As my mother lay in the spare room at my sister’s house laboring to leave this world, she was often in and out of consciousness. Mostly, she was not lucid. She would have conversations with people who weren’t in the room and of whom my sisters and I had never even heard her speak. Probably they were relationships that had long ago fizzled out, and some of them were probably people who had died years earlier.
If you have never seen someone straddle two realms, it is fascinating. You could chalk it up to the brain misfiring and causing the subconscious and conscious mind to coalesce into one confused reality. Or you could attribute it to something spiritual, that there is some place that we cannot readily access until we are close to leaving this existence. Whatever your explanation, it is truly something to behold when you witness a person in that place.
Some of what she said did not make sense, and some of it was profound in a simple way.
At one point, she looked off into the distance as if she was seeing something we couldn’t, and then it registered with her what that was. She marveled, “I have granddaughters.” It was somewhere between a statement and a question, a surprised observation more than a proclamation.
At the time, she had only grandsons. Three boys ranging from barely-teenager to just-beyond-toddler. Nobody was pregnant or planned to get that way. So, we all assumed that she had met my children who had not yet been conceived, and that they were girls. Then, shortly after my mom died, my oldest sister decided to get pregnant. The timing could have been better—it’s seldom a good idea to make major life-changing decisions in the wake of death.
It took me a while to come to terms with the notion of her having a baby at all with a guy who had screamed at her for not being sensitive to his needs, while our mother’s body wasn’t even 24 hours cold. It took me even longer to accept the fact that she would be having a baby girl. I felt doubly slighted. Not only was my sister not able to spend the months after our mother’s death growing closer to my other sister and me through our grief in the way that I had hoped for, but also it felt like I was missing out on something. It was supposed to be me who had daughters. It brought into stark relief that I seemed to be nowhere near the point in my life of having babies, boys or girls.
When my niece was born on the last day of June, I was in the grip of one of my life’s nastiest spells of depression to date. It had started in the spring following the back-to-back deaths of my Aunt Cathie and Uncle Tom and would last all the way until a manic upswing in August contributed to me dismantling my life for a few weeks. Her birth barely registered with me. Less than a week prior, I was lying in a darkened hotel room in Miami staring at a bridge I hoped to jump off if I could just muster the energy to peel myself out of the king sized bed.
Not quite six months after her birth, I would find myself standing in the doorway of my cold apartment bathroom on the day after Christmas, my arms slung around Em’s neck while he gripped my waist with his left arm and stiffly held a positive pregnancy test out with his right. We were having a baby. We were starting a family. Only a few weeks before, we had nearly let our lives veer way off this course. Mutual stubbornness, loneliness, grief, and baggage had piled between us and we were almost too obstinate and too foolish to kick the pile aside and just be happy together.
From the moment we saw that first positive result, I was certain that this baby was a girl. I felt it in my bones. My mother had said so within hours of her dying breaths. I wanted a girl. I had three nephews and knew them well, and they were wonderful. But I saw myself connecting with a daughter. I would teach her how to balance femininity with feminism and I couldn’t wait to see Em fall in love with his baby daughter. I was so certain that we decided not to find out what we were having. We used female pronouns. We were set.
Then one night I woke up anxious.
What if it’s a boy? Am I going to be as happy? What if I give birth and it’s a boy and then I’m disappointed? There will be so many complex emotions at the time of birth anyway, what if suddenly I’m also confronted with the notion that maybe I’m terrible because I had a son and I wanted a daughter and I fail to connect with him?
We agreed to find out the sex. We would do so at my 20ish week ultrasound, the week after we came back from my work conference down south. Except I didn’t want to wait. Suddenly I needed to know and I needed to know now. So one weekend afternoon while we were supposed to be napping together, I scoured the internet on my phone and found a place that does ultrasounds and “gender” reveal (it’s not the gender, it’s the sex, just so we’re all clear) in a comfortable, less clinical setting. They could get us in fairly soon. We talked about it after Em woke up, and scheduled an appointment for a few days later.
Everything surrounding the appointment had been frustrating because I was and am easily frustrated by everything in life these days. I repeatedly bit Em’s head off as we prepared to leave, as we left, as we drove the 50 minutes to the appointment. This, after having bitten it off via text message periodically throughout the day. Every time it grew back, I bit it off again.
By the time they got us in the room, we were nervous and excited together because he is forgiving and it had been at least five consecutive minutes since I had snapped at him. I lay back on the bed and he stood to my left with his right hand stroking my hair and his left hand holding mine.
The technician explained to her trainee that she likes to see “gender” at least three times before revealing it to the parents. She was sure right away with our baby, but still liked to follow that rule. She swiped the wand across my abdomen and froze the screen. She typed with her free hand, “It’s a … BOY!!!!!!!!”
