Illustration for Mothering by Colleen Grablick

The room stunk of sleep, sour and stale. I stood at the edge of the bed, rubbing a dollop of Nivea between my thumb and my fingers. Coated in the thin white film, I traced my forefinger along the veins suspended in a purple canopy across my distended stomach. My mother called veins like these her spider veins; she spent thousands of dollars trying to remove them from her thighs as a gift to herself for her 50th birthday. With my other hand, I cupped the bottom of my belly, allowing its curve to rest in my palm. Staring at my stomach, I tried to see through my skin to the flesh. Already, it looked taut enough to be permeable, as though if I tried hard enough, my vision might be able to pass through a small opening and into this world now hanging off my body. I wanted to understand what was inside me. 

I slipped on my oldest pair of running shorts, worn enough that the elastic waistband no longer functioned, and a large t-shirt. Tying my sneakers required me to sit down fully on the floor, contorting my arms around my bulge in order to reach my ankles. 

Today, I would leave the house for the first time since waking up extremely pregnant two days ago. 

The dreams first started around age 14, one year after I’d first gotten my period. In the days preceding my cycle, although this is merely a guess — I was not too diligent then about tracking the nuances of menstruation, still reluctant to recognize my new body as an aspect of my existence that now necessitated vigilance and oversight — I would dream that I was responsible for keeping a small living thing alive. Sometimes this was a human baby, other times it was a young animal, like a puppy, but it was never clear whether it was mine; possession had no place in the dream. The details — the sequence of events, the characters, and any contours of a setting — always receded, in the way the details of dreams do, into some inaccessible part of my brain when I woke up. But the central conflict, that I was assigned to keep a living thing alive and somehow failed, would seep through my brain throughout the day in a slow, unpredictable drip. Brushing my teeth, something in my mind would shake loose, and bits of information from the night before would make themselves digestible again. On the train to work, I would listen to music and a note would sound like an alarm, telling a dormant memory to revive itself. Suddenly I would remember how I’d lost the puppy, or how I couldn’t quiet the baby. 

Once I started having sex with men, my dreams changed. The anonymous, unassigned, or orphaned beings who appeared in my earlier dreams became mine, born of me. Between the hours of 3 a.m. and 5 a.m., I would become pregnant in my head. In these dreams, there was never a partner, never a conception, never an inciting event that preceded the pregnancy. It’d just be me, pregnant with this thing inside me and no plan. Blinking my eyes open, an ambiguous anxiety would fill the empty seconds left between sleep and consciousness. I’d grab at my stomach, always relieved when my hand met a familiar doughiness. 

And this is how things went, until two days ago when I woke up to a pressure above my pelvis as though I’d swallowed a 10-pound weight. Through the darkness of my bedroom, I saw a mound where my stomach should be, lifting the covers like the head of a cartoon ghost covered by a sheet. When I reached out my hand to deflate it, my fingers poked into something meaty and stiff, and I realized it was me. I was awake, and this was my body. 

Climbing out of bed, my belly moved with me, like a backpack worn in reverse, shifting automatically with the rest of my torso. I stumbled into the bathroom and inspected my naked body in the mirror. It was irrefutable that what stood before me was a full womb, my skin stretched over a swollen orb. Bending down gingerly, I sat on the toilet and pushed. Staring between my legs, I watched a pathetic trickle of dark urine the color of whiskey plunk into the water. I inspected the bowl for traces of blood and saw nothing but my cloudy, dehydrated pee. My faded, tattered underwear hung around my calves, stainless. 

I’d never known myself to sleepwalk, but I pushed my shower curtain aside and hobbled in, hoping that if I was somehow still dreaming, the prick of hot water on my skin would shake me awake. I stood facing the showerhead as the water fell across my stomach, the droplets beading up and sliding off the sides of my belly like the top of an umbrella. I was awake, and this was my body. 

I searched the recesses of my mind for a single thread of a memory, an image, a sound, a sensation, to serve as evidence that I’d dreamed, to confirm that my current reality somehow had an anchor in my sleep state. All that surfaced was the din of my dehumidifier, the last thing I heard before drifting off hours ago. Whatever happened between then, listening to the dull roar of that machine, and now, was lost somewhere in my head. The face of the last man I’d fucked — or who had fucked me, maybe — appeared on the inside of my eyelids as I squeezed them shut. There was no way this current circumstance could be a result of that; it had been two years ago — and he came in my mouth.

