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Enemy at the Baby Gate

By Lisa Unger
Excerpted from Blindsided by a Diaper by Dana Hilmer

Like generals heading into battle, my husband, Jeffrey, and I prepared for every possible condition in readying ourselves for the arrival of our daughter. Overwhelmed by the horror stories of those who’d headed into the fray before us, there was no attack—from colic to breast-feeding issues, from sleep deprivation to sexual starvation—for which we did not develop a counterattack. We were heavily armed with baby books and wipes warmers, breast pumps and travel systems. Little did we know how woefully we’d underestimated our opponent or that in the end we’d fall desperately, head over heels in love with the enemy at the gate.

If the women of my mother’s generation were less than honest about the difficulties of raising a child and the effect it can have on a marriage, my generation appears to have abandoned any such stoicism. The newly pregnant couple is barraged with messages about how miserable they are about to become. Friends and strangers issue the ominous warning over and over: “Get ready for your whole life to change.” They then expound with their stories of colicky babies who cry for six weeks straight, sleep deprivation so extreme it classifies as a personality disorder, nipple confusion, sexual starvation, and breast pumps that draw blood. Of course, let’s not forget the baby blues, not to be confused with postpartum depression, not to be confused with postpartum psychosis. It would be enough to give a thinking woman pause—if she weren’t already pregnant.

But Jeffrey and I did pause before becoming parents. It wasn’t something that we entered into lightly or accidentally. It wasn’t an idea we had romanticized. It wasn’t anything we needed to feel whole as a couple. When we decided it was time, it was because we felt we had a lot to offer a little person, that we would take great joy in sharing what we loved about the world with a child. We’d both learned hard lessons well and felt we had a lot to teach. And we shared a great love for each other that we knew would create a solid foundation for a happy childhood. It was an intellectual decision, made by two smart and loving people.

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We met on a humid November night in Key West. Jeffrey was vacationing from Michigan. I, living in New York City at the time, was visiting a close friend who’d relocated to Florida just a few months earlier. In the sweating, drunken mess that was a bar called Sloppy Joe’s, I found Jeffrey. It was truly a shazam! moment, a point on which my whole life pivoted. We had a white-hot long-distance love affair that involved one or the other of us on a plane every weekend. Within four months, he had proposed. Within six, we’d both quit our jobs, sold our homes, and moved to Florida. We were married in Key West, a year to the day after we met. Quite naturally, our reception ended up at Sloppy Joe’s.

We had an extraordinarily romantic beginning. After a slew of terrible relationships (the parade of losers and weirdos in my past alone is staggering), we’d both learned what we didn’t want. We each knew a good thing when we saw it. As soon as we started talking that first night, I thought: Oh, there you are! I’ve been looking all over for you! And I’ve never stopped feeling that way.

I won’t say we have a perfect marriage, because what does that even mean? I will say we’re perfect for each other, that our individual sets of neuroses are wonderfully compatible. I’m married to the best friend I’ve ever had. Sure, we argue over the little things—what we’re going to have for dinner or who has the more annoying family, if one (or both) of us has control issues, or if one of us is compulsively organized (he is), and the other is not (I am organized . . . in my own way)—but the really big stuff has never been an issue. We skirmish, but have never fought in that awful way that damages your marriage and your spirit.

When it came to children, we both felt that we wanted a family but that if kids didn’t come, we’d have a wonderful life regardless. There would be no fertility acrobatics. We’d consider adoption, if there came a time when we were desperate for children and couldn’t have them in the traditional way. And when it was time to stop “not trying,” we were both equally ready—meaning sort of ready. Frankly, at thirty-five (me) and thirty-seven (him), we were starting to feel as if the time was now or that the time would pass. It only took a few months for us to conceive.

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We were so thrilled, so unexpectedly excited, that we told everyone right away—family, friends, acquaintances, people in the grocery store. Wait three months? We couldn’t even keep the news to ourselves for three hours. Our friends and family were happy for us—and a little surprised, I think, too. Our ambivalence toward parenthood was well known. In the five years since our marriage, we’d been asked about our plans for children. We’d always said, “Not yet. We’re having too much fun.” And I guess in some ways, we’d thought of parenthood as the end of fun. I was famous for saying things like “Once you’ve decided to have children, you’ve basically decided not to do anything else.”

