It’s a hot summer day in June, and my husband, Zsombor, and I are sitting in a doctor’s office a few blocks from our apartment in Budapest.
“Congratulations!” says the doctor, holding out his hand to me.
“Thank you.” I smile tentatively as I extend my own hand.
Technically, I am overjoyed. We have been waiting for this moment for so long, yet the happiness I feel seems tinged by a vague uneasiness. I look at Zsombor, sitting beside me. He is smiling from ear to ear.
I can’t help feeling, though, that I don’t completely share his elation about this nine-week-old pregnancy. Both of us have wanted a child ever since we settled in Zsombor’s homeland. But now I am pregnant, and I realize something inside me has shifted–although I don’t yet know what, or how.
During my first year in Hungary, before I’d met Zsombor, I babysat the kids of the American consul. His wife was a tiny, cheerful woman, but as her husband’s tenure in Hungary drew to a close, she took on a wistful air.
“You know,” she confided to me one day, “You can’t beat the life of an expat. As a foreigner, you live outside of society. You get to make your own rules. No one judges you like they do at home.” Her eyes were full of sadness, and she shook her head. “Enjoy it,” she almost whispered.
She’s right. The life of an expat is liberating. At home, societal expectations and restraints are a part of you. In a foreign land, I felt the absence of those fetters on a visceral level.
For years, Zsombor and I lived for the moment, not entirely digesting our condition as a cross-cultural couple. We met ten years ago when I came to Hungary to teach English for a year. For a while we lived in New Haven, Connecticut, where Zsombor studied art history and I worked in a dark little cubby in the basement of a rare book library. But Zsombor wanted to write his dissertation on a Hungarian topic. Without thinking much about the ramifications of our decision to spend our lives together, we packed and moved back to Budapest.
“You’re cutting into too big a tree,” warned Zsombor’s mother once. But I ignored her.
Almost halfway through my pregnancy, my mother-in-law’s words echo in my mind. As I look at my growing belly, nothing in my life seems as light and carefree as before. Unable to understand the origin of my anxieties, I focus my concerns on the birth itself, peppering my doctor with questions about the frequency of c-sections, the availability of single rooms, and the nursing staff’s knowledge of breastfeeding.
Exasperated, he says, “Why don’t you take a tour of the hospital? They offer them every Tuesday morning.” But a large labor room lined with cots, a double birthing room, and a seemingly strict nursing schedule of newborns do little to ease my worries.
The defining moment of our tour comes when I peek into the nursery. It’s bath time and the nurses stand assembly line style. One undresses the first baby, hands it to the next nurse standing in front of a sink, who rinses the screaming baby off in the tap, hands it to a nurse who dries it with a towel and hands it to yet another, who throws a diaper on it, swaddles it, and puts it back in the nursery bed. I’m fixated by the precision teamwork, by the well-practiced rhythm of the women’s movements. I wait for the tempo to quicken, the rhythm to intensify. I’m sure that at any moment they will suddenly burst into song: “Wash the baby, dry the baby, swaddle it in a rag!” A scene from a grotesque, surreal musical set in the brave new world of central Europe. Of course this doesn’t happen. But the image is enough to shake me.
My mother-in-law’s words return to me. Too big a tree. Is it possible she was right? The heaviness I felt at the doctor’s office descends again. What am I doing in this foreign land with a baby on the way?
The answer is adventure. Teaching English in Hungary had sounded so exciting during my last year in college, so exotic, so romantic. Well, what could be more adventurous than a birth abroad in a slightly more antiquated setting–a birth without the shine, the polish and the glitz of America? Honestly, what am I complaining about?
I hear the whisper of the Consul’s wife: “Enjoy it …”
My due date passes, so the doctor admits me to the hospital, where my baby’s condition can be monitored more carefully. Mental heaviness lingers, dulling my excitement over the prospect of soon holding my baby. I’m shown to the room I’ll share with four other women. My roommates are still “in one” as they say in Hungary; that is, still pregnant. Enikő rests in a bed raised up about six inches by two cement blocks to confound her cervix, which opened at 30 weeks. Juli has high blood pressure.
Anna is simply overdue like me. She good-naturedly believes that labor will start at any moment. “It’s my third,” she says. “I always thought the third baby comes early. Would you like some potato chips?”
