Parenting In Utero, In a Pandemic
When I say I love you, you know exactly what I mean, that this, our love, our family, is a small, fierce revolution.
You look like Bane , I say when you pull on your home-made mask. Mine has the Batman logo all over it.
Give me your city , you say in a gruff voice. I bump my masked mouth into your masked mouth and laugh. Everywhere, we search for tiny pockets in which to store our joy for when we need it.
The masked employees are waiting at the bottom of the parking garage stairs to check patients in. So many layers between all of us.
Do you have an appointment today? one employee asks me while the other checks you in.
Oh, no, I’m with her , I say, gesturing toward you.
Sorry, you’ll have to wait outside or in your car .
I feel stupid. Obviously I should have known.
It is a small, sad thing, the fact that I cannot attend your fifteen-week prenatal appointment. I want to see Wilder Fox relaxing in their spa environment. We part ways and I head home. Tell me everything , I say, feeling deflated but trying to keep things in perspective.
What I know about distance: My body aches when your two bodies are away from me.
On the drive home, I listen to “Don’t Let Us Get Sick” by Warren Zevon on repeat. The first time I heard this song, I was watching Californication . Hank Moody, the heavy-drinking, messy-hearted protagonist, sits next to the love of his life, Karen, and as their daughter Becca sings, “Just make us be brave / and make us play nice / and let us be together tonight,” a few proud tears fall down Hank’s aging face.
Not everyone experiences chills or shivers when they listen to music. According to research, those who do experience chills are likely to experience more intense emotions in general.
My ex-girlfriend, J, asked me to move across the country with her, then backed out about ten hours before our flight. But before she backed out, before she did the most generous thing she could have done for me, we spent a lot of time with her family, including her five-year-old and three-year-old cousins. The older cousin was fierce and adventurous. The family seemed to prefer her. Or perhaps ‘prefer’ isn’t the right word, but they appeared to understand how to relate to her—she was easy, predictable.
The younger cousin was sensitive, hot-to-the-touch. I was the only one who believed that what she needed was not to change who she was, but to savor who she was. I held her in the moments in which she couldn’t understand herself. I still think of her whenever I burst into tears for no reason.
We always recognize our own kind.
I am dabbing my eyes with a tissue when you text me, Do you want to FaceTime and see Wilder? As always, I quickly recover, embarrassed of the tiny disturbances that inspire monsoons within me. Over FaceTime, I hear Wilder’s muffled yet unmistakable heartbeat. It sounds like when you speed through a tunnel with the window down, and your blood makes music in your ears while the wind rips at your cheeks.
The doctor, who is new to us, says hi and introduces herself, then talks us through the ultrasound. Here’s the head and the curved body , she says.
Holy shit, is that the spine and ribs? you say, awe-struck. They look like a real human being today. They even do a little flutter kick for us.
Look, arms and legs. Those are some beautiful thigh bones , the doctor says, tracing Wilder’s leg with her finger.
Hopefully, Wilder got my thighs , you declare, laughing.
What I know about distance: I feel it everywhere, in my shoulders, in my pelvis, in the shivers of my feet.
In a Pavlovian response, I cry every time I hear “Don’t Let Us Get Sick,” whether I feel sad or not. It reminds me of watching Californication for the first time, years ago when I was lost and feeling very sorry for myself. I saw myself in Hank, although he was an old straight white man. I felt most seen when Hank was drinking too much, romanticizing Karen, and trying but failing to get her back for good. I’ve always queered heterosexual media without trying or even being conscious of it.
Perhaps Californication felt familiar to me because, before you, my relationships were troubled and tumultuous. Being gay made me feel as if I were predisposed to disaster. I had no examples of queer joy or happiness in my life. Knew no role models, no older queer people who had gotten it right, who’d found the Big Happy, credits roll, fade to black.
I went to gay bars and got sad with all the other sad gays. At night, I wrote out reasons I shouldn’t die just yet; they never seemed like enough. Despite the series finale, we aren’t certain that it ever works out for Hank and Karen, but it works out for you and me.
What you don’t tell me until you come home, after I’d sent a flurry of anxiety texts— I’m scared babe, I don’t want you going into homes, so many people are dying, I don’t want to lose you and Wilder, I don’t want any of us to die, I can’t stop crying, Odie just howled at the mailman, I received a package, what a whirlwind of emotions —is that the doctor told you they just had to intubate a woman who was fifteen weeks pregnant.
I don’t want to hurt Wilder , you say, and it breaks me in even my strongest of places.
You provide in-home services to children with autism and other developmental disorders, your job has been deemed a necessary service. I don’t want to let you out of my sight, but I know I must. You wear a mask and gloves. Only prison is like prison. Only war is like war. I have always been adamant that some things are too cruel and unimaginable to be diluted to a metaphor. And yet, my terrified lizard brain imagines you showing up to a battlefield holding a pocket knife.
