Like generals heading into battle my husband Jeffrey and I prepared for every possible condition in readying ourselves for the arrival of our daughter. Overwhelmed by the horror stories of those who’d headed into the fray before us, there was no attack — from colic to breastfeeding issues, from sleep deprivation to sexual starvation — for which we did not develop a counter attack. We were heavily armed with baby books and wipes warmers, breast pumps and travel systems. But who knew we’d fall desperately, head-over-heels in love with the enemy at the gate?
If the women of my mother’s generation were less than honest about the difficulties and challenges of raising a child, my generation appears to have abandoned stoicism. The newly pregnant couple finds no end of books and media coverage devoted to informing them how miserable they are about to become. Friends and strangers issue the ominous warning over and over: “Get ready for your whole life to change.” They then expound with their stories of colicky babies who cry for six weeks straight, sleep deprivation so extreme it classifies as a personality disorder, spousal hatred, nipple confusion, and breast pumps that draw blood. Of course, let’s not forget the baby blues, not to be confused with postpartum depression, not to be confused with postpartum psychosis. It would be enough to give a thinking woman pause — if she weren’t already pregnant.
But Jeffrey and I did pause before becoming parents. It wasn’t something that we entered into lightly or accidentally. It wasn’t an idea we had romanticized. It wasn’t anything we needed to feel whole as a couple. When we decided it was time, it was because we felt we had a lot to offer a little person, that we would take great joy in sharing what we loved about the world with a child. We’d both learned hard lessons well and felt we had a lot to teach. And we shared a great love for each other that we knew would be a solid foundation for a happy childhood. It was an intellectual decision, made by two smart and loving people.
We met on a humid November night in Key West. Jeffrey was vacationing from Michigan. I, living in New York City at the time, was visiting a close friend who’d relocated to Florida just a few months earlier (a move I viewed, at the time, as just short of madness). In the sweating, drunken mess that was Sloppy Joe’s on Duval Street, I found Jeffrey. It was truly a SHAZAM moment, a point on which my whole life pivoted. We had a white hot long-distance love affair which involved one or the other of us on a plane every weekend. Within four months, he had proposed. Within six, we’d both quit our jobs, sold our homes and moved to Florida. (Why Florida? Beaches, palm trees, the ocean … it seemed like the right place and somehow it has been.) We were married in Key West, a year to the day that we met. Quite naturally, our reception ended up at Sloppy Joe’s.
We had an extraordinarily romantic beginning. And after a slew of terrible relationships (the parade of losers and weirdoes in my past alone is staggering) where we’d both learned what we didn’t want at least, we each knew a good thing when we saw it. As soon as we started talking that night, I thought: Oh, there you are! I’ve been looking all over for you!
I won’t say we have a perfect marriage, because what does that even mean? I will say we’re perfect for each other; that our individual sets of neuroses are wonderfully compatible. I’m married to the best friend I’ve ever had. And if we argue over the little things — what we’re going to have for dinner or who has the most annoying family, if one (or both) of us has control issues, or if one of us is compulsively organized (he is), and the other is not (I am organized … in my own way) — the really big stuff has never been an issue. We skirmish, but we rarely fight in that awful way that damages your marriage and your spirit.
When it came to children, we both felt that we wanted a family but that if children didn’t come, we’d have a wonderful life regardless. There would be no fertility acrobatics. We’d consider adoption, if there came a time when we were desperate for children and couldn’t have them in the traditional way. And when it was time to stop “not trying,” we were both equally ready – meaning sort of ready. Frankly, at 35 (me) and 37 (him), we were starting to feel as if the time was now or that the time would pass. It only took a few months for us to conceive.
We were so thrilled, so unexpectedly excited that we told everyone right away …family, friends, acquaintances, people in the grocery store. Wait three months? We couldn’t even keep it to ourselves for three hours.
That’s when the onslaught of war stories and unsolicited advice began. Maybe our enthusiasm made us seem green, or maybe the veterans were just trying to toughen us up. But for whatever reason, the fact that I was planning to have a natural childbirth and to breastfeed seemed to really bother some people and they brought out the big guns of discouragement. Everyone it seemed lined up to talk about their delivery room nightmares and lactation traumas.
“Oh, you can forget about that right now,” said one cousin referring to natural childbirth. “There’s NO way to do it without drugs. You’re crazy. And — by the way — if you wait too long and then change your mind, you can’t get any drugs. You don’t want to be there.” Was that true? I didn’t know.
