You must choose. Once the baby makes its way out—and he will make his way out in a splash of fluid after the kind of crowning you won’t soon forget—the moments that make up your life will cease to be ones you choose. It is August. The trees wilt in the heat. The grass burns. Your ankles swell. You hold your belly with your hands, cradle it as if it might detach itself if you are not watchful, as if it might fall away from the rest of you if you let go.
You must learn to be careful.
You take recommendations. You look up credentials. In the air-conditioned living room with your husband charging the video camera and giving you a look that resembles pity, you read Top Ten lists and scour practices. You Google. You ask your Facebook friends. You check Yelp. When your husband asks you whether you’re coming to bed, you say nothing. You no longer sleep, you want to say. Your body is practicing for screams in the night, the slow burn of fatigue that will cover you like gauze as you shuffle through the business of diapering and feeding, burping and wiping.
Oh, and yes, the love. You need to remind yourself of the love.
You find him as you do most things, with a mixture of the haphazard and the serendipitous. This is how you found your husband after all, you remind yourself, when you opened your car door in the parking lot of the CVS and dinged his Camry, and there he was, the rest of your life standing in chinos and sunglasses and a smile that promised both wryness and compassion. If you’d chosen another spot that day, been less lazy perhaps, done what you promised yourself you would do, parked farther away from the store and taken more steps for your heart health, your husband may have met another woman with a fishtail braid and a smattering of freckles and the beginnings of creases around her eyes. For once, you tell yourself, your laziness paid off. The baby kicks as you think these kinds of thoughts, as, you imagine, it is the baby’s right to do.
The list of doctors to interview tires you. The heat tires you. Being tired tires you. But you press on. The baby will be here soon. The baby, you tell yourself, needs his doctor.
You search for hyphenated names, for the multi-cultural, for the holistic-minded and the vegan-friendly. You rule out neither the Latina lesbian nor the straight white male, though you avoid those with Lactation Nazis and support groups attached to their practices. You dislike cults. You sense motherhood will be lonely, and you spend more and more time alone in preparation.
He is your fifth appointment. You’d have preferred a woman, but you can embrace the patriarchy for the good of your baby, for an Ivy League diploma, for twenty years of talking to nervous mothers like yourself. Your husband does not accompany you to the interview—not, he says, out of lack of interest, but because he is banking his time. So that he can help you later, he says. This, though you don’t know it yet, will become his constant refrain.
You wear a tank dress with a high neckline that sometimes causes a rash around your neck area, but your throat blooms red without warning from all of the hormones, regardless. Why not give yourself a reason? Your body does what it will. You fart uncontrollably one day in the frozen food aisle of the grocery store, sweat so profusely that you need a face towel when your friends place the paper plate hat with the bows on your head during your baby shower. You are just along for the ride at this point, you think, as you wait in his office, or rather, you are the ride.
He is not your type, this pediatrician. This much you notice right away. You are pregnant but not dead. He is both taller and slighter than you expected, with a softly graying goatee that offers contrast to his pale lips. You have never kissed a man with a goatee, you realize, as you shake his hand and sit in the plastic chair that sags under your weight. Perhaps you’ll ask your husband to grow one. Perhaps you won’t. You find yourself watching the pediatrician’s mouth as he speaks, as if you’ve had a sudden onset of deafness and can only lip-read his responses.
You read the questions from your list as the material of your maternity dress begins to tingle around your throat. You want to claw at it but stop yourself.
He is patient with your questions. He tells you about his residency, his stance on vaccinations, his judicious use of antibiotics. He offers you pamphlets on infant wellness and the first year of life. He looks at you when he speaks. You see a sorrow in his eyes that you recognize which makes your throat go dry. But it is his hands that get you. Suddenly, there in the office with the drawings from the little Tylers and Savannahs of the world, crayoned rainbows and hearts thanking the pediatrician for his stickers and for his grace, you begin to sweat at the sight of his hands, the fingers splayed on his knees as he leans forward. You can feel it dripping, first down your back in the thinnest of streams, and then into the space between your breasts. Instead of taking notes on the vaccine schedule to which the pediatrician adheres, you are caught in the fantasy of being bent over the exam table, your belly pushing against the roll of paper as he holds onto your hips and moves.
The baby pushes down on your bladder, punishing. The sweat soaks the back of your neck. You berate yourself for wearing your hair down in this heat.
He offers you a paper towel and a cup of water and asks if you’d like to lie down for a moment. You gulp the cool water and wipe the wetness from your face.
Hormones, you say, can be brutal.
He smiles at you and helps you up with a hand on your elbow.
