I was going through “the change”. You know, that time in your life when the two stepdaughters who have been visiting every weekend come to live with you during the week through an amicable custody change. We were a tight family; money was tight, space was tight. For the girls, sharing a bedroom on the weekends had become a trial, but doing so five days a week grew even more so.
The change happened over the summer, which gave us a bit of breathing room, and some much-needed time to adapt. For me, in my late 30’s and working full-time, it was a challenge. I’d known the girls for eight years and we had already knit together a patch-worked yet functional family out of our disparate parts, but we all had to find new rhythms.
I was tired, a tad overwhelmed by things, and found myself intermittently feeling vaguely ill for no discernible reason. I noticed a warm flush creep over me at irregular intervals and wondered if maybe I was experiencing premature menopause. When it persisted for a few weeks, I scheduled an appointment with my doctor. She’d help me get to the bottom of things.
I visited her office in early September and told her my tale. After the prerequisite poking and prodding, she dutifully dispatched me to the lab, indicating they’d mail me the test results. I was surprised by a phone call from her that evening. “Well, we’ve discovered you’re not experiencing premature menopause,” she started. I thought it was curious she felt the need to phone me to tell me this, but there was more. “Quite the contrary, in fact. You’re pregnant.”
Which was a surprise because we had kind of given up on having children of our own. We’d stepped into that ambivalent, bracing space of not-trying-too-hard-but-not-preventing-anything-either four years before, but we’d so far been unsuccessful. I figured that perhaps I was past my progenitive expiration date. We already had two bright, beautiful, and occasionally challenging girls. We were even beginning to wistfully look forward to a time ten years hence when the girls would be grown and gone.
But no; those two words changed everything.
My first reaction was disbelief. How could this happen? I mean, I know how it could happen. After years of research they now know what causes pregnancy. But the question remained, how would I manage this new development? And, moreover, how would I break the news to my husband? You see, this wasn’t one of those figure-out-a-clever-way-to-tell-him times. This wasn’t me figuring out whether I’d tell him by buying a set of onesies and casually leaving them on our bureau, or coyly put a baby name book someplace he’d be bound to see it. This was more like a red-alert claxons-blaring all-hands-on-deck kind of thing. Because I wasn’t just pregnant, it turns out I was actually already three months pregnant.
I guess with all the excitement of having the girls with us more of the time, I’d completely missed any clearly identifiable signs of my condition. Later, friends would tell me I should be grateful, because their first trimester was spent battling a never-ending fugue of nausea and exhaustion, and wasn’t I lucky not to have experienced all that. Frankly, between you and me, I would have felt that a small price to pay for getting a little more advance notice of the impending arrival.
I decided to tell my husband that night as we were getting ready for bed. I figured I was sort of in shock, so he should be in shock, too. He helped me get into this, so the least he could do was help sort this out.
As we were sitting in bed, as clearly and succinctly as I could, I relayed the good doctor’s news, and waited for his response. I noticed a dazed look cross his face, his initial response a breathless and disbelieving “No…..” In fairly short order, though, I was able to convince him that, in the immortal words of Dave Barry, I was not making this up. I’m sure if either of us slept at all that night, it was poorly.
There were, at that point, four of us in a two-bedroom apartment. Where would the baby sleep? What would we tell the girls? And how would I get up the courage to break the news to my employer, a small startup that, to date, had somehow managed to altogether avoid offering any kind of short-term disability program? We looked at one another and, underneath all the questions, very clearly understood that, together, somehow, we could do this. We didn’t know how just yet, but we had six months to figure it out. Of course, in our current state of mind, six months seemed like an extremely short period of time.
We decided to wait a few weeks before we told the girls. We needed to figure out a bunch of things, both to address our own concerns and to answer any of the myriad questions we thought they’d ask. Questions like, “Where will the baby sleep?” and “What are you, crazy?” About the only plus I could think of at that moment was the hope that having a baby around might help them think carefully about how hard parenting is; I mean, nothing should encourage caution in the romance department like a screaming baby projectile vomiting at three o’clock in the morning. The girls were, as expected, incredulous. And, surprisingly, a tad excited.
I did not announce the pregnancy to the general public for several months. I just didn’t know how to tell people. Purchasing ever-looser sweatshirts, I wrestled with the whole notion myself for quite some time, and waited until I could say it without any one of a plethora of emotions escaping unbidden from my face, not the least being a sort of painful wincing. I mean, what would people think? I was old enough that I’d be able to raid my 401K to put him through college if I needed to.
We proceeded to prepare in earnest. Friends gave us baby clothes, nursing shirts, and time-honored advice from their own experience. We bought baby furniture second-hand and somehow managed to cram it all into our bedroom. When we had finished moving in the crib, bureau, and changing table, there was no longer any wall space in our bedroom; every foot was filled with furnishings. The new configuration did have its conveniences, though. The crib was three steps from the foot of the bed. And three steps from the changing table. So were the bureau, the rocker, and the bedroom door. It was convenient, cozy, and arguably claustrophobic.
