I love babies.
The first baby I ever cradled in my arms I rocked to sleep, even as she was bawling for a bottle. She was my little sister.
My mother was shocked. "What did you do? I was about to feed her now."
"I didn't know what to do to calm her down, so I just kept kissing her cheeks, whispering, 'it's OK, it's OK.'"
Mother's face lit up. She looked at me with her big, warm eyes: "You'd make a good mother one day."
I was 8 years old at the time.
Fast forward to now, more than 40 years later, and I realize I'm probably never going to become a mother. It's too late.
I just got married for the first time last fall. Already, curious friends and friendly neighbors have been probing, "Umm... baby?"
"Ah, nah." I smile back.
They mean well, I know. But their question re-open a wound I thought had closed, igniting a flashback to the day I was forced to make a private decision in front of a man I hardly knew -- my surgeon.
"Do you want to keep your womb?" Dr. Goldstein asked me bluntly in his office, one week before he was to operate on me.
I was to undergo laparotomy -- a major surgery involving an abdominal incision -- to remove a gigantic uterine fibroid the size of a grapefruit that had grown over a period of 12 years.
"Yes, I do." I blurted out without blinking.
"Well... at your age at this stage, your chances of having a baby are very slim. If you have a hysterectomy, we remove the uterus, then you don't have to worry about..."
"No, no, no! " I suddenly lost it, "I mean -- YES -- I want to keep my uterus."
I shut him down before he could go further.
Somehow, I lost my temper.
Suddenly, I felt like my womanhood was under assault. How dare he try to take away my choice to have a baby!? I had to stifle my internal irrational voice from spiraling out of control.
"OK, I respect that." Dr. Goldstein sounded sympathetic.
But as I watched him curl up his lips without words, I knew that more bad news was coming.
"Mable -- one more thing, after your surgery next week, you may experience the early onset of menopause. This kind of surgery can trigger premature hormonal imbalance. It's not 100% certain, but it's a real possibility -- you should be prepared.
My heart sank. My head started spinning in a zillion different directions.
First, it was self-pity: My biological clock is running out, and I'm going to end up as an old maid!
Then, it was shameless defiance: I can do this, I don't need a man. Do I really want a baby? Can I be a single mom?
Finally, sheer desperation: How can I have a baby with no man in sight? Sperm donors? Who? Where? From strangers? From friends? Adoption? Surrogate pregnancy?
It's incredible how a doctor's warning and a veiled threat about my reproductive health could instantly unleash all these wild thoughts I never knew I had. What's more incredible perhaps was that I started acting them out -- one by one.
I had never been a pessimistic person, I had always lived with optimism no matter how dark the days. But this time, I felt out of control, and it scared me.
The anesthesia during surgery, the invasion of cuts and stitches, the pain killer (percocet) after the surgery, all of that completely wiped me out. I was feeling guilty and ashamed that I was so weak, taking weeks away from work. But John -- my ABC News boss at the time -- knew better, calling me at home with words that would calm my nerves and lift my spirit.
"I don't want you back until you feel 100%. So, take your time."
And I did -- one full month.
It's amazing that during this still, quiet time of home-bound rest, the dormant mothering nurturing instinct from when I was 8 years old gradually awakened.
The biological clock that I never heard ticking before was now the loudest thing in the room. I became obsessed with the idea of becoming a mom. But, how?
Shortly after I returned to work, I started talking with mommy colleagues and infertility experts. I also surfed the Internet for sperm donors who could potentially father my child. I even joined a local support group "Single Mother by Choice," mentally preparing myself to go it alone.
After going through fertility testing, a top New York infertility doctor told me point blank that "it's too late." I could not naturally conceive without serious risks. I remember walking down the streets of New York that day sobbing like a crazy woman, repeating "it's too late, it's too late."
Days later, I rebounded and started seeking options.
Surrogacy? No -- I was afraid I could become insanely jealous of the biological mother.
Adoption? Yes -- I signed up with numerous domestic and international agencies, attended every requisite informational session and filled out all the forms. Months later, another bombshell. They determined that the wait in my case would be at least three years. I couldn't wait three years for a baby, I would be too old for this! Self-pity kicked in again.
Finally, I turned to private adoption. It's expensive, but it has good success records. I decided to go for it, taking out a huge loan against my apartment to seek help from an independent adoption lawyer and consultant. Remember the movie Juno? Well, I was Jennifer Garner in that film, trying to adopt an unwanted baby from unwed teenagers or unready mothers through newspaper advertising all over the country.
Despite limited success in locating pregnant women from Utah to Virginia who want to give up their babies, I ran into obstacle after obstacle -- illegal financial demands in some cases, and unreasonable co-parenting expectations in others. Week after week for months, I screened phone calls directly from these women responding to my adoption ad. Every caller outtalked my capacity to listen. My desire to adopt their unborn babies was great, but my grief for their decision to abandon their babies was even greater.
It was the most emotionally lonely and exhausting process I'd ever gone through in my life. I realized that I can't do this alone. I can't be a single mother.
Just as I was about to give up on adoption, I accepted an unexpected invitation to a recruiting event for "Big Brothers Big Sisters of New York." That day, standing in front of pairs of "little brothers" and "little sisters" with their "big brothers" and "big sisters," I was moved to tears listening to their powerful personal testimonies of the role of a "Big."
I suddenly realized a profound reason I wanted to be mother. I wanted to shape a child's development and to make a positive impact on his/her life. And I also realized that if I can't have a baby, if I can't be a mommy, I can be a "Big Sister." It's not too late.
Since that day, I've not only become a "Big Sister" to a little Chinese girl who lost her mother to breast cancer when she was 6 years old, I've also become her godmother.
Since that day, I've become more sensitive and responsive to young women seeking role models. I've also learned to expand the meaning of motherhood. No baby doesn't mean no mommy. If I can't be a mother at my age, I can be mentor at any stage.
My mother is no longer alive to witness any of this, but I hope she would be proud that I can still cradle a baby to sleep any time.