by Alan Barstow
Three times a night I’m torn from a dreamless sleep. Someone is screaming. Someone is always screaming. This time, I fear, it’s me. I don’t know for how long I’ve slept. It could be minutes, even days. My brain’s cognitive machinery is frozen, but my renal glands churn and rage. It’s fight or flight. I could out-charge a charging mammoth, bear hug a grizzly to save a baby.
That’s who’s screaming. The baby. What I know is I can’t let him wake her. Maya. She barely sleeps now, hips stacked with a wedge pillow so an engorged uterus won’t constrict her blood flow.
Before the next wail I have him downstairs, in his vibrating chair. Face scrunched up like he’s being tortured. Chicken-wing arms fighting the swaddle. I loosen it, get him vibrating and rocking. Sitting on the spit-up stained couch, I watch his arms flare into a Mighty Mouse flex, his lips relax. My writing time has become these twelve minutes before he fully awakens. It’s 2:38 a.m.
The first step in recruiting extremists or turning enemy combatants, I’ve been told, is to make them malleable. Then values can be shifted, centers pivoted, ideologies replaced. The same could be said for parents, for turning adults to parents. Sure that’s dramatic, but everything’s dramatic at this hour.
First comes the wonder of dimpled knuckles, so dainty, so delicate. A new parent presses them to their lips and neck, right against their jugular, until the pulse fills the tiny hollows between bone and baby chub. Then come sleepless nights, sleepless months. Toothbrushes found in the microwave. Parents found in the 24-hour pharmacy—how’d they get there? What were they supposed to buy?
Within a few weeks we’re no longer spouses or friends or colleagues or writers. We’re a nameless weeping puddle in the Tylenol aisle, thanks to a little thing that can’t feed itself, can’t even lift its head. Try to sleep and there’s the baby. Try to talk about yourself and you talk about the baby. We’re powerless against this loss of ego. It transcends biology. It is evolution. Without it, the species was done millennia ago.
* * *
Even when Maya said she was ten years older than me, I still believed parenthood to be as inevitable as aging. Our age gap when we met was no more than a passing fancy, something to shock friends and family with. We were volunteer teachers in rural Namibia, spending weekends curled within the cocoon of her mosquito net. Outside, a semi-arid plateau was about to awaken. The wind brought the redolence of rain long before the clouds. Then, lightning reached across the sky like fingers. Finally the deluge. And all the while, somewhere deep within her, though I didn’t know it then and didn’t know enough to think or question it, a clock tick-tocked away, the last call of her fertility about to shout like an alarm.
In our early years we survived expiring work contracts, visa miscues, and an intercontinental relationship, thanks to what we call tent time. In a tent we pitched near a herd of wild desert horses, we first shared our fears and truest selves. That emotional intimacy sustained us. In another tent time session, this one much later, on our sofa in southern California, she spoke for the first time about the childless women in her family. Half Filipina, half Indian, her family reveres family. But she never felt close to her childless aunties and titas. She didn’t want to be one of them.
So we sat in a waiting room, studying a sign that reminded patients to respect each other’s sensitivities, meaning that if you had children, and had brought them, not to use that parent-in-public tone, the high pitched one that’s over annunciated or overly gibberish. The one that begs strangers to look up from their iPhones, remark on how cute the child is, how good the parent, lovely the family, lucky. The sign should’ve read Welcome Supple Eggs, Spritely Sperm, and Fecund Bank Accounts. It was a fertility clinic.
“Just to know where we stand,” Maya said. Straight, black hair fell to her shoulders. The straps of her tank top lay taut against her clavicles. We’d married the previous year, and soon Maya went off the pill. We weren’t trying trying, at first—if it happened, we said, it happened. But nothing happened. So we bought ovulation test strips and a thermometer to chart the exact nanosecond we should have sex. Maya had ultrasounds, post-coital tests. My sperm was collected. Still, no lines on a pregnancy testing stick. Our Google research told us that a forty-year-old woman has a twenty-five percent chance of conceiving, that by forty-three it’s ten-percent. Maya’s age: 41.7.
The fertility doctor, however, said we had a better chance of winning the lottery. In a bare office with a bookshelf that held a hammer and a stack of framed degrees, he said the problem wasn’t only Maya’s age, or more specifically, the age of her eggs. My sperm had below normal morphology and motility. They weren’t shaped right, weren’t energetic enough. If Maya were younger, he would’ve given us the green light to try for a few months, then try some less invasive fertility options, like a super shot of sperm straight to ovulating ovaries. But now, in-vitro fertilization was our only option. He opened a gridded, laminated pamphlet, pointed to a box. 17-percent. Our projected success rate for a single round. The cost? $17,000.
