Here’s the story of how my anticipated daughter turned out to be my son.
We decided early on we wanted to know the sex of our child at the 20 week ultrasound. I really didn’t need another surprise on delivery day; everything about that day is already unknown. The how and the when were enough – I wanted some idea of the who. Also, I didn’t want to have to pick out two names. It’s a tough enough job to pick out one.
Before the ultrasound, people kept asking me whether I thought I was having a boy or girl. It’s just one of those inane questions people always ask pregnant women. I would obligingly smile and say I had no idea, while stifling an eye-roll. How the hell would I know?
About a month before the ultrasound I started having a gut feeling it’s a boy. I stuffed it down. I basically only trust my gut to tell me what might be enjoyable to eat next.
Our ultrasound was scheduled for the morning of the day we were leaving for Hawaii. In BC, it is forbidden for ultrasound technicians to reveal the gender of the child to the parents during the exam. If you want to know, they will mark it in your chart and it’s up to your midwife or doctor to tell you.
So John and I stared at that blurry black and white screen with unblinking eyes, searching for a tell-tale little penis. We said nothing to each other during the exam but immediately upon walking out we both said “boy? Maybe?” We were about 70% sure.
Until then, I hadn’t let my mind picture an actual child coming out of this. But now, an image of a little mini-John easily formed in my head. I rather liked him.
The next day, now in our Hawaii rental, we get an email from our midwife clinic with one line, written in pink, “It’s a girl!”*
I shouldn’t have been all that surprised. Our guess was only a guess, based on blurry images we had zero experience looking at. And still I was left with a strange sadness. In 24 short hours, my mind had grown oddly attached to this little boy it created.
I couldn’t create a little girl to fill in his shoes nearly as easily. I didn’t start using feminine pronouns until months later. It was always just “the kid.” Whenever I said out loud that we were having a girl, it felt a little forced. Our nursery and the things we bought were always going to be pretty gender neutral, but I’m not strongly against all things pink. I actually kind of like dusty pink. But I had to really talk myself into every girlish thing we bought.
Towards the end, I mostly gave into it as our drawers filled up with endless girly hand-me-downs. But I did throw a yellow onesie in my hospital bag, among the pink ones. Just in case.
I pulled him up onto my chest right when he was born. We were covered in blankets and just lay there in awe for a few minutes, while he figured out he was in the world. At that point he was still my daughter. Then the nurse, who I suspect may have glimpsed something, suggested we check.
I didn’t see anything, and I don’t actually remember her exact words, I just remember the surprise in her voice when she said it was a boy.
It felt like the other shoe finally dropping. Of course it was a boy. There was a part of me that had been waiting to hear those words all along. So I laughed. We all laughed. It was one of those amazingly genuine moments. Our nurse captured it on camera.
We mixed up our pronouns a lot that first week, but trading our set of girl hand-me-downs for boy hand-me-downs helped. I was surprised at how much clothes serve as a gender cue for babies.
Officially he didn’t have a name for about a week, though we tentatively called him Henri in the delivery room. We had thought of Henri early on, when we didn’t yet know the sex. It was a name we both easily settled on when we were just batting hypothetical names around. But still, it hadn’t gone through the months-long vetting process we would have preferred; the final decision had to be made in the blur of new parenthood. Honestly, the hardest part of our daughter turning out to be our son was giving up the name we had picked for her. I had to mourn that a little.
Luckily that’s all the mourning I had to do. I will forever be grateful for those 24 hours I spent creating my son in my head, for without them, I might have had a tough transition to cope with in the haze of new motherhood. As it worked out, it was more of a reunion.
* You might wonder if we ever questioned the exam, but we had no reason to. It was done at the province’s dedicated maternal care hospital. It is a teaching hospital, so the exam was completed twice – once by a resident and then repeated in full in the presence of a doctor. Ours was actually the first error that our midwife clinic had seen and they confirmed that it did indeed say “girl” on the ultrasound information they received.
All those years I spent pondering whether to have a kid or not, I cursed the fact that no one really tells you what it’s like. I had heard every variation of you’ll never sleep again and you’ll be lucky to shower and your life is over always followed up by the mandatory oh but it’s all worth it! Fuck, I hate that mandatory all worth it thrown in at the end. What the hell does that mean?
I swore to myself that when I was on the other side I would come and tell you the truth. I would post the Complete Truth of Becoming a Parent.
Well here it is: I’m lucky to shower*, I haven’t had more than 3 consecutive hours of sleep in 7 weeks, and it’s all worth it.
When Henri joined us the evening of November 19th, he didn’t instantly change me. I didn’t look into his blue-grey shark eyes** and become a mother. Those first two blissful weeks when John was home and we played at being parents, I didn’t particularly feel like a mother. When he wasn’t gaining weight for a bit due to my crappy milk supply, I cried for failing him, but the tears came from some unknown instinctual place. My brain wasn’t there yet.
I’m becoming a parent gradually, over endless nights of watching his little face catch the bluish glow of the nightlight as I feed him yet again. Over hours spent rocking him to sleep in a cocoon of white noise that drowns out any thoughts I might have once held other than please go to sleep. It happens when, after screaming bloody murder that I dare change his diaper, my son stops and looks up at me with the purest of smiles and even though I’m so tired I have a hard time seeing straight my whole face lights up like some kind of fool.
That’s how they do it, you see. They break you down to your very core, but just when you are ready to lose your mind/throw them out the window they give you a little hit of endorphin juice, and then you fucking love them for it. It’s like a heroin addiction.
So there you go. Parenting is like a heroin addiction that you can’t kick. Hope that clears it up for all of you wondering!
*I’m sacrificing precious nap time writing this instead of showering. So it’s your fault that I smell faintly of milk and spit-up. Guess it works out that you can’t smell me.
