PL annoys me by taking my boxer shorts to wear under her dresses—her own underwear doesn’t fit properly any more. It may sound cute, but I believe I should wear the underpants in the family.
My colleague with the risky pregnancy has to take the morning off to accompany his wife for an amnio. They had a previous miscarriage and she has had some sort of blood clot during this pregnancy already, so he is understandably a little flipped. As it turns out, the amnio is delayed after the doctor sees the sonogram.
Apparently the baby isn’t fully formed yet and something isn’t quite fused, so they have to delay the procedure for a few more weeks, otherwise it would be like putting a matchstick into a half-baked Betty Crocker cake. I tell him how nervous we had been, waiting for our results, and how, in retrospect, our fears were overblown over nothing. As I speak, I doubt my advice and experience means much to him. His situation seems genuinely scary. Boy, we’re lucky.
Sometimes I wonder if I’ll think back to these days with enormous regret someday, perhaps because something might have happened to the baby and I may be forced to confront all the dreams and hopes I had for him, feelings I might have to bury.
And perhaps, less dramatically but more poignantly, I will regret it because I might have failed to live up to all those dreams of being a good father, because fatherhood may be much more difficult than I think.
I worry that my fantasies of playing tag around the house, of wrestling, of teaching my boy to identify breeds of dogs, of showing him my favorite movies, of having man-to-man chats, will all be crushed under my workload, or my waning interest, or my inabilities, or some other mundane calamity. I hope not. I hope I don’t look back on this year and feel bittersweet, saddened by my own idealism. I feel that way sometimes when I think about attitudes I had in college, attitudes that proved to be impractical or misinformed but were so filled with passion and idealism at the time.
I very much want to be a good father; I feel so much love for the little creature on the other side of that fleshy wall (what a dreadful thing to call my sweet wife’s sexy stomach), and I have yet to meet him. I’ve looked everywhere for how to do it well. My own parent’s guidance is often suspect. Books seem to be missing some thing crucial. My friends are ignorant. How badly will I fuck it up?
While they’re standing out there on the ice all winter, do Emperor penguins obsess about these things too?
We rehearsed some of our birthing exercises tonight, concluding with a hypnotic relaxation technique and a back massage that sends Patti almost immediately to sleep. She has been quite hoarse and has had a cough brought on by overwork and undersleep.
While we are doing the more vigorous exercises and Patti is still conscious, we talk about the mechanism of birth described in our workbook. I ask Patti if she is very worried about the pain and she says that the only thing she worries about is that she will be goobery during labor, a howling, blood-smeared Linda Blair, and that I will cease to like her.
As she sleeps (she has to work more tomorrow), I watch and tape a segment on 20/20 about the latest thing, giving birth in a Jacuzzi (talk about circularity!). It is sort of interesting to see how the water affects things but far more interesting is what the birth process seems to be like. I suppose I’ve seen films of it before but never paid them much mind. To see the woman grimacing, veins bulging all over her head, lips thin and bitten, tendons rippling, and then, pow!, a baby pops out—it’s quite moving. Still, it could be a film on really bad constipation.
Under water, the babies still look like fetuses, floating in fluid and tethered by the umbilical cord. Within seconds, they are hauled out and start to wave their fingers and open their eyes and become babies. Fetuses seem so alien and babies so familiar that it was shocking to see that transformation before my eyes.
Birth, it seems, is really just a change of address.
Before PL heads out for her shoot, we watch the underwater birth tape again. When I watched it last night, I was a little hesitant to have her see it in case the sight of blood clouding the water or the mother’s tendon-popping, vein-bulging routine would freak her out. I hate when I get overly protective like that; I should know better that she is at least as hardy as I am, and sure enough, she thinks the whole thing is cute and not at all as scary as I did.
PL tells me she thinks she is going to have to miss an upcoming doctor’s appointment as well as our first birth class because she will be shooting late.
“You go,” she says.
“Uh, I’m not actually going to be giving birth and I doubt Dr. Garber would be very pleased to see me alone. Maybe she’ll give me a pelvic. If we miss one class, well, that’s a quarter of our whole education.”
She agrees to miss some of the shoot but reluctantly. She’s always convinced that if she lets her end down one tiny bit, asserts her needs at all—in short, is pregnant—she will anger and disappoint the people she’s working with. I’m glad she’s changing her priorities and I think much of the motivation is physical—she simply doesn’t have the stamina any more. All this week, she has collapsed as soon as she gets home.