Sticking my face directly under the stream, I remembered what my mother told me about her pregnancy with me. She’d had horrible night terrors in the third trimester, the kind that would leave her lying in a puddle of her own sweat and tears. My father would always try to ask her what she saw, but she was too skeptical of interpretations to tell him the truth. 

I dreamt you were eating me from the inside, she told me one day, casually, over lunch when I came home for her birthday. She laughed as the words rolled out of her mouth and bounced onto her plate. It was so absurd, but I was so terrified of you before you got here. 

I dried myself off and pulled on my robe, tying the belt gently between my breasts and my belly. Two years ago, when I spent a summer in a different state with the last man who fucked me, I sublet my apartment to a wiry 22-year-old university student who had left a scale in the bathroom upon my return. I’d typed out a message letting her know she’d forgotten it, but then decided I’d be doing her a favor if I just stowed it away in the back of my closet. 

My toes turned outward like a bloated duck, I waddled into my cramped hallway and pulled the scale out from behind a precariously stacked tower of pads and toilet paper. The screen blinked “ERR” at me until eventually zeroing. I placed my feet at two obtuse angles on the dust-covered plate and watched as the number jostled about on the screen. The bulge in my robe made up the horizon at the bottom of my eyeline — all blurry and out of focus, like a thumb covering a lens. The number finally stopped; it was about 8 pounds more than what I remember hearing at my last doctor’s appointment, nearly a year ago. 

I left the scale in the middle of the hallway and teetered carefully back into the bathroom. I felt, somehow, achingly empty and full at once — as though a crane had excavated a hole in the center of me and poured cement into it. A sense of lack sat somewhere in my chest, impugned by the heaviness that hung above my hips. 

I opened my medicine cabinet and reached for the only substance that reliably put me to sleep in fits of anxiety or rocked me back to sleep after strange dreams: extra-strength NyQuil. I set two massive gel capsules on my tongue and swallowed, feeling the pills wiggling uncomfortably down my esophagus. I thought if I could sleep again, then I could dream again, and maybe I could wake up again, and perhaps if I did this enough, whatever was happening would end, like a battery undergoing a reset cycle. 

I situated myself gently in my bed with my back flat against my mattress, my head resting on my thinnest pillow, and my NyQuil perched on my nightstand. After 20 minutes, the warm tingle of the NyQuil began bubbling in my limbs — my favorite part. It felt like I could actually track the temperature of my blood ticking up as it pumped through me, reminding me how easily I could liquefy. 

When I woke up 12 hours later to the dome still sitting on my stomach, I choked down two more pills.

For the next 48 hours, I existed in this state of semi-permanent sleep — waking up only to sense the pressure in my stomach again, firing off a text to my manager that I’d be out sick, taking more NyQuil, and slipping back into non-existence. It was only on the third morning, after I ran out of pills, that I decided to get out of bed. 


The air stuck to my skin as I stepped onto the stoop of my apartment building’s front door. Already at 8 a.m., the August humidity had started to suffocate the city, a pressure I’d adapted to after living here for three years, but that now, after two days inside, greeted me like a threat. On mornings like these, I’d usually be able to get in four slow miles at most, plodding along at an 11-minute pace. 

Across the street, I saw a man in flip-flops and basketball shorts, a white t-shirt hanging off him like a rag, pushing a bassinet stroller with one hand and holding a coffee thermos in the other. A thin purple blanket polka-dotted with yellow ducklings gently covered the stroller, the edges flapping off the sides of the sun hood. 

