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It Ain't Over Till It's Over: How Nancy Shulins Filled The Gaping Hole In Her Heart

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One of the reasons I started my website was to create a place where women can come together and dream. Women should know that they don't have to hang on to an old dream that has stopped nurturing them -- that there is always time to start a new dream. This week's story is about one woman, who longed for motherhood, and found it in a very unlikely way.
-- Marlo, MarloThomas.com

By Lori Weiss

For Nancy Shulins, baby lust came later than it does for many women. Growing up, she wasn't that little girl who pushed a carriage full of dolls, or someone who began thinking about baby names long before she was engaged. As a matter of fact, when she got married at 31, she and her husband Mark weren’t even sure if they wanted to have children.

"We talked about it, but neither of us really knew how we felt," Nancy recalled. "And we thought we'd cross that bridge when we got to it.

"But there was an instant when it all changed for me. I was outside kicking a soccer ball with my four-year-old nephew Ben and he slipped on the grass. He wasn't hurt, but he was very upset; and when I put out my arms for him, he ran right past me, straight to my sister -- his mom. That was the moment when I realized I wanted to be the person the child ran to -- the person who could make things all better."

But by the time her maternal instincts had kicked in, Nancy was 35, and as millions of women who have struggled with infertility can attest, this was a challenging age to begin trying to have a baby. Beyond that, she and Mark were now on the bridge they'd discussed and he wasn't so sure he wanted to cross it.

"This isn't a position you can compromise on," Nancy said. "It's not like you can say, 'We'll have the baby for a year and then we’ll board him.' It took some talking -- but in the end, Mark was right by my side."

Because of Nancy's age, she immediately began fertility treatments -- and to her delight, she became pregnant relatively quickly. With her due date set, she felt satisfied that she and Mark were on their way to a new life -- one that included a baby carriage. And like all new parents, they couldn't wait to hear the child's heartbeat for the first time.

But joyous anticipation quickly turned to dread.

"The moment I saw the look on the ultrasound technician's face, I knew something was wrong," Nancy said sadly. "As she was moving the probe around, looking in one area and then another -- then all over the place -- I could see her frown lines appear. And then she called the doctor in."

Nancy's body had reabsorbed the pregnancy. What had been there, simply wasn't anymore. She was no longer expecting.

"That knocked me for a loop. All of my friends seemed to be fertility goddesses -- my sister, my neighbors. And there was a baby boom in progress on our little cul de sac. On a nice day, all the women on my street would be out with their strollers and they'd congregate right in front of my house. I felt terribly alone. I couldn't go outside and chat with them. I was very much behind glass -- looking out."

Nancy's feelings of isolation only worsened as she continued trying to get pregnant. Another miscarriage followed; and then the crazy, mixed-up joy of finding out that she was pregnant with twins; and then the sadness of losing one -- and, not long after that, the other.

"All I could do was contemplate this giant hole in my life," Nancy remembered. "Everywhere I looked, I saw reminders of what I couldn’t have. I went over to my friend's house, and her four kids were fighting. I remember her saying, 'This is probably your worst nightmare.' And I said, 'No, my worst nightmare is the years I've spent in fertility treatments, trying to get what you have.' And then I fled. I felt awful. Mark and I hadn't exactly made an announcement about what we were going through, so our neighbors probably thought we just didn't want kids."

As Nancy struggled to heal her wounds, Mark tried desperately to find the woman he'd married -- the one inside all this grief. So when he learned that his colleague Susan had horses, he figured that spending a day out at the barn might be a good distraction. He had no idea that he had actually found the one thing that would eventually mend his wife's broken heart.

"I remember thinking that I was too much of a wreck to meet anyone," Nancy said, "but Mark put Susan on the phone before I could say no -- and the next thing I knew, I was writing down directions. Then I made the trip to the stables. As I pulled up, I could see the horses in the field and I was surrounded by all the familiar smells I remembered from my childhood when I used to ride. Then Susan rode up on this muscular gelding. We took him into the wash stall and we gave him a shower. I remember wanting to do it again. His skin was so silky -- like a baby."

It wasn't long before Nancy was taking lessons and spending more and more time at the barn. And then one day she spotted a chestnut gelding who had been brought to the stables as a prospect for a seasoned rider. He was hard to miss -- since he was dragging his two male handlers across the ring on their stomachs.

"Our trainer was watching too," Nancy laughed, "just long enough to know that this horse was going back where he came from. But she didn't have time to return him right away -- so I kept my eye on him in the barn. And there he was -- alone -- off at the far end of the stalls, in Siberia all by himself. He just seemed miserable -- like a lost soul.

A lost soul, who clearly needed saving -- a feeling Nancy knew all too well. It wasn't long before she found herself increasing her trips to the barn to visit her new friend, even grooming him at 3am. And the more they got to know each other, the more he got under her skin. Slowly, Nancy began riding her pal, and as summer turned to fall, she began buying him "clothes" -- a sheet for bedtime and a blanket he could wear outside. And soon the whispers started -- everyone knew that this rejected race horse wasn't going anywhere. He had found a new home.

"I'm 5' 1" and he's 1,254 pounds," Nancy said, "but somehow I knew he was exactly the right size to fill the hole in my heart."

Nancy named the thoroughbred Eli, and it wasn't long before her neighborhood friends were throwing her a "bridle" shower -- with a gift list that included feed buckets and brushes, polo wraps, carrots, molasses cookies and, of course, carrot cake. Her sister, who had since moved to Los Angeles, flew in to welcome Eli to the family.

"I turned my back for a second," Nancy said with a smile, "and he had his face up to the bars of the stall and they were kissing each other. I was so happy to see that."

Before long, Nancy was on a parallel path with her friends from the neighborhood -- sort of. While they were dealing with the terrible twos and potty training, Nancy was out at the barn, trying to figure out how to give a time-out to a horse nearly 12 times her size.

"I was 42 and no one's idea of an athlete, and here I was with a six-year-old race horse. What do you do when a 1,200-pound gelding has a temper tantrum? My trainer told me I had to give him something to focus on, and I thought, Like what? A coloring book?

Sixteen years later, Nancy has those tantrums under control -- and this unlikely pair has a bond that can't be broken.

"There was a time that I truly believed that nothing short of a baby would fill that space," Nancy said. "But I've learned that not all families look alike. I don't have the children I wanted to have so badly -- but I do have something pretty great.

"Sometimes you have to let go of a dream so your hands are free to reach for another one. You have to let go so something else can come in."

Nancy Shulins is the author of "Falling For Eli". To learn more about her book, visit www.fallingforeli.com.

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