Nancy Shulins is the author of Falling for Eli. Read a review of the book here
As an infertile woman consigned to the suburbs, I developed a dread of kid-centric holidays that began with Halloween and reached a painful crescendo on Mother's Day.
I learned to stay indoors on the second Sunday in May rather than risk running into the neighborhood moms. How I envied them their sticky breakfast trays and garishly crayoned cards. I envied them their stretch marks and sleep deprivation, too, having had plenty of time to romanticize motherhood while being shot full of hormones and injected with dyes.
Unlike the perpetually pregnant women on my cul de sac, all I managed to have were miscarriages. After my fourth, having run out of money and time, my husband and I gave up on babies. The Mother's Day that followed was especially brutal.
Then hope arrived in the form of a scrawny, spooky, accident-prone chestnut Thoroughbred with one white sock and a star on his forehead. I had only just begun riding again after a 20-year hiatus when this unruly 6-year-old bounced into my life. I was 42 and no one's idea of an athlete. I bought him anyway, to fill the gaping hole in my life where the kids should have been.
In retrospect, we belonged in the Odd Couple Hall of Fame. And yet, from the very beginning, I was sure we were meant to be. I named him Eli, and taught him how to give kisses. He taught me how to give everything, and in so doing, I finally got a glorious glimpse of what motherhood is truly about.
Because a love like ours deserved to be shared, I wrote a memoir about my 1,254-pound bundle of joy called Falling For Eli: How I Lost Heart, Then Gained Hope Through the Love of a Singular Horse.
That word, singular, sounded awkward but felt right. I used it because I was sure there had never been another horse like him, certainly none capable of inspiring a depressed, infertile, middle-aged non-athlete to reinvent herself as an aspiring dressage queen.
Or so I'd thought.
"Hi there," a woman named Jennifer wrote, within hours of the book hitting the shelves. "I have an Eli, too. There are so many of us."
I wondered if that could be true. I didn't have long to wait. Women whose children were horses began contacting me in droves.
"I, too, believe that I can fulfill the emptiness that I feel almost every day through a horse," wrote Kelly, who's 50 and childless.
"Loved your book and identified so closely!" wrote Donna. "I was able back in the Sixties to adopt two wonderful children, but when the empty nest started, I learned to jump and bought my lifesaver."
I then heard from Terri: "I always love to talk to others that love their four-legged kids so much. And your story about not being able to give birth is something I really understand, having gone through my own medical issues to later adopt our daughter when she was 13."
Maria, who took up riding two years ago at age 54, sent me this email: "I can relate to you in so many ways. A love of horses, married with no children, riding as an adult, being a Virgo and over-thinking things."
Melanie weighed in next. "I am compelled to write to you as I also have an off-the-track chestnut Thoroughbred gelding, 16.2 hands, named Eli.... I am also childless and have a deep connection with this amazing horse."
Meanwhile, over on Amazon.com, Catherine posted this customer review: "I felt as if the author was telling my own story and after reading it...I have given the book to my family to read to help them understand my feelings as a childless person who feels like her horses ARE her children."
A reviewer wrote in the New York Journal of Books: "Men and women who have shared the infertility experience will find words that speak for them and to them in this book."
After it appeared, I gave an interview to Pamela Tsigdinos, an infertility blogger and author of Silent Sorority: A Barren Woman Gets Busy, Angry, Lost and Found. She asked: "Knowing what you know now, what would you tell your younger self, the one surrounded by baby carriages in suburban Connecticut?"
I replied that I'd tell myself to stop hiding in my house and seek common ground with the neighborhood moms I was trying so hard to avoid.
I felt proud when a woman in Los Angeles wrote: "I'm glad I read this after becoming a mother; I'm not sure I could have appreciated how similar the emotions are, whether your baby is twelve pounds or 1,200. It certainly made me more sensitive to those who want but do not have kids and how incredibly generous they have been to celebrate the birth of my daughter with me."
And so it went. I heard it again and again and again, from women who came to my book-signings, shared their horses' pictures on Eli's Facebook page, and wrote letters, emails and reviews.
It pleases me to see Eli becoming a vehicle, literally and figuratively, inspiring discussions that have cut a wide swath through the barnyards and nurseries of middle-aged motherhood.
A wise woman in Belgium put it this way: "Sometimes our children don't look at all like us...sometimes our children have paws or hooves, fur or manes, wagging tails or large pointed ears. Sometimes our babies weigh 1,200 pounds. We love them in spite of--or perhaps because of--these things."
Jennifer was right. We are a tribe and a sisterhood, and there are so many of us. We have cobbled together our families from hooves and hearts, feathers and fur, and our hearts are as full as any mother's heart.
I once thought there should be a day set aside for those of us whose babies weigh 1,200 pounds, whose children don't look at all like us.
But then I realized: There already is.
Happy Mother's Day.
Falling for Eli by Nancy Shulins is an oversized paperback, 253 pages long, published in 2012 by Lifelong Books. It is available from www.EquineNetworkStore.com for $15.99 plus shipping and handling.