When Ariel Levy, a writer for the New Yorker, published this hugely affecting story about her journey to Mongolia while five months pregnant, it caused a sensation online. Here we publish it again…
My favourite game when I was a child was Mummy and Explorer. My father and I would trade off roles: one of us had to lie very still with eyes closed and arms crossed over the chest, and the other had to complain, “I’ve been searching these pyramids for so many years. When will I ever find the tomb of Tutankhamun?” (This was in the late 70s, when Tut was at the Met, and we came in from the suburbs to visit him frequently.) At the climax of the game, the explorer stumbles on the embalmed Pharaoh and – brace yourself – the mummy opens his eyes and comes to life. The explorer has to express shock, and then says, “So, what’s new?” To which the mummy replies, “You.”
I was not big on playing house. I preferred make-believe that revolved around adventure, featuring pirates and knights. I was also domineering, impatient, relentlessly verbal and, as an only child, often baffled by the mores of other kids. I was not a popular little girl. I played Robinson Crusoe in a small wooden fort that my parents built for me in the back yard. In the fort, I was neither ostracised nor ill at ease – I was self-reliant, brave, ingeniously surviving, if lost.
The other natural habitat for a child who loves words and adventure is the page, and I was content when my parents read me Moby-Dick, Pippi Longstocking or The Hobbit. I decided early that I would be a writer when I grew up. That, I thought, was the profession that went with the kind of woman I wanted to become: one who is free to do whatever she chooses. I started keeping a diary in third grade and, in solidarity with Anne Frank, gave it a name and made it my confidante. To this day, I feel comforted and relieved of loneliness, no matter how foreign my surroundings, if I have a pad and a pen with which to record my experiences.
I’ve spent the past 20 years putting myself in foreign surroundings as frequently as possible. There is nothing I love more than travelling to a place where I know nobody, and where everything will be a surprise, and then writing about it. The first time I went to Africa for a story, I was so excited that I barely slept during the entire two-week trip. Everything was new: the taste of springbok meat, the pink haze over Cape Town, the noise and chaos of the corrugated-tin alleyways in Khayelitsha township. I could still feel spikes of adrenaline when I was back at my desk in New York, typing, while my spouse cooked a chicken in the kitchen.
But as my friends, one after another, made the journey from young woman to mother, it glared at me that I had not. I would often listen to a Lou Reed song called “Beginning of a Great Adventure,” about the possibilities of imminent parenthood. “A little me or he or she to fill up with my dreams,” Lou sings, with ragged hopefulness, “a way of saying life is not a loss.” It became the soundtrack to my mulling on motherhood. I knew that a child would make life as a professional explorer largely impossible. But having a kid seemed in many ways like the wildest trip of all.
I always get terrified right before I travel. I become convinced that this time will be different: I won’t be able to figure out the map, or communicate with non-English speakers, or find the people I need in order to write the story I’ve been sent in search of. I will be lost and incompetent and vulnerable. I know that my panic will turn to excitement once I’m there – it always does – but that doesn’t make the fear before take-off any less vivid. So it was with childbearing: I was afraid for 10 years. I didn’t like childhood, and I was afraid that I’d have a child who didn’t either. I was afraid I would be an awful mother. And I was afraid of being grounded, sessile – stuck in one spot for 18 years of oboe lessons and maths homework that I couldn’t finish the first time around.
I was on a book tour in Athens when I decided that I would do it. My partner – who had always indicated that I would need to cast the deciding vote on parenthood – had come with me, and we were having one of those magical moments in a marriage when you find each other completely delightful. My Greek publisher and his wife took us out dancing and drinking, and cooked for us one night in their little apartment, which was overrun with children, friends, moussaka, and cigarette smoke. “Americans are not relaxed,” one of the other guests told me, holding his three-year-old and drinking an ouzo. Greece was falling apart. The streets of Athens were crawling with cats and dogs that people had abandoned because they could no longer afford pet food. But our hosts were jubilant. Their family didn’t seem like a burden; it seemed like a party. The idea bloomed in my head that being governed by something other than my own wishes and wanderlust might be a pleasure, a release.
I got pregnant quickly, to my surprise and delight, shortly before my 38th birthday. It felt like making it on to a plane the moment before the gate closes – you can’t help but thrill. After only two months, I could hear the heartbeat of the creature inside me at the doctor’s office. It seemed like magic: a little eye of newt in my cauldron and suddenly I was a witch with the power to brew life into being. Even if you are not Robinson Crusoe in a solitary fort, as a human being you walk this world by yourself. But when you are pregnant you are never alone.