Patti gives me some new stationery and I am inspired to write a letter to Pipsi. She just lives a mile or so away but the sentiments I want to express seem like they call for more than a phone call or an email and I don’t really think I could get them out in person.
I tell her many things I’ve never said to her before. I thank her, in spite of all the chaos of our lives, for being a good mother to me and to Miranda and tell her that I think she’ll make a good, if rather unique (nice euphemism) grandmother to the Peanut, one with much to teach, much beyond what PL and I think and know. I tell her how happy I am that the baby is coming and how lucky I think he will be to be born into our family and how important it is for our family to grow in numbers for a change and reverse the constant erosion. We have lost many people from our ranks—my uncle Michael and his wives and children, my father and his wife and children, Miranda’s father and his wife and children, and on and on—culling our herd until the whole family can fit in a midsized car, just Patti, Mum, Miranda, Gran and me.
I also lay the “Jewish question” to rest once and (I like to think) for all by saying that I want to keep the tradition alive to make our family continuous with the past but that I consider the baby to be very modern and Catholic-Protestant-Russian-Polish-German-Pakistani-English-American as well as Jewish, Gran’s disgruntlement notwithstanding.
I try to make the letter as upbeat as possible, more of an appreciation than a line in the sand. I want to let her know that it is OK to feel ambivalent or whatever she wants, but that in the long run, the baby is not an obligation and a burden but an opportunity for all of us to be better people with more fun and wonder in our lives.
God, I spend a lot of my time making speeches, fitting things into the contexts I see, trying to create any kind of order out of the untidiness of human emotion and need. I hope she doesn’t take it the wrong way and bitchslap my presumptuous face.
Our first birthing class with Stacey Allen. The address, deep inside a housing project on Avenue A, gives me pause. What was I expecting—Sutton Place with Louis Vuitton Moroccan leather birthing benches and cucumber sandwiches with the crusts trimmed off? As soon as Stacey opens the door, I like her a lot. She is a lot like Dr. Garber in her refusal to coddle anyone, but far more maternal—expansive, good humored, and earthy.
The class is in her home and we sit on her living room rug, surrounded by framed pictures of her grandchildren and of Jesus. There are five other couples there, all around our age, most having their first child. (I guess nobody takes drivers’ ed once they have a license.)
Poor Houndy, my first son, a sissy. When I ask the vet's advice about what to do when the baby arrives, Dr. Siegel says, “Just ignore the baby and he’ll be fine.” I think she means not to be overly attentive to the baby but maybe she’s just being a dog person.I arrive alone and draw all eyes to me as if I am planning some sort of miracle birth. Stacey begins to take us through a series of charts and diagrams, then PL arrives, late and apologetic. She’s just in time to watch a videotape chronicling the experiences of a couple having their first whelp. The film looks like it was shot circa 1975, and when someone makes a reference to the dad’s mullet, Stacey is quick to point out that nothing much has changed in the region we are most interested in. That region, in all its hirsute glory, is pretty explicitly photographed until it disgorges its burden and the couples embrace their wrinkled child and the stock music swells and fades.
Next we get down on mats on the floor and do some huffing and puffing and the class is over. I don’t know if it is the breathing exercises increasing our endorphins but we leave feeling a lot more relaxed about labor and birth and Avenue A.
Later, at a nearby Indian restaurant, we talk about the fact the fact that not only are we having a baby but that he will be this new person made up of both of us, someone who is unique and a physical manifestation of our love. It’s an odd thought, that he will be more than just a new person to us but also strangely familiar, like when I think I recognize someone in the street then discover I am mistaken but am still somewhat surprised that the other person didn’t think I was someone they knew. And the baby won’t just be partly someone I know; he’ll contain so many things that come from the person I love most in the world. I will look at his face and see Patti reflected there inside, both my babies together.
Pipsi is back from an abortive romantic trip to Rome with a too-married man from Chicago. She tells me of doings at Gran’s sister’s house. Shula’s kids, Kobi and Tobi, who have ignored each other for years, have now agreed on one thing: to never again speak to their parents, who are in their late 80s, housebound and utterly miserable and lonely. To make it all completely hellacious, they all, including Kobi’s wife and kids and Tobi’s daughter, live in the same house, in utter silence. I wonder how many chromosomes I share with these people.
