Polly Duff Kertis
I knew I wasn’t pregnant (I’d know if I was pregnant—mothers always knew), but I took the test anyway. Gary and I used some protection. We relied on the “precautions” high school sex-ed teachers warned us against. The main thing was we weren’t trying, and the movies, books, and message boards full of infertile women led us to believe that even if we were making a concerted effort to conceive, it would take a while. We planned on it taking years. Maybe we thought our intentions would serve as contraception. When my period didn’t show up, I took a home test because a friend suggested I do it for peace of mind.
I’d seen pregnancy test boxes in drugstores millions of times, but I’d never imagined actually receiving the silent message: This is the beginning of something you have never done before; this is the beginning of someone you have never met before; this is the beginning of someone who wasn’t anyone before. When I tried to wrap my blasted-out brain around all this, the meaning of beginning stretched. The idea of before dissolved. My body distorted beneath its own skin. My identity started growing an additional set of organs and limbs and eyelashes. I wasn’t bouncing up and down and clapping as I imagined all other positive-symbol receivers were. I was toeing the edge of the cliff, still considering whether to look down. From the wind howling around below me, I sensed the valley was deep. It was not a long-awaited relief.
The doctor, the gynecologist who’d prescribed birth control pills to me as a teenager, came in and said, “This is fun!” Then she slipped a dildo-shaped device into my vagina. “So, your levels indicate that you’re actually two months pregnant.” My insides were instantly streaming in black and white on a screen next to the table. She pointed to a dark spot on a gray cloud the size and shape of a peanut and said, “That’s an eye.” She looked at me and pointed to the air and said, “That’s a heartbeat.” We both watched the screen while the tiny heart thumped, and my grown-up-sized heart listened, mute. The doctor probed around with the lubed wand. “You can still terminate if you want,” she said without looking at me. I said, “No, no, no,” in a voice not quite my own. “We want kids.” We’d talked about it as something we’d do someday in the distant future: after we’d traveled together more (to the Albanian Riviera, to Istanbul, to Greece, to Nova Scotia), after we’d moved out of Brooklyn to the house of our dreams in the Hudson Valley, after I’d published at least one book. “We’re getting married.” It was a decision that still felt surreal to me—we’d known each other only a year before getting engaged, we hadn’t even chosen a date for the wedding yet. “We want kids,” I said again, and hearing it alongside the soundtrack of my future kid’s heart, I was almost convinced. But this movie was moving too fast for me to follow. It occurred to me that before we had kids, we’d have a baby. The doctor smiled and said, “I hope your dress has an empire waist.”
“Are you excited?” was the repeated reaction from cashiers, colleagues, neighbors, acquaintances, friends, and family. I usually nodded enthusiastically. This I could fake. But, in rare moments of honesty towards the end of my pregnancy, I confessed that I was feeling pretty numb. My mother assured me that I would feel completely filled with love when the baby was born.
I missed pregnant sex. It had been physically cumbersome, but new-parent sex was emotionally cumbersome—there was a bulging mess of unsexy distraction between us: Is the lotion working to help the baby’s rash? Is the lotion making the baby’s rash worse? Is the baby warm enough? Is the baby too warm? Are the baby’s warm clothes getting pulled up over his face and suffocating him? When will my hair stop falling out? When will I stop eating at least one chocolate chip cookie every day? Why is my hair still falling out? Where will I get tomorrow’s chocolate chip cookie? Are my boobs leaking? Was that sound the baby? When the FUCK will my FUCKING HAIR stop falling out?
Gary did not say he’d always wanted to have sex with a mom.
With the baby in my lap, I spoke over the baby’s head to Gary, “I’m going to find some cool porn that I like.” But I never got around to it.
I read about sex. I considered buying a book called Sexy Mama. I clicked to put it in my shopping cart, and the baby started crying. I remembered that I wasn’t supposed to care about sex, that a mom wasn’t supposed to care about anything but her baby. Frustrated, I deleted it from my shopping cart and turned to the baby to figure out what he needed and give it to him.
I read that talking about sex doesn’t help make sex better. Because this sentence was so counterintuitive to me, I read it again. Then I stopped talking about it and it got better.