I was stunned, but smiling, and turned to look at Em immediately as the fact registered. He wore an expression I have rarely seen on him, an effusiveness that spread his grin from ear to ear and brought water to his eyes.
I really thought it was a girl, he admitted as he bent down to kiss my forehead, my cheeks, my lips.
All this time I had raved about being certain it was a girl and he had been mostly quiet for weeks. He went along, probably in large part because I can be a bull(y) in my certainty. But I was a little peeved—for weeks, he had let me go on and on as if the idea of the baby being a girl had come only from me.
The technician prepared to move on to finalizing the ultrasound session. He is not shy, she told us, beaming.
What I heard was, he’s barely beyond being a zygote, he’s just sprouted these genitals and already he’s like a frat boy hollering, LOOK AT MY JUNK, BRUH!
When I was about ten, I remember visiting some of my younger boy cousins at their house in the small town where my dad was living at the time. They were all swimming, and the youngest was the embodiment of what people mean when they say “all boy”. At only about six or seven years old, he was a ball of energy, obnoxious, in your face. He repeatedly splashed into the water as hard as he could, and at one point he manically remembered a trick he had learned somewhere, or maybe he just thought it up on the spot and that’s why he was so excited about it.
Wanna see the moon?!!?!?! he inquired. Without waiting for an answer, he yanked down his swim trunks and mooned us, slapping his own butt and giggling. Then he splashed bare-assed into the pool, laughing with glee and spraying me with water. He emerged and got back on the ladder and yelled, And this is the sunshine! He pulled down the front of his trunks and flashed us all with his little boy penis and giggled hysterically as he belly flopped into the water. He did this over and over, undeterred by my lack of amusement and fueled by his own internal energy.
This is what I envisioned. A boy. I was having a boy and he “wasn’t shy” with his genitals.
Oh dear God.
This was precisely why I wanted to know well before I gave birth. I did not want to have to navigate complicated feelings in the midst of also pushing out my placenta, learning to breastfeed, being sleep-deprived, and potentially having to nurse a wounded taint. Nobody needs that.
And, of course, I immediately felt like a monster. Who would be anything other than thrilled that she has a healthy baby who is developing on schedule?
Already, before knowing what I was having, I had dealt with several well-meaning but condescending people who had asked me what I was having and when I didn’t know had responded with, “well, all that matters is that it’s healthy, right?”
I get it, that’s a platitude and we just say things like that. But still.
What a shitty thing to say to a pregnant woman. Let’s break it down, shall we?
First of all, to say that’s “all that matters” says to a pregnant woman (whose feelings are many and varied and complex and BIG) that any feelings she has that deviate from that are invalid. She is wrong, a disgrace, probably not deserving of motherhood. She should be ashamed of herself if she focuses on anything other than a “healthy” baby.
Do you know how many women would kill to be in your position, with a healthy baby?
See also: I can’t believe you didn’t finish your meal when there are starving children in Africa.
“All that matters is that it’s healthy” puts a lot of pressure on a pregnant woman. There are innumerable reasons why a baby may be born “unhealthy”, most of which have everything to do with genes and little to do with elements that a woman can control. There are a lot of reasons a pregnancy may end in miscarriage, and sometimes even pregnancies that are moving along quite normally are suddenly no longer viable, or the baby is no longer healthy.
Not to mention that the term “healthy” is so subjective. What does that statement say about my child if he is born with down syndrome or ends up on the autism scale? Does that mean he cannot be considered healthy? What if he has an extra toe, or is deaf in one ear, or is born with any of a range of supposed abnormalities, or “defects” as we so gracefully call them? Is he somehow less than a baby who was not born with the same issues? Does he matter less? Is his life worth less? Should I feel slighted?
“All that matters is that it’s healthy, right?” No. That’s not all that matters. And by the way, go piss up a rope.
Like I have said about a zillion times and will continue to say for-ev-er, feelings are complicated. Pregnant feelings are like a corn maze full of Rubik’s cubes. There is no hope of solving them all, of figuring it all out, of making sense of everything. The best you can hope for is that you feel okay more than you feel not-so-okay. I imagine it’s tenfold or more with motherhood.
You may struggle to connect with your unborn child and there is no shame in that. It does not make you a bad mother or a bad person.
My middle sister admitted recently that she wasn’t sure how she could possibly love her unborn son the way she’d loved the dog she had to euthanize when she was seven months pregnant. She couldn’t imagine it, even as she could see from the outside as his tiny alien limbs swiped across the walls of her uterus. She felt disembodied and disconnected.
