When my husband Brian and I decided to start a family, I approached conception with the intensity of a NASA engineer calculating the ideal date for a space launch. I recorded my daily waking temperature. I observed whether my cervical fluid was tacky like rubber cement or stretchy like raw egg white. I duly noted each act of love by penciling a dot on the “coital record” line of my fertility chart. I usually didn’t even bother to have an orgasm. That dot on the chart was my pay-off. I didn’t stop to ask if it might bother Brian to be a means to a dot.
Once after Brian and I had just had sex, I half-jokingly hoisted my hips in the air and bicycled my legs above my head.
“Go, little sperm, go!” I encouraged.
Brian was already out of bed, pulling on his jeans.
“Do you want me to swing you around by your ankles to get centrifugal force working in our favor, too?” he asked.
When it became clear that I hadn’t conceived during that cycle, I sat at our kitchen table poring over the chapter “If You Don’t Succeed At First” in The Art of Natural Family Planning. I looked up, my brow furrowed.
“You know, we should probably have sex every other day once I start getting the more-fertile cervical mucus, instead of every day, to maximize your sperm count.”
Brian grimaced. I suppose it would be a rare man indeed who would find the coupling of the words “cervical mucus” and “we should have sex” a big turn-on.
“Can’t we just leave things to chance? Do what feels good and let nature take its course?” he asked.
No. We could not.
The fact was, I had a rock-solid plan to give our baby the perfect childhood, the one I wished I would have had, and I was eager to start putting that plan into practice. I would give birth to my baby naturally by the age of 32, 33 at the latest, so I could give birth to a second child before my fertility began to drop and my chances of birth defects and miscarriage began to rise. I would breastfeed on demand well into toddlerhood or beyond, carry and hold my baby constantly, and sleep with him or her beside me. Rather than parking my baby in a playpen or in front of the TV, I would build our relationship through plentiful one-on-one play and conversation. My promise to my yet-to-be-conceived child? “I will accept you exactly as you are.”
It was crystal-clear to me: if I followed through on my plan, there was simply no way my child and I could live in anything less than perfect peace and harmony.
For six months, I watched the temperature line on my fertility chart rise and then fall again, a sign that I had ovulated but not gotten pregnant during that cycle. No rocket launch that month. We were still grounded. I got my hopes up especially high in November. Maybe, I thought, we would really have something to be grateful for that Thanksgiving. I spent the holiday choking back tears over the mashed potatoes and gravy.
In January, I decided to ease up a little on the obsessive charting. I stopped taking my temperature so I wouldn’t have to watch that temperature line drop again right before my period started. By the end of that month, my period was late. My breasts were sore.
Maybe, I thought, just maybe something really was happening this time.
Brian was out of town for work. Every night on the phone, I gave him the update: still no period.
“Well,” he said, sounding nervous but excited, “we’ll just take it one step at a time and see what happens.”
I promised him I’d wait until the day he got back to take a pregnancy test.
It snowed the day of his return. Instead of sitting in our apartment staring out the window, waiting for his car to pull up, I decided to make myself useful and go shovel our sidewalk and driveway. I might be pregnant, I thought, but I could still do manual labor, yessiree. I’d lived most of my adult life in places like Arkansas and Southern Illinois, where I hadn’t even bothered to own a snowscraper; after five years in St. Paul, the snow and cold still held an exotic charm for me.
When Brian came home, the two of us stood in the driveway hugging and kissing hello, our parkas rustling against one another, his mustache and beard tickling my face.
“Well,” he said, gesturing toward the house, “shall we?”
“Pretty soon,” I said. “I’m almost done out here, so I may as well finish. If that test says what I think it’s going to say, the shoveling might get forgotten.”
Brian’s eyebrows rose. I’ve never been much good at delaying gratification. But he couldn’t argue with my good sense. He went upstairs to put down his bags and wait for me.
Once the work was done, I leaned back, my hands on my hips, and stared a while at the light snow still falling. The bare trees looked like wet black ink streaks against the cloudy sky. That test was only going to confirm what my body had been telling me for days. But the test would still be an important marker, delineating an unmistakable Before and After in our lives.
