Hi, I’m back. Don’t hug me; I am caked in sputum and sticky with breast milk. I am also angsting over how to file a column between bouts of nursing Maxine, who still won’t take a bottle with any predictability after 2.5 months on Earth; doing endless loads of laundry; pinching Josie’s nosebleeds, and deferring endless big-sisterly requests to read “The Lonely Doll” (the creepy, spanking-obsessive, newly reissued 1960s photographic children’s book that someone gave her for Hanukkah). I sit listening to the heart-rending shrieking downstairs and worry that every bit of listening, to say nothing of my customary procrastinating and word-choice-obsessiveness, is costing me baby-sitting money and time I just don’t have. By my calculations, this paragraph cost me $6.
I know, this is what it’s like in the beginning. But dang, it’s not easy. My mother’s only comment, upon seeing the picture that illustrates this column, was “Oh, my God, you look tired.”
True. But not as tired as I was after Josie was born three years ago, when I hallucinated that the bathroom rug was a Muppet inching across the floor. And that’s not the only difference between Josie’s birth and Maxine’s. Josie’s was a scary, drug-fueled experience; Maxine’s was hallucinatory in an entirely different, more positive way. We had Maxine in a birthing suite at St. Lukes-Roosevelt rather than in a traditional hospital room. Wood floors, big double bed, giant Jacuzzi, rocking chair, beautiful armoires, medical equipment hidden behind cunning wall sconces and botanical prints. (Fugly flowery curtains, but you can’t have everything.)
With Josie, I was induced, powerless, a character in a sped-up stop-motion movie. This time was different. On my due date, when I looked like a zeppelin and felt like a two-ton Acme anvil from a Road Runner cartoon, my beautiful and chill midwife, Yael, asked me whether I’d like to go into labor that day. Sure! So she did some acupressure voodoo on my legs and said confidently, “You’ll start to feel contractions in four or five hours.” Exactly four hours later, at the birthday party of one of Josie’s friends, the contractions started. I whipped out my Palm Pilot with its Contraction Timer application, and then sent Jonathan to get me seconds on the macaroni and cheese. (It’s important to carbo-load before labor.)
We moved on to birthday cake, and then ambled home. My brother and his husband came to stay with Josie, who cheered: “Have fun at the hospital! Bring me back a baby!” We got to the birthing center. I had my mandatory 20 minutes of fetal monitoring. We chatted with Yael for a while, listened to Brian Eno music, tuned in the radio to hear the Yankees get smashed by the Red Sox. The contractions intensified. I got in the Jacuzzi and stayed there for two hours, while Jonathan topped off the hot water, stared soulfully into my eyes, and rubbed my neck and shoulders. Not so bad. I’d thought I’d try to sing the Hasidic folk song that goes “The whole world is a very narrow bridge” when I was in labor, having read in “The Jewish Pregnancy Book” that it was a common, mystical tradition.
Ha. Not so much. Instead, I made feral growl-y noises. Eventually, I started bellowing “GET IT OUT” in a deep voice, in what Jonathan reported was a terrifying “Poltergeist” manner, but that didn’t last long.
“Guys, put your hands on your baby,” Yael said as she grabbed my wrist. I was able to touch the baby’s shoulder as she left my body; Jonathan did most of the catching, spotted by Yael the way Bela Karolyi spots a tiny gymnast. In a flash, Maxine was cleaned off, wrapped up and placed on my chest in her stupid little hat. The lights were turned down (no fluorescents in the birth center), Yael and the nurse slipped away, and my husband and baby and I all went to sleep in the big bed. Exactly what I wanted.
Except, of course, it wasn’t. I would have loved for my father to be alive to witness this beautiful moment. (Well, not the actual moment. That would be gross.) I would have loved to hear him gush about the baby’s full head of hair (Josie had a tiny bit of fuzz, then rapidly entered cue-ball-land, where she remained for two years); long, elegant piano-playing fingers, and overall delicateness.
Even though the nurse laughed that eight pounds wasn’t small, I worried that I’d somehow stunted Maxine’s growth with the angst and grief I’d felt while pregnant with her. Josie was almost 10 pounds; I thought Maxine was supposed to be bigger. Yael said gently, “She’s exactly as she should be.”
But ultimately, Maxine’s birth helped me to be at peace with Josie’s. Josie’s wasn’t what I thought I signed up for. But now that I’ve actually felt the sensation of pushing without painkillers, I realize that it would have sucked to deliver a first baby Josie’s size without an epidural. More importantly, I viscerally understand that the baby is the prize, no matter how you have her. Because after you’ve lost someone close to you, you do see how trivial it is to cling to some vision of how you want a birth to be. You just want the baby to be okay, and you’re just sad that the person you miss so much won’t get to meet that baby.
As Jonathan and I lay in the dim light, we talked about what to name this new soul. There was no question she’d be named after my dad. I knew I wanted her Hebrew name to be Michal. But what could her English name be? Michal was too hard to pronounce, even in the multiculti East Village. People would always think her name was “Michael,” my dad’s name. And I hate the mispronounced hard sound — “Mi-KAL” — that results when people can’t say the CH sound. Jonathan suggested we name her Michal and call her Mimi, but I have a cousin Michal and a cousin nicknamed Mimi. It just didn’t feel right. I liked Mabel; Jonathan loathed it (and my friend Judith said it was a name for a golden retriever). Michelle was too conventional. Mikayla sounded like someone who lives in a trailer park and smokes Kools. We both liked Mamie, but ultimately felt that the name really belonged to the wonderful 20-year-old daughter of dear friends of ours. We liked Matilda, and the great Roald Dahl book of the same name, but Roald Dahl was a jerk, the parents in that book were lame and Matilda is an awfully big name to saddle an awfully small person with. So we agreed on Maxine. It’s old fashioned like Josephine, it can be shortened to a variety of elderly-canasta-player jaunty nicknames, and “Jo & Max” sounds like an excellent name for a deli.
And I hope my dad approves. Maybe he does. When Mom arrived at my apartment, she cuddled the new girl, hugged the new girl’s proud big sister and did what new bubbes everywhere do: She began tidying up. And she noticed that two brightly colored plastic magnetized letters, the kind you put on the fridge for little kids to spell their names with, had fallen on the floor. She bent to pick them up, and saw that the letters were M and I. Michael Ingall. My supremely rationalist mother had a woo-woo moment. I am far more woo-woo, and I choose to think that Dad was giving us all his blessing.
Write to Marjorie at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Mamele Returns