Our cowboy fabric has arrived and so we head over to Schneider’s to order our rocking chair and a crib. The curt misanthrope who had been so sour to us last time is a lot jollier and less harried now. I feel for the guy; imagine how often he hears the same neurotic, ill-informed questions from people like us, day after day, decade after decade. He is straight with us: All cribs are the same and the only variables are style and price. Babies sleep equally well in all of them. We pick a simple one of light varnished wood. Its sides are low so you can see in from any angle and it’s a cinch to open, and raise or lower the side.
We stroll through the stroller collection and our newfound best friend demonstrates how flimsy the good-looking, expensive ones are and how more practical and durable is the one we would never have dreamed of getting. It is called the MacLaren Dreamer or some such thing, and he does a little performance piece, talking us through the different stages of a baby’s life as echoed in the stroller’s design. He apes the tiny helpless and recumbent baby; the sitting baby with its fresh and vertical perspective; the toddler who turns away from the parent and faces the world, etc. Next I expect the stroller to fold into a walker the Peanut will use when he is old and decrepit with broken achy hips.
We’re not ready to buy the stroller yet, but there’s no hard sell. Schneider knows we’ll soon be back with more questions and a credit card or two.
I take Frank in for his checkup and shots. On his file jacket, Dr. Siegel has written Houndy’s idiosyncrasy: “shrieks loudly when left alone.” I help Frank onto the metal examining table, his claws scrabbling for purchase. She asks if he has always been such a coward. Poor Houndy, my first son, a sissy. When I ask her advice about what to do when the baby arrives, Dr. Siegel says, “Just ignore the baby and he’ll be fine.” I think she means not to be overly attentive to the baby but maybe she’s just being a dog person.
I’m reading a hateful book by Bob Greene called Good Morning, Merry Sunshine about his daughter’s first year. The book is new, a bestseller, but I find the author’s behavior quite primitive. He is forever stopping at bars on the way home, complaining that his wife is slow to get supper on the table, never changes a diaper, holds the child at arm’s length and never seems to adjust to the baby the way his wife does. Maybe he should have spent less time writing the book and more being a dad. I wonder if I’ll ever write again once I’m chin deep in a diaper pail.
In their last month of pregnancy, women have very vivid dreams. Mine have taken me by storm. They are intense, hypercolored, and completely real. Last night the sudden image of our big fish tank tipping over had me leaping half out of bed to catch it. In other dreams I’m warding off hordes of marauders. It’s less the content than the intensity and vividness of the dreams that makes them like nothing I’ve experienced before. Patti has dreams about leaving the baby outside of D’Agostino’s. I assume that we can look forward to these kinds of dreams for the rest of our parenting lives. Cool.
I am resting my head against Patti’s stomach when the Peanut begins to hiccup, a steady rhythm that goes on for several minutes. It’s odd to think of him, crouching and hiccing in the dark, while PL feels him reverberate through her rib cage and I listen like a hotel detective with a water glass pressed against the wall.
I take an air-conditioned cab on a sweltering day to another Stacey Allen class. The driver, Greek with five kids, earnestly urges me to skip the whole birth experience, to stay at home, avoid the blood and the pain, and just wait for a call when it is all done. I tip him handsomely.
We watch another film, circa 1985, about the varying stories of four couples. One of the fathers opts out of the whole thing and sits in the hall reading magazines instead. His experience is flat and removed, and at the end of the film he holds the baby awkwardly, like it is an armful of lumber. To add to his misery, his wife has a Caesarean. It’s all a little drivers’ ed.
We do more breathing exercises and then switch places, we fathers huffing and puffing and pushing and grunting, while the mothers coach and cajole. Someone farts but otherwise it is pleasant and relaxing, and I keep yawning like a hound. I just hope we don’t forget everything in the circus of B-Day.
Speaking of Caesareans, our old pal, César, has been swapping phone messages with us for days. We haven’t seen him in ages and when PL finally gets a hold of him, he is very inquisitive, asking what we look like, if we’ve changed, have we gained or lost weight and so on. Instead of giving him the news, PL is vague. She decided it would be funny to spring her bulging belly on him when we have dinner together next week. Little does she know he has already RSVPed for her shower.