Men are foolish, he says, much less tough. If it weren’t for you women, he says, the species would die.
At home you tell your husband you have found your man. He nods and runs his thumb across his phone. In bed when you lift your tee shirt to press your naked breasts against his back, he does not move. You think of asking him to bend you over the bed. But you don’t.
In the night your breasts leak. You watch as your husband peels the sheet off then shuffles down the hallway for a new one, pale blue, four hundred thread count. You sit on the side of the bed as your husband sprays the sheets with stain remover and blots them with a towel. He does not like spills, you know, a hang-up from his childhood with a fanatical mother.
In the dark you practice your aloneness. You watch your husband’s back and feel the baby rise up in your belly, somersaulting on your bladder. Your husband breathes through his nose, a slow, dark whistle. The next day when your husband is gone you stuff the sheet with milk stains into the trash.
The baby arrives on a Tuesday. When he comes out, glazed with film and blond hair matted with blood, you kiss your husband. Your husband weeps, and so do you, more than you expect you should. You take pictures with your phone. You announce the baby’s arrival on Facebook where he receives hundreds of likes and emojis with hearts and pacifiers.
When the pediatrician comes in to the hospital room for the examination, your husband sits on the bed beside you. He shakes your husband’s hand. You keep your eyes on the baby, on his blondness. You have a son.
The pediatrician opens the baby’s diaper to press at his tiny hips and then re-fastens it in a way that looks like magic.
Later, alone in your hospital room while you hold your baby, you look at all of the photos of you and your husband, your baby with his feet still purple from birth. The light from your phone casts a blue light over everything. You cry. The baby does not.
You are not prepared for the hands when you see the pediatrician again that first office visit. They stretch across your son’s belly with the kind of sureness and confidence that neither you nor your husband yet possess. Your husband rubs his eyes in the corner as he sits on the plastic chair. Your husband is interested in percentiles, in graphs, in how your newborn son fares against the rest. You try to focus on what he is telling you about fluid from birth—the doctor, your doctor, because this is how you think of him now—but with his hands behind your baby’s head, the fingers both blunt and rounded at once, you find yourself transfixed by the hands holding your baby in a football position, the fingers wrapped around the baby’s naked belly. You feel a sudden surge of pride. You worked harder than you have ever worked for anything to push this boy into the world.
You look over at your husband while the pediatrician boasts about the baby’s head control and level of alertness. You wonder if he has a son. He lays your baby back on the table and wraps his fingers around the baby’s tiny hands. You watch your baby’s fingers curve around the thumb of your doctor as he slowly pulls the baby to a sitting position. He laughs as the baby’s head bobbles and says,Look at that. Look at him.
You notice the husband checking his phone and then sliding it into his pocket. You sweat silently as you bundle the baby back into the car seat. You turn away as the pediatrician shakes your husband’s hand.
On the way home your husband drives too fast. You sit in the back seat next to the baby, bucketed in as he is, your left arm across the top of the infant seat. Your episiotomy burns. The pillow under your behind shifts as your husband drives too close to the car in front of you. Slow down, you say, can’t you slow down? But instead he drives faster, saying too sharply that all he wants is to get you home, you and the baby. He just wants to get you home.
That day in the back seat of the car you bite back tears and think of the pediatrician’s hands as you look at the baby, sighing as he does, the pale blue cap pulled down low over his brow, his forehead knitted, making the baby look both new and ancient at once. At home among the silence leaking from your husband and the cool detachment of your disappointment, you change the baby and look down at your own hands as you open the flaps of the miniature diaper, the soft tear of the cloth echoing through the room. Your fingers look pale, too thin, with heavy lines over the knuckles and splits of jagged skin along the nail beds.
You take the baby to CVS on your first errand alone in your new motherhood and park close to the entrance. You are careful not to open the door too wide for fear of dinging the car beside yours that looks leased and overly expensive. You buy diapers and Desitin and wipes without alcohol. You buy hand cream to soothe your dry skin and a bottle of red nail polish that you never apply.
As you pull the car door open to set the baby inside, you see a man in a goatee and sunglasses looking at you from several lanes over. For a moment your heart squeezes and you raise your hand to wave, thinking it is your pediatrician, but the man turns away, and you see he hasn’t been looking at you at all but at his young son with the Batman shirt and chocolate on the sides of his mouth. You turn on the ignition to stop the baby from wailing.
When your husband finally touches you some weeks later, you lie back and watch as his hands with the wiry hairs move across your still swollen pelvis, your hips still far too rounded, your thighs gone slack. You wince against the coldness of fingers parting skin, a meaty hand at the back of your head. You relax when you feel the stubble on his face, breathe through your mouth and imagine you are straddling the pediatrician on the hood of the car in the parking lot of the CVS.