Maybe this reputation for ambivalence made us easy targets. Or maybe our newfound enthusiasm for parenthood made us seem green, and the veterans were just trying to toughen us up before we headed into the fray. But for whatever reason, the fact that I was planning to have a natural childbirth and to breast-feed seemed to encourage people to bring out the big guns of discouragement. Everyone, it seemed, lined up to talk about their delivery-room nightmares and lactation traumas.

“Oh, you can forget about that right now,” said one cousin, referring to natural childbirth. “There’s no way to do it without drugs. You’re crazy. And, by the way, if you wait too long and then change your mind, you can’t get any drugs. You don’t want to be there.” Was that true? I didn’t know.

“I couldn’t breast-feed,” said another friend. “I have inverted nipples. When I tried to pump one night, I pumped an ounce of pure blood.” I looked at her in dismay; she just smiled gravely and nodded.

But I was determined, if not all that confident. And Jeffrey was totally onboard with these decisions. So we signed up for twelve weeks of natural childbirth classes, where we learned everything we needed to know about labor, delivery, and breast-feeding in unflinching detail—complete with unedited videos of women in the throes of natural childbirth. Even here, the messages weren’t exactly encouraging.

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In the darkened living room of our instructor, surrounded by fifteen other couples in various stages of pregnancy, we watched as an especially vocal woman in one video screamed in agony during her labor, “Get it out of me! GET. IT. OUT!” I glanced at Jeff, who patted my leg and offered me a brave smile. I looked around at the other couples and saw their stricken faces; one woman covered her eyes. Jeffrey offered empathetic shoulder rubs and comforting words. More than once he said, with a nervous laugh, “It’s a good thing men don’t have to do this. There’d never be any babies.” Indeed.

Then, of course, there were the books. In them, I learned that I would soon come to hate Jeffrey, that he would reveal himself as a buffoon about as capable of helping me raise a child as he was of bearing one. There would be no sex, of course (either because I secretly resented my husband and what he had done to me, or because he was secretly repulsed by my postpartum body—or that he was traumatized by what he witnessed in the delivery room). And there would be no sleep—ever. That the combination of those things would turn us into a pair of Japanese fighting fish dropped into the same bowl. Maybe no one would get out alive. “Get ready to know rage in a way you’ve never experienced before,” said one particularly awful book, given to me (unwittingly, I think) by my mother.

As my pregnancy progressed, I was assailed by the idea that independent, intelligent women who had delayed children to pursue a career are set up for failure when motherhood comes. That they hate it. That it’s a slow, unhappy trek toward a total loss of self. In fact, I can’t recall even once hearing an intellectual female voice that said: “I love being a mom. I love my husband. My husband is a wonderful father and partner in parenthood.” The message was clear: I was entering into a modern-day slavery and my happy marriage was about to reveal itself as a pseudoegalitarian sham.

Even my grandmother chimed in (PS—she’s not one of the stoic, uncomplaining women of earlier generations previously mentioned). I told her with enthusiasm how wonderful Jeffrey is around the house and how much he planned to work at home, our strategies for making sure I had time to work. “He’s going to be such a great dad,” I gushed. “He’ll help a lot.” She snorted, “You think so, huh?”

All these conversations and experiences began to feel like a conspiracy to rob us of our joy. I came to dread talking about my pregnancy and our impending parenthood. I found myself bracing for dire premonitions, whispered tales of misery, graphic confessions I’d rather have been spared.

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I started to wonder: Has it actually become chic to be miserable in parenthood? If earlier generations are guilty of whitewashing the truths about parenthood, of staying silent about the toll it can take on a relationship, is mine guilty of painting too grim a picture? Women seem so quick to cast ourselves as harried, shrewish malcontents, beleaguered by motherhood. (Can’t you see us-unshowered, clothes covered with spit up, hair wild and uncombed? Our laptops gather dust. Our Victoria’s Secret catalogs are in tatters, possibly lining the litter box.) And we readily typecast our husbands as slouches, zoning out on the couch while the baby screams and we disappear behind a mountain of laundry. Maybe it’s just a postmodern way of saying, “Hey, this is hard! What we’re doing is important and it’s a struggle and we should be lauded for our sacrifices!”

Suddenly I was looking at Jeffrey, wondering how fatherhood would change him, if he would still be my lover and best friend. I wondered if we’d still have dates, if he’d still be my “boyfriend.” Moreover, I started looking in the mirror and wondering how motherhood was going to change me, if it would turn me into a resentful basket case, so overwhelmed by my new role that I would no longer be the wife I was before. Who would we be when our daughter arrived? How would we fare during labor and in the stressful weeks and months that followed? Could a profound experience change us both so deeply that we would no longer be compatible as a couple?