My doctor told me that it was fine to fly up until the third trimester, so when I was five months pregnant I decided to take one last big trip. It would be at least a year, maybe two, before I’d be able to leave home for weeks on end and feel the elation of a new place revealing itself. (It’s like having a new lover – even the parts you aren’t crazy about have the crackling fascination of the unfamiliar.) Just before Thanksgiving, I went to Mongolia.
People were alarmed when I told them where I was going, but I was pleased with myself. I liked the idea of being the kind of woman who’d go to the Gobi desert pregnant, just as, at 22, I’d liked the idea of being the kind of girl who’d go to India by herself. And I liked the idea of telling my kid, “When you were inside me, we went to see the edge of the earth.” I wasn’t truly scared of anything but the Mongolian winter. The tourist season winds down in October, and by late November, when I got on the plane, the nights drop to 20C below zero. But I was prepared: I’d bought snow pants big enough to fit around my convex gut and long underwear two sizes larger than I usually wear.
To be pregnant is to be in some kind of discomfort pretty much all the time. For the first few months, it was like waking up with a bad hangover every single morning but never getting to drink – I was nauseated but hungry, afflicted with a perpetual headache, and really qualified only to watch television and moan. That passed, but a week before I left for Mongolia I started feeling an ache in my abdomen that was new. “Round-ligament pain” is what I heard from everyone I knew who’d been pregnant, and what I read on every prenatal website: the uterus expanding to accommodate the baby, as he finally grew big enough to make me look actually pregnant, instead of just chunky. That thought comforted me on the 14-hour flight to Beijing, while I shifted endlessly, trying to find a position that didn’t hurt my round ligaments.
When my connecting flight landed in Mongolia, it was morning, but the gray haze made it look like dusk. Ulaanbaatar is among the most polluted capital cities in the world, as well as the coldest. The drive into town wound through frozen fields and clusters of felt tents – gers, they’re called there – into a crowded city of stocky, Soviet-era municipal buildings, crisscrossing telephone and trolley lines, and old Tibetan Buddhist temples with pagoda roofs. The people on the streets moved quickly and clumsily, burdened with layers against the bitter weather.
I was there to report a story on the country’s impending transformation, as money flooded in through the mining industry. Mongolia has vast supplies of coal, gold, and copper ore; its wealth was expected to double in five years. But a third of the population still lives nomadically, herding animals and sleeping in gers, burning coal or garbage for heat. Until the boom, Mongolia’s best-known export was cashmere. As Jackson Cox, a young consultant from Tennessee who’d lived in Ulaanbaatar for 12 years, told me, “You’re talking about an economy based on yak meat and goat hair.”
I met up with Cox on my first night in town. He sent a chauffeured car to pick me up – every westerner I met in UB had a car and a driver – at the Blue Sky Hotel, a new and sharply pointed glass tower that split the cold sky like a shark fin. When I arrived at his apartment, he and a friend, a mining-industry lawyer from New Jersey, were listening to Beyoncé and pouring champagne. The place was clean and modern, but modest: for expats in UB, it’s far easier to accumulate wealth than it is to spend it. We went to dinner at a French restaurant, where we all ordered beef, because seafood is generally terrible in Mongolia, which is separated from the sea by its hulking neighbours (and former occupiers) China and Russia. Then they took me to an underground gay bar called 100 Per Cent – which could have been in Brooklyn, except that everyone in Mongolia still smoked indoors. I liked sitting in a booth in a dark room full of smoking, gay Mongolians, but my body was feeling strange. I ended the night early.
When I woke up the next morning, the pain in my abdomen was insistent; I wondered if the baby was starting to kick, which everyone said would be happening soon. I called home to complain, and my spouse told me to find a western clinic. I emailed Cox to get his doctor’s phone number, thinking that I’d call if the pain got any worse, and then I went out to interview people: the minister of the environment, the president of a mining concern, and, finally, a herdsman and conservationist named Tsetsegee Munkhbayar, who became a folk hero after he fired shots at mining operations that were diverting water from nomadic communities. I met him in the sleek lobby of the Blue Sky with Yondon Badral – a smart, sardonic man I’d hired to translate for me in UB and to accompany me a few days later to the Gobi, where we would drive a Land Rover across the cold sands to meet with miners and nomads. Badral wore jeans and a sweater; Munkhbayar was dressed in a long, traditional deel robe and a fur hat with a small metal falcon perched on top. It felt like having a latte with Genghis Khan.