Afterward while your husband watches old sitcoms with canned laughter, you feel the fatigue pressing down.
But where, you wonder, is the love?
The baby grows. Your breasts leak. Your skin seems to mist. Your hair falls out and tangles itself in your wire brush. Sometimes your gums bleed, sometimes your hemorrhoids burn. The brown line down your belly finally fades. Your nipples get lighter. The hope of a waistline re-appears. You do your Kegels. You plank. You buy yoga pants online and shave your legs above the knee.
One night you cook angel hair pasta and let the strings of it hang from your mouth while you’re eating, wondering in mid-slurp whether the pediatrician likes his pasta this thin. The baby lies in the vibrating seat and sighs while your husband stares at you there with the angel hair between your teeth and doesn’t look away. Do you have to eat like that? He asks, and though you’d like to ask him the same thing, he who ate too many popsicles and peanut butter sandwiches during your pregnancy when it was you who had the reason to eat, you resist. You suck in the angel hair and feel the diet soda burn your throat as you slug it, missing the wine that you’d have to dump your milk to have. You pretend that the carbonation has brought tears to your eyes.
You try to talk. It’s not that you don’t try. While the baby sleeps a few feet away in the bassinet he will soon outgrow, you ask the husband about his days, about the woman at work whose name he seems to mention more often, about whether he wouldn’t mind if you switched to bottles soon. He’s tired, too, he says, and when you start to apologize for your fatigue, for your bleeding gums and for always being on the verge of tears, he tells you not to worry. Then he turns over, always, and lets you watch his back as if it is a privilege, you think, to do so.
You keep your sadness quiet. Mostly, you hold it in, but sometimes when the baby cries during the day, you see no harm in joining him. When your friends ask you how much the two of you love being parents, you say there is no way to measure, and you say it with a smile. You notice that your husband is asked no such questions. All the answers are left to you.
One afternoon during nap time you allow yourself to sleep in the glider in the corner of the baby’s room. If you have taken any advice at all, it is the mantra of sleeping when the baby sleeps. You treat nap time like religion, ignoring texts and invitations to Mommy and Me programs at the local library. In your dream the stairway of your home has been transformed into an enormous water ride. You get caught between lines and lines of children, all of them pushing. You are the only one without a float.
The baby wakes up as if feeling your pain, as he often seems to do. Sometimes at night when you tire of staring at your husband’s back, you sneak into the baby’s room and lift him into your arms and stand by the window in the moonlight. In those moments the baby reaches up and presses a hand to your lips, as if he would reach inside your mouth and suck out the loneliness in fistfuls if he could.
When you pick him up from the crib that day, at just shy of the eighth month mark, you feel his body burning through the ironic rock tee shirt you bought him only days before. As you murmur to him and stuff down your panic, you hold the baby in one arm and reach in the dresser drawer for the thermometer and the Vaseline, as if you have been taking rectal temperatures all your life, as if you have had not one but three hundred children. When you call the office, you answer the questions as best you can, tell the nurse that he is not crying but listless, that his eyes are moist, that his bowel movements haven’t changed. You feel pangs of sympathy for babies everywhere, for their helplessness, for their lack of privacy, for the endless mother’s microscope trained on them.
You are opening the door to the car before the nurse can finish telling you to bring him into the office. You leave a voice mail for your husband and think of the time before the baby, when you had the luxury of not answering your phone. You curse him out loud and then apologize to the baby, screaming in staccato bursts now in his seat. You imagine the fever rising, an internal flame stuck in his tiny chest.
At the office it is all you can do to cry out for help there in the sick room with the toddlers with noses caked with mucus, mothers holding out tissues while little boys in work boots and girls in pink bows fight over blocks that you hope are later sanitized. You are sorry you have stopped nursing, that you have deprived your poor son of your immunities, that you cared more about leaky breasts and cracked nipples than you did about his antibodies. You are not selfless enough. When one of the toddlers reaches over to touch your baby with a hand dipped in drool, you snatch up the infant seat and hold it on your lap.
Your first? one of the mothers asks, and when you just nod, she says, It gets easier.
When the nurse finally calls your baby’s name, you practically run down the hall into the exam room where you take the baby from his seat and wrap him in the fleecy blanket. The nurse asks when the fever began, and you tell her in a rush that you had only just lifted him when it struck, that he had been sleepy in the high chair, that you had not been wise enough to see the refusal of peaches as the beginning of an illness. You are so inexperienced, you want to say. You lack instinct. If selflessness can be measured, you are certain you would come up short. The nurse assures you that your baby looks hydrated, that she can tell he is happy. The baby smiles at her briefly then buries his head in your neck.
