Busy Being Born
It’s 1969 and you are 19, a dreamy girl with her head in books or the clouds. You have gone and gotten yourself pregnant, and the baby’s father is as spacey as you. He is soulful, slender, with dark hair and deep brown eyes. When he plays his violin for you, you feel like the bride soaring through the blue clouds of a Chagall painting.
Even so, you don’t want to get married. You’re angry at your stupid fertile eggs and your naivete about condoms. You don’t know what to do. Reluctantly, you approach your mother. It’s hard to get a moment alone with her—she’s going through her own problems, like finding a place to live and raise your little sister and brothers after filing for divorce from your stepdad. All this while holding down a job and trying to be an artist. You finally tell her one day as the two of you drive to look at her new place.
“Hey, uh, well, I mean, I—I’m pregnant.”
Your mother is eerily calm as she pulls her VW over to the side of the road. She turns off the engine; it ticks like a time bomb. “I’m assuming the father is—?”
“Of course it’s him!”
She shakes her head, staring over the steering wheel. Then sighs deeply. “Have you thought about what you’re going to do?”
“Well, I thought maybe I could—get an abortion, you know? I guess. I mean—”
She bristles, looking straight at you. “No daughter of mine is going to have an abortion.”
The rest of the drive is in silence. You’re shocked, hurt, angry at her rigid stance; all along, you thought she was a Bohemian. Her artist ways. Her spouting of poetry. Her painter pals. But she means it. Because she has always been your ally against your stepfather and because you don’t want to lose her, you pass on the abortion.
The second solution is to leave your hick town. You can’t stay there with a swelling belly. The town is too small; it’s Peyton Place-in-the-Sand. You can hide out somewhere—maybe Santa Fe—for nine months, have the baby, give it up for adoption. This seems like a lonely option. Your mother says she doesn’t have the money to put you up somewhere.
You’re ashamed to tell your best friend. You’re ashamed to tell anyone. You’re feeling pretty much alone in this mess. Finally, you tell the baby’s father. He’s shocked, but gallant. It’ll be okay, he says, and you’re uncertain but relieved. Several days later, he reluctantly offers to marry you. Reluctantly, you accept.
You tell your best friend. She was once the groom’s girlfriend, but they broke up a couple years ago. Actually, she broke up with him and is completely over him. Sometimes, in dark moments, you wonder if your groom has gotten over her.
“This isn’t what I wanted,” you tell her.
“It’s okay, it’ll all work out,” she says, looking a little stunned.
You sniff. “Easy for you to say.”
“There’s going to be a wedding, right?”
You hadn’t considered a celebration. You’d figured on a furtive trip to a justice of the peace.
“Hey, you gotta have a wedding,” she says.
“We don’t have the money.”
“Who cares? Just throw a big party, that’s all.”
You see her point and gradually feel better. You decide to get married outside, under the skies of southern New Mexico, on a Saturday in January, near the Rio Grande and the sand cliffs where, as a girl, you dug for fossils.
On your wedding day, you wake in your family home and know that this will be your last morning in this bedroom, with its peeling wallpaper in circus stripes of burgundy and ivory. You’re not sorry to leave this bungalow, whose weathered exterior can barely contain your family’s fear and anger. But you’re afraid of what you’re getting into. You could just run away, right? Get up out of bed right now and drive off somewhere in your smoke-belching Rambler.
No. You get out of bed, bathe, and put on makeup. Your wedding outfit is one you sewed yourself: a long full skirt of emerald green taffeta. A peasant blouse of iridescent white chiffon. Your best friend comes to your house to pin up your hair. She works for a florist and has made you a wreath of lilies, roses, carnations, daisies, and baby’s breath. This wreath is her blessing to you and the groom. It sits heavily on your head, but as your body heat warms the chilled flowers, they release their fragrance. You don’t know if you look beautiful or messy. Maybe it’s possible to be both.
It’s a warm day in January, and family and friends show up in sweaters and jackets. Folding tables and chairs are set up, food and drink laid out. The groom’s mother—your new mother-in-law!—has made her famous green chile chicken enchiladas. Some of your friends are already drinking, though it’s barely noon. Some of them, including the groom, disappear briefly in crannies around the canyon to smoke pot, and when they rejoin the party, the groom’s grandma, a staunch Baptist, sniffs at them and frowns.
Your mother’s tight-lipped, anxious expression says that you have let her down. You weren’t the only one who had big dreams for yourself. Well, she’s let you down, too, and you haven’t forgiven her yet.
The groom, his brother, and friends are working out the chords to the Beatles’ song you chose. You can barely look at the groom. You feel sick. It’s not morning sickness. It’s the I-Have-Made-A-Hideous-Mistake sickness. You look around. Your green Rambler sits at a distance. You could sneak away. The groom would probably be relieved. He doesn’t really love you. Do you really love him, or did you fall in love with the way his music makes you feel?
Music starts, and people stop their chatter and gather around. The groom’s brother is on guitar, a friend plays the bongos, and another tootles on the sax. Your groom smiles nervously at you and sings:
When I get older losing my hair
Many years from now
Will you still be sending me a valentine…
The guests join in on the chorus:
Will you still need me
Will you still feed me
When I’m 64
He smiles at you when he’s done. You think he does love you, after all, and you think you love him. It seems impossible that the two of you will ever be 64.
The groom’s father is a Unitarian and for some reason has the authority to preside over your wedding. Amid the clapping and chatter and laughing, there’s a flutter in your belly, a tiny thump-a-thump. You’re only three months along—too early for a baby’s kick. But you’re 19—what do you know? You decide at that moment that the child within is saying, Hey, very cool that my old man can play the Beatles. Play me some more. Play for me every night. Play for me, and maybe I’ll leave my perfect world and come hang out with you guys.
