In Medias Res
It is the end of May, and the goat-baby (the bubble, the little being — all these nicknames to help us both be fond yet keep our distance) is eleven weeks old. It has finally closed whatever valves and soaked up whatever potions were making the room tip; the peanut was raining poppy dust in my veins and making me sleep at inconvenient times. The fetus is willful and at peak intelligence before it ever speaks. Maybe we are already resisting each other.
I dipped into my previous life this morning, swallowed lovely brown coffee and jumped off the bridge of tiredness down into the traffic of words. This square screen made me stare, and I forgot to eat or go to the bathroom. I squinted for a second and looked up to see that an hour had passed. A revered fiction teacher’s mantra played in my head: “Kill your darlings.” Two and a half feet down from this scary brain is a defenseless flesh-comma. I don’t think I look like a Mommy, hunched over my computer screen with a scowl, biting at my lips and my nails.
I lose myself in my work, then I worry that I’ve been cheating: have I somehow made myself un-pregnant, broken the shallow membrane between my hopes and the multiple worlds in my head? If I stop thinking about the baby, does it die? If I leave my body for lines of text, who reminds the baby’s cells to divide, and who keeps it from getting lonely?
It’s week sixteen. Happy sweet sixteen, goat-baby. I promise I’ll stop calling you goat when we find out next month what you are. Goat-baby, I love you so much, but I’m glad you’re not here yet. Rather than counting down the weeks, I am banking against them, hoping for the full forty.
In the coffee shop, I met with an accomplished writer who’s also the mother of an eight-year-old. “Look, you can do it,” she said as she glanced down at her watch, timing the minutes until she had to go pick up her daughter. “Just make sure you have a draft of the book done before the baby comes. You think you’ll have time afterward, people always say, ‘Oh, I’ll write when the baby sleeps,’ but that’s bullshit. You’re going to be sleeping or staring at the baby. So get to work and have the most productive summer of your life.”
When friends ask me how I’m doing, I am honest only if I know them well. I say, “I’m panicked. I haven’t ever had this kind of a deadline before.” To one friend who is also a writer thinking about getting pregnant this year, I say, “You know, it feels like somehow December 2 is the date I’m going to die.” Then the disclaimers: “I mean, I know that’s sick, and of course, I don’t really think that…”
She nods. “I know exactly what you mean. It’s like, goodbye to everything.”
It’s a sick metaphor — of course, it’s the opposite of a death. It’s something the Mommy on the cover of the Pregnancy Manual would never say or even think.
I’ve heard the urge for domestic completion described as a nesting instinct, a burst of furious activity before giving birth. I’m writing today in an office that’s going to become your bedroom, while my future writing space waits: a tiny alcove off the bedroom, just big enough for a desk. When we looked at our limited floor plan and figured out the allotment of rooms, I had an undignified hormonal crash and spent an afternoon crying about it. When I got up and washed off my face, I felt selfish and confused; I thought the maternal instinct would suck all of those feelings away like poison from a snakebite.
So this will become your nest, but there’s no sign of a nursery. It’s disgusting, actually: paper everywhere, some of it in drifts so that it’s hard to tell this room isn’t rounded at the bottom like a bowl. That corner is the classes I’ll be teaching; this half of the desk and the floor below it is the book; behind me is the political work I won’t have time for anymore…
I wonder if I’m embezzling from my maternal wellspring, burning the energy that is supposed to be used for picking out wallpaper with bunnies and lambs.
I am happy for the blood barrier of the placenta that keeps some of my fluids separate from yours, because my mental soup is no place for a baby. I know you will develop tastes for what I ate during pregnancy, and you can have buckets of Chicken Tikka Masala if you want.
While my belly reaches outward, my brain and my hands — held so close to my lap — are trying to write a book about the rise of the Third Reich. Sweetheart, I hope you never read this and figure out I spent your gestation trying to close the empathy gap and feel the fear that a German Marxist had in his throat for Hitler’s brownshirts. I’m sorry about that — it has to be a new form of imaginational child abuse.
For selfish me, I want my work. For you, sometimes it seems much better and kinder to have a mommy like on the cover of Mothering Incorporated.
At week 21, a friend told me about a thrift store for maternity and baby clothes. Today, browsing the aisles and piling up three-dollar shorts and five-dollar dresses, pausing in front of a huge bin filled with tiny socks, I felt temporarily at rest. Moms flipped through t-shirts and piloted strollers through the aisles, and a clenching within my chest released its tightened spring. Welcome to thrifting, baby. I hope you like the pride of something twice-used and comfortably broken in.
Shyly touching a Winnie-the-Pooh lamp, a cute swirl of color I didn’t think I’d ever be able to afford, I felt the edges of a real life open up for us. Your dad and mom are both artists, making our living as “freelancers.” We have flexible schedules and decidedly unimpressive incomes. You will know, as we know, the wonders of the Dollar Store, the binges at the library. I knew this — I knew all along this was how it would be.
Hanging my brand-name, slightly used dresses on hangers, I realized I’ve been so intimidated by you, baby. I had this weird idea you were going to pop out of me judging and dissatisfied, like a pre-fab suburban child expecting a stay-at-home mom and a Lexus SUV to take her to play group. I have been already ducking in shame, imagining the sneer in your liquid brown eyes when you bury your face in a receiving blanket and come up for air with the distinctive smell and imprint on your face, knowing this blankie is garage-sale worn.
“It’s twice-loved, baby. And it’s only a dollar,” I would say. But you’d already be hating me, already be following the North Star of your compass, waiting to escape to the life you knew you came here for, the life every Gerber Baby was promised.
The thrift store — real, concrete, with helpful and harried women behind the counter, not ashamed to be pushing the economical and the shared — made me realize, with a surge of greedy pride and calculation, that we will get you first. Before your little consciousness is even formed to narrow your eyes at Daddy’s backyard full of sculptures and at Mommy’s chaotic office, you will be spoiled with rescued treasures, homemade toys, and the best games and on-the-spot stories two parents can invent. If we can’t give you the moon and can’t guarantee you much saved for college, we can at least show you the wide world, the one that exists beyond traditional opportunity. You are not even a five-month-old fetus, and you’ve already come along to ten demonstrations and felt the sun outside your warm womb at a New York beach where tattooed gay boys romped naked in the waves. You will be loved but never shackled with the blinders that make real life seem frightening.
We bought your baby book on clearance, dear. It’s a blank journal with a beaded cover. The pictures and collages and memories and stories that will go inside will, you can be sure, be yours alone.
Walking near the river in the evening tonight, watching a two-year-old getting pushed on a swing and tipping his head back in ecstasy, in flagrant display of his own personality, I was thinking about you and the ways you will have. We will see your twenty-one-week-old body tomorrow in ghostly grays on the ultrasound screen, and we will learn only hints about you, but I am hungry for every clue: any arch of an eyebrow or curve of a foot will be outrageous and specific. In this moment, my curiosity has eclipsed my anxiety.
My skin is expanding around you, and it’s interesting but not entirely unfamiliar to be inhabited by a strange character, to think about the spaces inside me that I don’t own. This stage feels like the pre-writing of a story: that tentative, intuitive brooding. I flip through gestures and looks, not searching for a composite but for someone I want to understand.
Writing is the only way to replicate the feeling and privilege of being in love; those are the only two moments when staring is not impolite, when we are allowed to revel in the skin-landscape, the minute gestures, the smell and dastardly contradictions of another person. Last time we saw you, you were soap bubbles, semi-transparent globes scattered around a hummingbird’s beating heart. I want to see you; I am hungry for the plot, for the tiny details of your story contained in the pads of your fingers and your plans for future rebellion.