“I couldn’t breastfeed,” said another friend. “I have inverted nipples. When I tried to pump one night, I pumped an ounce of pure blood.” I looked at her in dismay; she just smiled gravely and nodded.
“Not everybody is able to breastfeed, you know,” advised one friend. “Don’t get overly attached to the idea.”
But I was determined, if not all that confident. And Jeffrey was totally on board with these decisions. So we signed up for twelve weeks of natural childbirth classes where we learned everything we never wanted to know about labor, delivery and breastfeeding in graphic detail — complete with unedited videos of natural childbirth.
In the darkened living room of our instructor, surrounded by fifteen other couples in various stages of pregnancy, we watched as an especially vocal woman in one video screamed in agony during her labor, “Get it out of me! GET. IT. OUT!” I glanced at Jeff, who patted my leg and offered me a brave smile. I looked around at the other couples and saw their striken faces; one woman covered her eyes. (Someone should show you those videos before you get pregnant. You know, like those drunk driving videos they make you watch in high school. However, I suspect that might mean the end of the human race.)
I cried all the way home from that particular class. Actually, I cried all the way home from a few of them for various reasons with Jeffrey offering empathetic shoulder rubs and comforting words. More than once he said, with a nervous laugh, “It’s a good thing men don’t have to do this.”
Then, of course, there were the books. In them, I learned that I would soon come to hate Jeffrey, that he would reveal himself as a buffoon about as capable of helping me raise a child as he was of bearing one. There would be no sex, of course, (either because I secretly resented my husband and what he had done to me, or because he was secretly repulsed by postpartum body – or that he was traumatized by what he witnessed in the delivery room). And there would be no sleep – ever. That the combination of those things would turn us into a pair of Japanese fighting fish dropped into the same bowl. Maybe no one would get out alive. “Get ready to know rage in a way you’ve never experienced before,” said one particularly awful book, given to me (unwittingly, I think) by my mother.
As my pregnancy progressed, I was assailed by the idea that independent, intelligent women who had delayed children to pursue a career are set up for failure when motherhood comes. That they hate it. That it’s a slow, unhappy trek toward a total loss of self. In fact, I can’t recall even once hearing an intellectual female voice that said: I love being a mom. I love my husband. My husband is a wonderful father and partner in parenthood. The message was clear that my wonderful marriage was about to reveal itself as a pseudo-egalitarian sham.
I started to wonder: Has it become chic to be miserable in pregnancy and motherhood? If earlier generations were guilty of painting too rosy a picture of the mother flushed with happiness, blissed-out with a baby at her breast, is mine guilty of painting one too grim of the harried, shrewish malcontent, beleaguered by motherhood? (Can’t you see her — unshowered, clothes covered with spit up, wild strands escaping from the elastic in her hair? Her laptop gathers dust; her Victoria’s Secret catalog is in tatters, possibly lining the litter box.) Which picture was closer to the truth? We didn’t know. But a current of fear began to run beneath our excitement.
So we did what any intellectual, over-achieving couple would do. Jeffrey, a computer engineer with a logical mind the speed and accuracy of a Pentium processor, engineered “the problem.” I, a fiction writer with a wild imagination, got creative. Together we prepared for everything. There was no video we didn’t watch, no book we didn’t read. We developed a strategy for colic. We gathered names of lactation consultants in case there were problems with breast feeding. We bought the top of the line breast pump, nipple cream for chaffing (!) or cracking (!!). By twenty weeks, the nursery was done; by twenty-five weeks we had a pediatrician who was in-line with our thinking about vaccines; by thirty weeks the car seats were installed. We spent our evenings doing pregnancy exercises and relaxation techniques for labor. I obsessed about nutrition and exercised vigorously until my third trimester, then switched to yoga. We got seriously into it.
Of course, what we were doing was trying to manage our anxiety. We were applying our intellects and energies toward deflecting the negative messages we were getting from family and friends, from the media. We were developing counter-strategies for all the difficulties we were told awaited us. The dreaded phrase, “Get ready for your whole life to change,” sounded to us, a happy couple with a really fantastic life, like “get ready for your whole life to suck.” We weren’t going down like the rest of them; we were going to fight.
