Now I have twice as many children

Now I have twice as many children as I did just over a week ago; that’s one way to describe it. Alternatively, I can now refer to ‘the kids’ with an attempt at the calm authority that my parents used to refer to their collection of children in the 1990s. Plural young people in the family: a group of them, a class.

M was born in a suburban New Jersey hospital that also happens to be the hospital where her father was born. Back when we were getting married he needed to supply his birth certificate, and dug out a document from this hospital that was adorned with a small blue ribbon bow. It seemed quite credible as an early-80s birth certificate from a suburban New Jersey hospital, but it turned out to be a decorative complimentary gift.

The ward where M emerged was probably not the same one that her dad was born in. It looked liked it had been updated in the past 40-ish years, with a large golden sign indicating that it was due to the generosity of the horrible Kushner family. This dismayed me, but I cheered up when a man offered to get me a wheelchair and I said, Oh no, I’m fine, I mean I’m here to have a baby but I’m not in labor! and I grinned, so moved by the kindness, but of course he couldn’t see that behind my mask.

Prior to giving birth I worried that I wouldn’t love M as much as B because how could I? I love B so much! I mean, when I was leaving for the hospital he ran from window to window so he could wave from multiple vantage points. This is the most I could have hoped for when I decided to become a parent. 

At the hospital, I thought about this problem as the anesthesiologist and his residents stabbed me repeatedly in the back with a large needle to give me a spinal anesthetic. I had an emergency c-section with B and so I had agreed to schedule another one. A nurse in triage had warned me that the anesthesiologist ‘talks too much’ but this did not fully prepare me for his constant stream of weak banter, which reminded me of being trapped in a London black cab with a driver who moonlights as an unsuccessful stand up comedian, except of course that I was trapped on an operating table because the talky anesthesiologist had (as was his remit) put me in a state of temporary paralysis.

This almost annoyed me enough that I didn’t feel afraid of the procedure, but only almost. I’d been telling myself that it was no big deal, that I’d done it before. But I realized as the doctor tapped my abdomen to ensure I felt nothing was that I’d never given birth to this baby, in this place and time. Thankfully, it’s possible for a beautiful thing to also frighten you.

Maybe one day M will ask me to tell her about the time she was born and I’ll be like: suburban New Jersey, horrible Kushners, terrible jokes in the manner of an awful taxi driver, wasn’t sure that I’d love you! and she’ll be disappointed, but then I’ll get to the part where they pulled her from my body and held her up so I could see her, her lovely squalling face, and I immediately thought, Oh, it’s you, of course I love YOU. I hope that will suffice. 

JHE 

When you leave your home on a regular basis you see yourself

We never hung up our full-length mirror in this apartment. It’s still under the bed where E shoved it, intended to be temporary, when we moved to New Jersey in the summer. We never got around to it, I guess, and also who needs a full-length mirror when there’s no need to check your outfit before you go out? I wear one of three pairs of black leggings. I wear my winter boots.

Because we have no large mirror at home I only see my full self at my monthly doctor’s appointments, when they send me into the bathroom to pee in a cup, because there’s a large mirror on the back of the door. Every time, I’m a little taken aback, and it makes me realize that when you leave your home on a regular basis you see yourself: in mirrors, in windows, in other people’s faces as they react to your appearance. That doesn’t happen often now.

When I was pregnant with B, strangers acknowledged it, from the man who nearly ran me over with a car and then called me fat, to the multiple women who told me that I must be having a girl because she was ‘stealing your beauty’ (I was not having a girl). I wouldn’t say that being visible made pregnancy more real, but it certainly made pregnancy more present. The only stranger I’ve heard from this time was a man taking my money in the bagel shop down the road when I was about 12 weeks along — high risk! I think we were both relieved that he was right.

No one knows you’re pregnant on video calls, not unless you tell them, and I’ve found that it doesn’t feel that relevant to most conversations, except for in the first trimester when I needed to explain why I fell asleep for 45 minutes in the latter stages of a 12-hour Zoom. There are larger concerns in the world than my pregnancy. And compared to last time, I have fewer personal complaints. Sure, I’ve thrown up most days since August, but no one has averted their eyes while I opened my coat and clutched a subway pole. A second pregnancy is a familiar path, a less-constant cause for alarm.

Last time, I had high blood pressure and needed ultrasounds every week in the third trimester. This time, so far, my blood pressure is normal. I’m seeing this a lot in women who don’t have to commute, my OB-GYN in Manhattan said to me the last time I saw her. I left her practice because in order to go to the appointments I had to get E to drive me to the city. In traffic this could take two hours; on that final occasion, it cost $50 to park. Now I see a suburban doctor, with the other suburban mothers.  E drives me there too, because I still have no license, but it’s far quicker. The drives, alone together, feel like an approximation of romance, of going on a date. He picks the music. He’s not allowed to come into the office.

At the new doctor, after I regard my body with surprise, the phlebotomist wraps my arm each time I have blood drawn with an enormous bandage as if I’ve suffered a significant injury (in the city, it was a minimal piece of gauze. City people can take it). The waiting room is never crowded. A television is always on. At my most recent early-morning appointment it was showing an episode of Law & Order: SVU, which is not a great show to watch while thinking about bringing new life into the world. Still, I felt a little pang for New York.