On my usual morning runs, I would pass several of these people, humming along in the rhythms of parental routine. I knew they were likely exhausted and depleted and would even perhaps envy people like me, who had only the responsibility of keeping one person, themselves, alive. But when I’d trot past them, I’d notice a sensation that straddled jealousy and longing — a mimetic desire, one that only exists as an imitation. It might be nice, mightn’t it, to have a face to coo into and crescent-roll thighs to tickle and a little life to be the sole custodian of, I would think as these people walked past me. But my wanting of a child — which wasn’t so much a wanting as a curiosity, maybe — relied only on observing parenthood performed by someone else. Then, as the mom or the dad or the couple pushed by with their stroller, the desire would disintegrate like wet paper. My feet would carry my body the rest of my run, and by the end of the day, after I’d attended to the duties only the childless have the privilege of considering, I’d hardly remember I saw a parent or envied their baby at all.

I adjusted my t-shirt over my belly. The man with the stroller looked over at me as my hand rested on my stomach. It migrated there almost instinctively, like this was a position I’d settled into over eight months. He smiled softly and lifted his coffee thermos slightly in my direction as if to say I see you

I jogged a few meters, an attempt at understanding what it felt like to move with this thing attached to me. I quickly ran out of breath. 

In a 1770s French period film I watched a few years ago, a young woman runs laps back and forth, over and over, until she reaches the point of collapse in order to terminate her pregnancy. I didn’t know what was inside me — if this heft was even a thing capable of terminating — but I thought some type of strenuous movement might shake something loose. Liquefy it and dump it out, unceremoniously. 

I’d only made it to the end of the street when a sharp pain shot up through my lower back. Hunched over, I used my arm to prop myself up on the pole of the street sign as my pelvic muscles twisted in on themselves. I stayed like that for a minute hoping it would pass. 

When it didn’t, I pulled my phone out of my bra and opened my messages. Most of my friends in the city — which was an increasingly smaller pool now, as more of them paired off, moved away, settled down — would be working, changing a diaper, or in a class. Reluctantly, I dialed the only person within driving distance who I knew would be available on a Wednesday at 8 a.m. My mother picked up on the third ring. 

“Mom, hi. Can you come over?” I said. My voice sounded breathy, as though I was holding my head above water.

“I’m in the middle of something,” she said, placid and affectless. 

“It’s kind of an emergency, I think I need to go to the hospital.” 

“What? What’s wrong?” I heard a jumbled rustling as she took me off speaker. “I’m okay, it’s just a stomach thing. I’ve never felt this before, but it really hurts, like I –” “Jesus, probably appendicitis – where does it hur-” 

“Can we talk when you’re here? I’ll explain it.” The more I tried to use my voice, the more it felt like my lower half might separate from me and spread into a puddle on the sidewalk. “Alright, I’ll be over.” 


“What the fuck, Casey?” 

I was lying on the floor of my apartment, right in front of the door with my knees tucked up against my belly. The pain in my pelvis had intensified on the short walk back to my apartment; I climbed up the three flights to my apartment on all fours, scraping my knees against the wooden stair lips. Once I was inside, I was too tired to stand. 

My mother stepped into the doorway, her purse falling onto the floor with a clatter. “I-I saw you last month!? Are you pregnant? What the fuc-” 

“Mom, I know, I don’t know what happened.” I tried to hold myself up on my elbow to meet her eyes. She was wearing her typical uniform: beige linen pants and a similarly beige blouse. “What do you mean you don’t know?” Her face twisted up in an anger that belied confusion: her brows pointed down, pinching the skin between her eyes together into two backward parentheses. When my mother didn’t understand something, she became angry, and the object of the misunderstanding, whatever it was that didn’t make sense to her, became the landscape for her to work out a misplaced rage, as if the malfunctioning bit had personally hurt her. It was always the printer’s fault, the remote’s fault, the car’s fault — never hers for ignoring the instruction manual. 

She crouched down next to me and lifted my shirt to reveal my stomach, the collection of veins having grown since I last looked at it earlier this morning. 

“Oh my god, Case, Jesus–” 

“Mom, I know Mom,” Reluctant tears pooled in my eyes. I held them open, careful not to let a drop escape from my lower eyelid, as though I was balancing a perfectly full glass of water. “ It sounds fucking insane, I know. But my stomach hurts like someone has a hand on every organ inside of me and is squeezing the life out of it. I think I need to go to the hospital.” 

“Did you take a pregnancy test?” 

“No, I have barely left the apartment since it happened.” 