I guess the truth was that we just didn’t know. But a current of fear began to run beneath our excitement.

So we did what any intellectual, overachieving couple would do. Jeffrey, a computer engineer with a logical mind that had the speed and accuracy of a Pentium processor, engineered “the problem.” I, a fiction writer with a wild imagination, got creative. Together we prepared for everything. There was no video we didn’t watch, no book we didn’t read. We developed a strategy for colic. We gathered names of lactation consultants in case there were problems with breast-feeding. By twenty weeks, the nursery was done; by twenty-five weeks we had a pediatrician who was in-line with our thinking about vaccines; by thirty weeks the car seats were installed. We spent our evenings doing pregnancy exercises and relaxation techniques for labor. I obsessed about nutrition and exercised vigorously until my third trimester, then switched to yoga. We got seriously into it.

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Of course, what we were doing was trying to manage our anxiety. There was no real way to prepare for how we might change as people, as a couple. That was uncharted territory. But we could prepare for everything else. We could be as strong, as healthy, as organized as possible, thereby giving ourselves a better foundation from which to handle the inevitable stresses of childbirth and the famously grueling challenges of new parenthood. We were developing counterstrategies for all the difficulties we were told awaited us. The dreaded phrase “Get ready for your whole life to change” sounded to us, a happy couple with a really fantastic life, like “Get ready for your whole life to suck.” But we turned it into our call to arms. We weren’t going down like the rest of them; we were going to fight.

Meanwhile, in spite of all of this preparation and solution engineering, we just couldn’t get our heads around the idea that there was a real baby in there. Our daughter was an abstract concept in spite of the sonograms and the kung-fu kicks to my ribs. It was impossible for us to imagine that a little person, someone of us but separate from us, would be living in our house for a really long time. I knew she was coming. I knew I would love her. I couldn’t imagine what she would look like, who she would be. It just didn’t seem real.

When my water broke on Christmas Day, three weeks early, I still wasn’t getting it. I had been racing our little girl to complete my next novel. I thought we had an arrangement: She would stay put until her due date so that I could finish. And that’s what I was thinking about when I awoke at 5 A.M. to an audible “pop!” from my abdomen. I lay there for a minute saying to myself, “That can’t be good.” Still in denial, I ran to the bathroom. A flood of pink liquid soaked through my pajamas. “Ohmigod. I think my water broke,” I said in an absurd statement of the obvious.

“What?” said Jeffrey, with terror in his voice. “Are you sure?” When I called my mother to tell her we were heading to the hospital, I said, “Mom, I didn’t finish my book.” She said, “Well, don’t worry about that now!”

But I was worried—about that and everything else. Actually, in retrospect, terrified might be closer to the truth in some moments.

Not about labor and delivery, so much. That, to me, seemed like the least of it. I was terrified that I wouldn’t be the person I was, the wife I was, the writer I was before motherhood. I feared for my relationship with my husband and for the life we shared together. I had a lot to lose, and didn’t have any real sense of what we were about to gain. And all our overly intellectual planning hadn’t prepared me for the tidal wave of emotion I felt on the ride to the hospital on that stormy Christmas morning.

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We arrived calmly, despite our fear. After all, the bags had been packed for weeks, complete with sound dock for our iPod to play relaxing music during labor. I looked at Jeff. He seemed truly Zen. What I didn’t realize at the time was that he had a miserable jackhammer of a hangover. We’d had a party on Christmas Eve, and he had some drinks for the first time during my pregnancy. (To his credit, he never mentioned his hangover until much later: “What was I going to say?” he told me later. “Sorry you’re in labor, honey, but I feel like crap. Can we do this tomorrow?”) I wondered if I’d hate him soon. If I’d be mean to him in the delivery room. I wondered what our baby would look like. I wondered who we’d be when the three of us got home.

“Our baby’s coming,” said Jeff, with a wide smile and wider eyes. I know he’d been told to say this by our birthing instructor to allay my fears, to remind me that all the pain to come would result in the birth of our child. Unfortunately, this statement did no such thing. Joy, anxiety, excitement, dread—it was all there on his face. I still couldn’t imagine her. I was alternately thrilled and frightened by the idea of our daughter. In abstraction, she was worshipped and feared like a volatile god.

