Susan Sontag once wrote “strictly speaking, one learns nothing from a photograph.” This is the picture taken just a few hours after the birth of our child, deceptive in its immediacy and seeming transparency. I want to tell the story of this picture (before and after) – for me anyhow, there’s a lot more to it than just what you see.
That picture was taken a little more than 6 months ago. Over the past few weeks, I’ve around 50 pages telling that story: one that began as ordinary, and moved at times towards apparent catastrophe and has come back, in a way, to ordinary. The whole experience has been moving in ways I didn’t know I could be moved, and I wanted to share it a few pages at a time (I’m planning 10-15 posts).
Two points before I begin:
1) I’m dreadfully worried about seeming self-centered. Of course the fact that I wrote 50 pages suggests I’m mostly okay with this , but while I was writing it, I was thinking I was writing it just for my family. When I finished, I started to think, why not share it? I think it has something to say beyond the circumstances of my life. I hope you’ll agree.
2) This is about 3/4 personal experience, 1/4 political opinion-sharing. I set out twice to write this: this first time, the politics came to overwhelm the narrative. The second time, I very self-consciously tried to avoid this, but, being who I am, and having had the experience we had, I found I just couldn’t set aside the politics of prenatal decisionmaking, childbirth and health care more generally. I decided to take this as a sign that it was something I just needed to include. I always experience my personal life through the lens of politics to some extent anyway, and have from when I was very young (I remember, for example, having strong opinions about the 1980 presidential election, though having myself been born in 1977, I was only 3 at the time).
So I don’t apologize for any of the opinions expressed, and I hope you’ll at least consider them, even if you don’t agree. I’ve found that through the whole process, not only does one encounter strong opinions on all sides, but those opinions are also very difficult to get people to reflect upon. They generally are extremely beholden to the decisions they made, and probably for good reason: pregnancy, childbirth and early childhood development decisions are clearly very important, and also very intensely experienced.
All I can really say at the outset about this is that political theorizing, as well as more concrete legislative and public-policy topics have always fascinated me, and so I hope you’ll believe me when I say I didn’t come to any of these conclusions lightly or merely as the result of social pressure. Disagree with me if you will, but please don’t dismiss my ideas. Then again if you’re reading this, you probably know me or know someone who knows me, which means you won’t be quite as tempted to dismiss them as the average commentator on a parenting message-board.
The Daddy Book
On a Saturday toward the end of July, 2013, Brooke got up early and went to run some errands. This was unusual – generally we’d spend the whole morning together on a day like that – but it was also welcome, as, at base, I’m lazy, so I accepted her suggestion that she go out and deal with a couple of things, because it meant I got probably two hours to myself, two hours I’d probably spend sleeping or reading the newspaper in my apartment. I didn’t give it much extra thought, just imagining that she had some extra energy on this day.
By the time she returned, I had gotten my act together and was reading the paper on my iPad and finishing my coffee. She had gotten me a present she said – it was clearly a thin book, wrapped in very colorful wrapping paper. She set it tentatively on the kitchen counter and I looked at it, sort of confused. Brooke does like gifts, but no particular occasion was at hand – it wasn’t my birthday, Christmas, well – maybe it was that I was about to start school again? So I sort of shrugged, smiled and tore it open.
Before I could finish, she announced “because today I found out you’re going to be a dad!” Confused, elated but ultimately taken by surprise, I saw that it was a little kid’s book called The Daddy Book. I started to flip through it and read its words aloud (“some daddies wear hats”) not quite sure why I was doing this, but I think I read through to the end aloud. Even as I was doing so, Brooke was already processing all of the steps that needed to be taken: she had to call her parents, her sister, start shopping for at least 15 different things on Cragislist, make an appointment at Illinois Masonic, the hospital we had already planned to use when the time came, and several more things that were flying by too quickly for me to even fathom.
Outwardly I was excited, inwardly I was frightened. Not about what you might think: like the sort of “holy shit I’m going to be a dad, will I be good enough, how will this change my life?” things that very well could have occupied my thoughts and feelings at that moment. No – this was fear of a different sort: I became immediately convinced Brooke would have a miscarriage, and I was deeply frightened for her and how disappointed she would inevitably be. As I watched her flutter around the kitchen and begin a to-do list I began my own preparations, began to answer the question of just how I would, first of all, tamp down her expectations, and then later, how I would comfort her when things didn’t work out.
