An Empty Lap: One Couple's Journey to Parenthood

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9780671004378: An Empty Lap: One Couple's Journey to Parenthood

"Joe and I had been forthright about children. I was pretty sure I wanted them, Joe was pretty sure he didn't. Since we each perceived in the other some room for movement, the difference didn't worry us. Then priorities shifted, needs changed...."
In her late thirties, journalist Jill Smolowe's life and career at Time magazine was on track. Her husband, Joe, was still her most trusted confidante and best friend. And now that she and Joe had decided finally to have a child, Jill assumed the pregnancy that had come so easily to all the women in her family would be her own next chapter. But nature had a different script in mind.
As her quest for a child swerved from the roller coaster of infertility procedures toward the baffling maze of adoption options, Jill's desperation deepened -- while Joe's resistance to children only hardened. In the fog of depression, disappointments, and dead ends, their marriage began to founder. Then, halfway around the world, in Yangzhou, China, she encountered a future she'd never imagined might be hers.
Honest and intimate, An Empty Lap is as much a window on a marriage as on a high-stakes baby chase. Compelling, beautifully told and as insightful as a novel, it's filled with emotions that anyone who has yearned for a child will recognize.

"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.

About the Author:

Jill Smolowe is an award-winning veteran journalist whose articles have appeared in Time, Newsweek, The New York Times, Boston Globe, People, Family Life, Adoptive Families and other publications. She lives in New Jersey with her husband, Joe Treen, an assistant managing editor at People, and their daughter, Becky.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter I

It is the postswim, predinner hour, and the smallest members of the clan are restless. Inside my parents' house, I can hear my two oldest nephews bickering over a game of Go Fish.

"You can't put that there, Alex."

"Can so."

"Cannot."

"Michael! Quit it!"

Outside on the deck, I smoke a cigarette on a chaise lounge beside my sister Ann and sister-in-law Candace, watching the distant nightlights shimmer against the dark folds of North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains. I am fine, certainly far better than I was a year earlier when I'd arrived for my family's 1993 annual reunion reeling from a doctor's shock bulletin that Joe and I would not be able to conceive a child. I'd spent most of that week holed up in my parents' yellow guest room, hiding from everyone, particularly my five young nieces and nephews. Joe had spent most of that week worrying about my alarmingly fragile state of mind.

Now, I'm able to play Aunt Jill again. I've spent the afternoon dunking Michael in the pool and executing antic leaps off the diving board for Jeremy. With Emily, I've outfitted my parents' golden retrievers in absurd costumes, while with Alex and Shaina I've tiptoed around the flower beds, searching for elves.

Suddenly, the silence on the deck is shattered by my youngest niece, who bursts through the screen door, shrieking, "Mommy! Mommy!"

"What is it, sweetie?" Candace answers.

"Mommy!" Shaina says more insistently, raising her arms to be lifted onto Candace's lap.

A moment later, Ann's two children appear. Jeremy climbs onto my younger sister's lap, puts a thumb in his mouth and nestles his head against her chest. Emily stands stroking Ann's thigh, then tries to wrestle a place for herself by nudging Jeremy. Without opening his eyes, he moans, "Emmy! Stop it!"

Thinking only to keep the peace, I say, "I've got an empty lap here. Who wants to sit on my lap?" Emily answers by burrowing her head into Ann's stomach. After an uneasy silence, Ann whispers something in Emily's ear. My niece scrunches up her face quizzically, then walks toward me. Wrapping her arms around my waist, she murmurs, "I love you, Aunt Jill," then scurries back to Ann's embrace before I can finish saying, "I love you, too."

Then we all sit quietly. The mothers stroking their children. The children nuzzling their mothers. And me, wondering who will fill my empty lap.

It wasn't always this way, this obsession of mine with babies. Once I was a rational, optimistic person who thought she had a pretty good handle on maintaining some balance in her life. The daughter of a man who'd built a thriving dress-manufacturing business on the philosophy, "You create your own 'luck,'" and a woman whose ever-present lists reinforced her favorite maxim, "You plan your work, then you work your plan," I believed that results rewarded effort. I wasn't afraid to go after the things I wanted, confident that if I exercised forethought and patience, steeled myself for disappointment, and didn't try to make too much happen at once, I could eventually build a life that had it all.

My "all" was reasonable, I thought. Not too overreaching. I wanted to build a writing career. Find a loving mate. Establish a solid marriage. Move to a house in the burbs. Raise some kids. So I found it baffling when friends and family would say, "You're so directed. You always know what you want." Sure, I knew what I wanted. But it wasn't like I had a clue what key this would play out in or what notes would be struck. I just knew the leitmotifs and was trying to compose a life, one movement at a time.