Out there in the cold, I savored the last few moments of my old life. Then I put the shovel away and headed upstairs.
In the bathroom, two pink lines materialized almost immediately in the pregnancy test window, but I looked away and fled the room, afraid those two lines might be a fluke. I didn’t even mention the lines to Brian. He and I sat holding hands on our living room couch, waiting for his digital watch timer to go off. When it beeped, we smiled at each other nervously and headed back to the bathroom. We leaned over the sink where I’d left the test and peered at it, holding our breath.
Two pink lines. Holy shit and hallelujah. Two pink lines.
I snatched up the test and we went back out to the couch to sit down while it all sank in. I felt shy and shaky, unable to quite meet my husband’s eyes. After all that calculated striving to get pregnant, a bit of him and a bit of me were now entwined and growing inside my body. Now I found myself wondering who this bearded stranger next to me really was.
Craving the familiar comfort of warm skin on skin, we ended up chucking off our clothes and making nervous, celebratory love on the couch. For the first time in weeks, I came easily.
Afterwards, cuddled up to Brian with my head on his shoulder, a sudden, startling worry crossed my mind. I lifted my head and frowned.
“Do you think that the orgasm might, I don’t know, shake the baby off or something?” I asked. I felt foolish as soon as I’d said it, but that didn’t stop me from wanting a reassuring answer anyway.
Brian smiled and kissed my temple. “I think the baby’s a whole lot sturdier than that,” he said.
Pregnant, I felt both more powerful and more vulnerable than I’d ever felt before. My body had become a construction zone, a site of monumental growth and change, and I took my responsibilities toward my baby seriously. I faithfully gagged down my six daily prenatal vitamins. I monitored my intake of protein down to the last gram and counted up my green leafy vegetables and whole grains as carefully as I’d monitored my fertility signs when I was trying to get pregnant. My belly mushroomed prodigiously. My navel swelled like an overripe plum.
I fancied myself pretty cute in my hip hand-me-down maternity clothes, doing warrior pose with the other pregnant ladies in my prenatal yoga class. But with Brian, I felt shy. I knew my new gourd-like body was not the one he’d fallen for. I’d hoped Brian would be one of those fathers-to-be who offer their pregnant wives nightly foot rubs and tearily tell them how beautiful they look. I was hoping he’d the be the type to hold extended in utero conversations with our progeny, his face at belly-level. But to my disappointment and bewilderment, I could barely interest him in even touching my belly. At night, curled up against him in bed, I’d nudge him in the back with my belly and wait for a response. Finally, disappointed, I’d speak up.
“Don’t you want to feel the baby kick?”
“Sure,” he sighed–half-heartedly, it seemed to me. Often, he said, what felt like strong, unmistakable jabs to me were still indistinct little flutterings to him.
One night I tried to maneuver his hand to the spot where I was feeling the most action, a spot that forced him to reach over my body and tuck his hand beneath my side.
“It’s too awkward for me to get my hand in the right place,” he said, slipping his hand out from under me. “I still can’t really feel anything, any way.
Trying to prepare myself mentally for what was to come, I anxiously devoured books with titles like The Hidden Changes of Motherhood and The Price of Motherhood. Over and over, the message that boomed out at me was that motherhood would, at best, lead to increased marital dissatisfaction and post-partum depression, and at worst, end in divorce and destitute single parenthood. Having a happy marriage after the baby arrived seemed to be about as likely as scoring a lottery jackpot.
Evenings, I peered over my dire reading material at Brian, who was usually engrossed in a woodworking magazine or home improvement manual, plotting what he needed to do next to fix up our newly purchased, late-Victorian foursquare. Was he as committed to fatherhood as I hoped he was? Was he still committed to me? If I was honest with myself, I had to admit that I really didn’t think he’d divorce me after the baby came. He was too much of a straight arrow for that, too devoted to honoring his promises. But I could very easily imagine him checking out emotionally, withdrawing into his basement wood shop or behind the pages of a thick technical journal.
