featuring babies in unusual guises doing unusual things certainly did not mean they were odd. Moody was the way I liked to describe them. Moody with a hint of sarcasm.
The morning was slow but in the afternoon crowds of people appeared, milling around holding glasses of wine, cups of coffee and tiny croissants filled with cream cheese. I sat there answering the few questions that were asked, crossing and re-crossing my legs out of discomfort (a result of both the chair and my social anxiety).
A small group of women standing off to the side carried on a debate between themselves, deliberately loud enough so I could hear.
“Why do you suppose they allowed a breeder to exhibit?”
“Political correctness?” asked a woman with sleek blonde hair and an arm full of tattoos.
“Since when have you known the committee to be politically correct?”
“True. Baby factories should not be allowed.”
I was dumbfounded. Why the derogatory ways to describe someone having a baby. I ignored these comments too. I mean, I wasn’t having a baby and as I said, they didn’t know me.
During this time a couple had been viewing one painting in particular; a large canvas filled with murky blues, violet and crimson. The image was of two female figures, heads down, holding hands. Above and behind them a fat winged angel baby in a skimpy bikini gazed down holding up its middle finger; a look of serenity on its chubby face.
“This is absolutely wonderful,” said one of the women, smiling. She was tall and slim, wearing a light blue smock style top and black leggings. Her eyes lit up as she spoke.
Prior to the procedure, the doctor who had diagnosed me went through all the details about what to expect, but none of it registered. After the initial shock my family was stricken with a kind of half-hysteria/half-attack of narcissism, where really, it was all about them. Nobody asked if I wanted this; they just scheduled surgery.
The tall woman’s partner, a striking brunette in a colorful sundress agreed, “and the look on the angel’s face. Priceless”.
“I know,” said the tall woman. “Attitude is everything.”
The background noise from the debaters continued, not as loud but one of them, a small woman wearing round glasses and faded jeans regarded the painting’s admirers harshly. She walked over to them and in a tone that clearly showed her annoyance asked, “why would you support this baby-vamp?”
“Baby-vamp? That’s a new one.” The brunette stared down at her, arms crossed, a look of disbelief on her face.
“Are you telling me you’re happy about her being here?” The woman’s voice had this sharp yelp, like a nipple twist, to it.
“Of course,” she replied calmly. “We’re here shopping for a painting.”
The small woman continued, “these leg-crossing breeders want to overpopulate the planet, that’s what we’re concerned about”.
The tall woman seemed disgusted by this comment. “Leg-crossing breeder? How did you feel the last time someone called you a dyke?”
For a second no one said a word. We all just stood there and then the small woman indignantly pushed her glasses up from where they had slipped down the bridge of her nose mumbling something indecipherable under her breath and walked away, the rest of her posse trailing behind.
The tall woman turned to me and asked if I was alright.
I assured her I was fine and she placed a hand on my arm and said, “we’d like to buy this painting”.
During the transaction they told me they had not been interested in having a child; the fertility options were not something they believed in and at the time they were both deeply involved in their work as advocates. But this situation; the attitude of the other women and painting now had them rethinking things. Adoption could be an option or maybe fostering and the possibility the child might have the same attitude as the fat angel baby had given them something to look forward to.
‘Attitude Is Everything’ (c)2020 first published in ‘At Love’s Altar’ Labello Press
Revised version (c)2022 Deborah McMenamy
All Rights Reserved