Maybe it was my concentration that fooled people. I have great concentration. It didn't occur to me that was anything unusual until my junior year at Princeton, when my older brother and I met at Grand Central Station to ride home together to Connecticut. After we learned the next train to Westport wouldn't leave for another forty minutes, I sat down on the floor of the noisy main terminal and went to work on a term paper. When I looked up to check the time, I noticed Alan standing over me, laughing.

"What's so funny?"

"Look around," he said. "Do you even know where you are?"

It took me a moment to get what he meant. Then I laughed, too.

When Alan recounted the absurd scene in the train station, some family member joked that I was "tunnel-visioned." The adjective became a staple in one of those quick profiles that parents like to trot out for strangers, and children like to insist are untrue. Mine goes: "Jill is the most studious of our four children, the one with tunnel vision. She can be demanding of others, but she's hardest on herself. We never had to worry about punishing Jill. She always did that herself. She has a capable, tough exterior, and a soft, rather fragile interior that she hides from the world." Though I thought the tunnel-vision bit implied a narrowness that was unfair, I regarded my concentration as an advantage -- that is, until I experienced just how dark and cramped the tunnel could be.

I've always had an aversion to tight physical spaces. On the day I was born, I was apparently so eager to escape the womb that my mother almost had me in the hospital elevator. Three years later when I accidentally locked myself in a friend's closet, I was so panicked I'd never get out that my mother heard my frightened screams an eighth of a mile away. I still hate situations that make me feel trapped. If a subway car has the packed look of a cattle car, I'll wait for the next train; if a party threatens to be one of those affairs where people sip cocktails pressed nose to nose, I'll find an excuse to stay away.

I'm the same way about tight psychic spaces. Most of the time my instincts help me steer clear of them. I cruise along, adjusting to what is, ignoring or shrugging off what isn't, and relying on peripheral vision to keep my gaze from settling on any one aggravation for too long. On those occasions when a problem is so absorbing that it narrows my range of vision to a single point, my mind will start racing round and round in search of an exit. Almost always, I find the escape within weeks, if not days.

Only twice has a problem proved so intractable that it dragged on for months. In both instances, the longer I couldn't find the exit, the more desperate and uninterrupted my mental thrashing became. Over time, I lost my capacity to look around. See where I was. Laugh. As absorption gave way to obsession, I was propelled into the darkest and tightest tunnel of all: depression.

One of those times, the issue was babies.

But let's leave babies out of this for a while. Let's talk instead about Weasel & Weasel. Once I get going on babies, they'll overrun these pages, just as they overran the space in my life that was once reserved for Jill and Joe.

Funny.

That should have been Joe's line.

When I first fell for Joe, I was twenty-six and very much focused on building my career. Marriage was an idea that teased more than tantalized. Children were, as yet, a distant hypothetical. I felt directed, secure, in control of my life.

I was, of course, grossly deluded.

I'd joined Newsweek in June 1981 as a writer for the international editions. When I reported for work the first day, a lanky editor with a touch of gray in his hair and a hint of Tanqueray on his breath escorted me to a windowless office in sorry need of a paint job.

"There's an empty office with windows," he said, his tone at once apologetic and defensive, "but we're holding that for Joe Treen, a reporter who's coming over from Newsday after the summer. He's got a lot more experience than you. It's only fair."

At the time, I didn't care. Fresh from four years of clerical and reporting duties in the cavernous newsroom of The New York Times, I thought it a great treat no longer to have to lock myself in a bathroom stall to secure a few minutes of privacy. But as the months passed and that windowed office remained vacant, I began to resent the alleged hotshot from Newsday. By the time Joe showed up in October, I was primed to detest him. As we shook hands and introduced ourselves, I smiled pleasantly and thought, "Schmuck."

Joe quickly dispelled my preconception of a prima donna. Though he was older than the rest of the international writing staff and more seasoned, having covered everything from Evel Knievel's jump over the Snake River Canyon to the Yom Kippur War in the Middle East, he was amiable and unpretentious and had the deepest laugh I'd ever heard. The confidence that he exuded was offset by a shyness that seemed as uncalculated as Joe's nescience of his anchorman-style good looks. Though his chiseled cheeks, thick mass of hair, and warm smile screamed, "Camera-ready," he seemed not to hear it.

Almost immediately, we gravitated toward each other, tugged initially by our mutual newspaper backgrounds. We had plenty of time to talk since the trade-off for delivery from daily deadlines was a killer of a weekly closing that held us captive in the office from Friday mornings until the predawn hours of Saturday. Typically, that meant long stretches of downtime waiting for edits and layouts. As our conversation extended over weeks, we came to know a lot about each other.

