A real boy

I didn’t want kids, at first. Or at least not right away. In my twenties I couldn’t imagine being responsible for anything but the yellow, peanut- shaped cactus that sat on my windowsill, which I could forget about for weeks, or months, at a time. Later, I didn’t want to be the wife who nagged her husband into having children. There was no extra money anyway. I was a grad student. He was a server. Both of us jealous of our writing time. Both of us enamored of two tiny dogs we treated like babies. Carrying them. Cooing to them. Worrying over their habits of eating and excretion and sleep.

Written By Katie Cortese
Illustrations By Sara Rabin
A Real Boy

In my thirties, maybe hormones changed things. My clock ticking down. Or maybe it was the constant onslaught of other people’s happiness. On my Facebook feed, dozens of childhood friends cemented claims to adulthood by duplicating themselves once, twice, three times over. Against the gorgeous, gummy grins that paraded endlessly down my screen, resistance was futile. Or maybe all that changed was I finally owned up to what had always been true all along.

Yet, in public, when people asked when the grandkids were coming, I’d laugh as if motherhood was farthest thing from my mind.

Meanwhile, in private, I turned 33, then 34. In private, I grew humorless. Fixated. In private, I began to resemble the figurehead of a ship tacking into an impenetrable fog, map and manifest be damned, its shifting gray depths a canvas for all marvelous projections.

And then, two years into a new job at a West Texas University, with no good reason and little warning, my husband and I were both ready to try. Within the month, a digital test issued a proclamation so clear I could hold out the stick for my husband to read the word “pregnant” in black letters against a gray background instead of trusting myself to speak.

I didn’t want to be induced. I didn’t want Demerol or an epidural or, God forbid, a C-section. When we planned our ideal birth with preprinted index cards in the free parenting class at our hospital, I chose Relaxation & Breathing over Pitocin to spur on contractions. Spontaneous Pushing over Forceps. Natural Tearing over an Episiotomy.

ALL OF US CHOSE HEALTHY MOTHER & BABY OVER COMPLICATIONS, AS WE WERE SUPPOSED TO

and when the game forced us to whittle down our ideal births until only that card was left, I nodded my head to agree to keep my options open. But all the while, I looked around at the other expectant mothers and wondered who among us would crack.

“I don’t even like taking Tylenol,” I’d say to anyone who’d listen. “I’ll pass on the needle in my spine.”

I didn’t want to be late. First a few days, then a week. Then more. I still didn’t want to be induced, but made an appointment for 42 weeks, just in case, on the doctor’s advice. My parents flew across the country to be on-site when their first grandchild arrived. We toured a museum full of canvas gliders from World War II, and one of Texas’ frontier houses, and one of windmills still as statues, towering above our heads. We sold a car and bought another. We washed baby clothes in Tide Free.

My husband and I sang to a son still stubbornly inside me whose life I measured in jabs and flutters, hiccups and heartbeats, blurry sonograms in which he covered his face with a hand. We read him books, describing the pictures. Played the soundtrack to O Brother Where Art Thou on a loop, and as we sat on the couch in front of one Netflix show after another, we tried and failed to imagine how different our lives would be in a week, a year, a decade.

While we waited, we took turns fielding questions from anxious friends and relatives in other time zones for 10 overdue days until my contractions finally started during the last episode of Daredevil. “Good timing,” we said, and drove to the hospital through 5-a.m.-silent streets.

I DIDN’T WANT ANYONE IN THE ROOM EXCEPT MY HUSBAND, DOULA AND DOCTOR, PLUS WHATEVER NURSES HAD TO BE THERE FOR SECRET REASONS OF THEIR OWN

It was a teaching hospital, but we’d specified on our birth plan “no students,” though now I know it wouldn’t have mattered if I’d labored in front of a seminar class. My world had narrowed to two kinds of people—those in pain (me), and those not (everyone else). I could barely open my eyes, never mind keep track of the other humans in the room.

My septuagenarian parents sat all 27 hours on a vinyl-covered bench outside the door texting updates back home, and leaving briefly to fetch food for my husband as the “controlled vocalizations” from my Birth Skills book transitioned into screams. Like the lead singer of The Cranberries, my husband said later. Two-toned. Desperate. Raw.

I wanted the heating pad, then didn’t.

I wanted to walk, then kneel.

I wanted ice chips, but not the popsicle my doula brought because it was grape.

I wanted to push.

I wanted to quit; to cease to be; to wake up at home, all of this over, or never begun.

I wanted my body to behave, to perform, to impress.

I wanted to stick to the plan.

But I wanted a healthy baby more.

Faced with the threat of a C-section (which I still didn’t want), I agreed to an epidural. And it was magical. I pressed the button for more medicine again and again, and when the inkling of a contraction snuck back in, I called the nurse to step up the dose.

I wanted to go back in time and curse my stubborn self for making me do it the hard way.

When they laid my beautiful boy on my chest I wanted everything to be perfect, but it was only the eye of the storm.

I didn’t want to let go when they took him to suction out his lungs. Fluid, they said, that was making him grunt. Then up in postpartum, I didn’t want to watch the charge nurse press her stethoscope against his chest, brow furrowed at whatever she heard.

I didn’t want his bassinet be whisked away for an x-ray “downstairs,” or for the nurse from the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit to patiently explain at my bedside that they needed more tests. I didn’t understand that he wouldn’t return to our room, or that he’d stay in the NICU several days at least, if not a week. Or two. Or more.

