My boyfriend and I were not trying to get pregnant. Still prone to tantrums myself, I had enough trouble looking after me and had no interest in anything inconvenient, most unfortunately condoms. But like it or not, and I didn’t, we were having a baby. A curious person might ask, “What about the ‘alternatives?’” and I would tell that person that I seriously considered them but ultimately allowed my own inertia to determine my course.
I’ll be the first to say I didn’t play nice on the schoolyard of pregnancy. Somewhere in my fourth month, a well-meaning aunt thrust a motherhood journal at me meant to hold all the tender thoughts that might flit through my head as my belly distended. I opened it to the page that read “When I found out I was pregnant, the first thing I did was ____________.” Unversed as I was in the process, I was relatively sure that the litany of obscenities I’d screamed in the bathroom that day the stick turned pink was not what the makers of the happiness journal intended for their pages. I flung the whole thing into a dark cupboard where it languished, memory-free, a symbol of the kind of pregnancy games I would not play.
I didn’t buy maternity clothes; I got by wearing Mark’s jeans and big t-shirts. My reaction to the whole racket of “accessories for baby” was as much my standard fuck-the-establishment posture as it was my denial of the fact that I’d have a baby who needed gear. As far as I was concerned, we’d need three things: clothes to keep the kid warm, diapers to keep him dry and a big pair of tits to keep him fed. If motherhood was going to ambush me this way, it would happen on my terms; I did two shows while I was pregnant, the second of which closed during my eighth month and in which I played a five-year-old in a petticoat. Despite Mark’s vehement protestations, I sometimes still insisted on walking home over a mile through the Chicago winter nights from the waitressing job I obstinately worked til the day of reckoning.
Unlike most dramatized versions I’ve seen, my baby’s birth did not culminate in my bringing him to my breast so that I could smile, weak but blissed-out, into the camera. I had vomited my way through over eight hours of Pitocin-induced labor with zero pain-relieving drugs, and I am here to tell you that while babies appear to be relatively small creatures, when one is CLAWING ITS WAY OUT OF YOUR VAGINA you understand on a cellular level how misleading appearances can be. The moment I was free of him and the agony he’d inflicted on me brought only the sense of triumph one might feel after vanquishing an alien of any sort. I was covered in blood and gore, wild-eyed and primed for further battle; I was victorious, but I was not in love.
Two nights later, a nurse came to release us from the hospital, and Mark left with the baby to sign some papers while I stayed alone in the room to gather the last of our things. Bent over the suitcase, I caught sight of my reflection in the large window that looked down onto Michigan Avenue, Christmas lights reflecting off the snow covered street, and I began to weep. It wasn’t joy or sadness that overtook me in that moment; I was frozen with terror. It was unimaginable to me that these doctors, these people sworn to heal and protect, would make me walk out of the hospital with this tiny person in my care. I knew nothing about parenting and frankly, I didn’t want to. As we drove the short, slippery distance to our little apartment in Lincoln Park, I stared out the window and wondered at the restaurants and bars full of carefree people who seemed not to know that the world had been irrevocably changed.
While marriage was not on the agenda for Mark and me, we intended to live as a family. But I can tell you from having been there that mothering a newborn is a solitary activity no matter the number of people with whom you surround yourself. Yes, it’s important to have a partner there to help, someone with whom to share the kind of desperate loneliness that can only exist when you have an infant in your care. And Mark was an amazing father from the first, going above and beyond his 50% line on the contribution chart. But I was the only mother this baby had, and the responsibility of that regularly sucked the breath out of me, pushed my head under some invisible water line, up through which I’d thrash, gasping for air.
Despite my quiet panic, I nursed my baby on demand, practiced “attachment parenting,” made room for him in our bed. Fat and affable, he reminded me of a miniature Paul Sorvino. But my concern for his well-being was instinctual; emotional attachment still eluded me. I know this might make me sound like a dickhead, but consider this: I barely knew him, and for as much as he demanded of me, he gave VERY LITTLE in return. The truth of the matter is that newborns can be the most selfish assholes on the planet when they want to be. They move in, take over, and scream orders non-stop regardless of how utterly exhausted and confused the people they’re screaming at might be. They simply don’t care. So you tell me, who’s the dickhead?
But as the chubby interloper grew, so did his ability to connect with the world and, by extension, with me. Now, when his father popped up from behind the bed to surprise him, he would belly laugh until he looked about to burst. Now, when he was hungry, he’d show me one of the signs we’d been teaching him: more, or nurse, or eat. Then, toward the end of one of those warm, fall Chicago days when it seems like the onset of winter might surrender to the sun and change its mind about coming at all, I sat nursing my boy. I was spent, praying silently that the little one would surrender to sleep and give me the one bit of peace I had yearned for all day, when slowly he raised his fat little hand and held my face as gently as if it was made from porcelain. He stared unflinchingly into my eyes, and I stared back, and as we remained that way I felt a shift under me big as if the earth had opened up. I recognized myself in the reflection of those deep, brown pools and again I cried as I had that dark, dark night days after his birth. But this time my tears were borne of a sudden, absolute gratitude that Wyatt had insisted on joining my life, that I was his.
Wyatt is ten now, and he still needs more than I can give him on a regular basis; I still occasionally think my kid’s being a dickhead. But in those years together, I have come to love my boy with a level of devotion usually attributed to fundamentalist terrorist-types living in caves. We take walks and talk about big concepts like kindness and donuts and the solar system. He asks me questions I can’t begin to answer and regularly stuns me with the person he has become and who I have become because of him. Recently, a moment just such as this inspired the amateur poet in me to write:
By day, he's a flash of light,
top of head reaching to my cheek (!) and movingsofastIcannotkeepup.
and once again he is four,
all lashes and sweet breath,
arm slung over my neck,
and I am,
once again, sunk with love.
© 2010 Deborah Puette