Breast-feeding did not cultivate a cuddly bond. Because it hurt so much, I felt like a tortured prisoner chained to the couch. I kept things to occupy myself within arms’ reach in a little life preserver of diversion resources—the TV remote, books about babies and how to take care of them that I devoured one after another, a novel that I never read more than a paragraph of, and my phone. (Even though I worried about the baby’s cognitive development being infiltrated by the Wi-Fi waves, contact with the world outside my apartment was a treat I felt I deserved.) My mom sent me a hemorrhoid pillow I was too embarrassed to order for myself, which was almost more embarrassing than ordering it for myself.
At night, I fell asleep after nursing, and the baby would wake me up two hours later to hurt me again.
I wanted to want to feed him. I would put the baby down as soon as he stopped eating and look at anything but him, leave the room, pretend he didn’t exist, return to my previous reality for a delicious instant before he cried out, demanding that I return to the present, where I was an illiterate, constipated couch potato. This identity diverged dramatically from the image the world had promised me: a cozy and smiling new mom. Things shift. I felt like I’d never write again, never be my parents’ child again, never be sexy again, never eat hot food again, never read a novel again, never find my way back to myself. Ever.
When I fed him at 3:00 a.m. one night, his stomach creaked against mine like a haunted ship passing another in the night.
I was amazed when such a tiny butt produced its first gigantic farts.
The baby cried at bedtime while we sang Margaritaville to him for the millionth time and walked him around the living room for two hours at which point, I argued, it was time to feed him again. Gary handed me the baby and slammed our bedroom door so hard the dishes rattled and my bones screamed along with the baby.
Then one night the crying stopped and everyone felt better for a little while.
I called a friend once I got to work, and she told me that humans are biologically wired to rotate when falling to pad the fall of an infant in their arms. I decided to believe her, and this small choice started to make me feel like a person who does things on purpose.
Things shift. He sleeps through the night. He finds jokes in the least expected things—Gary’s loud sneeze, the sound of me saying gesundheit!, water dripping from the bathtub faucet, the way a plant bounces when he touches it. He looks at his books all by himself. He crawls, he stands, he walks. He only needs my help sometimes. We don’t measure his age in months anymore. He lifts his hand into the beam of illuminated dust floating in our living room and discovers magic. On the morning of his first birthday, his eyelashes flutter against my skin while he nurses.
I wonder if things happen for a reason. My son wonders about everything. Or maybe not. Maybe to him everything just unquestionably is. I watch him dip his finger again up into the glittering shaft of sunlight and decide that’s it. I dip my finger into the fuzzy memory of his first silent message to me, I exist. It ripples under my touch. When I pull away, it settles.
Kimi Cunningham Grant
Stash a reasonable amount of nostalgia in a string-topped bag from a resort you once visited: Fuzzy Bee, the turquoise toy with buttons you bought the first time you ventured into Walmart without another adult, a few sleepers, a blue onesie with doggies. Get rid of the rest. Give it all to your best friend who is having twins the same week you’re having your uterus removed.
Lois Ruskai Melina
By the time I was 26, the adhesions reached into every part of my gut. I imagined them like the gauze cobwebs people buy to stretch over their shrubs at Halloween, one strand winding around an ovary then reaching for my colon, another filament choking a fallopian tube, another my vagina, my internal organs pulled out of whack.
Holding Ella close, I’ve never felt a love like this, warm and glowing, like being flooded with liquid gold from the inside out. But within a few minutes, the spell breaks and she begins to cry. I try to nurse her. She latches on and pulls off over and over again. As her cries fill the room, my jaw locks tight and a sour taste floods my mouth. What kind of mother can’t soothe her own baby?
At the crest of a steep hill, my daughter pauses, scents the wind, raises her arms overhead, a brave silhouette against a massive foreign sky. I trudge onward, count my breaths, in, out, forehead and cheeks hot with exertion, blood pumping near the surface. My feet and toes are numb. I am hungry, sticky, and tired and I have never felt better.
It’s a discussion we bring up often. Are we going to have more kids or are we done at two? It’s impossible to come to a decision. Because it’s not just from day to day we are back and forth, it’s from hour to hour, minute to minute, even second to second.
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