Meanwhile, in spite of all of this preparation and solution engineering, we just couldn’t get our heads around the idea that there was a real baby in there. Our daughter was an abstract concept in spite of the sonograms and the kung fu kicks to my ribs. It was impossible for us to imagine that a little person, someone of us but separate from us would be living in our house for a really long time. I would wonder, what’s she going to do all day? I knew she was coming. I knew I would love her. I couldn’t imagine what she would look like, who she would be. It just didn’t seem real.
When my water broke on Christmas Day, three weeks early, I still wasn’t getting it. I had been racing our little girl to complete my next novel. I thought we had an arrangement: that she would stay put until her due date so that I could finish. And that’s what I was thinking about when I awoke at 5 AM to an audible “pop!” from my abdomen. I lay there for a minute thinking, “That can’t be good.” Still in denial, I ran to the bathroom. A flood of pink liquid soaked through my pajamas.
“Ohmigod. I think my water broke,” I said in an absurd statement of the obvious.
“What?” From the bedroom, trepidation … terror? “Are you sure?”
When I called my mother to tell her we were heading to the hospital, I said, “Mom, I didn’t finish my book.” She said, “Well, don’t worry about that now!”
But I was worried. Actually, in retrospect, terrified, might be closer to the truth in some moments. Not about labor and delivery. That, to me, seemed like the least of it. I was terrified that I wouldn’t be the person I was, the wife I was, the writer I was before motherhood. I feared for my truly wonderful relationship with my husband, which had always been effortless, spontaneous and full of passion for each other and for the life we shared together. I hadn’t heard many people say that their relationship was enhanced by parenthood. I’d heard plenty of people say it was challenged or ruined completely.
I thought about all this as we drove to the hospital on a stormy Christmas morning … thunder and lightening, the whole shebang. (We arrived calmly, of course. After all, the bags had been packed for weeks complete with sound dock for our ipod to play relaxing music during labor). I looked at Jeff. He seemed truly Zen. What I didn’t realize at the time was that he had a miserable, jackhammer of a hangover. We’d had a party on Christmas Eve and he’d had some drinks for the first time during my pregnancy. (To his credit, he never mentioned his hangover until much later.) I wondered if I’d hate him soon. If I’d be mean to him in the delivery room. I wondered what our baby would look like. I wondered who we’d be when we got home.
“Our baby’s coming,” said Jeff with a wide smile and wider eyes. Joy, anxiety, excitement, dread. It was all there on his face. I still couldn’t imagine her. I was alternately thrilled and frightened by the idea of our daughter. In abstraction, she was worshipped and feared like a volatile god.
And when she arrived, this 5 pound 10 ounce titan, we were truly awed by her raw power. I had wanted a natural childbirth so badly not because I had some lofty idea about it (and, p.s., an hour or so into active labor, drugs started to look pretty good). It was because I didn’t want my mind to be separated from my body when our daughter arrived. I wanted to feel her pass through me. I wanted to be present for her arrival, not floating on a narcotic cloud. And I was present, more so than I have been for any other moment in my life. I’m so grateful. The pain of labor and delivery and her arrival was a defining experience.
I remember every second with perfect clarity. She blew our minds. There’s a picture Jeffrey managed to snap as the midwife handed our baby to me which captures an expression of pure awe on my face. All I could think as I reached for her was, “She’s here. She’s mine.” I was overcome by a blast of emotion, a mighty rush of love. We were prepared for everything except that.
In spite of all our busy planning and scheming, we’d woefully underestimated the brute force of our opponent. In the end, our defenses were shattered by a blue-eyed, strawberry blonde cherub we’d named Ocean Rae.
No one told us about the laser beam we’d get zapped with when our baby arrived. Or maybe we just couldn’t hear it through the humming machinery of our anxiety. After Ocean’s birth, I suddenly remembered hearing other voices that hadn’t resonated as deeply during my pregnancy. An author I know told me, “There’s going to be a whole new level of love in your life.” At the time, I acknowledged that he was probably right. Intellectually, I knew I would love my daughter; that was never a question. I just never realized that this love would color everything else, that the word itself would be redefined.