For weeks we reeled from the absurdity. We blanched at our bank statements, the side effects of drugs that stimulated ovaries and turned eggs penetrable. Maya wept when her younger sister got pregnant with her second child. She cursed when she received more and more evites to colleagues’ baby showers—pregnancy, so it went, was “in the water.” We turned to tent time. From the sofa of our one-bedroom apartment, we watched white-capped waves of the Pacific roll in. “I can’t just close the door on it,” Maya said. “I thought I could, but I can’t.”
Growing up, I told her, I’d never doubted I’d be a father. I had good parents, knew I would be one. But, I said, if the door was almost closed, why not slam it? We didn’t have to regret being childless. We could follow our other passions. We could teach abroad, travel. I could write. I’d published essays and stories about our years in Namibia, had dreams of a collection, a novel. Most of my writing friends and professors had published debuts in their thirties. Now was my time.
“I just don’t know if I can live with myself if we don’t try,” Maya said.
We listened to the ocean, its pulse deafening in one instant and then so quiet in the next it was like the waves had receded into forever. “Can you?” she asked.
* * *
I’ve never been able to explain why I write. It’s a little embarrassing. What kind of writer doesn’t know why? “Find the reason that commands you,” Rilke writes in Letters to a Young Poet. This is where I struggle. At wine and cheeses during my graduate studies, I slipped away when a famous writer dangled The Question to the aspiring. I think of the reasons I heard—writing as the slicing open of a vein, as the making of meaning in a meaningless world, as the stuff that flows from un-healable wounds—and all I know is they’re not mine.
“See whether it has spread itself into the very depths of your heart,” Rilke goes on. “Confess yourself whether or not you would have to die if you were forbidden to write.” Rilke means a metaphorical death, a spiritual one, I believe, but that doesn’t help me reconcile the inherent absoluteness. When I explore my heart’s depths, I’m not convinced I would die if I couldn’t write. Why not—I’m not sure. This is writing heresy perhaps, but the truth.
That said, I don’t take writing flippantly. It’s what I’ve always done, always turned to. We all have things we do that we can’t explain, I assure myself. I write, as Rilke goes on, to “have patience with everything that remains unsolved in [my] heart,” to “live the question.” And I write, as Terry Tempest Williams says, to “sooth the voices shouting inside me, outside me, all around.” But I know that’s not it, not fully.
Williams later says she writes “for the children we never had,” and now I find that so compelling, because the summer after the fertility doctor debacle, I wrote for a child we hoped to have.
I wrote to a woman I’d never met, who faced a choice I’d never contemplated. I wrote to ask her to believe in us, to trust us to adopt her newborn. We decided to forgo IVF—too expensive, I said; “For now,” Maya said—and like online dating we created an adoption profile. Up went the birthmother letter, photographs of us cooking, camping, hiking. In the first two weeks our profile had 127 hits, though we didn’t know how many were prospective birthmothers or rival couples.
Later that fall we flew to Oklahoma, to a city with a deep blue sky and a chain restaurant on every corner, to meet a five-month-pregnant woman. I’ll call her Amanda. She arranged for us to stay in the motel where she worked. Eyebrows trimmed to tildes, she wore her hair swept back in narrow braids. Pink, bubbly hearts adorned the arms of her glasses. Her uniform polo shirt hugged her baby belly. She stood shorter than I expected, tired and weathered. When we spoke on the phone, she rounded her sentences with a nervous, almost apologetic giggle, as if our carts had collided at the grocery store. Now she offered only a gruff “okay” when Maya asked how she was feeling.
She sat woodenly, pelvis thrust out, hand pressed against her side. “Move,” she ordered her belly. “He’s stuck under my ribs.” A boy.
Twenty-four years old, Amanda wanted to go back to school, get a better job. She said she and her boyfriend picked our profile together, but all the reasons she gave were hers: half African-American and half Caucasian, she wanted a bi-racial couple; she wanted the baby to grow up in California, where she did; family road trips were her favorite memories, and she loved that we traveled and camped.
She asked if we could pick the name together. Sitting in the motel office, we warily began tossing some around. Nothing excited her. Finally, I offered Auden, after the poet. She countered with Alexander.
