Back when I first got my tits, in the fifth grade, I had these ecstatic daydreams in which they were gone. In these reveries, I was running through the tall meadow grasses of my green yard where wild turkeys noisily exploded from their cover, and I was wearing my favourite shirt with the burgundy suns bleach-drizzled across it and it lay completely flat across my chest and I wore no bra and I was barefoot and I could move so fast. I knew this was the age when you could start becoming a version of your future adult self, and this was the version I wanted to be. But the future had already come for me. The future was a set of double-D tits I have hated since the day they arrived.
Breasts was never a word that worked for me. And much like when I realised that I hated being called “Christie” and started going by my mother’s nickname for me, “CJ”, I also, at some point, realised that the indignity of using a word I hated for a part of my own body was a problem within my control to remedy. And so I have thought of my tits, since that time, as my tits, because it’s a word I like. It’s a word full of moxie.
I could not tell you the number of hours I’ve spent at my computer looking up reduction surgeries. I have admired before-and-after pictures and been troubled by them. I have wondered how I could possibly go the necessary amount of time recuperating. I have fixated on the unlikelihood of being able to breastfeed post-surgery. I have considered the tiny scars, and people have shown me their own – little trees, little lollipops – around the nipples. I have seen trans friends who were less at home in their bodies than I am get top surgery, and I have felt joy and jealousy as we went to the beach and they appeared in trunks, their new bodies allowing different kinds of visibility and possibility. I have joked with a friend that we will both get surgery and form a lady cult of titless women who wear only overalls, overalls whose straps will lie neatly across our chests, as we do whatever good work we please in our newly unencumbered bodies. I have gotten recommendations for doctors. But I have never even gotten as far as a phone call. Whenever I get close, I hesitate, and decide to save my tits a little while longer.
Because, it turns out, there are a lot of imaginary people who I seem to think might need them.
I am 12 years old and we – me and four other girls – are sitting on the kerb of the parking lot across from the school playground. We are watching some older boys skateboard. We are pretending we are not explicitly here for this reason. The boys come over and I talk to one named Marcus about whether or not he can do a certain trick. He can’t yet but he will soon, he says. We walk back to one of the girls’ houses. Sometime during this afternoon, I get my period. I find pads under my friend’s mother’s sink and take care of things. Within a year, I will have ascended into my double-D tits and I will hate them, but right now, this is new and exciting.
In my own head, the only reason I still had my tits, which I hated, was because I was going to offer them to someone
Later, when we are idly playing Truth or Dare, sprawled across a girlish bed with many pillows, I want to tell these girls about getting my period but we are listening to Whitney Houston on boombox repeat and it’s very loud and we keep singing and so eventually I have to turn Whitney down and engineer a Truth question so I can tell them about it. Oh my God! We all yell about my period. You’re a woman, one says. Oh my God, you were a woman with Marcus, another one says. You were a woman the whole time he was talking to you and he didn’t even know he was the first person you were a woman with. And we laugh, and I love these girls.
I don’t know why it doesn’t occur to me that I was a woman with them before I was a woman with him. Why that doesn’t count. Why being “a woman” in a bodily way is, always, already, even in this moment, for someone, and the someone isn’t me. All five of us understand this, intuitively, at 12, even as we turn Whitney back up, make Whitney louder, as we go back to our games and our singing.
I grew up hating dolls and played at being Jane Goodall instead, tending a menagerie of creatures in the imaginary wild. Even so, I have always known I wanted to have children. I have always wanted both to be a mother and to use my body to become a mother. These are different things, and I have understood them as such. I am interested in being a parent, full stop. But being pregnant is an experience I’ve always known my body was interested in having. In my 20s, I used to say I wanted a feral wolf pack of boy children whom I’d call inside with a dinner bell when the light started to fade. In my early 30s, I used to say I wanted two kids, and please let them be girls. These sub-40 days, I think: one child, and may they be so lucky as to be born in a body that pleases them.