I'd grown up in a close, private family, the first daughter in a boy-girl-boy-girl lineup. Security seemed a fact of life. I'd spent my entire childhood in the same prosperous suburb, same sprawling ranch house, same excellent school system. If life was never boring, it was also never unplanned: ski weekends followed the school week, summer camp and jobs followed the school year, college followed high school graduation. My parents turned up for both sons' Little League games, both daughters' piano recitals, all performances of all kids' school plays. Because they made each of us feel loved and special, I still cannot recall any sibling rivalry, despite the four of us having been born within five years. "It was my parents' greatest magic," I told Joe. "I remain very tight with my siblings."

Though rules were few, my parents' expectations were clear, consistent and unflinching. Major Jewish holidays were for family, no excuses. Bickering and screaming were not tolerated, period. And though discussion and debate were encouraged, once my parents made up their minds about something, they were a united, unyielding front. It was assumed that my siblings and I would go straight from college to work. It was anticipated that each of us would eventually heed my mother's injunction, sometimes humorous, sometimes earnest, to "get married, have babies." It was hoped that, like our parents' bond, our commitment to our partners would be paramount and permanent after we married. As yet, none of us had.

Joe told me that his parents were a similarly devoted pair, who held weekends in reserve for Joe, his younger sister Esme, and each other. Initially, family time meant attendance at Episcopal church services. After the Treens began breeding dalmatians, it meant dog shows.

Despite his family's stability, Joe had felt unsettled during most of his youth. A "corporate brat," he'd hated the periodic relocations to new states and new suburbs that had attended his father's ascent through management ranks. Although early on he'd been a reluctant loner who constantly felt disliked and displaced, by his teens, Joe had emerged as a gregarious prankster who wielded his humor and wit to make fast inroads at three different midwest high schools.

Upon completing his undergraduate work at the University of Wisconsin, Joe fled east, vowing never to return to either the Midwest or the suburbs, both of which he found stifling. After earning a masters degree in journalism from Syracuse University, he joined the reporting staff of Newsday, the daily on Long Island, where he remained for the next twelve years, minus an unexpected eighteen-month stint at Fort Eustis after his army reserve unit was mobilized during the Vietnam war.

Thirteen years my senior, Joe had done a lot more living than I. He'd married in 1965 while in grad school, divorced five years later, rebounded into a second marriage, then divorced within a year of that. Joe's life, I thought, sounded bold and unconventional. Certainly far more adventurous than mine.

Even so, we found much in common. A love of theater. A passion for travel. A twin devotion to writing and introspection that found expression in the keeping of journals. Each of us tended toward self-deprecating humor, and away from pretension in ourselves and others.

Serial monogomists both, we were each involved in yearslong relationships, he to an outgoing secretary with a flare for throwing elaborate dinner parties, I to Marc, a fellow Times journalist, whose keen intellect, unwavering kindness, and talent for remaining calm, no matter what the circumstance, I much admired. Though Joe and I adored our current mates, neither of us quite saw in them a life's companion.

After months of these late-night chats, Joe admitted with a modesty bordering on embarrassment that he had written a few plays. When I asked to read one, I discovered a wonderfully imaginative writer whose words made me laugh out loud. I gushed. Joe blushed. It was around then that I stopped thinking of him as just another colleague. Our discussions became more flirtatious, more playful, more intimate.

One night, Joe confided that he felt out of place at Newsweek. "Everyone is younger. So ivy league and preppy."

"I may be younger and ivy league, but at least I'm not a preppy. Besides," I scoffed, "you're midwestern white bread. That amounts to the same thing."

"Anyone can be a preppy," he countered. "You just have to own plastic ducks."

"Well, there you have it. I don't own any plastic ducks."

The next day I found an inch-high yellow plastic duck standing on my desk with a note that read: "Zap! You're a preppy!"

After that, we touched hands in a darkened movie theater. We kissed in a park. We tangled on the floor of his apartment. I shared my favorite joke with him: "Why did the monkey fall out of the tree? Because it was dead." We laughed so hard that we clutched our sides, tears rolling down our cheeks, our eyes locked on one another as we gasped for breath.

We were, it appeared, in love.

In July 1982, Joe and I broke off our respective relationships, each of us feeling wrenched and guilty, but eager to see if our mutual infatuation could evolve into something more enduring.

From the start, I sensed with Joe the potential to forge the kind of connection I hoped for in a marriage, a love memorably described by Milan Kundera as a "constant interrogation. " Affectionate and unafraid to show vulnerability, Joe was blessed with a great gift for intimacy. His eagerness to question, listen, and engage made him interesting and made me feel irreplaceable. His determination to keep growing ("relentlessly self-improving," I teased) promised to keep both of us from settling into complacency. His insightful observations, I thought, would challenge me to probe deeper and confront unexamined truths about myself.

In other words...