She did not know that the last time I fucked a man was two years ago, or that he’d come in my mouth. She didn’t know that in the two years since the only objects to have penetrated me were my menstrual cup and four fingers belonging to two different women I met on the internet. 

“And I know, I’m not pregnant, Mom. I haven’t — ” My breath caught in the back of my throat, replaced with a tiny yelp as I tried to sit up. 

“Alright, let’s go. C’mon, I’ll get you.” 

She wrapped her arms around me from behind and pulled me to my feet. Standing, I let out a whimper as she became my crutch, opening the door and leading us down the stairs and out to her car.


“When did this start?” she asked, as we pulled off my street. 

“Two or three, yeah three, mornings ago,” I said, lying on my side across the backseat of her sedan. She hesitated in the right-turning lane, allowing a chain of children from the daycare at the end of my block to cross the street. Each child held onto a little rope with one hand, forming a toddler snake with their adult teachers at the head and tail. 

“And you just woke up and your stomach was swollen like this?” Her eyes narrowed on me through the rearview mirror. She had managed to put herself together for the day, black flecks of eyeliner hanging off the ends of her eyelashes and a two-hour-old layer of foundation leaking into the cracks of her crow’s feet. 

“It’s not just swollen Mom, you saw me, it looks like I’m pregnant. And I know that’s impossible, I haven’t slept with anyone in like, a while. But this isn’t bloating, I don’t know what it is. It fucking hurts.” 

I thought about telling her about my dreams, my marathon of sleep, my suspicion that this was all a hangover of some nightmare that hadn’t ended — that somehow the membrane between dreams and reality became too porous overnight and a part of me slipped from one world to the other. But she’d shoo it away with a flick of a lacquered nail, clicking her tongue behind her teeth. You’re always talking nonsense like that, she’d say. It’s usually what she said when I started sentences with “I feel.” 

A few years ago, the company I was working for offered five free sessions of online therapy to all employees after a group of entry-level staffers accused two managers of emotional abuse. I spent my five hours with a mousy man in thick, black-framed glasses over a video call. I didn’t really think I had anything to talk about with him, so after we spent the majority of our first session discussing our childhood cats, I brought up my dreams in the second appointment to give him something to do. They’d been occurring on a particularly frequent cadence for a few months and I’d found it hard to fall asleep again after waking up in the middle of the night. It wasn’t severe — not severe enough for psychiatric evaluation — but I thought it might at least keep the two of us entertained. 

After explaining my dreams, he asked me about my relationship with my mother. I told him it was complicated like everyone else’s relationship with their mother. None of us are that special, she’d say when I was a child, typically in response to my naïveté. When I first started reading full novels, I had a habit of blurting out my own interiority in random bits of commentary, as though I was offering some original thought to the world, like an author. She always made it a point to remind me that whatever I said someone else had probably said or thought before, too. I knew she was right even back then, but I couldn’t quite untangle that fact from the way her words landed in my 8-year-old body, which was usually like a bruising thud. 

Have you considered that you might be mothering yourself through these dreams? the therapist asked me in our second session. I wrote him off as a second-rate pseudo-scientist who’d read too much Freud and spent the remainder of our time talking about how I couldn’t have sex with the lights on. His more prurient curiosities piqued, we never talked about my mother again. 

“I just don’t understand how this happens,” my mother said, shaking her head, her tidy shoulder-length haircut swishing in smooth unison against the headrest. Even in crisis, she had uniformity about her — the person you could trust to be buttoned up as the rest of the world flapped open wildly.

“I know,” I moaned. “I don’t know either.” 

I wrapped my arms around my belly in the backseat, imagining, for the first time, that there might be the beginning of an actual person in there. A hand in a fist with fingernails and a head with a tuft of black hair. Half-formed eyes like little raisins, waiting to soak me in. A cluster of cells, simultaneously an extension and inhabitant of me. Would it look like me? I watched my mother’s narrow shoulders sloping out above the car seat, tracing the concave line connecting the nape of her neck to her bony shoulder. Would this person be narrow like her? Or would their frame come out clunkier like mine, unsure of itself? Would their face be angular like hers, with a severity that’s neither intimidating nor inviting — just plainly matter-of-fact? Or would their features move softly with the rest of the rest of their face, all curved and squishy? 