There is a clock of fertility that many women are aware of, and mine is a kind of Schrödinger’s clock. It is possible, for example, that my clock has already run out, and it is too late for me to use my body to make a child. Or it is possible my clock is still ticking. The fact of my not knowing used to be a thing that plunged me into anxiety and urgency and despair. Some days it still does. But, mostly, my clock’s Schrödingerish quality makes me feel like a happy nihilist, rather que sera, sera about it. Because I have made enough hasty choices to know that the only bad outcome would be to devote myself to this clock at the price of enlisting some person whose presence makes me unhappy.
All of this is to say I have found myself needing to consider which parts of “having children” are the parts I always thought I wanted. And as I separate out the parts that have to do with coupledom, or with wanting to meld genes with a particular beloved, from the parts that have to do with being a parent, from the parts that have to do with being a person whose body makes a life, it seems there are more and different elements to this than I’d been led to believe. I might have gone on for ever, thinking of all this as one impossibly unified thing, had I not had a breakdown in therapy. The catalyst for this breakdown was, of course, my tits.
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My relationship with Peter, with whom I thought I was going to have a child, had ended. I had ended it. Had come to know it was not right. That we were good together, but not good enough. Which is a specific kind of tragedy. Because here was this lovely man, who, by the way, wanted to have a child with me, but that was not enough for me to stay. This was the second time in five years I had dated a father, planned to have a child with that father, and then had that possibility go away. And now I was weeping about it to my shrink: I read an article that told me that 35 was the point at which a woman should start losing her fucking mind if she wanted to have kids and I helplessly imprinted on that number and now I’m 37 and I feel like, oh shit, I forgot to have kids! In an effort to cheer myself up, I said: well, at least I can get rid of my tits now. And before my therapist could ask what I meant by that, I spun out further: but what are my tits for? What is the point of them? Why have I been carting them around like this for years, if I hate them, and now I’m not even going to use them?
What do you mean by that, my therapist asked: “Use” them? This was a good question. I had surprised myself with these words. I tried to explain what my mouth had admitted without my brain even knowing why. And it turned out that, in my own head, the only reason I still had my tits, which I hated, was because I was going to offer them to someone. To hypothetical tit-appreciating and possibly scar-averse lovers. To my hypothetical child. To this hypothetical life I was going to have with this lover and this child. I have come to understand that not everyone feels this way about their tits. But I do. I have this whole time. I just didn’t realise it until that hypothetical life I’d been saving them for flickered for a moment. And in the flicker, the plausibility of me becoming a mother with my body, the plausibility of me sharing my pre-pregnancy body with a lover, the plausibility of having a romantic partner with whom to share the experience of pregnancy and raising a child … all of that no longer seemed likely. It definitely no longer seemed certain. And when the existences of those imaginary people were threatened? When, for a sobbing therapeutic moment, they blinked out of existence and I was left with only my own self? The first thought I had was: who are these fucking tits for?
I felt I had been tricked into bearing them (By whom? By myself!) for years, and this had been for nothing. “You could get surgery now, if that’s a thing you decide to do,” my therapist told me. “And you could still have a child with your body, and not breastfeed.” “But what about the scars? What if someone didn’t like them?” “Someone?” “Some partner.” “Do you mind the idea of scars on your body?” “No, they look like little trees.” “Would you be upset if someone you loved had scars?” “Of course not,” I said. “Scars from a surgery they’d had that made them happy?” “Extra not,” I said. “Why would someone not feel this same way toward your body? Why can’t you imagine someone accommodating your whole self the way you imagine accommodating someone else?” Because I wanted to keep my body full of possibilities. I didn’t want to risk defining what it was or wasn’t too specifically in case what I made of it wasn’t what someone, someday, wanted or needed from me. These imaginary lovers. These imaginary children. That my body is for me, is mine, that my body does not have to please others, has been a hard thing to understand. It is a thing I’ve been working on for a long time.
