Some Great and Unspeakable Darkness: On Motherhood and Choice

jessamyn duckwall


I’m lying on the couch, two pills tucked into each side of the soft pockets of flesh between my cheeks. A fog holds my body, my hard, swollen tummy and aching tits, pressing me into myself, holding me down to the couch. The fog is time. Waiting, the unbearable. Or, it’s the thick of decision: how there is no turning back from this path. The burden of knowing that this moment is the moment of the forked paths, taking a first step down the one that whispers, Choice. Intention. There are no accidents here.

The first wave comes, a warm bruising radiance in the womb. Leaning back, lifting my hips, I shimmy my sweats down to inspect my underwear. There, on the cloth pad I’ve preemptively donned, is a tiny drop of blood. I look up at my partner, who’s sitting on the other end of the couch, my feet in his lap.

His hand grips my ankle. He has no words.

It’s starting, I say.


On this day, I wear pain as an identity. I do not exist outside of it. As my uterus contracts and my body folds in on itself, I remember the hospital five years ago, when once more time was a great fog pressing into me. Only, then, the pain swallowed me whole. Threatened to break me in half. Then, my body split in two and poured out, in a cascade of angelic blood, a whole human being. A child; my child. My only child.


At seventeen, I sat on the toilet in the bathroom of my grandmother’s double-wide trailer, pregnancy test in hand. White and boxy, from the dollar store. The second stripe appeared, faintest pink. Faint, but there. At seventeen, I was homeless, newly sober from hard drugs, sleeping on my dying grandmother’s couch, administering her pain meds and feeding her scrambled eggs so she didn’t have to leave home to die. I had no job, no car, no high school diploma, no vision of my future self. The one who got me pregnant was on the coast somewhere, probably high on mushrooms. But when I looked at those two pink stripes the only thought flooding through me was, I’m a mommy. This is my baby. Lost in a sea of listless wandering, this thought was my one buoy. I had gone about this life not knowing who I was, trying on identities and discarding them as the world tossed me around like a ragdoll. But in that moment, I knew I was to be a mother, and for the time being, that alone was enough.


When my son was four months old, I took my first-ever poetry class, a workshop at my local community college. Up to that point, I’d been a stay-at-home mom in the most extreme sense. I didn’t drive, so the baby and I really did mostly stay home. All my old friends were drug users, adrift. My only touchstone to a world outside my motherhood was the baby’s father, who came home from work irritable and smoked weed to numb out. He resented me for not wanting to have sex with him and we argued constantly. Each day was a haze of soapy dishes, dirty diapers, and that precious time spent reading novels with my baby’s perfect pink mouth latched to my breast. Some nights I bundled him up to walk down the street to my mother’s house for dinner, hungry for human connection. My notebooks, once teeming with drug-fueled poems of angst and destruction, sat gathering dust.

The first piece I wrote for the class was a narrative poem about my son’s first experience touching mud with his bare feet. My classmates told me, It sounds like a lullaby. Like you’re writing for your baby. They called it sweet, cute. This assessment destroyed me. I wanted something bigger, something electric and unsteady and trembling. I read Mary Oliver’s poem, “Beauty,” over and over, about an owl “whose nest, in the dark trees, // is trimmed with screams and bones— / whose beak / is the most terrible cup / I will ever enter” and I yearned for its raw intensity.


But when my life is nothing but a blankety fog of pureed peas and gentle coos, where is the well I could draw that intensity from? When I’m finally safe in this tiny bubble I’ve constructed around myself and my baby, how can I bear to reach outside it?


A classmate I admired brought a poem to class. When I read it, at home alone while my baby slept, I clutched it to my chest and then read it three times again. Do you ever pray for something beyond your tiny little life? the poem seemed to ask. It told the story of two individuals on a desert hillside watching a great, industrial city from a distance. It was utterly fantastical, romantic and atmospheric, painting a picture of an empty and limitless world, offering a sense of creation after destruction with its images of creosote trees and forgotten badger haunts. It lit something up deep inside me—it told me, I can use poetry not as a flimsy representor of my world, but as a portal in which to travel to different ones. To create new ones. I saw this now; this poem gave me its sacred permission.

