Just before dawn on Christmas morning I was sitting in a wheelchair in the natal intensive care unit (NICU) trying to keep my IV from getting tangled up with the miniature one attached to MB’s hand. Getting here had taken all my effort: five hours earlier I had been in the post-op room recovering from the unplanned caesarean section that had followed a long, difficult labor. Immediately after being pulled from my belly, my son had been whisked off to the NICU as a precaution for testing and antibiotics. Upstairs in the maternity wing I had begged my night nurse to wheel me to the NICU, and she told me to sleep for a few hours, promising that we would go first thing in the morning. She kept her word — a Christmas gift to me and my baby. If I couldn’t have the birth I wanted (unmedicated, vaginal, empowering), I was determined to get a good start to breastfeeding and bonding. Mostly, I just wanted, after all these years, to hold my baby and say hello.
Lucky for me, MB was a champion sucker from the start. And I don’t think he read the memo that missing out on the first few hours together impedes mother-baby bonding. There we were, 5 a.m. Christmas morning, me still with the epidural line in my back, MB a tiny little thing on antibiotics and phototherapy, curled up in my wheelchair, singing and whispering and kissing and feeding like nobody’s business.
Where was my husband Neil? Home asleep, where the hospital sent all new fathers. He arrived later that morning, and wheeled me down to the NICU every two hours for an hour-long breastfeeding session, insisting I sleep in-between. During those short, drugged naps, Neil held the baby whenever he cried or fussed so that the nurse wouldn’t stuff him with formula. But when it came down to it, the most Neil could do, the most he can do now that we are seven weeks into parenting, is play a supporting role.
Neil has always done more than his share. For years, our closest friends have raised amused eyebrows at how Neil juggles so much — he not only makes the majority of the money, he does most of the food shopping, the cooking, and a slew of other household chores. I have managed to carve out a few areas of expertise — planning our trips and our social and cultural calendars, doing the laundry and cleaning up around the house, and looking after our physical and spiritual well-being. I’m always pushing my workaholic sweetie to take a break — a yoga class, a hike, or a vacation that doesn’t revolve around a conference or research agenda. Still, my tasks have been more intangible, his practical and essential.
Enter Mama’s Boy. So if Neil has been assigned the role of supporting actor, I am the leading lady, the star with a ten-million-dollar salary, the one with all the lines to learn, the one who carries the film on her back. It all started with in vitro fertilization. While international adoption had been (at least in the applying and waiting stages) an experience we could share more or less equally (Neil did lots of the paperwork, I did lots of the research), the very physical process of trying to conceive, carry out a healthy pregnancy and then birth and breastfeed a child has been pretty much all me. There’s no getting around that I was the one being injected with fertility drugs, growing my eggs like a goose, and then blessedly pregnant, experiencing morning sickness and becoming more and more cumbersome. But once the baby came, things would return to normal, right? Or, better, a new normal where Neil and I would be 50/50 partners?
Well, it depends on how you look at things. I couldn’t be doing any of this without Neil. He’s still the main breadwinner, not to mention my personal spa chef as I endeavor to peel off my baby weight. (And since my c-section he’s been tackling the laundry too, if less than successfully.) Whenever I think I’ll collapse if I can’t nap for an hour, he’s the one who comes to my rescue, taking MB for a walk to the bookstore down the street or pacing up and down the stairs with him until he stops crying. But I’m the one up with our son every night. (Neil has decamped to the couch, both of us agreeing that at least one of us should get some sleep, and thus some work done over the next few months.) I’m the one who feeds MB and cuddles him and cares for him most of the time, and usually only I can stop his crying. Slowly, this is changing. Every day Neil does a little more. But, as dedicated a family man as Neil is, he is still the one with the job that provides us our food and shelter not to mention a dresser full of baby supplies. (And the dresser itself, come to think of it.) So, when MB cries out for me, or demands to be attached to me 24/7, I want to give him that all-encompassing Mommy love.
After eight years of being with an uber competent mate, I am reveling in my new role. It’s one thing to be needed by my son — that I expected, but to be needed by my husband, retro as that may sound, is a very special thing. After five years of waiting for my Mama’s Boy, I couldn’t be happier. These days I couldn’t feel more necessary, more exhausted, more gendered, more like a Mama.