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Book Description Atria Books, United States, 1998. Paperback. Book Condition: New. Language: English . Brand New Book ***** Print on Demand *****. Joe and I had been forthright about children. I was pretty sure I wanted them, Joe was pretty sure he didn t. Since we each perceived in the other some room for movement, the difference didn t worry us. Then priorities shifted, needs changed. In her late thirties, journalist Jill Smolowe s life and career at Time magazine was on track. Her husband, Joe, was still her most trusted confidante and best friend. And now that she and Joe had decided finally to have a child, Jill assumed the pregnancy that had come so easily to all the women in her family would be her own next chapter. But nature had a different script in mind. As her quest for a child swerved from the roller coaster of infertility procedures toward the baffling maze of adoption options, Jill s desperation deepened -- while Joe s resistance to children only hardened. In the fog of depression, disappointments, and dead ends, their marriage began to founder. Then, halfway around the world, in Yangzhou, China, she encountered a future she d never imagined might be hers. Honest and intimate, An Empty Lap is as much a window on a marriage as on a high-stakes baby chase. Compelling, beautifully told and as insightful as a novel, it s filled with emotions that anyone who has yearned for a child will recognize. Bookseller Inventory # AAV9780671004378

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Book Description Atria Books, United States, 1998. Paperback. Book Condition: New. Language: English . Brand New Book ***** Print on Demand *****. Joe and I had been forthright about children. I was pretty sure I wanted them, Joe was pretty sure he didn t. Since we each perceived in the other some room for movement, the difference didn t worry us. Then priorities shifted, needs changed. In her late thirties, journalist Jill Smolowe s life and career at Time magazine was on track. Her husband, Joe, was still her most trusted confidante and best friend. And now that she and Joe had decided finally to have a child, Jill assumed the pregnancy that had come so easily to all the women in her family would be her own next chapter. But nature had a different script in mind. As her quest for a child swerved from the roller coaster of infertility procedures toward the baffling maze of adoption options, Jill s desperation deepened -- while Joe s resistance to children only hardened. In the fog of depression, disappointments, and dead ends, their marriage began to founder. Then, halfway around the world, in Yangzhou, China, she encountered a future she d never imagined might be hers. Honest and intimate, An Empty Lap is as much a window on a marriage as on a high-stakes baby chase. Compelling, beautifully told and as insightful as a novel, it s filled with emotions that anyone who has yearned for a child will recognize. Bookseller Inventory # AAV9780671004378

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Book Description Atria Books. Paperback. Book Condition: New. Paperback. 288 pages. Dimensions: 8.5in. x 5.6in. x 0.7in.Joe and I had been forthright about children. I was pretty sure I wanted them, Joe was pretty sure he didnt. Since we each perceived in the other some room for movement, the difference didnt worry us. Then priorities shifted, needs changed. . . . In her late thirties, journalist Jill Smolowes life and career at Time magazine was on track. Her husband, Joe, was still her most trusted confidante and best friend. And now that she and Joe had decided finally to have a child, Jill assumed the pregnancy that had come so easily to all the women in her family would be her own next chapter. But nature had a different script in mind. As her quest for a child swerved from the roller coaster of infertility procedures toward the baffling maze of adoption options, Jills desperation deepened -- while Joes resistance to children only hardened. In the fog of depression, disappointments, and dead ends, their marriage began to founder. Then, halfway around the world, in Yangzhou, China, she encountered a future shed never imagined might be hers. Honest and intimate, An Empty Lap is as much a window on a marriage as on a high-stakes baby chase. Compelling, beautifully told and as insightful as a novel, its filled with emotions that anyone who has yearned for a child will recognize. This item ships from multiple locations. Your book may arrive from Roseburg,OR, La Vergne,TN. Paperback. Bookseller Inventory # 9780671004378

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Book Description Atria Books, United States, 1998. Paperback. Book Condition: New. Language: English . This book usually ship within 10-15 business days and we will endeavor to dispatch orders quicker than this where possible. Brand New Book. Joe and I had been forthright about children. I was pretty sure I wanted them, Joe was pretty sure he didn t. Since we each perceived in the other some room for movement, the difference didn t worry us. Then priorities shifted, needs changed. In her late thirties, journalist Jill Smolowe s life and career at Time magazine was on track. Her husband, Joe, was still her most trusted confidante and best friend. And now that she and Joe had decided finally to have a child, Jill assumed the pregnancy that had come so easily to all the women in her family would be her own next chapter. But nature had a different script in mind. As her quest for a child swerved from the roller coaster of infertility procedures toward the baffling maze of adoption options, Jill s desperation deepened -- while Joe s resistance to children only hardened. In the fog of depression, disappointments, and dead ends, their marriage began to founder. Then, halfway around the world, in Yangzhou, China, she encountered a future she d never imagined might be hers. Honest and intimate, An Empty Lap is as much a window on a marriage as on a high-stakes baby chase. Compelling, beautifully told and as insightful as a novel, it s filled with emotions that anyone who has yearned for a child will recognize. Bookseller Inventory # LIE9780671004378

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