The doctor is late and I have to skip out, feeling about like the Greek cab driver. Dr. Wahl does the exam: All is well; the baby probably weighs six or seven pounds and is head down, at the gate, poised for departure.
PL points out that we rarely refer to him as the Peanut anymore. We think of that lump as a squirmy baby rather than the idea he used to be, now not just a shape but a person. That transformation occurred for me when I felt the weight and shape of him through PL’s belly, sensing the heft and bulk I’ll soon be holding in my arms. He moves and flails and responds to the outside world, a wriggling monkey, no longer a peanut clinging to the vine.
It’s eight years to the day since we met. PL gives me a silver frame, three of its four windows stocked with photos of her, Frank and me, the fourth empty and waiting. I give her a gold Victorian wishbone with pearls to represent the members of our growing clan.
We go to 18 W. 18th St., as we do each year. It is closed—since we met, four different restaurants have gone belly up at this address. We stand by a Dumpster and toast our longevity with a thermos of White Russians.
We are heading to the baby shower, to what PL thinks is just a casual dinner at Mum’s house. She is wearing a rumpled, salmon-colored shirt and a stretched out white knit skirt, and I make the cardinal mistake:
“Is that what you’re wearing?”
“I went through three changes of clothes to get to this outfit,” she says irritably. “What’s wrong with it? You know I have nothing to wear.”
“Really, you look fine. I was just asking.”
“God, I hate this sometimes. Why couldn’t you be pregnant?”
“Fine, hand it over.”
I know I am heading for serious trouble.
We arrive at Mum’s house, ring the bell, ride up in the elevator. I look nervously around for stray guests. Coast’s clear, all’s well.
Mum unlocks the door and leads us down the long corridor to her living room. Everyone, and I do mean everyone, dozens of friends, colleagues, even my mother-in-law, who flew in from Cleveland, shouts, “Surprise!”
Immediately, Patti backs down the hall, disappearing from their sight. She is in shock. She hisses at me: “You betrayed me” and punches me in the pectoral, pretty hard. She rushes off to the bathroom as the crowd descends.
Later she tells me how upset she was, how unprepared, how naked she felt. She has worked hard to look good throughout her pregnancy and today, of all days, she had just let herself go, no makeup, stained blouse, in front of everyone she knows.
In the end, the party is a great success, brimming with a real feeling of community and caring. It takes us two cabs to take home all the gifts: an extravagant stroller, toys, silver, bowls, handmade clothes and much more.
I continue, however, to pay for it.
“How could you? Don’t you get it?”
Patti and Phyl bring home a lovely, frilly bassinet. We have a brief discussion about whether or not it should have a stand but agree that it’s a very cute thing.
Actually, that’s not the whole story.
When we had first studied the sprawling bassinet market, we had agreed that we needed something it could stand next to our bed. But this cute new one (and it is cute) needs to lie on the bed or one of the few surfaces in our room that are already covered with knickknacks and perfume bottles and stacks of baby books. I imagine, post parturition, hoofing around at night and, unwittingly, booting the cute thing, baby and all, onto the floor. Screaming, maiming, bleeding, soft skull shattered. Not good.
I take Phyl aside.
“So, the bassinet…”
“It’s very cute, isn’t it?”
“Very cute. Very. So did you see a stand of any kind for it?”
“I thought you could use one but it doesn’t come with one.”
“Patti really liked it so we go it.”
“Really liked it?”
“Really liked it.”
Of course, I’m an asshole and can’t let it go at that. I casually bring up the stand again to PL, mentioning that we had decided against this particular model for that reason. She gets very upset.
“I can’t believe I can’t even make a decision on a stupid bassinet without screwing it up.” Tears.
“Well, no, it’ll be fine.”
“Oh, why don’t you just be the mother. You’d do a much better job at it than me. “ More tears.
The bassinet is very cute. Love it.
Pipsi has just returned from a trip to an Indian reservation, a week of sleeping in a teepee in northern Montana. She sends me this letter in reply to mine:
I’ve just reread your letter and am very grateful that you sent it. Since I first opened it, I have spent time every day or so thinking about things you wrote. On the Montana reservation we spent one evening in a woman’s circle, comprised of my confreres (conseours?) from the group and various Indian women. Each of us spoke, in our turn, about what was in our hearts. It was integral to the ceremony, which had been preceded by incantation, incense, etc., that the spirits were in the circle with us.