That night, Maya and I lay awake in a motel room Amanda had said smelled so bad she personally Febreezed it. I tried to write. Pilot rolling ball pen in hand. Field Notes journal on the mattress. I wrote to discover why Amanda had avoided eye contact, to decode from her small talk if she liked us or if she’d back out, to explore how pregnancy was supposed to be a time of wonder and joy, but how I didn’t feel that.
Soon I put the pen down. Only one other time had I been unable to write: when I left Maya in Namibia. I returned home for inguinal hernia surgery, all the while feeling like my true home was where she was, 6,000 miles away. I began writing her everyday. And like that time, I turned to Maya again, asked how we’d know if Amanda would go through with the adoption, if her boyfriend would sweep in after the birth, after we’d fed and clothed and laughed and cried. I couldn’t help myself. I asked if Amanda chain-smoked cigarettes or meth, if she pounded shots of liquor, if the baby would be born with low birth weight, underdeveloped lungs, fetal alcohol syndrome. I asked if we were making a mistake.
After I’d gone quiet, Maya exhaled, said, “Imagine how she must feel.”
In the months to come we hung onto Amanda’s texts and emails. Exuberant here, laconic there. One email read, “What do u thank about Audin Alexander. I love that name!” Maya wasn’t sold. I noticed there wasn’t a question mark.
I thought about writing all the time—how it was supposed to silence all the voices shouting in my head, anchor me against the tide of unanswered questions in my heart. You’d think I’d be writing furiously in the seemingly last days of my pre-child existence, before the time-suck and sleep-suck set in. But the heart-suck had started. No word, it seemed, could calm me now.
And one Sunday Maya woke me early. She held a pregnancy testing stick, the faintest line visible in the graphic box.
“No way,” I said. Since Amanda, we’d given up trying, practically given up sex.
She shrugged. “I woke up feeling pregnant.” We studied the stick in silence. “I don’t get my period until next weekend anyway.”
Four days later Maya brought home a handful of super sensitive pregnancy tests. One after the other she flashed the result: each + as severe as a scar.
“The babies will be five months apart,” she said.
“Which babies?” Then, I breathed, “No.”
Her eyes narrowed, jaw grew taut. I recognized that face from our rock climbing days, when she was roped up, gauging a slab of granite, muttering, “I know I should be scared.” Those times, I prayed.
* * *
I warned Maya that the pregnancy could invalidate our home study. The Department of Children and Family Services could say we were no longer fit to adopt. Amanda could renege. Maybe it would be best if we recused ourselves. What if there were complications? Pregnant women in their forties have an increased likelihood of …
She cut me off. “Amanda picked us. Can you walk away from her?”
Maya spoke with our caseworker, social worker, lawyer. Legally, they said, the pregnancy didn’t change anything. But we had to inform Amanda, had to ask her if she was okay with it. Maya was ready to make the call. I wasn’t.
I’d believed I could write with a child. Most of the more successful writers I knew had waited to start a family until after establishing their careers, but I knew some who’d published after parenthood. I also knew some who hadn’t written a word. With a single child I’d sneak away to write for mornings here and there after the first few months, the fourth trimester. But with two fourth trimesters back to back, with two toddlers under two, then the terrible twos … I didn’t make enough money for Maya to be a stay-at-home mom, not that she wanted to. She didn’t make enough for me to stop working. We couldn’t afford a night nurse or nanny. Our family was far away. I didn’t want to be the father who worked all the time. I didn’t want to walk away from Amanda’s baby. I didn’t want to stop writing.
I turned to my mentor from my graduate program. A self-described New York Existentialist Feminist, she always said that writing means sacrifice. Aside from Maya, she was my first reader, the one I counted on to cut through ego and sentiment, straight to the heart of a piece. My greatest fear, I wrote to her in an email, was that having two newborns at once would irrevocably shift my values, pivot my center, silence my writing forever.
Within an hour I received a 1,500-word response. “Writing,” she began, “does more for people than most other things they do. Having a child will be hugely rewarding—perhaps MORE rewarding than writing, which you could do for your whole life and get nowhere with. You may or may not mourn the loss of it.” But, she went on, she was the only person who cared more for me as a writer than a husband or father. She said no one would be as honest as she, would say that we should walk away from the adoption, that my misgivings were real—I would not write like this. Then, she asked if I had that feeling, that Rilke feeling, that I will die if I do not write.
I turned to the garden level windows on the first floor of our townhouse. Hummingbirds bobbed around a feeder. Morning light illuminated succulents. When we moved here, away from the ocean because we needed the space for a family, I dreamed this would be my writing cocoon. But I knew that it would soon be overrun with Legos and blocks.
