Monday, October 2, 2023 Oct 2, 2023
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I know babies don’t break easily. It’s something dark and unclear inside of me that I’m afraid of.
By Jeff Posey |

I’m going to be a papa,” I told Kerry, my best friend, on the phone. He’s a family doctor in a small town.

“You realize,” he said, “that it could be born without a brain.”

“I’m glad you’re thrilled for me.”

“It’s only about a one in a million chance, but it could happen.”

“Oh, great,” I said. “I’ll plan for it.”

I knew (from twelve years of friendship with Kerry about his tendency to dwell on medical risk, but I didn’t want to think about that now. I was still warm inside from finding out I would be a father. My wife, Rhonda, had told me she was pregnant the night before. I had come home late from the office, tired, still wearing my jacket, rotely gripping my briefcase, and I went into the bedroom and sat on the bed to take my shoes off. Rhonda stood in the doorway holding something behind her back, grinning. Afterwards I would think of her as glowing, her face pink and beautiful, but I was tired and I thought maybe she was going to say the toilet wasn’t flushing right again. I took my shoes off and stood up. She was still grinning. “What?” I asked.

“I guess you need to read this now,” she said, thrusting a book toward me. It was Bill Cosby’s Fatherhood.

“You’re pregnant?” I asked, my mouth hanging open, my heart racing. Rhonda nodded. I hugged her. Life was great. I was going to be a papa, a daddy. We were going to have a baby, a little kid, an adolescent, a teenager. We stood embracing in the doorway for a long time. When my body had calmed from the initial shock, fear set in almost immediately.

“What’s wrong?” Rhonda asked. I could tell she was worried that I might not want the baby, even though we had been trying for six or seven months and I had said repeatedly that I did.

“Nothing,” I said, not sure what I felt. I’d never really been comfortable around babies. When any of my friends or family had a new baby and they would offer to let me hold it, I would always back away and mutter something incoherent. “I might break it,” was my usual excuse. But I knew about babies’ bones being soft and resilient; I knew they don’t break easily. It was something else I was afraid of, something dark and unclear inside myself.

Over the next few months Rhonda’s nesting instinct grew strong. She cleaned out the junk room and started calling it “the baby’s room.” She piled all the displaced junk from the baby’s room into my office. It was my job, my sole contribution to fixing up the baby’s room, to go through the junk and either throw it out or store it somewhere else. I wasn’t really shut out from the process, I just didn’t understand it, didn’t feel it like my wife did.

Rhonda saw a classified ad about a baby bed for sale, and we drove out on a cold, windy night to look at it. The couple had a cute blonde-haired little girl wearing pink pajamas with a blue Smurf on the front. She peeked around her mother’s legs and her face was smudged with food.

We went inside and the family left us alone to inspect the baby bed, which was in pieces in the hallway. I looked in the den. The television was on, toys littered the floor, newspapers were scattered, and the mother was standing in the kitchen with a washcloth in her hand, watching her child. The kid was twisting and dancing and jutting her arms up and down as she ate a cookie. I breathed in and smelled that smell that says unmistakably there is a kid in the house. Rhonda decided to take the bed, so we paid for it and left.

The next evening I put the baby bed together. It was the first time I had spent any time in the room since it had been transformed. It seemed so neat and clean. There was a diaper-changing table with two small shelves my mother had given us. On the shelves were bibs and dresses and gowns and tiny socks. I picked up a sock and put two of my fingers in it and wiggled it like a puppet. I tried to imagine the foot that would fit into that sock, but it seemed too small, unreasonably tiny. I touched the padded changing table and imagined changing the baby: the smell like World War I mustard gas; uncooperative legs kicking and squirming; a red face crying and screaming. I shook my head, feeling a flutter of uncertainty in my stomach. I wondered if I really wanted to do this.

A week later we watched the television show “thirtysomething.” It was Rhonda’s favorite show, but I rarely watched it. In this episode the baby cried constantly. The parents could barely sleep and never seemed to have the time to talk to one another, have a quiet dinner, or make love. Toys were strewn through the house, the husband complained that the wife wasn’t cleaning the house or doing the grocery shopping, and the wife was so tired she constantly fell asleep wherever she was sitting. They argued and worried about divorce.

I looked at Rhonda with her growing belly. She was laughing at the show, but I was stricken. I didn’t want to gain a baby and lose my wife. I didn’t want home to become a place I didn’t want to be, so that I stayed at work to avoid it. I didn’t want to raise a child whose parents always argued.

I called my friend Kerry while Rhonda took a shower.

“I’m not sure I’m ready to be a father,” I said.

“Sort of late now, isn’t it?” he said.

“I mean, what if it’s born without a brain?” I asked.

“Well, that’s always a possibility. But they could always use it for organ transplants, like that couple was going to do in California. Or you could raise it as a politician.”

“Or a doctor.” I was irritated that he wouldn’t take me seriously.

“It’s not so bad,” he said without expression. He has two young children.

“You don’t sound convincing,” I said.

“Well, kids are all right. You just have to get down on their level to deal with them. And you can interact with them and have a good time. But…”

“But what?”

He laughed. “But sometimes they drive you completely crazy. Especially if you’re around them all the time. You’ve always got to tend to them. But after a while you learn what to do and you can ignore them if you have to, to get something done. But it’s okay. It’s a life force thing. It’s in your genes. You’ve gotta do it.”

That night in bed I imagined ignoring my own kid: I was in my living room, rocking silently in my chair reading a book. In the other room the child was screaming. It screamed bloody murder. It levitated its baby bed and slammed it against the wall. The dog was shaking at my feet. But still I read on, engrossed in the book.

That’s ridiculous, I thought, and rolled over to go to sleep. But I started thinking about when I was a teenager and I had rebelled against my parents. I would get so mad I would storm out of the room and then silently scream “Go to hell” at them. I imagined my own child hating me as much. I didn’t know how to deal with that. I didn’t know how to raise a kid. But now it was inevitable. Three months till the baby was born, then a yearly progression through all the stages of parent hell.

The week after Christmas, Rhonda’s belly seemed very large, her navel was flattened, and she joked about being awakened at night by the plop! sound her innie would make when it suddenly became an outie. I sat on the floor beside the couch and felt the baby move. For a moment I felt the life force Kerry had mentioned, and I felt proud and good. But then the baby kicked violently, as if it were trying to knock my hand away, and then it stopped and was quiet. Rhonda smiled, and I could feel the fear returning.

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