‘I am finding ways for lovers to touch my tits that make me pleased they are still here’ Photograph: Chantel King/The Guardian
It was Nick, my ex-fiance, who found the lump in my breast. It’s not cancer. I am very lucky and this is not that kind of story and I’m not going to have you wondering if it is. The point is, I had just turned 30, and he was grabbing my tits, not unpleasantly, when he popped up to say: “You have a lump in this tit – did you know that?” I did not. I appreciated this directness. And he came with me to get the lump checked out, and this was very thoughtful and nice of him. There are people in this world who understand that having a lump in your tit is existentially frightening and people who do not. Nick was the former, and this was a blessing. After being mammogrammed to death – which, if you don’t know, involves your tit being not unpainfully squished between glass plates, so that what had once been a plump grapefruit is now a vertical splat of flesh under deli glass – the nurses told me: we have no idea what’s going on in there. And I said: meaning that you’re not sure what it is? No, the nurses said, meaning your tits are super dense and full of mysterious objects but we can’t see for shit in there so you’re going to have to get an ultrasound. Like for babies, I said. Yes, but for your tits, they said. I see. Since then, I have had to be a person who fights with hospitals and insurance companies once every six months and locates some oracle to stare into the heart of darkness.
Another way of putting this is to say that every six months I have a routine medical procedure where I hear, once again, that my tits are full of mysteries that are probably a benign nothing but are also maybe going to kill me, so let’s remain in this semi-annual cycle of wondering and looking just to be sure. Schrödinger’s tits. A few weeks after my therapy breakdown, I found a new lump. I was referred to a new hospital with a breast health centre, where, in the waiting room, everything was covered in pink ribbons and pink flowers and pink-scripted affirmations of strength, and, as I sat in this vortex of pink, I had a warped thought, which was: at least if it’s cancer my insurance might pay to get rid of my tits. And then I realised how disrespectful a thought that was. And I thought of my friends who have had breast cancer and other cancers, and in my head I said: I am sorry I am sorry I am sorry, to each of them for even thinking the thought.
Who would I fall in love with, have sex with, if I wasn’t imagining that person as a parent to my someday child?
Eventually, I was led into the ultrasound room and I took off my shirt and my special-order, $100, bigger-than-DD bra because I was running heavy that year and normal bras from a store would not fit. I waited, in my little blue paper robe, to be seen by the oracle. The woman who came to do the ultrasound was very calm and very direct, and I was so grateful for that. She spread the gel across my tit gently, moved the wand with even pressure. The report from inside me came up on the little ultrasound screen, black and white and grainy and flickering, and I began to cry. I am sure the technician thought I was crying because I was scared. But the reality was that I began crying because this felt like a movie scene I knew too well. We all do. It’s the moment when the woman and her partner go in for an ultrasound and there’s the goo and there’s the wand and there’s the screen and on the screen they see their baby. I have imagined myself in this scene before. I have imagined how that might feel. But this was not that.
This saintly technician noticed my crying and she told me she was almost through. When she was finished she told me she wasn’t allowed to say anything but she personally didn’t see anything bad in my tits. I said thank you for this maybe slightly unethical but deeply appreciated mercy. When she left the room, I cried properly. Cried because I was relieved. Cried because she’d treated me like a person. Cried because I was in this bizarre version of a scene from my life I’d always anticipated, but instead of a nurse waving her wand to reveal a baby, it was this nurse telling me that the unknowable things inside of me were potentially benign. That they were mysteries, but they would not kill me for being unresolved.
Who would I fall in love with, who would I have sex with, if I wasn’t imagining that person as a parent to my someday child? Would I have dated the people I dated if I didn’t imagine them someday being part of my future life, in which I imagined myself being a parent? I think the answer might be no. I can’t decide whether this line of thinking is the most obvious thing in the world or if it is deeply unsettling. If it seems strange that I was thinking of the men I was dating as potential fathers, remember that two of the men I had dated for the past five years of my life, Maxim and Peter, were, in fact, fathers. That these men were fathers was a part of their identities, and their parenthood was a huge part of our lives together. These men were good fathers. And this was a thing I loved about them.
