When I informed my best friend almost nine years ago that I was expecting a male child, she said, after a distinct pause, "I can't even imagine you with boys."
I couldn't imagine it either, in spite of the fact that I'd been trying to get pregnant for four years and had just conceived with the help of a fertility stimulant. I knew that boys could be and frequently were the outcome of pregnancy. I was just assuming that, given my personality, a boy wouldn't be the outcome in my case.
It's not just that I am ignorant of baseball, basketball, football, and the subtleties of world wrestling. It's not that my main hobbies are baking, knitting, reading, and watercolor painting. I do not camp. I do not ski. I do not surf. But for hundreds of years, women did none of these things and managed to raise boys.
So I think it was something else that my friend was contemplating during that distinct pause. I think we both knew the odds. There are certain children who are going to run screaming through the house with imitation guns and certain children who are going to sit and move the Fisher-Price people in and out of the toy barn, and we all know which genders are most likely to do which.
I am the sort of person who would do well with a child who wanted to move the Fisher-Price people in and out of the toy barn.
Still, month after month, the doctor studied the quivering black and white lines on the ultrasound and said it looked like a boy to him. I reminded myself that Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, my father, and my husband had once been boys. Boys could be pensive, bookish, and sweet, like Christopher Robin. As a child, my husband had collected baseball cards and listened to entire Yankee games on his radio. My father had sat beside his mother's stove at age three and pretended the rectangular bits of coal were train cars. Of course, when he got a little older, my father moved on to blowing up mailboxes and shooting hawks, rats, lizards, jackrabbits, beer bottles, tin cans, and cottontails.
I decided to concentrate instead on the act of giving birth. Giving birth was what women talked about the way veterans talked about war. Giving birth was so painful that it was routine to numb the whole lower half of the body or to cut open the mother as if she were a wolf in a fairy tale. Giving birth was what I began to prepare for: how to do it without numbing or cutting.
I tried to assure myself that I was a mammal, and a mammal does two things. It gives birth to live young, and it nurses them. These are the two seminal qualities. There is nothing else: not "mammals have two legs" or "mammals live on land" or "mammals like to sit quietly and color." You'll notice, in fact, that men don't even qualify as mammals by this definition. It's the women who certify the species for mammal status, and they are thus equipped, like whales and wild coyotes, to do these things without technical assistance.
This was the working principle of my doula. A doula is a birth assistant, a woman without the medical training of a midwife who takes the historical role of the mothers, aunts, and elderly females in the cave, who would, I gathered from my reading, help the birthing woman push the baby out while men were clubbing edible mammals. I was still planning to go to the hospital, just in case, but I knew the doctor wouldn't be there until the last minute and the nurses would be busy with all the other birthing females. I also knew that if my husband said, during the 16th hour of labor, "You're doing fine! Keep pushing!" I would look at him and know he wasn't even a real mammal — how would he know?
My doula, on the other hand, had given birth herself. She had helped other women push out live young, and if she said I was doing fine, I would believe her.
What the doula said to me in the last month of pregnancy was this: You are just like a whale or a wild coyote. You can, if necessary, give birth all by yourself. If you go into labor on a dirt road somewhere, and you don't have a phone or a human being to help you, you can give birth all by yourself.
I found this extremely comforting. I was built to give birth! It was my destiny! I could do it all alone!
Obviously, it's not 100 percent true. I've read enough history to know women used to die giving birth to live young. Frequently. But I had also read The Good Earth in ninth grade, and the only thing I remembered about it was that the main character works in the fields for a while, goes in the house, gives birth, and goes right back into the fields, as if all she'd done was take a coffee break.
When the contractions began before dawn on April 28, 1998, I started out like a good Chinese peasant woman. I worked all day at my desk. I wrote most of a story about the revival of the Lindy Hop. Then the doula came over and we walked around in a field. By 9:00 p.m. the contractions hurt enough to make me say the word, "HOSPITAL," so my husband and the doula and I went to the hospital so that I could be a coyote/whale/Chinese peasant in a bed, wearing a gown.
For the next seven hours, the doula sat beside me and said, "You're doing fine." She did some acupressure on my right hand. The nurse came now and then to measure and count. At 3:30 a.m., the doctor appeared, and at 4:00, I pushed like a coyote, or perhaps a whale. For a moment, it seemed that I was the coyote and Sam was the whale. But then he emerged. Our baby was alive, human, healthy, and fine. We admired him tearfully for one, maybe two triumphant minutes, and then it was time for Sam to do what nurses call "latching on."