I’ve become aware in the past few days that this period of my life – the time when my wife is pregnant with our first child – is about to end. I’ve already started to get a bit sentimental, wondering if I’ve taken enough pictures, or enjoyed it enough. Soon it will be over, and something new will begin.
And that’s the way it’s been with every stage of the pregnancy – the changes within pregnancy itself are a kind of indicator of just how quickly human beings develop. Of course we all note how long it takes for humans to mature – not many other animals need so long as two years to reach sexual maturity, much less our twelve or thirteen years, not to speak of emotional maturity, which seems to postulate a purgatory, this life not being long enough – but human development is so complicated that over the entire maturation process there is almost continual change. Experienced parents tell us again and again that the problems of being childrearing don’t really get solved: they just turn into other problems, quickly. Whatever seems unbearable is made bearable by the knowledge that it will not last.
The division of pregnancy into three grand divisions, the trimesters, generally seems accurate. For Catherine there have been all kinds of physical sensations, both pleasures and discomforts, which have appeared and then gone away; but emotionally there have been just three main acts. In the first trimester, it all seemed too fragile and uncertain to make much of. There could be a miscarriage; who knew what would happen. We didn’t want to base too much on something that might not work out. And the physical discomforts – the nausea that affects the whole body and is hard to avoid or control – highlight the fragility of the whole thing.
The second trimester, for us, really was a golden period. The physical discomforts for Catherine seemed to vanish: in fact she had more energy than normal. We went off to Africa, and then came back and enjoyed a beautiful summer in the Catskills. The general feeling was one of overflowing vitality: the new life inside her was growing, and healthy, and she wanted to hike and work and do things. We were still careful, and she did in fact move more slowly than normal, but we both had the feeling that we could do this: that is was beautiful, and natural, and even easy.
That changed in the third trimester, however. Anxiety began to be a larger part of the equation. Catherine’s belly continued to grow, and looking at her, all I could see was vulnerability: I suppose this is some kind of instinct. I certainly became more protective and risk-averse. The meaning of pregnancy began to be clear: she wasn’t just pregnant. She was going to bring a new human being into the world: one that would have needs. One that would have opinions about things: at first just “hot” or “cold” or “hungry” or “uncomfortable,” but later things like “My dad is a ________” (loser? Hero? Failure? Hypocrite?) or “My life has been such a _______” (blessing? Disaster? Disappointment?). The feelings that I, as a father, wouldn’t measure up, that I wasn’t ready, that failure was a real possibility, that there was something I hadn’t done, that we didn’t have enough money, that we could make a mistake that would harm our child, that we would make the wrong choices, that the future would be a terrible place for children – all of these concerns became daily possibilities. I haven’t spent all of the last three months thinking like this, but those thoughts definitely have arrived, and for me they really arrived in the third trimester.
Now we have a blessed period where we have the time to await the birth in a beautiful, well-stocked country home, surrounded by Catherine’s family and friends. I’ve taken up some part-time work here, but it’s only three days a week with a flexible schedule, and all we’ve had to do is stockpile some more baby clothes, build a compost bin for the house, put in a bird-feeder, and visit people. As I write this I’m sitting on a nice couch staring at our wood-burning stove and little Christmas tree, with a little pile of books by my side. It feels like we’re cosmically lucky, and yet each night when I put my hands on Catherine’s shoulders, or she puts hers on mine, the tension and tightness is evident.
That’s part of the responsibility of being a parent, and I don’t think we’ll ever be entirely free from it, the rest of our lives. We know that in becoming parents we are taking up not only great joys but also new and terrifying vulnerabilities: we know that any parent would willingly take on any suffering, or any death, rather than watch his child suffer or die. But sometimes that power is not given us.
The third trimester of a pregnancy is also very public. It is visible, and everyone can comment on it; and it changes not only the couple’s behavior but the behavior of everyone in proximity. Some of the attention can be mortifying (having total strangers exclaim at you (“Oh my god you look like you’re about to pop!”) whenever you go into public is not what modest people want when they are going about their business (though I think I might enjoy it, myself). But most of it is really amazing. It calls forth so much love from other people: so many kind deeds, so much excitement, and so much happiness. Pregnancy is not just a private affair, and I don’t believe it’s supposed to be. Its very visibility suggests that it is supposed to be something known and shared. “Your children,” says Khalil Gibran, “are not your children.” You are bringing another human being to the world, and the world takes note.
And it seems that we all instinctually understand the happiness that children bring to parents. My mother always used to say was “Your friends are the people who share your joys.” When you are about to have a child it seems like the whole world is your friend: so many people congratulate you, and so many people seem so genuinely happy to hear your news. And you are, indeed, the generator of the news, not the consumer of it: nothing happening anywhere else seems as important.