In all honesty, the whole experience was somewhat claustrophobic. As the months wore on, there was a rising sense of urgency, a hint of panic, and a nagging sensation that there was not quite enough oxygen in the room. I can’t speak for my husband, but the next few months saw time speeding past and suspending itself in dizzying turns. It whirled itself into a big ball of hurry-up-and-wait.
When you see pregnant women on TV, they look happy and peaceful, resting a placid hand on their bellies. I thought a pregnant belly would be soft, but it actually grew quite solid, textural proof of the complex processes within. I got used to the flutters of hiccups and the unexpected twinges of the baby’s ever-stronger kicks. The strangest sensation of all was when the baby chose to turn over completely. The sense of odd almost-pain, accompanied by the knowledge that I was feeling the flip of its tiny shoulders, was utterly bewildering.
Before the ultrasound, we decided that we did not want to find out the baby’s gender before the birth. This brought a touch of whimsy to conversations because, when people asked what we were having, we’d answer, “We’re having a surprise!” Some smiled, and others wondered how we could bear the suspense.
We learned that people seemed to have the habit of naming their baby in utero, usually something like Peanut or Squid. We took to calling the baby Glork, an apt name for an alien destined to arrive in the near future. The ultrasound technician, who obviously delighted in her job, even labeled her scans with the new name.
As my due date approached, the doctor grew concerned with my water weight gain. We had done a great job of planning: me planning for a temporary replacement at work, and us planning for the baby shower and child care during delivery, as we prepared to say farewell to a full night’s sleep. But you know what they say about the best laid plans of mice and men (and mothers). During my ob/gyn visit three weeks before my due date, she took my blood pressure, shook her head, and said, quite clearly, “You’re having this baby today.” To which I replied, and I quote, “What?”
She proceeded to explain that I had pre-eclampsia, which was causing my high blood pressure and severe fluid retention. Left untreated, it could harm both me and the baby. She said the treatment was simple; delivering the baby would mitigate whatever impact it was having on my body’s normal processes.
At that time of day, my husband was at work and the girls were at school, so when I got home the apartment was empty. I thought of all those careful plans I had made as they merrily flew out the window, realizing I had a million things to do. I wasn’t packed for the hospital, I wasn’t ready to leave work, and, to top it all off, my baby would be attending the baby shower externally, rather than internally. I called my husband and explained the situation. Always cool in the clinch, he was supportive and encouraging. I packed and he made after school arrangements for the girls.
As we drove in nervous silence to the hospital, a novel and rather frightening thought occurred to me: one way or the other, the baby that had been growing inside of me for so long would have to get out. The thought brought a sense of frantic helplessness. You know, that kind of feeling you get on the rollercoaster when you hear the kachunk-kachunk-kachunk of the car climbing a ridiculously high incline, knowing full well that in a few short moments that wild, screaming, scrambling feeling will fill your innards for what seems like an eternity, but isn’t.
I suddenly recalled how, during our childbirth class, the instructor had told us to think of our contractions as “strong sensations”, as though somehow recategorizing the pain would make it easier and more comfortable to endure. How could I recategorize this to help me manage my rising sense of panic? I reminded myself that millions of women give birth every year. I’d even seen photos of new moms smiling in the delivery room, glowing with pride, holding a baby who, almost universally, looks like Ernest Borgnine.
They began trying to induce labor shortly after I arrived. The baby, however, had other plans. The next two days floated by in a haze of doctor’s visits, clear liquids, fetal heart monitors, IV tubes, and bad made-for-TV-movies. I vacillated between thinking that labor would somehow be more tolerable than a c-section, and vice versa. On Sunday, the doctor on duty said today was the day, and doubled my Pitocin drip.
Within a few hours, labor started in earnest. I obtained some assistance from the modern medical miracles they offer to remedy the pain of impending motherhood. I was neither too proud nor too old-fashioned to embrace the twin wonders of Nubain and the all-powerful epidural. During contractions, which were, as I suspected, much more like pain than a “strong sensation”, I counted my breathing in and out and squeezed my husband’s fingers until they turned purple at the tips. Though I don’t clearly recall the entire event, he commented later that the only time he heard me come close to swearing was when I muttered, “Jiminy Cricket!”
Of course, my husband was an old hand at this, having been through this process with his first wife twice, as evidenced by my stepdaughters, who were mute testimony to the fact that, however ridiculous the process seems by which pelvic bones magically separate, opening the way for a full-sized baby to emerge, it is something that most women survive, and often willingly choose to do again. However, there was some novelty for him. His first two children were delivered by c-section, being brought into the light of day through an immaculate and calculated clinical process. He later confessed that his experience with me was more like watching Wild Kingdom.
Photos taken after the birth show me looking somewhat like a drowned hamster, a dazed and faraway look in my eyes, my tiny bundle of joy cradled in my exhausted arms. Glork had arrived, in all his glory, and, as his ambassadors to Earth, we welcomed him.