By Aubrey Hirsch
You don’t commit to the idea until after the first ultrasound, when you’re about seven weeks along. Though you’ve produced enough positive pregnancy tests to build a small log cabin, you can’t believe it’s real. Your husband squeezes your hand in the elevator at the OB/GYN. They might look, you say, and there might not be anything there at all. That happens sometimes. He nods. He’s very accommodating of your doubts, even though he doesn’t share them.
But there it is, on the screen, a little blob of white pixels. It looks like a gummi bear or a wad of chewed gum. It’s hard to focus with the ultrasound wand pressing against your cervix, but there’s no doubt that it’s there. The doctor adjusts the wand and the blob starts to flicker. The movement is so fast you can barely see it, especially with the tears already starting to fill your eyes. That’s the heartbeat, she says, looking at one of you, then the other. Oh, you say it as if you are surprised, but you already know.
The thing that stuns you, though it seems obvious in retrospect, is that you can’t ever take a break. For every second of every minute of every hour of every day of every week of every month for nine (almost ten) long months, you are pregnant. There’s no negotiating that. You jokingly ask your husband if he wouldn’t mind taking over for a few hours so you can eat sushi, shave your legs, take a long nap on your stomach. His answer is always the same, I would if I could. The way he says it, his hand on your hand, his eyes locked on yours, you believe him.
You’ve heard those first subtle movements compared to bubbles or butterflies, but what you feel is more like gentle thumping, like a miniature heart beating against your belly. You read that these movements aren’t voluntary at the beginning. They’re like a series of tiny seizures. You imagine the fetus inside you, skinny and transparent, its impossible proportions, stiff-armed and shaking. It doesn’t sound very pleasant. But the image actually helps a little. When you’re feeling nauseous or tired or sore, which is pretty much all the time these days, you pay attention to your second heart. You press your palm against it and say, I know it’s hard, baby. But you and me, we’re in this together. It feels like solidarity, like you no longer have to suffer alone.
Everyone keeps telling you it’s a miracle. They call it magical, what’s happening inside you. You know, though, that it’s science. Sperm meets egg. Egg meets uterus. Cells develop, differentiate, firm and fold. There’s the dividing, the lengthening, the genomic blueprint followed to the letter. Knowing all of this doesn’t make it any less special for you. There are still so many mysteries ahead. You actually feel grateful for the questions with easy answers.
You float through the first half of your pregnancy trying on two possible futures, two possible babies. You fantasy shop for both of them, building imaginary registries in your head. When you browse online, you click on both of the big, bolded links: girl; boy. You come up with a perfect name for each potential baby. Driving to your twenty-week ultrasound you feel nothing but elation.
But when the technician pushes wand into your side, points to the screen and says, “It’s a little boy!” you suddenly feel like crying. You want this boy, yes. You love this boy. But where is your girl? The little girl you’ve been dreaming about, whose room you’ve decorated in your mind, whose territory you’ve set aside in your heart?
On the drive home, you practice her name with your tongue as you fight back tears. You realize you’d been dreaming of two babies, and you’re only going to take one home with you. It’s silly to feel this way, you know, about a baby who never existed. Inside of you is your son, your survivor. Your love, now fired in sadness, grows fiercer.
As you progress, you discover that pregnancy is a kind of performance art that you have to do any time you want to leave your house. At a certain point, there’s no hiding it and the questions come like rain on a cold morning. Over and over again you will say: October. You will say: Boy. You will say: Yes and No and We haven’t decided yet. Sometimes you will lie. You might say: Girl. You might say: November. You might say: Alice or Benjamin or George. You might do this just to do it, for the thrill of saying something new. Or you might do it for the flimsy sliver of privacy it lets you keep between the matinee and the evening show, when you will again pull on your shoes and venture into the world and cease being your name, or any noun at all, and instead walk under the flashing marquee of your adjective: pregnant.
Everyone has opinions. To save your energy, you start agreeing with all of them. It becomes like a game, kind of fun actually. You’re going to breastfeed exclusively, right? Of course! You should use formula. That way the dad can help with the feedings. That’s the plan! Definitely get an epidural. Mine saved me! Definitely! Are you planning an all-natural birth? I hope so. Yes! Do you have a doula? Are you doing yoga? Are you being induced? Did you do the genetic screening? Are you drinking red wine? Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. Always, everything, yes.