The fact is we didn’t sleep. Of course not. But we found we just didn’t care that much. There was no sex for weeks. Of course there wasn’t. Okay, that was bad … but I’d never felt closer to my husband, never felt more deeply bonded to anyone. There were awful times where we were snappish and impatient with each other, beyond stressed, exhausted, overwhelmed – just maxed out. There were tears, plenty of them. Of course there were — and the baby cried sometimes, too. But for each of those moments, there were a hundred more where we were overcome by pure joy. There was a baby, our daughter! This tiny, everyday miracle; each movement she made, each sigh she issued, mesmerized us. Every time I looked at her, my heart felt bigger. Why didn’t anyone tell us about that?
A lot of the things we’d feared and planned for, just never happened. Breast-feeding was easy for Ocean and for me. She wasn’t colicky. She was, in fact, mostly peaceful from the day she arrived. Maybe we’d feel differently about parenthood if we’d had those challenges. And maybe all the obsessive planning, research, and organizing we did to combat our fears actually helped us to enjoy coming home from the hospital more than we would have. Maybe having enough diapers for weeks, having meals frozen and waiting to be heated, having the nursery done and the phone off allowed us to focus on the bliss rather than the tiring logistics of day-to-day living. Maybe all those people with their horror stories and bad advice were just … disorganized? Or maybe we really were prepared for everything. Or maybe we just got lucky.
Another friend of mine gave me a piece of advice that has turned out to be the truest thing I’ve heard yet. “Becoming parents makes your relationship more of what it is already.” It exposes all the fissures in and reveals the strengths of your foundation as a couple. If there are core problems in your relationship, nothing will reveal that more quickly than having a baby. Parenthood, like any intense experience, is a crucible. It shows you who you are. This is what I’ve learned about my marriage: I’m married to the best friend I’ve ever had. And if we argue about the little things, the big things have never been an issue. (Or: I’m perfect. And my husband is a control freak. I knew it all along.)
When Ocean Rae entered our world, she did change everything. But not in the superficial ways we feared – or not just in those ways. She changed us from the inside out. We found that we wanted different things suddenly — from ourselves, from life, and from each other. And we surrendered to that change. We adapted. Perhaps this and this alone is the key to survival – in marriage and in life — to allow yourselves to be altered by dramatic events, to recognize that resistance to profound change is not only pointless but destructive. What doesn’t bend, breaks.
At the moment, we can’t spontaneously stroll out for a drink … but, hey, maybe we were drinking too much anyway. I’m so exhausted at the end of the day that I haven’t seen the end of a movie in months … but, most of them have been really awful. On the other hand, I did manage to conduct a ten-city book tour (husband, baby – and occasionally my mother — in tow) while breastfeeding my daughter (I might write about it someday: What Didn’t Kill Me, Didn’t Kill Me). And in the weeks after Ocean was born, I finished my novel with this little bundle snoozing beside me in the bed.
In spite of the huge shifts within me and without, I found I’m still a writer, still a wife who loves her husband… and now a mother, too. I’m not saying it wasn’t – and isn’t – a challenge to be all those things. Actually, some days, it’s pure madness. But it’s a blessing to have a life so full … isn’t it?
I’m having trouble concentrating over the music coming from Ocean’s baby gym – a tinkling, baby-fied version of the Brandenburg Concertos. As I write this, she’s yelling in a kind of delighted discovery of the sounds she can make. I can hear my husband (who takes care of her in the early mornings before he goes to the office, so that I can have some uninterrupted time to write or work out or shower, or on rare and magical mornings, all three) responding to her. His sing-song tones carry across the house. And I struggle to stay focused on my work, to meet my deadline. I’m not angry about my broken concentration, though it is broken – well, fractured. I don’t resent the intrusion into my thoughts or my creative space, which is significantly smaller than it once was. I just want to go play.
So what am I? Am I the blissed-out mom gazing lovingly down at the angel in my arms? Are Jeffrey and I more in love than ever? Am I more at home in motherhood than I ever imagined possible? Or … Am I am the harried, exhausted, stress case struggling to find my way as a mother, a writer and a wife? Are Jeffrey and I squabbling in the fatigue and stress of fresh parenthood? The answer to all of these questions is, of course: Yes. Because parenthood is a kaleidoscope; the picture shifts with each turn of your wrist, with each change of light. What you see depends on how long you linger on any given moment.
From BLINDSIDED BY A DIAPER: Over Thirty Men and Women Reveal How Parenting Changes a Relationship
Edited by Dana Bedford Hilmer
Three Rivers Press / June 2007