Most of all, I didn’t want to see my son encased in a plastic tent pumped full of oxygen with just his tiny feet exposed, bare toes gripping our thumbs when we traced the skin still marked with ink from his prints. I didn’t want to count five separate wires attached to his body, or follow them to machines that delivered food through his belly button, ran down his throat so secretions could be suctioned from his stomach or plugged into monitors showing readouts of his respiration, heart rate, blood pressure and the oxygen content of his blood.

WE WERE SUPPOSED TO BE SCRUTINIZING HIS FEATURES, ASSIGNING THEIR ORIGIN TO ME OR MY HUSBAND

or his tall great-uncles or my mother’s mother’s full lips, but instead his face was smudged with condensation, barely visible, our baby turned anybaby by inviolable plastic only millimeters thick. And he was alone in there. Marshaling all his efforts just to breathe.

I didn’t want to learn the phrase “bilateral pneumo thorax,” or know it described two bubbles of air that had escaped his lungs, which would either resolve on their own or require further actions no one had explained in any detail. It was either the result of a bacterial infection or from rocketing through the birth canal, inhaling fluid as he went.

It was no one’s fault, or mine, for pushing too hard and too fast.

It was fairly common in fast deliveries, but pretty rare in full-term babies.

Treating it was routine or complicated, depending on which nurse was recording his vitals or attaching sensors to the last remaining bare spots on his chest to investigate sudden drops in heart rate that could be something or nothing, or somewhere in between.

I didn’t want the decision to give him a pacifier to be taken from me, or for the first nipple he drank from to be synthesized in a factory in a state I’d never been. I didn’t want to spend hours pumping milliliters of colostrum in a dark hospital room while my son slept like a storybook prince in the never-dark fortress of the NICU behind its guarded door. I didn’t want to have to scrub in for three minutes before every Touch Time when we were allowed to take his temperature, change his diaper and feed him my meager offerings, plus the bottles of formula that put what I could pump to shame.

I didn’t want to have to ask permission to hold him in the armchair by his plexiglass bassinet, or to arrive for Touch Time to find it already carried out by a well-meaning floor nurse.

I didn’t want to learn to breastfeed behind a curtain while doctors on rounds discussed his case on the other side, deciding if and when the tent could be downsized to a cube that made his head seem encased in ice.

I didn’t want to worry about pulling out his IV when I switched him from the right breast to the left. And I didn’t want to cry back there, behind the curtain, dreaming of taking him home.

This went on long enough so when they finally wheeled us out of the NICU’s locked ward (finally, finally, finally), we felt overdue for a happy ending. Finally, we secured him in his car seat and drove home under a sky he’d never seen through air he’d never breathed.

FINALLY, WE CROSSED THE THRESHOLD OF OUR HOUSE WITH HIM HELD ALOFT LIKE SOME PRECIOUS RELIC TOO HOLY TO TOUCH

and it wasn’t until the first evening, watching him breathe in the irregular, hitching way of newborns, that I could admit I missed the monitors that told me at a glance he was breathing fine, heart rate normal, blood pressure perfect for his age and size.

Now, though, at least, at last, we were parents. Parenting. Alone with our great relief and broken sleep, our good intentions and worst fears; alone with our many, many manuals. Now he was ours and ours alone. Pinocchio minus his strings. A real boy: healthy, happy, normal, whole.

Then, just three days later, he wasn’t. Fussy, red-faced, orange crystals in his diaper, then no wet ones for a seven-hour span. We consulted our manuals, then rushed back to the doctor.

I didn’t want to have caused his dehydration, but I had. My low milk supply was due to delayed breastfeeding, unless it was the traumatic birth and my refusal of medication, or else improper maternal nutrition, or else a natural deficiency, or else just plain bad luck.

I didn’t want to supplement with formula. But we did. We do.

I didn’t want to admit that I wasn’t enough. But it’s true. I’m not.

And that’s okay.

Because the truth is none of it matters: the birth plan or the ways it went wrong, the week we camped out in the NICU in our robes of yellow gauze, the envy I swallow when other mothers say how they breastfed until Sweetums turned 3, the pricey formula we hadn’t built into our budget, all the various bills.

What does matter is that last week my son stood by himself in his playpen. What matters is he confidently makes the sign for milk, knowing we’ll provide it in one form or another. What matters is that we make lots of plans—for the park, a party, our first family meal in a restaurant—and that we can change the plans without bitterness, without regret, without losing our sense of humor. What matters is our commitment to shepherding a new human through his discoveries, wonderful and terrible alike, without letting ourselves fade into transparency in the process. What matters for me is finding a balance between I want and we need, but never losing sight of either.

It’s tempting to count ego, that endless litany of I want I want I want, as mattering least of all. It’s tempting to let them take over entirely, the many needs of that little life asleep in his crib, black-and-white in the monitor’s eye, sighing out his dreams. But even if my main job is meeting his needs—and it is, of course it is—

I’LL NEVER DISCOUNT THE REASON HE’S HERE: I WANTED HIM. WE DID. WE DO.

And now I have so many wants on his behalf, including for him to develop into a whole and independent person with passions and the means to pursue them when he’s ready to go after whatever it is he decides to love. But I’d be lying if I said I’ve put all of my desires on hold in the meantime. Instead, I hope to model what it looks like when someone wants something virtually impossible and works hard to get it even if it means learning to swim upstream.

For now, though, the number one item on my wish list, the thing I desire the most, is to know the worst is over for us, our disaster quota met, the biggest storm past. I know—of course I know—how unlikely that is. After all, his age is still measured in months. But still, I try to believe it. I want to believe it.

Some days I even do.

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