When my turn came, I spoke, for the first time to anyone, about becoming a grandmother, and that I felt I needed guidance, that I felt somewhat confused about what it all means. I didn’t speak out loud that I also felt strongly these days the absence of my own mother and her own very graceful entry into grandmotherhood. This thread, from your letter to the circle, has continued and developed into a clarity and an unveiling of the confusion so that I am now excited and able to see the reality of this child coming into my (our) life (lives) through my heart rather than my mind, to imagine the presence of this child and, above all, to feel the connection. So again, I am very grateful. And excited.
I sense some anxiety in your letter that maybe I will not be as involved or available or engaged as you would wish me to be. I hope this letter will ease those anxieties.
And, as one woman said to me about something or other, “Thank you for your wisdom” about what it means to be “modern”—you are exactly right—we can protect our own identity and tribe and yet participate in the global, passportless, multilingual change that is the millennium. “The Jewish thing” doesn’t sound right anymore, yet we now have our family cosmology that includes “the Jewish thing” and I know we all want to protect and nourish.
So—Newark looms and I must, as Gran always says, sign off now,
We attend our first breast-feeding seminar in the Beth Israel auditorium. It is a bit chaotic; the nurses who are lactation experts show up half an hour late. They apologize: There was an “emergency” (a breast feeding emergency?) and start showing us diagrams of how to hold a feeding baby and how their lips and tongue latch onto the nipple. Ten minutes into it, the overhead projector bulb burns out. They haul out a foam rubber breast and shabby, bald baby doll and take us through various positions, the kama sutra of milk.
We go home and go through round II of the bassinet discussion, debating whether I will be a better parent, nay, mother, than Patti and whether or not I should just abandon her (Patti’s suggestion) and raise the child on my own and whether our relationship will collapse under the weight of responsibility and around and round the molehill till one in the morning. I suggest that Patti’s hormones may have something to do with her POV, and she hurls the nearest lactation manual at me.
PL calls me up to confess that she has snapped at a checkout lady at Gristedes, her dentist, and then the woman making her sandwich at the deli, and is starting to think that everything that went wrong the past few days may not have been entirely my fault.
Still, I’ve learned quite a bit from this bickering. I am a total control freak and it will always be a problem. I’ve just got to anticipate the best solution, planning it all out in my head, but the fact is, that just won’t fly when I’m a dad. Beyond theory and book learning, I know nothing about how to be a parent and will have to be a lot more open. More importantly, Patti is as much of a parent as I am and has as much right as I do to try to screw everything up. I guess I’m just competitive because she gets to carry the luggage.
We meet our pediatrician-to-be, Dr. Heiss. A calm, professional Chilean man in his 50s, he ushers us into his inner office. He has the same “Why do you want to worry about that?” sort of demeanor as Ella Garber, perfect for worrywarts like us. He tells us we need buy nothing before the baby’s born (not even a “bahsket”).
As for our incompetence, he says we’ll get a crash course in baby care at the hospital, two or more days full of opportunities to learn how to handle any situation from people who deal with such things every day. In the end, he says, just stay cool and don’t fall apart with gooberiness in the strange days ahead.
Then, a letter from Gran arrives by snailmail from Jerusalem:
Your situation is not unique. It has been repeated by untold generations. But I cannot avoid thinking that in these years so much fuss is being made about the purely physiological process of reproduction. I cannot imagine that this could have been possible two generations ago, but at the time there were fewer unemployed people in the medical professions.
I remember when Pipsi was born. Ninny and I agreed that “This is it,” and we traveled to the hospital, where I handed her over to the obstetric team … and went home. The following morning, when the head nurse phoned with the message: “Your wife has just been delivered of a nice healthy girl; you can go to sleep now,” I had a funny feeling which I interpreted as guilty, for I had been soundly asleep all night.
You have now entered the last month and soon all will be forgotten. And then the real enjoyment will start—unless you succeed in spoiling it for yourself by excessive worrying. Let Jackie develop his own personality. Let him develop his own pitch of crying. Let him decide how he uses his nappies. And, lo and behold, he will develop into a healthy and normal boy.
Old Ecclesiastes knew it all: “There is a time to eat and a time to sleep. There is a time to dress fashion models and there is a time to sit back and do nothing.” So, please, relax and enjoy.
I am going to sign off before I am getting too clever, too reminiscent or too obsolete.
Love to both of you,