Soon after, I gave up lullabies and began writing poems about women squatting to give birth on forest floors, girls who turn into doves, unspooling bodies rising into ether. I wrote about sex and death and ritual. I wrote to widen my inner worlds, rather than to encapsulate the one I moved through. These poems looked and sounded nothing like the tortured, angsty diary entries of my teenaged years, and yet, they didn’t resemble the sweet, cooing lullabies of my pregnancy, either. I forged for myself a new path; I revealed to myself an inwardness as yet unknown to my waking mind. More and more, the call of the unknown pulled me into poetry, and more and more each day, I became desperate to follow that path into some great and unspeakable darkness.


Five years later, I’m no longer a stay-at-home mom. The father of my child has long since left, which makes me his sole provider. I’m working to support him, but I’m also working on a bachelor’s degree in poetry. Though the practical provider in me tells me this degree is completely superfluous, a huge waste of time, the poet in me hungers for immersion, for obliteration—and so I spend my hours reading and writing poems, filling my body with words, resting in the spaces between them. Every night, I tuck my little one into bed and read him a story. We sing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” and say our ritual words. I say a phrase, and he echoes it back:

Good night.

Sleep tight.

Don’t let the bed-bugs bite.

Sweet dreams.

I love you.

I am forever marveling at his tiny body, curled beneath the quilts and his precious Spider-Man blankie on his twin bed. He is my great love, my best creation. And still, when he falls asleep, I give myself back to myself. I take a deep breath and inhabit my own space. He mostly doesn’t appear in the poems I write. Mostly, he is in the bathtub making potions while in my head I


bleed between closed legs

            on clean sheets. my body kisses heaven with its

pomegranate innards. i sigh and sigh;

my heart drips like placenta,              that shining afterbirth how it trembles.

this heart is a hungry doe for clover.

this head is full of ghastly rough sex              it breeds

layers of mushrooms that spread and worm

out my chest and neck. they make me itch.

i paint them in red liquid

and ask to be tied up.


i ask for more and it’s too much                     and it’s not enough.


this heart is just another organ

leaking sticky want from gaping pores.


i love the way this body does its soft dissolving.

i love the way it beckons me close and swallows me            like water—


One day, autumn, quiet, a friend visits me at work in the mostly empty library. All my tasks are done and I’m bored, so we chat for a while.

Do you believe in, like, life purpose? he asks. I hesitate. This friend likes to ask big questions which I’m always hesitating to answer. I usually tell him I don’t have answers, just more questions. Today, though, I reply, I used to think my life purpose was to be a mother.

He leans on a nearby bookshelf and raises his eyebrows. It isn’t?

I take a breath, feeling the truth in my words, and shake my head slowly. I don’t know how to say, the last five years have been a slow unveiling of my identity beyond motherhood. I don’t know how to say, I can still be a good mother, even if motherhood is not my life’s purpose. Two truths can exist at once. Instead I say, I love my child, but I don’t know if I want more kids. The words tumble from my throat, wild. I want to be a poet.


About a month after this conversation, I’m sitting on the toilet in the early morning dark, holding a white stick, sick with dread. I know what I’ll see before it appears. I track my cycle diligently; my ovaries harden and ache when I’m fertile, and I always know when bleeding time is coming. At first, when my breasts had begun to ache, I thought my period was coming early, but a week passed and no blood flowed. Inside, I knew. As the days progressed I became sick with ache; my breasts swelled with purpose. I’d been ravenously hungry and insufferably weepy. This wasn’t PMS. I recognized this as something else. The morning after my period was meant to arrive, I decided it was time for the test. The pink plus sign on the test seems to float up from nothing. This time, so different from five years ago. I cradle my face in my hands. Fuck, I say. Fuck, fuck, fuck. I can’t do this. This can’t be happening. But the pink plus sign leers at me; tells me, You cannot run from this.


I tell my sister a few days later. Actually, I don’t have to tell her. We’re walking to the coffee shop before I have to work, and I stop mid-stride. Han, I say. And that’s all it takes. She turns and says, Are you pregnant? Blood rushes to my face, hot and dizzying. My vision blurs, and the tears pour out of me, searing rivulets. I don’t know what to do, I tell her through my broken sobbing.

How far along?

Two weeks. It’s the size of a poppy seed. There’s not even a heartbeat.

Well…what do you want to do?


That night I dream that I’m in the bathtub. My body convulses and coils. I feel like I’m unraveling. I close my eyes and sink into this pocket of pain; when I open them, and look between my legs, a thin stream of red curls like smoke. Panicking, I clutch at the water, and the blood dissipates into it. Now there’s a steady, heavy stream; blood coursing from my womb in great tidal gusts. The water holding me now the color of cherry kool-aid. Something keeps me here; I make no move to rise from the tub. I call out my partner’s name, helpless. When he enters the bathroom, his expression is almost bored. What’s wrong? he asks. My eyes search his expressionless face. I don’t know what to ask of him. He cannot help me. He doesn’t see the blood.