The garbage can already contains several crumpled potato chip bags. Juli eyes them longingly. “I can’t have sodium,” she sighs.
I unpack my bag in silence while the others read or chat with visitors. When I’ve finished, I lie down, hoping sleep will overtake me.
That evening, Enikő’s mother arrives and sets down a large blue cooler, from which she pulls bowls, spoons, napkins, some milk, apple juice, and home-baked apple cake. Enikő’s father breezes in with a large pot of steaming something in his hands, “Watch out,” he cries, “it’s still hot!”
“Oh you didn’t!” Enikő says to her mother in delight.
“Yes, we did,” her mother says proudly. “Pigeon soup. Your dad made it last night. Four of his biggest, plumpest pigeons. We simmered them gently all night long. I think it’s his best yet.” She scans the room quickly. “Oh a new one,” she says, smiling and handing me a bowl. It does smell good.
Enikő’s father pulls a two-pound loaf of bread and big knife out of a white woven shopping bag and begins cutting. Soon we are all having bread and soup and raving about the wonders of slowly cooked pigeons. The flavor is wonderful: strong, pungent, and not too salty.
Just then Anna’s husband arrives, “Oh great, soup!” he says. He tells Anna that the children miss her, but everything’s ok. She smiles and puts her head on his shoulder.
After the soup we have apple cake and then Juli pulls out her mini-TV. It’s time for the Hungarian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? Finally the nurse hints that it’s time for visitors to go. I’m feeling weary but to my surprise, also in remarkably good spirits. Looking around at my roommates, I realize I’m enjoying their camaraderie. Would this many women in the States share a hospital room? With no screens for privacy? I remember how shocked I had been on the tour to see such crowded rooms, and couldn’t conceive of the benefits. Maybe the unexpected fellowship I’m now experiencing is unintentional, the result of a public healthcare system with a tight budget, but the circumstances are not so bad, after all. I’m no longer sure I would want to experience the moments before and after birth in the privacy of my own home, or in a lonely single room, where it’s too easy to indulge in self-pity.
After five days in the hospital labor finally begins. Hours of panting and pushing prove fruitless and in the end I am rushed into the operating room for an emergency c-section. When I awaken, I’m in a new room. I look down at my belly. It’s flat. I guess I’ve had the baby. What time it is? Where is my husband? Where is my baby?
Zsombor enters the room. “They said you were awake,” he whispers. He looks as if he’d climbed Mount Everest and back.
“Well,” I say, “What’s he like?”
He breaks into a smile, “He’s got a lot of hair. I’ve never seen anything like it.” I start to laugh, but the pain of my incision stops me. Just then the nurse enters.
“Here’s your baby!” she announces, and lays him down on the bed next to me.
He is beautiful. Small, red-faced with a mass of thick black hair–like a little toupee. How strange that only yesterday, this tiny little person was still inside me. What a shock the world must be. He looks at me uncomprehendingly.
And in that moment I understand everything. My concerns about the hospital experience were genuine, but with the birth behind me I now recognize the real source of that strange sensation of heaviness, the unease, and the apprehension that pressed upon me during my pregnancy.
This child is my connection to Hungary–a land that at times has seemed hopelessly indecipherable, but has never ceased to offer me adventure. We have named him Boldizsár Lajos, a purely Hungarian name for a child who is not purely Hungarian, but who nevertheless is a part of this place.
And now, through Boldizsár, I too have become a part of this country. And so ends the sensation of ex-patriotism. Oh, I’ll always be an expat here, but I’m no longer the outsider, looking in with all the freedom the American consul’s wife so relished. I felt the change the moment I sat in the doctor’s office; I just didn’t recognize what it was. Issues once tucked away to be dealt with when real life sets in can’t be pushed back any longer.
When my parents arrive the next day my mother bustles in with the customary congratulations and stock phrases: “Oh what a fine, handsome boy!” But her smile is bittersweet. In Hungary, there is an expression: “One eye cries, while the other eye laughs.” My mother understands what I have only just realized. Not only has my relationship to Hungary deepened, but the physical distance between me and my mother has grown. But as we look down at my son together, we are also delighted. The transition is unavoidable, regardless of where one raises a child. One eye cries, wary and nostalgic, mourning days gone by, while — eagerly anticipating the new challenges and adventures that lie ahead — the other eye joyously laughs.