People are always telling me I look like someone else. Friends text me saying they “ just saw my doppelganger” in various cities. I disappoint strangers when I say “no, we haven’t met before, I just have a familiar face.” Yet no one has ever told me I look like my mother. 

I tried to listen for the sound of a second heartbeat inside my own chest, or a swill of fluid shifting as my baby rearranged itself in my womb, but my mother’s silence was too loud for me to hear anything.


She walked me into the emergency room, where after only a few seconds, a nurse in pink scrubs flew up behind us and stuck a wheelchair underneath me. Sit down, mama. 

“We’ll get you to L&D. Does your doctor know you’re coming?” the nurse chirped as she kicked up the brakes of the wheelchair with her Crocs.

“No, I don’t have a doctor here, I didn’-” 

“She’s not pregnant, there’s something wrong,” my mother interrupted, standing above me with her fingers wrapping around the wheelchair’s handle. 

“Do you know how far along you are?” 

“I just told you she’s not pregnant! Can you please just get her an ultrasound?” My mom pleaded, her voice jumping embarrassingly as she said “ultrasound.” 

The nurse, confused, ran up to an intake desk and mumbled something to a woman behind a computer. She returned to us, said she’d be getting me to a room, and wheeled me down a hallway. The fluorescent lights flicked by overhead, like a scene in a movie. 

We pulled a left into a light-blue room with a window overlooking the parking lot and a quaint red armchair in the corner. Impressionist paintings of flowers and lilypads hung on the walls, imbuing the space with an artificial softness. Attached to the right side of the room was a small bathroom. The nurse asked me if she helped me to the toilet, would I be able to pee in a cup? 

“I can help her,” my mother said before I had a chance to answer, boxing the nurse out and away from my wheelchair. 

She scooped me up and walked me into the bathroom with her hands under my armpits. I rested my chin on her shoulder as she slid my shorts and underwear down to my feet. It was the closest we’d come to hugging in years. 

With my nose in her hair, a memory shook loose and wove itself through the hospital bathroom. I saw her wrapping a towel around me after my bath as a little girl, in the bathroom of the first house we lived in. She pulled me into her legs and rubbed my back with the towel as I dripped water on the tile floor. 

“There you go, easy,” she said as she slowly lowered me onto the toilet, as though she was topping off a tower of cards. “Hold on a minute, let me get the cup.” 

She plucked a Dixie-sized plastic container off the sink and unscrewed its yellow lid. “Okay, kid, c’mon.” She stuck the cup under my vagina as I strained. Nothing came out. I closed my eyes, waiting for her irritation to return and renew the distance between us that somehow in the bathroom had felt narrowed. This isn’t working, Casey. 

“I’m sorry, I haven’t really had much to drink over the past couple of days,” I said, staring down at her wrist as it hovered between my legs. 

“It’s alright, kiddo.” She rubbed her free hand on my knee. “C’mon.” 

A small amount of urine finally released, filling the cup about an eighth of the way full. She removed the cup from underneath me and closed the lid. 

“Thank you,” I whispered, trying to stand up on my own and reaching for my shorts. “Don’t say that,” she snapped. “You’re my kid.” 

She led me back to the room and onto the bed, where the nurse was preparing the ultrasound. As I crawled into the bed and rested on my back, the cramps magnified; the squeezing feeling in my ovaries was replaced with a sharp puncture. A scream leapt out of me, from a part of my throat I’d never used. My mother jumped.

“Okay, okay, I’m going to go get the on-call OB,” the nurse said, her eyes growing wider. She jogged out of the bathroom, her Crocs squeaking across the linoleum. 

My mother knelt next to the bed and took my hand, pressing the space between my thumb and pointer fingers to her lips. I felt her breath blowing through my fingers. Once, when I was eleven, I had a dream that she died; someone had broken into our house and killed her in front of me. I had crawled into her bed in the middle of the night to watch her breath, counting the rising and falling for reassurance. When she woke up to me hovering at her face, I told her I couldn’t sleep, but that I didn’t want to wake her. She had ushered me back to my room, whispering you have to learn how to get over that

The punctures inside me persisted, and with each one, I screamed. The pressure I felt when I woke up three mornings ago, the 10-pound weight, now sat like a bag of sand on my gut. My fingers tightened around my mother’s hand. After each scream, I bit down on my tongue, aware I was making what my mother would call a scene. Even with my body consumed in precise physical pain, my brain made the capacity to hold embarrassment. 