JHE

The idea that I dressed for myself

was a self-delusion

A small spray of white is now growing out of the parting in my hair. I wonder where it came from: whether it’s stress-related, or if it’s been with me for some time, but quelled, over the last few years when I reported to a hair salon every three months to have my hair color made itself, but better. Keep it natural, I’d always say, and my hairdresser would agree, without irony, while she stirred a combination of creams and liquids like a chemist, or a chef. 

During my pregnancy with B I stopped getting highlights because I didn’t want something to be wrong with him and my hair to be the cause, but at my last appointment before he was born the stylist insisted on giving me a couple, on the house, ‘for the delivery pictures’. I accepted, with gratitude, and when I went to the hospital for the induction, I packed a tube of mascara and a compact of blush. They stayed in my bag until the baby was a month or two old, as it transpired that I was not among the newly-minted mothers who excel at early public-facing. In retrospect, a hint about how much I care if I’m not being seen.

One thing I’ve learned about myself this year is that the idea that I dressed for myself was a self-delusion. I know I’m not alone in this realization, that absent the prospect that my face and figure would be observed by someone other than myself and my roommates (husband, son, dog), I’m not highly motivated to make an effort. Clothes and cosmetics are things that I’ve put a lot of thought into throughout my life. Some schools of thought tell me that this is OK, that fashion and makeup is a wonderful form of self-expression, and I certainly believe this is the case for some people. But for me — well, I’ve often suspected in my case it’s more of a neurosis, born in the days when even the coolest girls in 7th grade could get made fun of if they wore the same sweater two Tuesdays in a row. 

I catalogued my school outfits in the calendar where I was supposed to log my homework, ensuring variety, with my highest ambition not being approval or compliments but simply to fly under the radar of harsh critique. The same extreme self-consciousness has applied at other times in my life when I felt like I failed to meet some expectations, such as when I worked for a fashion magazine in an office building where everyone seemed to dress as if we got paid far more than we did. There, the wrong choice of skirt could result in me being denied a seat at the table in a meeting (I perched on a windowsill and never wore it again).  And yet, still I believed that all the times I purchased a new outfit in advance of something that was making me anxious was a sign that I was enjoying fashion rather than spending too much money in an attempt at self-defense. 

The instinct is still there. Last week I went to pick up my new glasses at the optician and I put on a skirt and wore boots that I bought last winter and wore about three times before all of those weeks when we didn’t have to wear shoes. It’s so nice to have an opportunity to dress up! I said to E, as he drove me the five minutes to the office (I could have walked, yes, but it was slippery, and also now we live in the suburbs). My new frames are gold and acetate, and of course I selected them with video calls in mind, since all that my coworkers and most of the world now know of me ends just beneath my shoulders, like a plaster bust.

I would not say that I’m happier now that I spend most days in a variety of black and grey jersey garments and, if pressed to go outdoors, one of two pairs of sneakers that I’ve had for three years. I miss feeling like I have a reason to make more of an effort or to buy one of the colorful midi dresses that are still advertised to me on Instagram, dresses that I once would have purchased with the knowledge that the first time I wore them I’d feel radiant and good. The perfect at-home dress! the copy says, and I feel a wave of mild pity for the people who work for those brands, who still have to do their best. But I also hope that one day I’ll have cause to try harder, too.

JHE

I haven't been going to math class

My recurrent pandemic dream is that I’m about to graduate from high school but I haven’t been going to math class. In the dream, no one but me seems to have noticed that I haven’t been going to math class. But every time I dream it (too many times) it causes me incredible panic, the knowledge that I just haven’t been going — just quit! —  and it’s too late to correct it. I’m going to show up for high school graduation and be exposed as someone who doesn’t know how to do trigonometry. 

I have the dream at least once a week, and I wake up in a cold sweat and remember all the times that I set off the burglar alarm at my parents’ house in Baltimore when I was visiting and went out in the morning to get the newspaper from the front lawn. My dad would cry down the stairs: ‘The code is the first four digits of e!’ which, even though IRL I did complete high school math, I did not (do not) know. Two point something. I never remembered it in time to shut off the alarm, and then the security company would call and my dad would have to have a conversation about how no one was breaking into the house: the culprit was just his adult daughter who didn’t remember much that she learned in math.

I’m sure the reason that my subconscious is returning, at this time of extreme stress, to the time of extreme stress that was my high school math career, is that I feel every day like I am failing to meet requirements. And perhaps, as in my dream, no one else is really noticing the failure; we’re all too busy trying to meet our own minimums to pay much attention to anyone else. And yet, this sense of failure looms.

At the beginning of this year I started writing a novel that I felt a bit excited about, the potential that it could be a real book, and around the 12th of March I stopped writing it because it felt irrelevant. Just quit! Haven’t started again. Haven’t felt that anyone needs or wants to read something else that I write. It’s a small problem, in the grand scheme of 2020 problems. But it feels strange to me, that this lifelong urge is absent. ‘People’s problems are people’s problems’ is something that my dad said to me once, when I was sad about something that I knew wasn’t the biggest deal in the grand scheme of the universe. I think about that when I think about the small things I’ve lost — always, but especially this year. 

JHE

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