** Newborns have shark eyes. Try and tell me it’s not true.
Pregnancy in our culture has become an endless list of no’s. I actually think if it was at all practical, “experts” would have pregnant women stay home for 9 months completely focused on eating a carefully balanced diet, taking leisurely walks around the block, cleansing their environment of all “chemicals,” and basking in serene thoughts about the miracle of life.
I call bullshit.
I work in environmental health; my job is to analyze risks and probabilities. I could go on for hours (and sometimes do) about how poorly risks and statistics are reported to the public, especially when it comes to health issues. An increased risk might mean nothing or it might mean a lot, but very rarely are we given the context to make that judgement call properly. As a result, people often exert a lot of energy worrying about small risks while blatantly ignoring the huge ones.
As a rule, we fear the unfamiliar more than the familiar: the vaccine more than the trip to the clinic, the radiation from our cell phone more than the neighbourhood pool, the ‘artificial chemicals’ in our moisturizer more than the bacteria in our spinach. In all of those cases the familiar risks we take every day without second thought are the real killers. By magnitudes. The other things are worthy of some attention (maybe), but on an individual basis far less likely to hurt us.
When it comes to pregnancy, we’ve taken this to a whole new level, blowing up small risks into outright bans and sometimes inventing risks that don’t even exist in any meaningful way. The problem is that you can always find one person for whom <insert risk here> seemed to cause something bad to happen and as long as that person exists (or doesn’t, that’s optional) we are all told “why would you take the risk?”
Well no one yet has told me that I shouldn’t get into a car while pregnant and it’s probably the largest risk I’ll take (the lifetime risk of dying in a motor accident in the US has been estimated at 1 in 83). We don’t demand that sacrifice because as a society we’ve decided cars are a risk worth taking in exchange for the convenience they provide.
Here are some commonly heard pregnancy no-no’s, followed by some questioning thoughts. You’ll notice I become fond of hyperbole when I’m all riled up so try not to take this too literally.* This isn’t at all meant to be medical advice for pregnant women – just a few thoughts to mull over and hopefully balance all the fears we’re force fed most of the time.
You have to keep track of a long list of banned foods and avoid them like the plague. THEY ARE THE PLAGUE!
There are very few foods that actually present any extra danger to a pregnant woman – it basically comes down to avoiding listeriosis. It’s the only food-borne infection that really can harm your baby. Luckily, listeriosis is quite rare, enough so that outbreaks make the news (yearly incidence in the US is 3 cases per million population). It is often linked to unpasteurized cheese and lunch meats, so it’s reasonable to avoid those things (but also reasonable not to).
But everything else – the sushi, the raw egg, whatever else you hear about – is of no greater danger to you or the baby while you are pregnant than it was before. And if you pull the short straw and do get sick? Well it’ll suck, but the baby is a very efficient parasite and really won’t give a damn (morning sickness should prove that without a doubt).
You have to be physically really careful or you’ll hurt the baby! No lifting anything, no running, no twisting, no lying on your stomach.
Your baby is in a sealed bag of fluid, within an organ that is attached to you. Do you worry about your organs coming loose when you run or twist? I hope not. So if you’re not doing anything that hurts – a good all-around policy – baby will happily come along for the ride. That being said, John you should definitely still keep doing most of the cleaning around the house.
Pregnant women are also told to avoid anything hot – saunas, baths, India etc. under the belief that the baby will get too hot. But again, let’s remember the baby is in a pool of amniotic fluid inside an organ. Your internal body temperature is highly controlled and you’ll start feeling too hot and move well before the baby even thinks to wake up for another round of spin-around-the-belly. Again, keeping yourself comfortable is a good gauge. Now whether you want to hang out in hot places is another question; heat has become my nemesis in pregnancy and makes my limbs feel like lead.
Oh dear god, no lying on your back! The blood flow, think of the blood flow!
The worry is that the weight of your uterus when lying on your back can block a major artery (the vena cava) from carrying blood to your lower body and harm the baby. Sounds terrifying! But do you think there would be 7 billion humans on earth if simply lying on your back for a minute could harm a developing baby? The thing is, you’re using that blood too. It’s a MAJOR ARTERY. If it gets cut off, you’ll move because it won’t feel very good. Yeah, even in your sleep. We’re well designed like that.
Alcohol – Gasp! The fact that you’re even saying the WORD makes you a selfish monster!
The fear and judgement factor is through the roof here. Cognitive deficits, with fetal alcohol syndrome at the far end of the spectrum, are a real and worrisome outcome affecting children born to women who drink heavily during pregnancy. But as the guiding principle of toxicology says, the dose makes the poison. This hot-off-the-presses large meta-analysis of 34 of the highest quality studies done on the topic sums up the evidence on low to moderate alcohol consumption (defined as up to 6 drinks per week) as follows: “We detected no consistent evidence that mild or moderate prenatal alcohol exposure was associated with attention, cognition, language skills, and visual or motor development.” They in fact found that kids born to mothers who drank a little were doing slightly better on measures of cognition than those who fully abstained, but the mothers who drank a little also tended to be of higher socioeconomic status so those kids might be doing better because of other advantages than access to nice chardonnay.
Making the choice not to drink at all is clearly the easiest way to avoid any and all possible adverse effects of alcohol. But it isn’t the only reasonable choice. I carefully weighed my risks and made a conscious choice to have a little glass of wine on Friday nights because it’s delicious and makes me happy. I also still get into cars.
As living beings, we take risks all day, every day, and are trusted to make the best ones for us. That includes pregnant women and it’s time for society’s hyper-vigilant policing of pregnant women’s choices to end.
* But all of these have been confirmed to me by midwives – so I’m not just making them up.