The nurse re-entered the room with a tall man in a surgeon’s cap, and he planted himself at the bottom of my bed, straddling a stool. 

“I’m Doctor Shurkevich. We’re gonna get this figured out, just relax your legs for me.” He opened my legs and bent them into 45-degree angles, as though he were handling the limbs of a doll. Through the pain, I could sense his hand had gone inside me, and suddenly he was asking me to push. With the strength I had left, I contracted all of the muscles in my body to follow his direction — still screaming, still clinging to my mother’s hand. Keep going, keep pushing, keep pushing, he said, his tone increasing in confusion with each command. 

I thought about the man with the stroller and the coffee, nodding toward me enigmatically as though he knew something I didn’t. I thought about my mother, soaked in sweat, fearing my existence inside her as she went to sleep each night for nine months. It’s the strangest thing; to be the closest two humans could ever be — one literally inside of the other — and not know anything about them at all. It’s simultaneously the most complete and most isolating existence that two beings could partake in together, I thought, as my mother’s mouth pressed against my hand, her teeth clenched shut. 

In a second, something broke. I couldn’t tell if it was inside my body or inside my head – but there was a shattering release that consumed the room as it set everything loose. Then, it sounded like someone dumped a bucket of water on the floor. 

Opening my eyes, I watched a puddle of thick brown liquid inch its way under the sides of the bed and across the floor, like a cloud slowly spreading across the sky. I knew it was me. I knew that was my mess. A puddle of whatever was inside me. No tuft of hair, no toes to nibble, no crying to soothe. Just some cells, spilled on a cold floor. I was empty all along. 

“There’s nothing in there, it was just – ” The doctor removed his hand and peeled off his gloves. 

“I’m sorry.” He stood up from his stool at the foot of the bed and looked at me over his mask, his eyes searching me for an answer. “There wasn’t anything there. I’m uh – I’m not sure what was going on here. I’ll be back in a minute, I’m going to grab a few of my colleagues and we’ll… yes. Yes, I’m sorry.”

He pulled off his cap and left the room, shutting the door. The nurse’s lips bent subtly into a pitied frown and she looked at me with the same eyes people give grieving family members at funerals. Everyone in the room seemed to believe I’d lost something; I wasn’t sure how to say that what I felt most immediately was relief. 

I looked over at my mother, her lips still against my fingers. A tear dropped off her cheek and onto my hand. 

My pregnancy test came back negative. Whatever poured out of me, whatever had swelled up inside me overnight, did not contain a single trace of hCG. No pregnancy, no egg. There was never a life in there. Dr. Shurkevich ordered several more blood tests and ultrasounds, and told me I’d stay at the hospital overnight, potentially longer, until they could be sure this swelling wouldn’t return. 

“You don’t have to stay, Mom, it’s fine,” I said, hours later, as I watched her fashion the armchair into a bed with the extra neatly folded sheets the nurse had provided. She hadn’t left the room since we arrived at the hospital, and I realized this was the first time since I was a teenager that we’d genuinely spent the whole day together. 

“What do you mean? I’m staying.” She turned around to look at me, her black eyeliner smudged in rings below her eyes. “You’re my kid.” 

Watching her skinny arms fuss around the blankets and the chair, I felt a tug in my chest, like I needed to be near her. I didn’t know if I wanted to be inside her arms, or inside her. “Could you sleep with me then?” My voice tripped over itself in my throat.

Silently, she walked over to the bed and kicked off her sandals. She squeezed in next to me, placing one arm under my head and another across my stomach, spooning me like I was a little bird, all hollow inside. 

“Of course,” she said, kissing my hair. “You’re my kid.” 

I slept, uninterrupted, for twelve hours that night. I didn’t dream of anything at all.

Colleen is a 25-year-old local journalist based in Washington, D.C. She enjoys cats, crochet, and her clip-on booklight.

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