What I know about distance: every night I go to sleep wondering, is this the end of our lives and we don’t even know it?
Historically, I have always berated myself for my sensitivity, my intense emotions. For so long, I was used to being the person who overreacted to things. A dropped plate, a forgotten meeting, an argument with you. But finally my sensitivity feels normal, like an appropriate response to helplessness. To collective grief, both anticipatory and after-death grief.
There is a Warsan Shire poem I will never forget. The end goes like this: “I held an atlas in my lap / ran my fingers across the whole world / and whispered / where does it hurt? / it answered / everywhere / everywhere / everywhere.”
I have no refills left on my Xanax; I call anyway; the doctor refills it without a word. I don’t tell you how frequent my panic attacks have been lately because it would be like alerting you that the sky is out today. Plus, I don’t want to stress you out any more than you already are. Do you think Wilder can feel your stress? Your pain? My mother used to say she could feel my pain from across the country. I never believed her. I didn’t want to believe that my pain was a living, breathing, whinnying thing, that once born, would take off running toward home.
Every night I go to sleep wondering, is this the end of our lives and we don’t even know it?
Time—no one feels it more than the dying and those surrounding the dying. With nearly over 85,000 US deaths, as I write this, we are all surrounding it, to varying extents. Every day, I open Twitter and read dozens more tweets about loved ones dying, and I sit with the ache, wondering how one can possibly mourn through a screen, grieve in isolation. I cannot imagine having to FaceTime you to say goodbye, I love you, I’ll always love you.
Even as I sit here writing this essay, I wonder if I am spending my time in the wrong place. Could I be in bed reading and cuddling with you? Could I be tracing that vein in your hand that I adore and asking you which Mary Oliver poem you think Wilder wants to hear?
My pregnancy app says that Wilder is as big as a Cootie Catcher—or, as I knew it as a kid, a fortune teller. If I was lucky enough, my teacher wouldn’t catch me opening and closing it under my desk, one, two, three, four, five, g-r-e-e-n, you will become the greatest basketball player of all time ! For fifteen years, basketball consumed my life, but I haven’t thought of it too much in recent years, having pivoted to writing. Yet, now I’ve returned to basketball, my childhood comfort. We go for walks around the neighborhood and I take my ball, I dribble between my legs, behind my back, pretend to break your ankles, make like people are not losing each other across the globe.
Do you have your mask? Your gloves? Your hand sanitizer? Your wipes? I say, before you leave the house. I am overcome by the desire to hug you tightly, for a long time, to hold you like I’ll never get a chance to again, but I fight the urge. We kiss goodbye, and I remind you to be safe, as if you are walking alone at night. There is only so much you can do.
To think, when you were just three weeks pregnant, you came home from the Crossfit gym with a bloody shin, having scraped it doing box jumps.
You’re pregnant! What were you doing box jumps for? I’d yelled, half-laughing at myself. I’d behaved as if you ought to be on bed rest for nine months straight. I’d thought you a fragile thing. Handle with care I wanted to stamp on your forehead.
If six months, one year, two years ago, you’d asked me if I were afraid of death, I would have said, No, not really and then swallowed a baby aspirin, just in case of heart attack or stroke.
I know that I am more terrified of death than usual because I don’t have any desire to watch new TV shows. I want my old favorites. Even the problematic Californication , which I fall back on time and time again when my brain feels too messy for words. In the best episode, my comfort episode, which is called “In Utero,” we are given access to Hank and Karen’s backstory, we get to see how they met ten years prior when they were both cheating on people.
Hank pours himself a large glass of whiskey after the third positive pregnancy test. They discuss their options. Neither of them wants to be a parent right now. They barely know each other. But they are bluffing, they know each other intimately despite having only just met. There’s something there. They lie together in bed, her head in his lap. He strokes her hair, they look desperately in love. She plans to leave, abort the baby, and never talk to Hank again.
He writes her a grandiose letter in which he says, I met someone. It was an accident, I wasn’t looking for it, it wasn’t on the make. It was a perfect storm. She said one thing, I said another, and the next thing I knew, I wanted to spend the rest of my life in the middle of that conversation.
A beautiful, love-smeared montage follows. They walk around New York City together, arms around each other. They laugh and play, they kiss, they make eyes at each other. Hank rubs her pregnant belly and kisses it.
At fifteen weeks, you have just started to show. People have not stopped asking me. Is she showing yet? Can you tell she’s pregnant ?
