I have never been able to recognize parental features in an infant. From my perspective, babies look like strange creatures whose enormous heads, chubby cheeks, and bulbous bellies belie their adult forms. Moreover, their behaviors resemble those of unruly pets. They slobber, sh-t themselves, and fail to comply with even simple requests. Bearing these qualities in mind, I feel a bit better about my past tendency to refer to any given infant as ‘it’ rather than ‘he’ or she.’ But infantile dissociation becomes a challenge when parenthood is a distinct possibility.
Let’s call my female counterpart Harmony for the sake of irony.
Harmony and I met in the spring of 2008. We independently enrolled in the same undergraduate literature course and inadvertently attended the same indie rock concert. This serendipitous combination was the foundation of a relationship that dispensed with all courtship rituals. We screamed our introductions over the music and then we were dating. We spent every subsequent day together and didn’t see an end to this routine. But our notions of inseparability were quickly severed by summer. Harmony went to live with her parents, while I went to stay with mine. We agreed to visit each other intermittently during the break and resume our relationship unabated when school continued in August. One week into our summer break, Harmony called and spoke the two words no one wants to hear from a girlfriend of two months: “I’m pregnant.” My disbelief quickly transformed into panic and nausea as the gravity of her voice became clear. After some deliberation, I committed to visiting my girlfriend during this frightening ordeal.
Her parents lived in a suburban town in central Florida. The three hour drive felt like three months. I finally reached the proper I-4 exit at two a.m. and spent the next half hour passing several neighborhoods that each bore the name of a different species of tree. I knew that I found the right location when I saw a girl crying into her hands on the side of the road. When I approached my despondent girlfriend, the best consolation I could come up with was “everything is going to be alright,” a chorus directed to me as much as it was to her.
Harmony brought me inside her house and any question I had about her family’s awareness of the situation instantly vanished. Despite the early hour, her parents sat awake at the kitchen table administering stares that would make a Zen master writhe. I tried to cut the tension with a greeting. They said nothing back. This was the first time I ever met these people and they loathed me. Harmony and I took refuge in her room. By some miracle, she was able to fall asleep. I did not. Various scenarios fed my insomnia. What if she gets an abortion? What if we put the child up for adoption? What if we keep the child? These questions weren’t abstract anymore; they were as real as the girl sleeping in the fetal position next to me.
The next morning I went to the kitchen table and sat alone. Harmony’s parents joined me and what followed approximated a tag team wrestling match pitting Andre the Giant and Hulk Hogan against Gandhi. When Harmony’s mother tired from screaming at me, her father tagged in and continued the litany of accusations and demands. In the face of such parental wrath, I could only apologize. They concluded their verbal bludgeoning by decreeing that I would pay for an abortion.
I communicated this prospect to Harmony. With a tone of certainty she said, “I don’t think I can go through with that.” I was going to be a father. I only remember snapshots from the rest of the day.
I remember the mother sighing “I guess I have to feed you,” and then offering me ham or bacon. I saw no issue publicizing my inconvenient vegetarianism to the woman who wanted me dead. In hindsight, “you gotta be f-cking kidding me” seems a proper response. She made me a grilled cheese with extra venom.
I remember accompanying Harmony to her childhood friend’s house in a vain attempt to distract ourselves from the current situation. Upon our arrival, he verbalized his dissatisfaction with his summer and declared that he was having “the worst day ever.” Harmony and I quickly retreated back to her house.
Finally, I remember sitting with Harmony in her room and beginning to accept the idea of having a child with her. Two months is a short amount of time to be with someone, but it was enough time to appreciate my girlfriend’s intelligence, humor, and kindness. The flashes of wit and grace she displayed in our class were brighter and more frequent now that we were together. Her innate charm made every conversation between us a genuine pleasure, even those that took place amid these difficult circumstances. All things considered, I loved being around this short-haired sylph. If I was going to have a child, I was glad it was going to be with her.
As soon as this acceptance began to wash over me, Harmony left the room. She returned minutes later and said something strange was happening. She said she was menstruating.
Details began to emerge. Harmony thought she missed her period around the time school ended. Consequently, all those horror stories of women getting pregnant due to faulty contraceptives and other failed preventative measures began circulating in her mind. She bought a pregnancy test when she returned home, but in her fear and stress, asked her mother to read the results.
Harmony originally told me that her mom read the pregnancy test wrong, but later recanted this explanation and attributed the ordeal to a false positive. Regardless of whether folly or (mis)fortune is to blame, I’m a firm believer that general vilification of your daughter’s boyfriend should be reserved until after the second pregnancy test. The one that uses the word “Pregnant” to indicate a positive result and the words “Not Pregnant” to indicate a negative result. So we went to the nearest grocery store and bought such a test.
Harmony cried out in joy and fell to the floor when the results of the second pregnancy test materialized. My behavior was much more reserved, but I shared her sentiment.
I’ve always heard that you can only tell who someone is during a crisis. Maybe there’s some truth to that saying, but there are some crises that are so disconcerting that all you can do is react like the befuddled deer that sees two lights quickly approaching. In my case, the vehicle swerved and I was left wondering if I could glean anything from this event that I possessed absolutely no control over. In the end, this episode also taught me a valuable lesson about parenting. The ire of Harmony’s parents had only one recipient: me. Meanwhile, their daughter received the unconditional love and affection typical of exemplary parents. Harmony might have been fallible and her parents might have expressed disappointment, but compassion overcame all of this. I had no familial relation to them, so they had no obligation to extend any courtesy to me.
I used to wonder how new parents can joyfully coddle a baby that is, by any objective measure, repulsive and stress-inducing. But the exceptional nature of the parent-child relationship is clear to me now. At their best, parents provide desperately needed stability in a world that is indifferent and chaotic. At their worst, they inadvertently become contributors to the world’s maddening disorder by, for example, misreading a pregnancy test. But even then, the resolution to protect and care for their child never wavers. The purity and permanence of this singular goal compels me to forgive Harmony’s parents. It even inspires me to consider having my own child someday.
Just not anytime soon.