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.
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%.
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.