In the middle of the interview, Badral stopped talking and looked at my face; I must have been showing my discomfort. He said that it was the same for his wife, who was pregnant, just a few weeks further along than I was, and he explained the situation to Munkhbayar. The nomad’s skin was chapped pink from the wind; his nostrils, eyes, and ears all looked as if they had receded into his face to escape the cold. I felt a little surge of pride when he said that I was brave to travel so far in my condition. But I was also starting to worry.
I nearly cancelled my second dinner with the Americans that evening, but I figured that I needed to eat, and they offered to meet me at the Japanese restaurant in my hotel. Cox was leaving the next day to visit his family for Thanksgiving, and he was feeling guilty that he’d spent a fortune on a business-class ticket. I thought about my uncomfortable flight over and said that it was probably worth it. “You’re being a princess,” Cox’s friend told him tartly, but I couldn’t laugh. Something was happening inside me. I had to leave before the food came.
I ran back to my room, pulled off my pants, and squatted on the floor of the bathroom, just as I had in Cambodia when I had dysentery, a decade earlier. But the pain in that position was unbearable. I got on my knees and put my shoulders on the floor and pressed my cheek against the cool tile. I remember thinking, This is going to be the craziest shit in history.
I felt an unholy storm move through my body, and after that there is a brief lapse in my recollection; either I blacked out from the pain or I have blotted out the memory. And then there was another person on the floor in front of me, moving his arms and legs, alive. I heard myself say out loud, “This can’t be good.” But it looked good. My baby was as pretty as a seashell.
He was translucent and pink and very, very small, but he was flawless. His lovely lips were opening and closing, opening and closing, swallowing the new world. For a length of time I cannot delineate, I sat there, awestruck, transfixed. Every finger, every toenail, the golden shadow of his eyebrows coming in, the elegance of his shoulders – all of it was miraculous, astonishing. I held him up to my face, his head and shoulders filling my hand, his legs dangling almost to my elbow. I tried to think of something maternal I could do to convey to him that I was, in fact, his mother, and that I had the situation completely under control. I kissed his forehead and his skin felt like a silky frog’s on my mouth.
I was vaguely aware that there was an enormous volume of blood rushing out of me, and eventually that seemed interesting, too. I looked back and forth between my offspring and the lake of blood consuming the bathroom floor and I wondered what to do about the umbilical cord connecting those two things. It was surprisingly thick and ghostly white, a twisted human rope. I felt sure that it needed to be severed – that’s always the first thing that happens in the movies. I was afraid that if I didn’t cut that cord my baby would somehow suffocate. I didn’t have scissors. I yanked it out of myself with one swift, violent tug.
In my hand, his skin started to turn a soft shade of purple. I bled my way across the room to my phone and dialled the number for Cox’s doctor. I told the voice that answered that I had given birth in the Blue Sky Hotel and that I had been pregnant for 19 weeks. The voice said that the baby would not live. “He’s alive now,” I said, looking at the person in my left hand. The voice said that he understood, but that it wouldn’t last, and that he would send an ambulance for us right away. I told him that if there was no chance the baby would make it I might as well take a cab. He said that that was not a good idea.
Before I put down my phone, I took a picture of my son. I worried that if I didn’t I would never believe he had existed.
When the pair of Mongolian emergency nurses came through the door, I stopped feeling competent and numb. One offered me a tampon, which I knew not to accept, but the realisation that of the two of us I had more information stirred a sickening panic in me and I said I needed to throw up. She asked if I was drunk, and I said, offended, No, I’m upset. “Cry,” she said. “You just cry, cry, cry.” Her partner bent to insert a thick needle in my forearm and I wondered if it would give me Mongolian Aids, but I felt unable to do anything but cry, cry, cry. She tried to take the baby from me, and I had the urge to bite her hand. As I lay on a gurney in the back of the ambulance with his body wrapped in a towel on top of my chest, I watched the frozen city flash by the windows. It occurred to me that perhaps I was going to go mad.