Weekend after weekend, I begged him to go do something fun with me, go dancing or to a movie or for a hike, things we used to do before we’d bought the house, but he insisted there were too many tasks to get done before the due date.
“But we need to make sure we’re in good shape before the baby comes,” I said. “That’s part of our foundation, too.”
No matter. He stayed absorbed in his to-do list.
I kept my own lists. I compiled a list of to-dos that let me pretend I felt competent and on top of things: ask midwife about post-birth procedures with baby, find a pediatrician, ask about water birth options, call La Leche League, get signed up for infant CPR, do research and make decisions about immunization and circumcision. Prompted by a guide to natural childbirth, I drew a picture of my biggest fears about motherhood. In the picture I drew, I was being swallowed by a monstrously oversized baby with tears streaming down its cheeks. All that was visible of me was my head and one outstretched hand. My mouth was a cartoonish O of terror, my eyes wide. I drew Brian calmly reading a newspaper in the far corner of the drawing, almost off the page entirely.
I blinked at the picture, then added another item to my list: “Find a therapist ASAP.”
The one I found was a poet who specialized in working with mothers.
“What are you feeling most afraid of this week?” she asked me after our first few sessions.
It was hard to put it into words. I fumbled to answer.
“I worry that being a mother is going to make me this boring, frumpy drudge who drives a minivan,” I said.
Usually Suzanne was pretty good at maintaining the therapist’s poker face, but I saw a twitch of something at my words–disapproval? Dislike? I wasn’t sure. Perhaps she was simply saddened that I had absorbed the stereotypes about motherhood so thoroughly. Perhaps she had a minivan herself. I knew she was a mother.
The fear of minvans was really only a surface fear. Beneath it was an even longer list, a list a lot like this:
I am never going to write again after the baby comes.
I am going to disappear and have no identity except as a mother.
I will lose all my friends who don’t have children.
Brian and I will morph into Ozzie and Harriet.
I will morph into Anne Sexton and be sent to a mental hospital.
Brian and I will get divorced and I’ll end up an impoverished single
I am going to die before this baby is born or soon after.
I am contributing to global warming and over-population by having a baby.
I will not be able to survive the sleep-deprivation.
I will be a bad mother.
My child will someday resent me the way I resent my mother.
“When I think of my mother,” I wrote in my journal, “my heart feels like a clenched fist.” It didn’t occur to me until much later that I might have to unclench that fist in my chest before I could have any hope of being anything like the mother I wanted to be.
It was a gray, rainy Summer Solstice the day I got the one and only ultrasound of my pregnancy.
I’d assumed I wouldn’t bother with an ultrasound. But when my midwife had asked if I wanted to schedule one, I’d surprised myself by blurting yes.
Brian sat in a chair at the foot of the bed, too far away to touch.
The radiology technician spread a clear jelly on my stomach and moved the sensor back and forth across my abdomen. I glimpsed the blurry gray outlines of a baby resolving out of the electronic haze, and tears streamed out of my eyes, just as they had the first time I heard the gallop of my baby’s heartbeat through the Doptone.
With his computer cursor, the technician pointed out the curve of the baby’s skull, the cloudy blur of the brain nested inside the bones.
“How does the brain look? Does it seem to be developing normally?” I asked anxiously.
“The radiologist will talk to you about all that,” the technician said, squinting at the screen. “I just take the pictures. The doctor does the interpreting. You don’t want to know what the sex is, is that right?”
“That’s right. We want it to be a surprise,” I told him.
“That shouldn’t be a problem. We usually have to point the genitals out to parents any way, and even then it’s usually hard for them to tell what they’re seeing.”
A baby on ultrasound is not a solid thing. The radio waves turn its skin transparent and filmy, so that what you see does not look like a baby, but more like a skeleton draped with tissue paper, pulsing organs showing through. The technician maneuvered the mouse to click on different parts of the baby’s image on the monitor. A point and click and some quick typing, and suddenly there was a box around a murky image on the screen and a label: left kidney, right kidney, each chamber of the tiny pulsing heart.