When I stopped thinking about the people I kissed as being part of some sort of pathway to shared parenthood, I found I was interested in different people. I became open to seeing polyamorous people. I saw women more frequently. And the monogamous cis men I was interested in were different, too. In an act of precisely the sort of performative sexual abandon I always think is going to make me feel free and seldom does because I always wind up dating the person instead of walking away, I attempted to have sex with a relative stranger I met on the internet and then never see him again. Adam and I succeeded at the first part of this.
We met at the charming bar in the lobby of the fancy hotel where I was staying. He was incredibly handsome. We drank cocktails and talked about books and our families and the ocean. Soon I had invited him upstairs. We had sex that I loved more than most sex. A tumbling, kinetic sort of fucking with so much saying yes in it. And it’s not that I hadn’t had sex like this before, but there was something about being only myself in bed, not as a person who might someday want to date this person or marry this person or have children with this person, but just myself, right then, that made everything particularly free and good. All the other parts and versions of myself I thought I had to someday be? They were not invited into that bed.
I’m not sure I had realised how many other selves of mine were doing ride-alongs in my life – asking questions, running simulations on hypothetical futures – until they were suddenly no longer in the room. Adam squeezed my tits, and then asked if this was OK, heard yes, and did it again and harder, and asked if this was OK, heard yes again, and squeezed me again, and this was pleasure. In the morning, there were little blooms in lilac and moss dappled across the tops of my tits. “Was that me?” Adam said. And I said yes. “Was that OK? I’ll be gentler,” he said. “No,” I said. “Please don’t.”
A day later, at home, I studied those lovely dapples in the mirror and the thing I thought was this: maybe if I am only myself, and not always/also the future mother of the children I might have with a person, then this thing that brought me pleasure can be a part of our dynamic. Maybe I am allowed to like this. There was no reason to limit the things my body wanted to be or do because I conceived of them as mutually exclusive with some role I thought it needed to someday fulfil. Because I am lousy at one-off sexual abandon, I soon found myself visiting Adam again. He invited me to stay with him in New York, and we rode a scooter to the Met. We wore goofy helmets and drove through the park, and it was spring. As we waited outside the museum, we watched the fountain jump in patterns too complicated to keep track of. Inside, in the ancient Egyptian art wing, we found a small statue of a couple behind glass. A woman with her arm around the waist of a much taller man, he with his long arm draped over her shoulder, his hand resting perfectly on her tit. They both looked proud and comfortable. “I like this,” Adam said. “Me, too,” I said. And he leaned in next to me, and I put my arm around his waist, like the ancient people in the statue. He put his arm over my shoulder and placed his hand on my tit, gently, bringing me in close. He read the little placard. “It’s called a ‘reciprocal embrace’,” he said. “Yes,” I said.
I am making peace with my tits. I am finding ways for lovers to touch and squeeze them that make me pleased they are still here. I am still marking my body with tattoos and putting little gold rings in my nose and golden beads in my ears because they please me, and I do not care what some imaginary someone might think of them. And maybe someday I will be a pregnant person, in this body, or a mother, in this body, or not. And maybe someday I will get surgery and my body will look a new way, with scars, and those scars will be evidence of my work to shape my own happiness in this body, which is mine. In shaping this life. Which is mine. And if and when I meet more new and good people who can accept the shape of my body, the shape of my life, recognise that they please me, and feel happy for me, they are the ones I will welcome, welcome, welcome, into some sort of reciprocal embrace.
This article’s headline and main image were amended on 9 July 2022 for editorial reasons.
This is an edited extract from The Crane Wife: A Memoir in Essays by CJ Hauser, published by Penguin at £16.99. To support the Guardian and the Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.