In the clinic, there were very bright lights and more needles and IVs and I let go of the baby and that was the last I ever saw of him. He was on one table and I was on another, far away, lying still under the screaming lights, and then, confusingly, the handsomest man in the world came through the door and said he was my doctor. His voice sounded nice, familiar. I asked if he was South African. He was surprised that I could tell, and I explained that I had spent time reporting in his country, and then we talked a bit about the future of the ANC and about how beautiful it is in Cape Town. I realised that I was covered in blood, sobbing, and flirting.
Soon, he said that he was going home and that I could not return to the Blue Sky Hotel, where I might bleed to death in my room without anyone knowing. I stayed in the clinic overnight, wearing a T-shirt and an adult nappy that a kind, fat, giggling young nurse gave me. After she dressed me, she asked, “You want toast and tea?” It was milky and sweet and reminded me of the chai I drank in Nepal, where I went backpacking in the Himalayas with a friend long before I was old enough to worry about the expiration of my fertility. It had been a trip spent pushing my young body up the mountains, past green-and-yellow terraced fields and villages full of goats, across rope bridges that hung tenuously over black ravines with death at the bottom. We consumed a steady diet of hashish and Snickers bars and ended up in a blizzard that killed several hikers but somehow left us only chilly.
I had been so lucky. Very little had ever truly gone wrong for me before that night on the bathroom floor. And I knew, as surely as I now knew that I wanted a child, that this change in fortune was my fault. I had boarded a plane out of vanity and selfishness, and the dark Mongolian sky had punished me. I was still a witch, but my powers were all gone.
That is not what the doctor said when he came back to the clinic in the morning. He told me that I’d had a placental abruption, a very rare problem that, I later read, usually befalls women who are heavy cocaine users or who have high blood pressure. But sometimes it happens just because you’re old. It could have happened anywhere, the doctor told me, and he repeated what he’d said the night before: there is no correlation between air travel and miscarriage. I said that I suspected he was being a gentleman, and that I needed to get out of the clinic in time for my 11 o’clock meeting with the secretary of the interior, whose office I arrived at promptly, after I went back to the Blue Sky and showered in my room, which looked like the site of a murder.
I spent the next five days in that room. Slowly, it set in that it was probably best if I went home instead of to the Gobi, but at first I could not leave. Thanksgiving came and went. There were rolling brownouts when everything went dark and still. I lay in my bed and ate Snickers and drank little bottles of whisky from the minibar while I watched television programmes that seemed as strange and bleak as my new life. Someone had put a white bath mat on top of the biggest bloodstain, the one next to my bed, where I had crouched when I called for help, and little by little the white went red and then brown as the blood seeped through it and oxidised. I stared at it. I looked at the snow outside my window falling on the Soviet architecture. But mostly I looked at the picture of the baby.
When I got back from Mongolia, I was so sad I could barely breathe. On five or six occasions, I ran into mothers who had heard what had happened, and they took one look at me and burst into tears. (Once, this happened with a man.) Within a week, the apartment we were supposed to move into with the baby fell through. Within three, my marriage had shattered. I started lactating. I continued bleeding. I cried ferociously and without warning – in bed, in the middle of meetings, sitting on the subway. It seemed to me that grief was leaking out of me from every orifice.
I could not keep the story of what had happened in Mongolia inside my mouth. I went to buy clothes that would fit my big body but that didn’t have bands of stretchy maternity elastic to accommodate a baby who wasn’t there. I heard myself tell a horrified saleswoman, “I don’t know what size I am, because I just had a baby. He died, but the good news is, now I’m fat.” Well-meaning women would tell me, “I had a miscarriage, too,” and I would reply, with unnerving intensity, “He was alive.” I had given birth, however briefly, to another human being, and it seemed crucial that people understand this. Often, after I told them, I tried to get them to look at the picture of the baby on my phone.
After several weeks, I was looking at it only once a day. It was months before I got it down to once a week. I don’t look at it much any more, but people I haven’t seen in a while will say, “I’m so sorry about what happened to you.” And their compassion pleases me.
But the truth is, the 10 or 20 minutes I was somebody’s mother were black magic. There is no adventure I would trade them for; there is no place I would rather have seen. Sometimes, when I think about it, I still feel a dark hurt from some primal part of myself, and if I’m alone in my apartment when this happens I will hear myself making sounds that I never made before I went to Mongolia. I realise that I have turned back into a wounded witch, wailing in the forest, undone.
Most of the time it seems sort of OK, though, natural. Nature. Mother Nature. She is free to do whatever she chooses.