When I get to her apartment there are pregnancy tests all over the place. “The stick says I’m pregnant but I can’t be pregnant,” Kate is saying. “Yes,” the tests say, “=,” “pregnant.” Sticks are strewn across the dining room table, littered alongside half-empty bottles of sparkling water on marble countertops. I’ve seen this before, but Kate is supposed to want to be pregnant. “Congratulations!” I say and hug my friend who sighs, hands falling at her legs. She’d only gone off birth control two weeks ago.
My friends from highschool have kids… but Kate is my New York City friend. She is 26 and a writer. She has a buzzcut, dangly earrings and a Masters in Religious Studies. I am also in my late twenties and –like Kate — I am married. But I am undecided on having kids. Which sounds flippant but is probably more accurately interchangeable with ‘obsessive.’ The sun lights Kate’s apartment, dust visible in the air, and I feel myself vicariously pulled into some primal, female space. Birth is the life experience. (Like, by definition.) The idea that I wouldn’t have this chance makes me feel a selfish sort of loss.
Most of the time I can’t imagine having kids. When Kate announced two weeks ago that she was going off birth control, I had just sent her this email:
- I found myself mindlessly praying in the shower, God please never let me have a baby.
- I would probably have accidentally taken it with me into the shower right now and it would be dead because its mouth would have filled with water
I have this idea that if I have kids, it has to be when my life magically falls ‘together.’ Good Mothers devote themselves. Good Mothers are the primary care-taker. Good Mothers are Madonnas with sacrificial milk forever pumping from their breasts. For a while, after I first got married, I thought ‘together’ was happening. I bought natural food cookbooks. Boxes for organizing. But then inevitably, found myself reverting back to wine for dinner wandering through the apartment in a depressive haze, staring at apple cores and underwear I hadn’t picked up. “Wife” didn’t actually change me. I don’t think “Mother” would either. But the pressure for Mother to become your whole identity is certainly strong. I feel a pull to this and, simultaneously, a skepticism.
Kate saw a midwife last week, so she is at least a little prepared. Though she isn’t sure about the midwife.
“I don’t know. I asked about vaginal tearing and they had an alarmingly high rate,” Kate says.
“Jesus Christ,” I interrupt.
“I know. But here is the thing. Like, statistically there is no reason for that. There are really old methods. You put oil on a washcloth and slowly lube the vagina during birth.”
“That makes sense,” I say.
“But, like, I don’t want to be the weird hippie girl who asks ‘are you going to massage my vagina with a washcloth?
“Hey did you know they count the pregnancy from the day of your last period, instead of from when you ovulated?” Kate asks.
“Is that why they always ask when your last period was? And I am always like, I have no idea,” I say.
“What I want to know is who is the woman who knows? ‘Yes uhmm July 30th. I began to bleed at 2 p.m. Bleeding commenced 5 days later.’”
Talking with Kate is my favorite thing in the world. It is the best thing I can think of to do… but it also feels necessary. Elemental. Earth, wind, fire. Getting together once a week is like coming up for air. We gasp in between sentences. We talk quickly to keep up. Where we meet is on the same level. It is like diving into water, touching the bottom and then jumping up, through, at the same time. Landing, always, at the exact same spot.
Kate and I are spread out on her couch, a giant microsuede lilypad. Goddesses in yoga pants. Tonight we had plans to go to an Hypno Birth class, which sounded amusing? But this was before Kate knew she was pregnant. We sit, looking out the window. Her spacious apartment overlooks the Brooklyn Bridge and we watch the traffic move beneath us.
“Do you still want to go to the HypnoBirth thing tonight?” I ask.
“Yeah. Its not like I can do anything but sit and stare anyway.”
“How do you even take care of a baby?” Kate groans.
I tell Kate I was shocked when I saw my sister with her newborn. That you have to hold it constantly. That you can’t do anything while holding it. That if you want to do something, you have to pass it to another person.
The year that my sister got pregnant was the year our parents sold our childhood house and moved. It was the same year my husband and I moved to New York, from Chicago. There are things people don’t tell you about moving to New York. Like, at first you bolt upright in bed wondering what you have done. New York doesn’t accept you but instead asks over and over again: Who are you? I am still trying to answer. Each time I that I do, the idea of kids seem further and further away. In New York in your twenties you can still be a kid. Maybe in New York you can be young forever.
“In a way I am excited. It is such a monumental challenge,” Kate is saying, on the couch. And then we decide there is just too much stuff to think about.
“Like… you probably won’t even have time to masturbate anymore,” I say.
“I was thinking that. Like, will I watch porn when I have a baby? Can one watch porn with a baby?” Kate asks. “I had just been, like, watching some porn and then I realized… I was pregnant when I jerked off to that porn,” says Kate.
“But you will probably watch porn when you are like big pregnant too,” I say.
“Of course I will. I hope I will. I mean I am not going to become a different person. I am still going to like porn.”
The HypnoBirth class is in a large nondescript building in Midtown. The office has a sign on the door announcing other classes like hypnosis for losing weight or picking up women. We sit on folding chairs in a tiny room. On the wall in front of us, a piece of cloud-shaped paper reads “Reality is a Construction.”
A blonde woman wearing a knitted scarf and a large pregnant belly sits next to us.
“When are you guys due?” she asks.