Those are, of course, two different questions. I can tell you’re pregnant because every time you lie down, your heartburn becomes unbearable. I can tell you’re pregnant because you, for the first time since I’ve met you, aren’t craving coffee at every turn. I can tell you’re pregnant because I have turned primal in my providing for this family. I want to cook and cook even when the fridge is full of food I’ve already prepared. I am obsessed with making you Mediterranean salad, even if you don’t want it. The Mediterranean diet is good for longevity, I am told.
On Saturday, it is sunny for the first time in a week. We decide to sit outside in lawn chairs and read. You change from a t-shirt to a tank top and upon seeing your tiny bump, I am once again reminded you are pregnant. It’s not that I ever forget, but the visual reminder sets off a few sparks in my brain. She is pregnant! We are going to be parents! I try to hold onto this piece of joy for what it is, and not for what tragic thing it could become.
A few days ago, a Louisiana newborn died after a coronavirus-positive mother had to give birth four months early. Her premature labor was likely due to oxygen deficiency resulting from the virus.
Another infected woman was asymptomatic until she went into labor. She spiked a fever and as the doctors were stitching her up after a cesarean section, she began to hemorrhage and her breathing worsened. They quickly intubated her. Once she was stabilized, they tested her. She was positive for Covid-19.
For weeks, I’ve been trying to find the words to ask you if we should write up our living wills. Our friend, L, is an estate planning attorney. She tells us never has she had as much business as she does now.
I once read that I ought to write about what scares me, to tackle those fears head-on. So I wrote a novel in which a fictional version of you dies during childbirth and then a fictional version of me is left to raise the baby alone. In it, my protagonist says, This isn’t fair. We only just found each other. Every morning, I wake up at six to revise it, and by nine, I am gutted.
What I know about distance: The space between my reality and my unreality is shrinking.
When my mother was pregnant with me, the doctor covered her mouth to hide her laughter during an ultrasound. What is it? my mother asked. I’ve been a doctor for twenty-eight years and I’ve never seen a baby this active , the doctor said. It can be easy to mistake preoccupation for activity.
Long before I’d come out to my mother, she’d casually mentioned my future babies as if she could already see them, as if she’d dipped her hand into the future and plucked my little athletes out of a pile like one of those claw game machines. At the time, her words had felt like a threat.
I’d resented her assumption that I wanted kids. I’d resented a lot of things about her, including her ignorance about my sexuality, although had she assumed I was gay without asking me, I would have resented that, too.
We are going to be parents! I try to hold onto this piece of joy for what it is, and not for what tragic thing it could become.
My childhood was not a happy time, and although I’ve blocked a lot of it out, what’s leftover is an ongoing feeling of unease. I didn’t want to become a parent because I thought that making a child meant creating more resentment. I’d wanted the line to stop with me. And then I met you. You know the story; you know how much I relish telling it. Like Hank and Karen, we were cheating on people. That part wasn’t good. But upon first seeing you, there was a recognition, an instinct— I should follow her . I emailed you from a beach in Croatia: What are your favorite baby names? You emailed me: I think at our wedding it will just be you and me and Lord Huron on repeat. And it was settled.
For you and I, for so many queer and trans people, family is a complicated word. For this reason, I have always hated the antiquated idiom, blood is thicker than water . What a harmful phrase. I want Wilder, in all their wild, animalistic freedom, to choose us because they want to, because there exists between us a bond far more lasting than blood.
In “In Utero,” after the flashback, after the romance and hope, we are brought back to the present in which Hank and Karen are not together. Karen looks at Hank and says, “Fourteen years ago, I love you was more than enough, I mean, it was almost revolutionary. And now, I don’t know, they’re just words. I know you mean them but Hank, I don’t know what they mean to you.” They talk about this while their daughter, Becca, is in the other room, knowing she has been lied to once again about the nature of their relationship. Their daughter who, at such a young age, has already become fed up with and disillusioned by her parents’ countless mistakes and broken promises. Thinking about Becca makes me feel as if I’ve been pushed through a spiralizer.
I hope Wilder is happy , you say while fighting with a chair you’re assembling in the kitchen. There is a weight to your words, a rough-to-the-touch texture, an understanding that both of us have had to fight, tooth and nail, to learn the habit of happiness. So much of my progress has been undone by the pandemic; my negative self-talk has creeped back in: You don’t deserve a happy ending, this will all go away soon.
The day we found out you were pregnant, the world was different than it is now. We left the house in t-shirts and shorts and drove to our favorite bookstore, where we bought Wilder their first book. The cashier, a gay man, smiled and gave us a knowing look at checkout. I rode that look all the way home.
What I know about distance: This morning, I wake and slip my hand underneath your t-shirt, placing my hand on your warm belly, on Wilder. There is skin and muscle and fluid between us, but nothing else. When I say I love you , you know exactly what I mean, that this, our love, our family, is a small, fierce revolution.