Forum — From the August 2015 issue

Part Neither, Part Both

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The hospital room in which I recovered from my caesarean section was as cold and ugly as any hospital room anywhere, but because it was high on a hill in San Francisco the view was magnificent. For four morphined days, the shifting sky outside seemed alive, in cahoots with us, saluting our success with its ribbons of clouds and confetti of stars.

Us was me, who had lost a lot of blood, not enough for transfusion but enough to keep me under observation should one become necessary. Nurses would come with pills, would press the place I’d been cut and watch the incision for seepage. It hurt. Can you tell me before you press it? I learned to ask. Us was my son, tiny-headed, the upside-down baby, lips ruby like a fairy-tale enchantment. My wife had brought him to me — my arms outstretched, blue tarp bumping my nose — as I lay there vomiting down the side of my face. What thing, what thing from what fairy tale was so ruby? I wondered in a drugged haze. Say something to him, my wife urged, because she wanted him to know my voice. But what do you say to a baby? Hi, I said. Hi, baby.

Mother with Children, by Gustav Klimt © akg-images

Mother with Children, by Gustav Klimt © akg-images

Us was also her, my wife, that prince. Eight months pregnant I told an old woman sitting beside me on the bus that the egg that hatched my baby came from my wife’s ovaries. I didn’t know how the old woman would take it; one can never know. She was delighted: That’s like a fairy tale! My wife is younger than me, and her eggs were nicer and more plentiful. Once the fertility doctor learned of her existence he wanted nothing to do with my eggs. Which was fine with me. It was like a fairy tale, having a woman’s baby, although my wife is the kind of woman who in a fairy tale would pass as a boy, would be unmasked as female only after completing some daring feat or besting a fleet of men — by impregnating another woman, perhaps.

With the raw mystery of birth still so close, and all my lost blood, and the morphine, I could feel the truth of death with a starkness and surety I’d never before known. Love, too. I’d heard of this mythic love mothers have for their children; I’d worried I wouldn’t feel it. In the hospital room it throttled me, a seizure of love not only for my son but for my wife too — a new level of love, or perhaps a new love entirely, something born with my son, which felt almost painful to hold. In our little room, tended to by countless nurses, we were safe from death but would not be safe forever. Our oneness was so total it ruined language, but we would not be one forever. My mind reeled.

“Bath Time,” by Thomas Holton, from the series The Lams of Ludlow Street

“Bath Time,” by Thomas Holton, from the series The Lams of Ludlow Street

My hormones, a tangle of chemicals that had kept my moods plummy during pregnancy, tapered. I felt like an elevator with cut cables, picking up brutal speed as I plummeted. If you think you have a personality, a soul, if you think there is anything particularly real about “you,” try having a baby and watching your hormones retreat to prepregnancy levels. You are nothing but trembling and dread and tears. On top of this was the physical trauma and the terror it brought my wife, the sleep deprivation and drugs, and the wonder of our son’s little body, our marvel at the instinct that drew him to my nipple and the magical way he commanded the milk to come. It seemed that time had stopped. Even the sky outside the window, which changed with the weather and the hours, resembled a screen saver. I wanted to stay inside that ugly little room forever.

We lived there for four days and four nights. I slept on a bed that I operated with buttons, my wife beside me on a cracked plastic chair that the hospital called a bed, as if we would be deceived. It didn’t matter. She was close by, and the baby slept in her arms. Never did we lay him in the bassinet, an institutional plastic box; that was only for changing diapers and wheeling him over for check-ups in the nursery. Each one of those nights bled into strange, hazy days; the baby slept in my wife’s arms.

I go by Mama, and my wife goes by Baba, a name adapted for a new kind of parent — part mother, part father, part neither, part both — and increasingly adopted by American women who can’t relate to the binary genders lodged in Mom and Dad. Watching my wife become a baba I keep my love to myself, because if I try to express it I burst into tears. It overwhelms me completely — and. And the language is a bust. This feeling does not fit inside I love you; even I love you SO MUCH, delivered intensely and with serious eye contact, doesn’t do it. And, anyway, this is a love that’s got death on its tail. To speak of it will attract the attention of some vengeful deity that I didn’t believe in until right now.

A father and daughter at the seaside, Havana © David Alan Harvey/Magnum Photos.

A father and daughter at the seaside, Havana © David Alan Harvey/Magnum Photos.

For the three weeks of her allotted parental leave plus the extra week of federal family leave, my wife changed our son’s every diaper. She brought me nipple cream and pale-pink pads to slip into the cups of awful, industrial nursing bras the color of Band-Aids. She brought me plates of cut fruit and giant glasses of water clacking with ice. She wouldn’t put the baby down until he began to bleat with hunger. After he’d fallen asleep with his mouth on me, I would hand him back. Friends watched us — family, too. A well-oiled machine, one said. A dance. A grandmother grew unexpectedly sad at the sight of us, which brought the sudden revelation of how little help she’d had with her own babies. It could have been so much easier, she said. My mother tells a family story I’ve never heard before, and I’m shocked that I haven’t yet heard them all: the day I came home from the hospital, my father, angry that his own father seemed not to give a fig that this birth had occurred, violently opened a box with a knife, stabbing it. My maternal grandmother — the daughter of a violent man, a wife- and child-beater — grew pale at this and quickly left the house. Poor Nana, I thought. Also: My father loved me when I was born. My father was hurt by his father. But of course he was. Where else do fathers learn to be hurtful? I think of our fatherless son. There exists a very generous drag queen whom we will someday point at and say, Him, he helped us make you.

Boys need to get dirty, the man across the street keeps telling my wife when she passes him standing by, stoned, as his own son plays in a pile of dirt. Kids need to get dirty, I fume. Is he telling her this because we’re women, two women with a son? To be different within a culture is to constantly swat away paranoia. When he gets older I’ll teach him how to throw a ball around, a male acquaintance offers, believing himself helpful. I know how to throw a ball, my wife says, confused. Well, not confused. We see the culture, and we see it seeing us. I see my wife hold our son in the tub, the pink of their skins; I see her pluck the cradle cap from his scalp, see her sing down into his upturned face, his ruby-red lips. My hormones have leveled, but it can still be too much. What have I done to be this lucky? I press my eyes closed until my chest loosens. At night the baby kicks his legs up and down, up and down, and we both think of a whale kicking his tail against the water. We bring him into the bed with us, and only then does he settle down, falling asleep with his little feet warm on my thigh, his fingers wrapped around our own.

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is the author, most recently, of How to Grow Up (Plume).

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