Another click of the mouse, and the technician had measured the diameter of the baby’s head.
So begins the round of tests and evaluations and comparisons, the plotting on a graph of averages, that we all face, all our lives.
Why, I thought, were we not down on our knees in awe at what we were seeing? Shouldn’t there be a prayer, a moment of silence? The longer the technician pointed and clicked, the more apologetic I felt toward the baby. It felt as if we were trespassing, peering in to a darkness we weren’t meant to penetrate.
Straining to make out the baby through the effervescent images on-screen, I mentally carried on a condensed version of the debate about ultrasound I’d researched, mostly on-line: no conclusive evidence that it’s harmful. Some evidence that the radio waves might raise the temperature in the fetus’s tissues, perhaps enough to cause cell damage. Back and forth darted the arguments: It’s probably fine. Maybe it’s not. Sorry, sorry, I silently apologized to my child. We’ll be out of here soon. We won’t bother you much longer.
Suddenly the baby’s mouth opened into a wide black hole.
“Oh my God,” I thought. “The baby’s screaming.” My breath stuck in my throat. My heart seized.
The technician chuckled. “Cute.”
Why wasn’t he turning off the machine and rushing to find a doctor? My baby was in agony. There was no time to lose.
The technician glanced over at my stricken face.
“Didn’t you see that?” he said with a smile. “The baby just yawned.”
I expected a lengthy conference with the radiologist in which he’d expound on what a beautiful baby I had–what a splendid brain, what a wondrously made body. I wanted a lecture on prenatal development and fetal neurology. Instead, the doctor met us in the waiting room, declared everything looked good and sent us on our way with two ghostly black-and-white images of the baby in a manila envelope imprinted with the words “My First Baby Pictures.”
Brian and I were quiet on the way home, both of us digesting what had just happened. I peered at the pictures again and again, unable to imagine what my baby would actually look like.
As Brian steered on to the exit ramp toward our house, I tried to pester an emotional response out of him.
“Aren’t you at least a little bit excited?” I asked.
“Of course I am,” he said, looking hurt and annoyed. “I’m just tired.” He had been up late the night before preparing a presentation for work.
The truth was, I didn’t feel all that excited, either. I was, more than anything, still dazed by the oddity of seeing my baby floating on a computer screen, his or her parts clicked on and labeled with detached clinical precision.
It was only after Brian had dropped me off at home and left for work that I could stop focusing on his reaction long enough to figure out what my reaction was: guarded relief.
“We’re a good team,” I told the baby again and again, stroking the warm curve of my belly, reassuring myself each time I said the words.
Later that day, I was driving down University Avenue, the urban heart of St. Paul, past the KFC and the White Castle at Lexington, past the Unbank and Hoa Bien Vietnamese and the City Church with its marquee reading, “Be an organ donor. Give your heart to Jesus.” My windshield wipers swiped at a spattering of rain.
“Writer’s Almanac” was on the radio, and Garrison Keillor ended by reciting Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese.” I’d read the poem before, but I’d never heard it recited out loud.
You do not have to be good.
You just have to let the wild animal of your body love what it loves.
I burst into tears. These were words I wanted my child to be able to live by, even if I’d never figured out how.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting–
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
I didn’t realize back then how much of my parenthood would consist of preventing my children from letting the wild animals of their bodies love what they loved. I didn’t know how often I would wish, in exasperation, that they could just behave, stop whining, stop screaming, stop grabbing toys from each other, stop butting me in the stomach with battering ram skulls or whapping me in the face with hard little elbows or growling and shaking their fists at well-intentioned strangers who just wanted to tell them how cute they were. I didn’t know how fiercely I would struggle to reconcile their desires with my own, or how often I would fear that none of us would ever find our place in the family of things.
But no matter. In that innocent moment driving down University, I was sure a poem had handed me the secret of happiness, and with my healthy, perfectly formed baby turning inside me, everything seemed blessedly, wonderfully simple.