When I make the call to Planned Parenthood, the receptionist on the phone asks me if I’d like to know the details of the procedure and how it works. I pace my living room, a feral, terrified animal stalking in her cage. I cup my womb in a shaking hand.

Yes, please. My voice a choke.

She tells me how, when I go in to the clinic, they’ll do a blood test and an ultrasound to confirm that I am, in fact, pregnant. I find myself remembering the first ultrasound taken of my son, at six weeks. How he was just a dot on the screen. How, when the midwife magnified the sound and I heard that tiny heart beating—frantic little hummingbird beating in my ears—how I cried then, tears so different—or maybe not so different? —from the ones seeping out of me now.

I won’t have to look, will I? I ask the woman on the phone.

Of course not, she reassures me. You don’t have to look.

She goes on to tell me, once the pregnancy has been confirmed, and it’s positive I am below eleven weeks—I’m three and a half weeks along, I mumble into the receiver—the nurse will give me a medication called mifepristone, which I’ll take in the clinic. This medicine will halt my body’s production of progesterone, the hormone necessary for a healthy pregnancy. There are usually no side effects to taking this medication—most women report they feel no different after taking it. Twenty-four hours later, at home, is when I’m to take the second medication: misoprostol. This will cause my uterus to contract and my body to expel what this woman on the phone refers to as pregnancy tissue.

There will be pain, she says. You’ll experience cramping stronger than a period, not so strong as labor pains. For twenty-four to forty-eight hours after ingesting the misoprostol. Many women report that it feels like a miscarriage.

I’ve never had a miscarriage, I say.

No matter, she says. And she schedules my appointment for the 30th of December, ten days away.


Several early mornings in the days leading up to the appointment, I wake in a panic, sure that my child is no longer breathing. I run to his bedroom, half-insane with sleep. There, I watch his tiny chest rise and fall. I hold my inner wrist beneath his nose and feel the miraculous warmth of life radiate against my skin.


December 31st, the day after I take the mifepristone, my aching body swims through a delirium of sleep. Something is wrong, my body cries. This isn’t supposed to be happening. My partner lets my son watch too much television. I don’t have the energy to intervene. I sleep; I dream of water. Hot water to dissolve this pressing pearl in my stomach.

I took the mifepristone in the clinic around 4pm the day before, so I have to wait until at least 4pm to take the misoprostol today: four pills, two tucked in to each side of my cheeks, to sit for half an hour before I am allowed to swallow. When I finally do, it’s like choking down a glob of chalk. I wretch. But the medicine goes down anyway. And despite my fear, it stays.

The next several hours are spent on the couch beneath a heating pad, waiting for blood. It takes longer to come than I’d hoped; when it does, it’s dark outside.


Midnight. It’s 2020. A new year, new decade. I float alongside my flimsy body in a warm pocket of pain. Fireworks erupt from afar, but here inside me, there is no fire, only a soft water flowing. How I want to press myself against it like a bathtub drain. I sink inside and fade away. Hours later, I wake, in my bed, in a puddle of blood—my pad soaked through. On my face, my child’s cold hands stroking.

Mom, wake up. I’m hungry.


I assumed that after the abortion I’d feel regret. A crippling guilt. Like I’d made the wrong decision, like I’d committed some sort of sin. Instead, I watch my child as he builds his rainbow castles and sings to himself, and I thank the world for giving him to me. I send him to school on the bus, and I sit at my desk alone, lighting candles and bathing in the strange rhythms of words. Instead, I water myself, a baby sapling with limbs outstretched. I take up space for my own sake and rejoice. Yes, I love my angel child; I mother him patiently while unbinding myself from that word, Mother.


jessamyn duckwall (she/they) is a queer, genderfluid poet. She likes to write about the body, erotics, and kink. She is currently pursuing an MFA in poetry at Portland State University, and will serve as Poetry co-editor at The Portland Review beginning fall 2021. She enjoys reading tarot cards, talking to plants, drinking tea and making soup. Her work has appeared in Pathos Magazine and Otolith Journal, and is forthcoming in House of Theodora’s new anthology, sub/mission. She lives in Oregon with her child and her dog.