Very Telling (#224)

No sooner had my husband and I returned from our honeymoon than my Chinese-American father-in-law called, demanding to know where his grandson was.

He called every week. In vain did I explain family planning and birth control to my husband’s parents.

After three years, Jay finally quit calling. Not long after he gave up, I got pregnant. Like many couples, we kept the pregnancy quiet, due to the risk of miscarriage.

Even after we saw the fetal heartbeat, we only told my Judgmental Genius Doctor Sister and a few others.

About two months into the pregnancy, Andy knocked on the bathroom door and asked, “Can we tell my parents yet?”

For once I was spending more time in the bathroom than my husband. So far, pregnancy had been one long vomit-fest. It did not make me cheerful. I yelled back, “You aren’t telling your parents ANYTHING. Until we get the ultrasound that tells us whether it’s a boy or a girl, your parents know nothing. If we tell your father I’m pregnant, he’ll start calling again, asking if it’s a boy. So forget that.”

“What if my aunt figures it out and tells them? We’re supposed to see her and my uncle and cousins tonight and if you’re carrying around your chum bucket, they’re gonna figure it out.”

“Dude. I’m not going anywhere.”

“Yeah, but if I go and tell them you’re sick, they’ll tell my mom and –”

“Tell them I’m off on a girl’s weekend or visiting a sister.”

“Which one?”

“Any of them! Pick one or make up a name. I have so many sisters I can’t even keep track of them. There’s no way your relatives will remember them. Now go away and let me puke in peace!”

When Andy returned from seeing his family, I was on the phone with my father and Current Stepmother. Out of eight kids, I was the only one who lived within driving distance. They were hoping we’d come to visit over the summer.  Their invitation forced me to reveal a) that I felt too awful to travel, b) I din’t know when I’d stop feeling awful, and b) the reason for feeling awful.

Dad was pretty low-key, typical of a man who had eight kids and multiple grandchildren: “That’s wonderful.”

Current Stepmother, who had only 2 kids of her own and no prospects of grandchildren in the near future, was not low-key. Her lengthy shriek of delight had me holding the phone at arm’s length.  Even Andy winced.

“Oh my God, oh my God that’s so exciting!” she gushed. “That’s just the best news!”

I said, “It’s nice that you’re so excited, since this is the sixth grand baby.”

“Yes, but we’re actually going to get to see this one!”

Invitations/ demands for visits at Thanksgiving and Christmas were promptly issued.

“Well, that was gratifying,” I told Andy after I hung up the phone.  “I had no idea Current Stepmother was such a baby hog.”

Andy said, “Huh.”

“How were your cousins?”

“Fine.”

“How was your aunt?”

“Fine.”

“What’s the matter?”

“Nothing.”

“You’re mad that I get to tell people and you don’t, right?”

“Maybe.”

“You can tell your friends at work.”

“It’s not the same. And some, like my boss Frank, can’t have kids and that’s awkward, you know?”

“Yeah,” I told him with a sigh. “You really wanna tell your mom, don’t you?”

“I want to tell my grandma,” Andy corrected me.

“Can’t you just wait a little longer? Until we at least know the sex of the baby? Then they don’t get their hopes up and then get all disappointed if it’s not a boy?”

“But Popo’s almost ninety.”

“Okay, how about after the first trimester?” I pleaded.

“But what if something happens and I never get to tell her?” Andy argued, sniffing and wiping away a tear.

My husband’s words hit harder than he knew.

*****

The Christmas I was fourteen, my then Stepfather gave my mother the ugliest, creepiest newborn baby puppet on the planet. He laughed and said, “You said you wanted another baby!”

My older siblings  and I eyed Creepy Baby, said “Ewwwww,” and recoiled in unison.

Baby Singing Sister, who was three, screamed and ran out of the room.

Mom pretended to snuggle Creepy Baby, telling Creepy Baby it was adorable.

She saw my appalled face and said, “Hey, if this is the last baby, I have to make the most of it. You know too much about childcare. I’ll probably never get any grand babies.”

She was right. Mom died unexpectedly the following spring.

*****

Twenty years later, I handed my husband the phone. “Go on,” I said. “Call Popo.”

He did.

Popo was thrilled. She told him to call his parents.

He did.

Andy’s mother was overjoyed.

Andy’s father? He let out one excited shout, before lapsing into speechlessness.

Which lasted about a week.

Try As You Might (#223)

I lost my mom when I was a teen. It was awful. It was untimely, a tragedy, etc.  She left six kids with a) a mentally unstable father/ stepfather and b) a ton of unresolved issues.