You go in for your first prenatal visit and the family doctor pronounces you healthy. “You were built to have babies,” he says, and you’re too embarrassed to tell him that it’s turned out to be more a liability than an asset.
Not one woman you ask will tell the truth about having a baby. They get worried expressions and look away. Apparently, they’ve signed nondisclosure agreements. The act of childbirth—the pain, mainly, is what you want to know about—is not something they want to remember.
You buy Dr. Spock and toss him aside because he’s a dense paperback with tiny type and a patronizing tone. All the baby books assume that your life is pretty much meaningless outside of motherhood. You know this can’t be true but for now, you and your body are captive to pregnancy. You must go with the flow.
You and your husband move into an apartment owned by your father-in-law. You both go to the university, and each of you has a work-study job. Your belly balloons and gets scary tight. You have to rub cocoa butter to keep the skin from cracking. You waddle like a duck, and snore like a horse. You want to have sex, lots of it, but are scared your husband’s penis will poke the baby in the eye.
Your husband joins a band to make extra money on the weekend. Your new friends are other members of the band and hangers-on. The bass player, a lanky, cherry-nosed man who has to be in his 30s, tells you that babies look like boiled monkeys when they’re born. He should know, he says, he’s got two kids, from two different women. You mentally file his observations under “gross and highly suspect information.”
You go through the pregnancy in a daze, scared you’re not ready to be a mother. Yet somehow, the whole baby-planning operation comes together, like your wedding did. A friend throws a shower. Crib, diapers, carrier, bottles. Booties and thermometers. Plastic bathing tubs. Tiny white T-shirts you wish they would make for adults, they’re so soft and sexy. All these things stockpile in your bedroom for the coming Babe-ageddon. The child within is thumping like mad now, doing the twist in your belly. The kicks and lurches are a warning: You’ll have to be hop hop chop chop when baby comes to town.
Your best friend will probably miss the birth because she’s at Woodstock. Morosely, you watch the nightly news, the black-and-white footage of mud-slicked kids—your tribe, damn it!—grooving to the most amazing music ever played on the planet. Sick with envy, you search the TV images for your friend. You think maybe you see her straddling the back of a beautiful, bare-chested guy. Knowing her, she will brag about Woodstock for the next decade.
You and your husband take Lamaze classes. Breathing shallow is easy. Whether out of anxiety or excitement, you’ve been breathing shallow your entire life.
The first man lands on the moon. You watch the astronaut bop and glide on the lunar crust, and you think, surely, isn’t this a good time for baby to be born?
But baby’s not ready yet. Baby’s busy scheming up ways to make you miserable and joyful, ways to blast your preconceptions. Baby’s got an agenda; baby’s making lists, checking them twice; baby’s got friends in high places; baby’s getting fitted for a velvet suit and satin pumps; baby’s fielding phone calls from agents, producers, publicists; baby’s taking reservations and is booked out for the next 18 years; and if you’re extremely fortunate, baby might talk to you after it no longer needs you.
That day, you think at first the pain in your gut is because you ate a cantaloupe too close to the rind for breakfast. But the pain keeps cycling through morning and afternoon, until even a naive 20-year-old knows what’s happening. Your husband drives to the hospital. You’re swabbed and shaved and laid out flat for delivery. Nurse gets doctor. Your husband is issued a hospital gown and mask so he can watch, his face as white as the gown. Pain mingles with excitement; fear and anticipation meld. You wait and wait and wait, contract and dilate, over and over, and yes, the painful pressure mounts, but you refuse to let the doctor put you out. No way are you missing this show. More waiting and waiting and hey, what happened to all your Lamaze lessons? You’re huffing and puffing like the Big Bad Wolf, drenched in sweat, stretched and mauled until you lament you’ll never be whole again, and then all of a sudden, baby is ready and nothing’s gonna stop her from coming into this world.
Well, the bass player was wrong. The baby doesn’t look like a boiled monkey. Oohing friends and family come and go. Ascertaining the baby’s family resemblance is one of their favorite games. Do you care? No. She doesn’t look like you. She doesn’t look like your husband. Even now, she’s her own person. She’s a little monarch, really, with a regal scowl and healthy lungs she’s not shy about using.
In these first few months, though she disrupts sleep and dreams, you’re besotted with her. You think about your mother and stepdad—the wars they waged openly or under your radar have left you uncertain of their affections. You vow to love your daughter unconditionally for as long as you both shall live. No disapproving frowns or frosty silences from you!
That’s about all you’re sure of. The daze you felt during pregnancy continues. It’s not like you woke up the day after her birth with a profound sense of maternal responsibility. You know how to care for her needs because you logged years of babysitting your younger siblings. But what does it mean to be your child’s mother?
You can’t answer that big question because you’re too busy living your new life, too busy being awed as the baby figures out hers. It’s a struggle to be the parents Her Majesty deserves. Every day is improv day as you and your husband juggle school, feeding schedules, work, dirty diapers, and the rent. At night, you read aloud to her. “Bedtime for Frances,” “Good Night Moon,” “Corduroy,” and “Where the Wild Things Are.” Your husband plays the Beatles and Beethoven for her on his violin, and her chubby thighs pump. Her little hands chop the air excitedly, as if she’s conducting him. And one night, her unfocused gaze zeroes in on you and your husband. She suddenly smiles at you and your heart soars. In that moment, you understand what it means to be her mother.