It gets a little tricky when the people you’re talking to disagree with each other. In those moments it’s best to make a quiet exit. Trust me, they will be so interested in validating their own opinions that no one will even notice you’re gone.
The 3 a.m. feedings start weeks before the baby is actually born. Everyone keeps telling you to sleep now, while you have the chance. But the baby is up at three demanding cereal or almonds or fresh mozzarella. When he’s fed, he wants to play, kicking at your insides, rubbing up against your ribs. It’s hours before you’re asleep again and when you are, you dream of him.
You’re eager to talk about something other than pregnancy, so you are excited to meet someone with your same job at a Memorial Day barbeque. Turns out she’s pregnant, too. She asks you all the typical questions about your due date, your childcare plans, your health.
You don’t respond in kind. Instead you gently deflect. You ask about her work, her classes, a paper she’s writing. You think you are saving this woman from having to repeat the same answers over and over and over again. You imagine that she must be dying for a break from talking about pregnancy. Doesn’t she, like you, still have this whole other life? Doesn’t that deserve some attention every now and then?
A few days later, on her blog, she will write a lengthy and heartfelt post about wishing she had more pregnant friends. She will lament feeling like she has no one to talk to about her pregnancy, no one who understands what she is going through. And you will feel like the biggest asshole on the planet.
The stretch marks come overnight. While you’re sleeping, they appear across the top of your bottom, in a wide, red swath. It’s kind of sexy, you say to your husband, like you’re wearing a zebra-print thong, even when you’re naked. Some- times you believe that. Other times you are surprised how intensely you hate them. You think both of these feelings are okay. That they can co-exist, for a while at least. These are scars we’re talking about, after all. They will need time to heal.
The baby is big and you are small and that combination makes for close quarters. By the end of the eighth month, there’s nowhere for him to go without putting pressure on an organ, snagging a tendon, rubbing up against an already tender bit of muscle or bone. He wakes you up at night with his calisthenics. You sigh and moan, turn over onto your other side with much effort.
One night your husband, dazed, mostly asleep himself grabs you and gently sways you, rhythmically, from your hip. You are so surprised by it that you don’t even notice the baby calming down, going quiet. Finally you realize he is rocking the baby to sleep. After another minute or so, he has rocked you asleep as well. And the three of you sleep together.
Next time you think you’ll keep the due date a secret. As it approaches, everyone wants to know if you’re ready. Ready? READY?? Then the date comes. And goes. And then every- one wants to know where the baby is. Why no baby yet? When are you going to have that baby?
But no one’s more disappointed than you. This date was your anchor and now that it’s gone, you’re just sort of … floating. You ask your doctor when the baby will come. When he’s ready, he says. With no date to count down to, no finish line in sight, you feel like the pregnancy might go on forever. That you might never get to meet your son.
Of course the pregnancy does eventually end. In the hospital you change into the cotton gown, worn nearly transparent around its feeble ties, while your husband hurries home to get your bags. These are the last moments you will spend alone until you attempt your first shower some eight days later. And anyway, are you really alone, with the baby already readying himself inside you?
You roll the question around in your head until a nurse comes in, then another nurse, and then your husband. And then you aren’t alone anymore.
You can’t honestly say you enjoy those last few hours of your pregnancy, but there are a few joyful moments that you hold onto:
Catching a line of a song on your playlist that sounds like it’s telling you how strong you are.
The feeling of ice on your tongue when everything else in the room, in the world, seems to be heat.
The surprise you feel when your lungs keep filling with air long after you’re sure you have no breath left.
The way your husband looks at you like his heart is breaking, and healing, and being born.
And the moment the doctor arrives and tells you you’re about to become someone new.
Aubrey Hirsch is the author of WHY WE NEVER TALK ABOUT SUGAR. She currently writes a biweekly parenting column for The Butter. You can learn more about her at aubreyhirsch.com.
Art by Michael Lombardo