We went to our first ultrasound, and I flipped out because our insurance only covered 75% of the cost, leaving us with a bill for a couple hundred dollars. “Do we even need to know what the baby’s sex is?” I asked. “Can’t it just be a surprise? You know, like Christmas.”
This was our first pregnancy, almost 10 years ago. We’d been married for two years, and both of us were in our mid-20s. I was a sophomore in college, waiting tables part-time. Mel worked full-time at a hardware store. Money was tight, and I thought about that a lot, but looking back that wasn’t the main issue.
The hardest part was that Mel stopped compromising after getting pregnant. Is compromise the right word? Probably not. She stopped letting me have my way. Early in our marriage we watched the shows I liked—The Simpsons, Family Guy, and Arrested Development. But we never watched Gilmore Girls or Friends. I told her I couldn’t stomach them when, in fact, I’d never tried. I just didn’t want to, and I knew that I wouldn’t have to.
I chose the first two places we lived in: an affordable first-floor condo where we could hear everything the upstairs neighbors did, from washing dishes to making love, and a small two-bedroom house that was near where I grew up. Behind the house was a hay field. We had problems with pests—mice and bugs—but we stayed there because the rent was cheap. In my mind, I assumed we compromised because I’d shown her the places before I signed the lease. But I never let her look for a place. I never asked her opinion. I just told her that this was it. We’d found it! And she accepted it.
Early in our marriage, she was not comfortable telling me her thoughts, and I wasn’t interested in asking for them. But once pregnant, she spoke her mind. Being uncomfortable and irritated made her happy to let me know exactly how she was feeling. The problem, if a problem existed, wasn’t her mood. She just didn’t let me have my way anymore. I interpreted this as her being crabby and pregnant and derogatory this and derogatory that. But in fact, I was more like a spoiled husband who was not being spoiled anymore.
We were in the waiting room. Mel rolled her eyes and gripped her jeans. Her face was a little swollen around the chin and her skin was speckled with red blotches that she couldn’t hide anymore regardless of makeup. She was exhausted and miserable, and I think the only thing that kept her going were moments like we were about to have—the excitement of seeing the baby, hearing its heart, feeling its kicks.
I was ruining it.
She drew her lips into a tight line, looked me in the face, and said, “You’re not taking this away from me. I want to know if we are having a boy or a girl. You should too.”
She stopped speaking for a moment and gave me a curt smile and said, “Deal with it. Get excited. We’re having a baby!”
She used this logic a lot. I was supposed to be as excited as she was simply because we were having a baby. No other reason. But I wasn’t excited. I was terrified because all I had to go on were thoughts of future responsibility. Having a child felt like a murky mix of bills and long nights.
Mel was placed in long reclining chair. She pulled up her shirt and pulled down the stretchy brown cuff of her maternity pants. Her hard, round stomach stuck out, and the nurse coated it with a smooth green jelly.
A blurry, black-and-white image drifted in and out of focus on the screen. The image started to crystalize. I could make out the lips, the nose, and crown. I could see little feet and knees and hips. I could see sockets for eyes and the roll of a small tummy. I could see a baby. My baby. Our baby. There was something about seeing it in the womb that made it real enough to melt my heart. To make me realize why this was all worth it.
This is just a fraction of what Mel was experiencing. She felt the baby grow inside her. Felt it kick and tug and wiggle. I didn’t know any of that until I saw the curve of our baby’s nose and realized how much it looked like mine. I felt a flood of compassion. The bills, Mel’s change in attitude, all of it didn’t matter.
The nurse froze the screen. Then she placed an arrow between the baby’s legs and typed “boy.” I got really emotional then.
Before I saw my son, I’d been a mix of fear and uncertainty. I often woke in the night not sure how I was going to do it. Every day we needed something new—a crib, baby clothing, maternity clothing. I remember unwittingly saying the jerkiest things to Mel because I was nervous. When I think back on this moment, I realize that my wife is a saint for putting up with my lack of compassion for what she was going through, and that she wasn’t the issue. My inability to understand what was going on inside my wife, the ramifications of having a child, were the issue. And when I think about that, she was, once again, tolerating me, but in a very different and more complex way.
She was the one growing a baby. She was the one with swollen ankles and confused hormones. She was the one who got up seven or eight times in the night to pee, only to crawl back in bed and realize that her sciatic nerve was now giving her lower back pain and she couldn’t, for the life of her, get comfortable.
My fears about money and responsibility and my problems with not getting my way were shallow in comparison. But honestly, something had been missing for me, and I think that was a lack of early connection with the child that a mother has—and a man doesn’t. I didn’t fully understand what was going on, and even after seeing the ultrasound, I didn’t fully get it. I still don’t really get what it means to grow a baby, but now, as a father of three, I understand what having a child means, the responsibility and compassion and raw love that can only exist between a child and a parent.
But seeing my son was just enough to set me straight.
We are having a baby! I thought.
I looked down at her, and said, “I’m sorry.”
Mel gave me a confused look, and I think she assumed I was apologizing for the gender when in fact I was apologizing for something else.
“For what?” she said.
“For not getting excited. I just didn’t get it. But now I do.”
I kissed her forehead, and then we both looked at the screen again.