On some level, she knew she would love her son because of course she would. She knew it in an abstract, intellectual way, not in the way that you feel your feelings. And, sometimes, she didn’t know it so much as she was banking on it and hoped she was right.
She had been on bed rest off and on since the seventh week of her pregnancy and just carrying the baby had been incredibly taxing and constantly disruptive to her life. When you are a first-time mother and especially when your pregnancy is difficult, it can be hard to imagine that all the sacrifice is going to pay off with anything other than feeling relieved at no longer having to be pregnant.
And when you are less than certain about the sex of your baby, when you had your heart set on one over the other, it can feel like a grieving process to let go of your expectations. You are giving something up, and it is a loss. You had a vision. It was a gendered vision and you had preconceived notions about what it means for a child to be a girl versus a boy. You had it in your head that there are intrinsic qualities to girls and boys that trump any parenting you and your partner might do and any socializing to which your offspring might be subjected.
But that’s not quite accurate. Sure, we all have intrinsic qualities. But you are just as likely to end up with a rough-and-tumble, crude little girl as you are to end up with a sweet, sensitive, and thoughtful little boy. Every time a couple gets pregnant, they are essentially rolling the dice. That kid may end up with mom’s temperament and dad’s height. Or vice versa. Or it may be its father through and through, or possibly will be just like its mama. And, somehow, it may get Great Aunt Gladys’s nose. You just don’t know, and you can’t know, and there is great freedom in letting go of the laughable idea that somehow you can control it, or that you could at any point in the process (this excludes discussions about genetics, science, et al.)
The truth is, it was easier for me to come to terms with having a boy than I thought it might be. I was able to think about some of the wonderful mothers I have known throughout the years, many of whom have first-born sons. I pictured myself in their shoes with all the dreams they had for their own unborn baby boys, and I was able to envision my own dreams for my son. And I fell in love with him that way, though most days it still feels surreal.
Em is a huge baseball fan, the Chicago Cubs to be specific. And I can imagine him taking me and our son to games, imparting all the weird sports statistics knowledge in him that makes me head off to snoozeville, while I get drunk and yell at the players because that’s a nice outlet for anger.
I look at my partner’s profile and see the shape of his nose, his ears, his bright blue eyes, and I get lost imagining those features on my child. I think about showing my son how to be gentle with animals and delicate with plants. I picture Em teaching him how to play the guitar and sing, how to read music and use the record player.
I imagine teaching him about technology and watching as his knowledge and skillset races past mine. I think about him learning from my pseudo-sister-in-law about the quiet places her big brother taught her to fish. I think of his Grammy showing him the ins and outs of smart-mouthed gardening, and his Grandad teaching him about how to work on cars like Monte Carlos.
I watch my sisters with their sons, and I think about how much love they have given me over my often-troubled life, and how much they are going to shower this baby boy with everything they have to offer.
I imagine Em’s family doting on him, the first-born grandchild—just like his dadda. I imagine Em’s mom dressing up our toddler son in a beautiful dress like the pictures I have of Em with matching sunhat and purse. I think about him learning to drive a tractor for the first time, and how to properly cut flowers. I imagine him learning hymns from his aunts on that side, and how to hold hands and sing in prayer. I think of my dad teaching him to respect firearms (and basically any skill under the sun because that’s who my dad is), and my step-mom showing him how to use a sewing machine.
I needed a day or two to recalibrate, and then I remembered how much I love this partner of mine and what an incredible man he is. And I thought back to the unruly cousin, and I see him now as a soft-spoken but opinionated adult.
I remember a time when I was just a little younger than he was and I engaged in some pretty weird behaviors myself. I befriended a dead mouse and carried it around with a band-aid on its tail until my mother discovered what I was doing and made no effort to hide how appalled she was, and probably tried to convince herself that I was not going to be a serial killer and it would all work out. I hadn’t killed the mouse. I just found it that way, and I didn’t grasp the difference between life and death, and I was thrilled to have an animal friend even if it was diseased and dead.
When I stop and get quiet and feel this baby’s tiny limbs doing karate kicks and chops on the walls of my womb, I become aware of something. It hits me that all these things that I cannot wait to teach my child, the kindness and compassion and love that I want to instill in all my children? It applies, no matter what sex they are and no matter where they land on the “healthy” scale.
To be clear, I love this child already. I feel protective of him and am actually glad to be having a boy. I know and understand baby boys because of my experience with nephews. My point with this post is that nothing is as dichotomous as we often seem to think. We often fail to give people adequate space in which to process thoughts and emotions that might deviate from “normal”. We are especially cruel to mothers, and hold them to a higher standard than many other portions of the population. I think many pregnant women and mothers (new and seasoned) suffer alone, keep quiet, and don’t feel safe even having feelings, let alone working through them.