“I am not pregnant,” I say, “But Kate is!” and put an arm around the back of her chair. I feel proud and wonder if people think Kate and I make a good couple. The question ‘why am I so invested in this pregnancy’ also enters my mind, but with no real intention to answer.
The hypno-teacher comes in. She is a large woman with blonde hair, dark brows and a tiny upturned nose. “Childbirth is a normal, natural, healthy function for women. Women are designed to give birth,” she tells us in a low, drawn out voice… “Babies do remember birth,” she smiles and nods.
Had we chosen to go to a class on HypnoBirth because it was funny and clearly not real? Or because we thought it was interesting and possibly useful? I can’t tell anymore. There was a time, I know, when I was firm about things I believed. Things like, atheism for instance. But there is something about believing in nothing that opens you up to believing in everything.
It feels like New York too. When we first moved here I was shocked by how lost I felt, suddenly lingering outside of astrologists, drawn there, moth to neon sign. I used to have ideas about how there were no really good parents and how I wanted to try. And now it feels like having children is selfish. And then I feel like I don’t even care, like that might be okay with me. New York has picked up and shaken me. I look over at Kate, she is paying attention.
The teacher is explaining that we have to change the way we think about childbirth. We have to change the words we use. “You don’t catch the baby, which sounds violent, you receive it” she says, smiling. “Its not your water breaking, its your membranes releasing.”
“I feel like I am not really pregnant” Kate says.
“But you arreeee” I say.
“No it’s like a joke. It’s a daydream.”
“It is sort of like you fell asleep and this alternate reality just sort of appeared,” I offer.
“We just stepped into a rift in the space time continuum, and we will stumble out soon,” Kate says.
“But it’s like. It’s like pregnancy is so deterministic. Like this thing happened and then the next thing will happen and then you will have a kid,” I say.
“When the test said positive I felt really out of control. I felt very excited and successful in a way but I felt scared because this is like unavoidable. It is deterministic… Like you are on this thing and you can’t get off. The only way to get off is to get an abortion. There is this sense of no going back…” Kate says.
“Yeah. You can’t get off,” I agree. “But then you have a kid and then… it never ends. You have the kid forever.”
“Death is the end,” Kate says.
“Rachel, I don’t know what to do with my life. Can you solve all of my problems, please?” she asks.
“You are going to keep working on your book while you grow this beautiful baby inside of you,” I say.
“Is it beautiful though? This blastocyst that is only 200 cells, floating somewhere in my uterus already has all of the genes it will need. It is already predicted what it will look like. Maybe it is already ugly.”
“It is already ugly! And we love it,” I say.
In class the woman next to us keeps explaining that she is scared of giving birth. She is 22 weeks pregnant and she doesn’t want the birth to happen. The hypno woman says that birth doesn’t have to hurt. That she was designed for birth. It doesn’t need to be painful. “Its not a contraction you are having. It is a ‘surge or a wave’” she reminds her. “I just think it is really going to hurt,” the woman says. The hypnotist explains that she just needs to use her ‘rainbow visualization CD’.
We watch a movie of hypno births. The women yoga-breathe, eyes closed, totally silent. Even as the babies are coming out, they are still eerily, room-buzzingly silent. I realize I honestly know nothing about birth. When my sister gave birth last summer she was a little early and I missed it, which made me scream. I was upset in the same way I get when, as a journalist, I miss a good scoop for a story.
Afterward I even tried to interview my sister about what I had missed.
Did the birth have a color? “No,” she answered, wearily. Trying to breastfeed.
What were some weird, unexpected things about being pregnant? “My nose bled a lot,” she said.
My sister’s infant daughter was the most beautiful person I had ever seen. Her skin was opal-y pink and iridescent. She had delicate hands and half moon fingernails. Looking at her face, I saw my sister and my mother and myself.
Mostly, I don’t want them. But then there are moments. The first time my parents visited New York, they had to leave right away because of Hurricane Irene. The storm hit and then the next night my husband and I walked to a bar, wading through the branches in the street. “Wait, stop,” I said. “What is that?” Someone was crying. “Its the trash-bag” my husband said, pointing. Something inside it moved, screeching. We tore into the bag, separating out the trash, but whatever it was — probably a rat — must have fled. Moments like that. Or just staying out until 5 a.m. and regretting. “I want babies,” I say to my husband, hung over in the half-bedroom of our small basement apartment. Feeling like I just want to change my life.
But mostly I feel about children the way I do about tattoos. Fantasizing about it is great. But it has never felt right. The permanence is way too much.
After the Hypno class Kate and I are cynical. If birth is so natural how come you have to buy all these CDs and books in order to do it? In the street, I feel a need to shelter Kate. One hand in front of her, the other grasping a “Use Hypnosis to Get Pregnant” brochure. The teacher handed it to me on the way out. I will throw it away later.
The thing I did realize on the trip home to see my sister’s baby… was that I missed New York. That I loved New York because of the people there. Because of Kate. I love the way she looks wearing sunglasses, clutching a $6 juice. She reminds me of how I felt when I first moved out of my parents house. The way it felt so cool to just be able to take a cab, buy an overly expensive drink. It still feels this way with Kate. Like I am so excited to be an adult with her. Sometimes, I catch it in her eyes too: Isn’t this just awesome? Can you even believe what our teenage selves would say if they could see us? Aren’t you excited for whatever happens next?