In the endless minutes before the pediatrician appears, you chastise yourself for every decision you have ever made. You should never have given up breast feeding so soon, no matter that your breasts ached constantly and the milk hadn’t seemed enough. You should have allowed for co-sleeping. You should never have taken him to the mall. You blame yourself for banishing the baby to his own room, for not devouring every parenting book your friends recommended, for moving two hundred miles away from your in-laws, for the deaths of your parents before he was born. You rock the baby there in the office and tell him in a whisper how sorry you are, so sorry, that you are not the mother the baby deserves.
At last the pediatrician opens the door and asks in his quiet way to tell you once more about the baby. He takes the baby from you and lays him down on the table. The paper crinkles as he unsnaps the baby’s onesie and lifts it up above the baby’s chest. With his thumbs—those glorious thumbs, you think, despite yourself—he feels at the sides of your baby’s neck. He asks if you will hold the baby’s head, and when you move to do so, you feel your left breast slide against the pediatrician’s sleeve. As you turn the baby’s head first to the left and then the right, you feel the burn in your face and down into your throat. Your pale skin has always betrayed you. You watch as the pediatrician aims his pinpoint of light into each of the baby’s ears and wonder what he might see if he aimed that light into the middle of you. You imagine the light boring a hole in your chest, all of your longing spilling out on the cold white floor of the pediatrician’s office. You imagine the longing thick as glue, seeping over the soles of the pediatrician’s loafers as he stands and allows himself to be surrounded in the desperate innards of you.
Afterward as you zip the baby into his one-piece pajamas with the yellow dinosaurs, the pediatrician speaks with eloquence about the virus your baby has, the runny nose likely to present itself, followed by the pink rash that will overtake the baby’s trunk just when the fever breaks. Roseola infantum, he says, and you watch his mouth as he speaks, wonder if he took elocution lessons along with his medical degree, so precise are the words that roll through the teeth and tongue and out of the goateed mouth. You imagine the words floatingacross the room into your own where you take them in and swallow them, stuffing them down so that the longing will stay where it belongs, inside the recesses that pulsate.
Call, the pediatrician says, if there are any changes.
You thank him, as you always do, and on your way out to the car, you think of all the changes you might enumerate to the pediatrician were you ever given the chance, changes that have nothing and everything to do with the baby. With your hand on your middle, you press into an abdomen looser than it once was and whisper to the baby that you will take care of the fever, that you will take care of it all.
At home your husband is waiting. You try to hide your surprise at seeing him, imagine your lusty thoughts about the pediatrician inked on your forehead, your burning cheeks. He takes the baby from you with one arm under the bucket seat and one arm around you. He asks why you didn’t call the office line or have him paged, apologizes for missing your call. His words are quick, the sentences winding their way down your throat until you feel the lump that seems to have been there since the day the baby was born. You tell him that you had no time, tell him about the baby’s heat. At that moment, you think, watching him peel the feverish baby from the seat, you are more mother than you have ever been.
While your husband watches, you measure the syringe with the infant Tylenol and squeeze the cherry liquid into the baby’s cheek, pursing his lips with your hand to aid in the swallowing. Your husband picks the baby up and strokes the baby’s hair with his hand, the baby’s cheek pressed to your husband’s shoulder.
My boy, your husband says, my poor boy, with the kind of tenderness that snakes down your throat and holds there, stealing your breath.
That night when the baby wakes with leaky eyes and breath thick with fever, after the baby screams through the Tylenol and twists his head away from the bottle he refuses, you take the baby into the bed and place him between your husband and you. You replay every word the pediatrician had said to you. Listless. Congested. Irritable. Feverish. How well you understand these words, you think. How well they describe you. Later, after taking turns walking the floor with the baby, you and your husband, you lift up your nightshirt and offer the baby your breast, sad and deflated as it is, watch as he latches on and holds it with one hand, squeezing.
I thought you had no more milk, your husband says, and as you watch your baby’s eyes close, you feel behind you in the bed for your cell phone and wrap your hand around it. The pediatrician, you remind yourself, is only a phone call away.
Comfort, you say. All he wants is comfort.
In minutes the baby falls asleep, soft puffs of air coming from his rounded mouth. Droplets of liquid cling to your nipple that you wipe away with the back of your hand. As you reach for your cell phone pressed between the mattress and your hip, your husband lays a hand on your bare arm. You can release the phone, you think, or not. You look down at the nail beds, the white half-moons, the rounded thumbs. You do not let go of the phone.
You, he says in a whisper, are such a good mother.