Would I die if I didn’t write? I still didn’t know if I could answer yes. I wondered if my hesitation meant no, if it sealed my fate as a non-writer. Was my only choice family-oriented or writing-oriented? Had I been naive to think that for middle class people like us, it would be any different?
I cursed the absoluteness of it all: we’re either fertile or infertile, parents or childless, writers or everyone else. I wanted to believe that fatherhood meant writing-hood. So what if I hadn’t written in weeks? The pregnancies had opened a new emotional landscape within me, of an extent and depth I’d never fathomed. Certainly that is the very essence of writing—what makes us feel, what makes us tremble. Yes, I realized, a part of me would die if I didn’t write. A part of me would mourn. Just as I would die and mourn if we were childless, if we lost Amanda’s baby.
So I sat beside Maya when she called to tell Amanda, to ask. Her voice warbled. My hands sweated. She started to speak, then paused. Then it all came out in a rush. Finally, she gripped my hand, said, “That’s great. So great.”
My mentor’s response: she’d be there for me if, when, I wrote again.
Amanda’s false alarms began the day after Christmas, two months before her due date. Contractions. Two centimeters dilated, then three. The baby moved lower. A lost mucus plug. Bed rest. Packed bags left by the door.
Six weeks later we flew to Oklahoma, rushed to the hospital. Amanda’s mother ushered us into the delivery room.
Amanda’s hands shook from the epidural. She asked me to tell the nurse she was cold. Then, she asked Maya for ice chips. Within the hour she was fully dilated. Three pushes later a baby the color of a bruised peach slipped free. Audin Alexander. Amanda’s spelling stuck. She nodded to me to cut the umbilical cord.
I sawed through tissue as dense and coiled as a rotary telephone’s cord. Then beneath a heat lamp the delivery nurse laid him, arms jerking from the Moro reflex, eyes an inky black. She rubbed his feet, injected him with vitamin K, applied antibiotic to his eyes, suctioned through his nose the remaining fluid from his lungs. The weight: eight pounds, four ounces. The heat lamp cast a soft yellow glow. Maya told him how handsome he was. She was five months pregnant, beautiful.
Just like that we went from childless to child-ful, Amanda from with child to without. So absolute, so wonderful and cruel. Amanda’s mother held her as the doctor removed the afterbirth. Face pale, eyes moist, Amanda watched Maya cradle Audin, pass him to me. “I’m your daddy,” I said.
* * *
The vibrating chair can do only so much. Audin is fully awake. I need to heat up a four-ounce BPA-free bottle of filtered water, measure out two scoops of Gerber Good Start Gentle, shake. But this is my favorite time. His eyes find his hand. He twists and turns his fingers, studies how the shadows ebb and flow over his dimpled knuckles.
He’s four months old now. His 98th-percentile head looks like a toy Lego man’s, a perfect cylinder, except for a small quadrant of plagiocephaly, flat head syndrome, behind his left ear. It’s nothing, our pediatrician says, it’ll recover in time. I worry it won’t. It’s not just Audin’s night feedings that keep me awake. It’s that every cough or spit up or cry and the voices shout in my head. I tell myself I’m haunted because I’m not writing. But it’s more than that. I’m a new father and Maya is thirty-seven weeks pregnant, and her blood pressure is too high and there’s protein in her urine. She has mild preeclampsia. In a few hours she’ll be admitted, labor induced. I believe everything will be okay. I have to. But what if we lose the baby? What if we lose her?
Audin’s eyes widen. He tilts his head, my cue to move in close. He sees me, lips splitting into a grin that’s all gums and cheeks. And somehow, oh my goodness, somehow I’m smiling too. This is what I must write about. This is it, this is why—how all at once you can feel the fear and fatigue and loneliness and guilt and love and wonder and hope.
But I can’t write. Not now, anyway. The upstairs toilet flushes. Maya’s awake again. And Audin’s in my left arm. And now my right hand holds his bottle. Now his lips pucker.
Alan Barstow‘s sons still wake him and his wife far too early and often. Now, it’s no longer an infant’s cries for a bottle that they hear through the static of the baby monitor; it’s a toddler’s insatiable yearning for his “garbage truck” or “bruh–bruh,” translated as brother. Alan’s work has appeared in The Sun, Witness, Gulf Coast, The Common, and elsewhere. He holds an MFA from the University of Wyoming. He currently lives with his family in Southern California.