All of this manifested itself immediately as anger and frustration… “Whoa whoa whoa” I wanted to say, I thought we were going to wait three months, make sure everything was going well, and then tell everyone. We’d look ludicrous making a show of it now, didn’t she know how many early pregnancies ended in miscarriages anyhow, and by the way, were you secretly taking pregnancy tests this last few weeks? We didn’t discuss that either. Brooke explained that it was only our friends and more distant relatives we wouldn’t be telling for three months – it would be silly not to tell our families. At least her family.
I don’t remember the rest of the details of that conversation except that I know it ended in a medium-level fight. I got more and more angry that she had seemingly taken all these steps without discussing them; she got more and more mad that I wasn’t excited like she was, and pretty soon she was apologizing for being so stupid, to have gotten me a book and tried to surprise me like this. Then I was apologizing for not having just taken it in better spirits, that it was really sweet she had gotten me that book, and of course I was excited we’d be having a child.
Also, in a flash of insight, I realized that if nothing else, these events had made crystal clear the extrovert (her)-introvert (me) dynamic of our relationship. Something big happens, she says “let’s tell everyone!”; I say “oh God we can’t tell anyone.” And still there was this miscarriage worry. Not worry – certainty: I was absolutely sure that’s what would come of this, and if Brooke hadn’t realized this yet, well, all the more reason for me to remain quiet until I could figure out what to do. A few days later I realized that Brooke’s outward-turned response was neither more nor less valid than my inward-turned one. But it was only a medium fight. As it was going, I could think “okay, this makes sense this is happening, don’t yell too loudly!” and anyhow, wasn’t I the weird one, not excited we were going to have a child, something we had talked through from almost every angle (or at least, every angle we thought we needed to talk through, which turned out to have included far, far fewer angles, or better, an entirely different set of angles that were completely unimagined by us in the weeks and months prior to this day).
Brooke’s mom was in from out of town, and we had previously planned to go out that evening to celebrate her birthday, along with Brooke’s sister and her husband. Allegedly, we would keep it a secret from them at least for a few hours. Even as we went to dinner, we had reached some sort of compromise, whereby we would only mention it “if it came up naturally,” a sort of face-saving compromise that allowed me to pretend I had extracted a meaningful concession. I knew there was no way in Hell Brooke wouldn’t let this out during the course of the meal.
We headed to Bin 36, a wine- and cheese-tasting themed bar and restaurant that had seen its heyday about 10 years earlier, and was now only barely holding on as far as I could tell. We had been there many times, and the tables had generally been full. On this occasion I think it was maybe only us and one or two other parties. We got there early, so we decided to have a drink at the bar. I ordered a gin cocktail, and Brooke asked them to make a creative nonalcoholic drink, perhaps lemonade-based. This was supposedly going to maintain the illusion that were just out and having a drink like normal. While we munched on some of those spindly breadstick crackers that sat on the bar in a tall glass, I thought about how I had about 2-3 more minutes before the rest of our party arrived, and then basically, knowing what I knew about Brooke’s mother, about 3 billion people would soon know we were having a child. Fortunately for me, though, the 3 billion people who would find out would not include my friends or family.
As soon as they got there, and we took our drinks over to our table, Brooke’s sister, perhaps intuiting the situation from some deep bond of sisterhood, didn’t mince words: “What you are you drinking?”
“Oh, it’s some sort of thing the bartender made up” (Brooke couldn’t bring herself to lie, but she didn’t want to tell the whole truth either).
“Is it a whiskey drink?” (it had a brownish tint to it, but she knew full well what she was asking and why).
“Oh, I’m not sure” (Brooke was now more or less failing completely at any semblance of a coverup).
When the waiter brought over a celebratory aperitif, one Brooke’s sister had presumably arranged for the occasion beforehand, the jig was up. Brooke explained that though it was extremely early, she was pretty sure she was pregnant. The table erupted in congratulation. Brooke’s mom deliver what seemed like a prepared speech, including ideas about what her grandchild was to call her (“nanna”), all the healthy food Brooke should make sure to eat, and the speech was punctuated throughout with me being directly addressed as “daddy,” approximately 8.75 months before I thought I’d face that particular title for the first time.
[To be continued. Next time – our first prenatal appointment]