And yet.

I understood that it was better than the reverse. A mother should never outlive her children.

Once I studied history, though, I realized that outliving your children was a thoroughly modern expectation. Before vaccines and modern surgery, a mother would be fortunate if half her children survived — infant mortality rates in the 1800s were almost 50%.

From Lynn Wright’s “19th Century Death Bed Portraiture.”

I wondered, sometimes, if mothers were as attached to their kids back then as mothers are today. Or did they hold back, not wanting to invest too much emotionally or financially when the odds of survival were so low?

Research has always been my ally in outwitting or coping with catastrophe. So, perhaps like mothers in the last millennia, I prepared myself for failure when I got pregnant.  Especially in the first trimester, where pregnancy had a one-third chance of failure. Even with prenatal vitamins. Even eschewing Advil and all medicines.

But even though I didn’t want to become too attached, I’d already decided on a name – Dalton, after Dalton Trumbo, screenwriter and crusader against McCarthyism/ fascism.

Andy was all, “’Dalton?’ What if it’s a girl?”

“She can be a Dalton, too. Look at the proliferation of girl Madisons for chrissakes.”

“I don’t like Dalton for a girl,” Andy objected.

“’You don’t like?!’ Let me remind you who is doing the heavy lifting here,” I began – only to run off to the bathroom and vomit (my new pregnancy normal). Then I tried to brush my teeth. Which made me gag, which made me puke again. By the time I escaped this vicious cycle, Andy was hastily assuring me that I could name our baby whatever I wanted.

“How gracious of you,” I told him as I flopped onto the bed. “But don’t worry, it’s going to be a boy.”

Andy, who’d already said he wanted a girl, scowled, but only said, “Are we calling the baby Dalton, then?”

I shook my head. “Not yet. It isn’t even a baby. Doesn’t have a brain yet. I don’t wanna jinx it. You can call it embryo or fetus.”

“Uh, no. That’s kind of clinical.”

“It’s medically accurate. And it’s nicer than what I’d like to call it when I’m puking my guts out. If this keeps up, ‘Parasite From Hell,’ or ‘Demon Spawn’ is going on that birth certificate.”

******

Not naming “it,” was more difficult than I expected. I’ve always liked naming things, then renaming them, and then giving them nicknames. My childhood blanket was male, and called “Blankey.” My first black car was Bagheera, after the black leopard in the Jungle Book. My houseplant was Fred. Brilliant Blonde Lawyer Sister and I had so many boyfriends we gave them nicknames to help each other remember them. Who can forget “Tank Lord,” “Divorced Dude,” and “Trolley Tim?”

All of my pets had multiple titles, depending on how they were behaving. The dogs were everything from “Doggums” to “The Excavators.”

I anthropomorphized everything (even subhuman boyfriends). It was hard not to do the same with the collection of cells in my abdomen.

Especially when those cells made my life miserable. “Listen,” I’d begin, trying to psyche myself up and off the bathroom floor. “You just listen up, D–  crap, I mean Baby—ugh, I mean embryo-thing. The doggums need a walk or they’re going to tunnel under the fence. So please could you lay off the making-me-feel-like-shit hormones for like an hour? Please?”

After I threw up in a neighbor’s bush 20 minutes later, I’d mutter, “Contrary already. Thanks a lot, Baby D—ugh! I mean Evil Embryo!”

Andy did better than I did. By cheating. He’d never ask specifically about the status of the fetus. Instead, he asked how I was feeling.

“D—er, fetus thing let me eat half a muffin today.”

“Good job, honey.”

And then came the Sunday night when I realized I was bleeding. As I expected catastrophe and knew the odds, I immediately warned Andy that probably this meant the fetus wasn’t viable and it was common. Then I talked to Dr. Sister, who assured me that a little brown blood from the cervix was normal and no big deal.

I crawled back into bed and told Andy, “False alarm! Dr. Sis says Baby D is totally fine and not to worry.”

“’Baby D?’ Don’t you mean the fetus?”

“Shut up or I’ll puke on you.”

Andy squeezed my hand and said, “Good night, honey.” Then he whispered, “Good night, Baby D.”

From the night forward, the fetus was known as Baby D. Even though it didn’t have a functioning brain. Even though there was still a 33% chance Baby D wouldn’t make it out of the first trimester.

Which answered my question about the mothers who gave birth centuries ago. You may know the odds. You may know you shouldn’t get attached. But try as you might…

…they suck you in anyway.