And when she arrived, this five pound, ten ounce titan, we were truly awed by her raw power. I had wanted a natural childbirth so badly, not because I had some lofty idea about it (and PS, an hour or so into active labor, drugs started to look pretty good). It was because I didn’t want my mind to be separated from my body when our daughter arrived. I wanted to feel her pass through me. I wanted to be present for her arrival, not floating on a narcotic cloud. And I was present, more so than I have been for any other moment in my life.

I’m so grateful. The pain of labor and delivery and her arrival were defining experiences. I’m not sure I’d be who I am now without the clarity of those moments, without having been introduced to my own power and strength, and to the strength of my husband, who was with me every second. He was exactly who I needed him to be—strong, funny, respectful, comforting, and encouraging. Amazing.

I remember every second. She blew our minds. There’s a picture Jeffrey managed to snap as the midwife handed our baby to me, which captures an expression of pure awe on my face. All I could think as I reached for her was “She’s here. She’s mine.” I was overcome by a mighty rush of love. We were prepared for everything except that. In spite of all our busy planning and scheming, we’d never imagined the brute force of our opponent. In the end, our defenses were shattered by a blue-eyed strawberry blond cherub we’d named Ocean Rae.

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No one warned us about the laser beam we’d get zapped with when our baby arrived. Or maybe we just couldn’t hear it through the humming machinery of our anxiety. After Ocean’s birth, I suddenly remembered other voices that hadn’t resonated as deeply during my pregnancy. An author I know told me, “There’s going to be a whole new level of love in your life.” At the time, I acknowledged that he was probably right. Intellectually, I knew I would love my daughter; that was never a question. I just never realized that this love would color everything else, that the word itself would be redefined.

The weeks that followed were grueling and wonderful in equal measure. The fact is, we didn’t sleep. Of course not. But we were so enamored of our daughter that we found we just didn’t care about sleep that much. There was no sex for weeks. Of course there wasn’t. Okay, that was bad—but I’d never felt closer to my husband, never felt more deeply bonded to anyone. There were awful times where we were snappish and impatient with each other. Beyond stressed, exhausted, overwhelmed—just maxed out. But for each of those dark moments, there were a hundred more where we were overcome by pure bliss. There was a baby, our daughter! This tiny, everyday miracle; each movement she made, each sigh she issued, mesmerized us. Every time I looked at her, my heart felt bigger. Why didn’t anyone tell us about that?

A lot of the things we’d feared and planned for just never happened. Breast-feeding was easy for Ocean and for me. She wasn’t colicky. She was, in fact, mostly peaceful from the day she arrived. Maybe we’d feel differently about parenthood if we’d had those challenges. And maybe all the obsessive planning, research, and organizing we did to combat our fears actually helped us to enjoy coming home from the hospital more than we would have. Maybe having enough diapers for weeks, having meals frozen and waiting to be heated, having the nursery done and the phone off allowed us to focus on the bliss rather than the tiring logistics of day-to-day living. Maybe all those people with their horror stories and bad advice were just . . . disorganized? Or maybe we just got lucky.

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Regardless of the reasons, we were so awed by what we had gained that it never occurred to us to focus on what we had lost. But of course, in their way, the veterans were right. It was immediately obvious, even through the fog of our fatigue, that nothing would ever be as it was. When Ocean Rae entered our world, she changed it not in the superficial ways we feared—or not just in those ways. She changed us from the inside out. We found that we wanted different things—from ourselves, from life, and from each other. Suddenly, I didn’t want a date for dinner and a movie; I needed someone to bring me a glass of water, to sit with me at Ocean’s 3 A.M. feeding and assure me that everything in this strange new world of ours was all right. This was the new romance.

We wanted to celebrate New Year’s Eve not in a throng of people somewhere, but by curling up on the couch and falling asleep in the glow of the Christmas tree lights. This was the new nightlife. Late evenings out were replaced with friends and family stopping by with food and tiny clothes, tiptoeing excitedly into the nursery to see our sleeping baby. This was our new social life. And it was all okay . . . even perfect.

We’d heard the horror stories of those first sleepless weeks filled with endless crying and the chaos of meddling family members. But I remember those bleary days as so quiet—lights dim, phone off, both of us totally focused on Ocean and each other, our new family. I cried constantly, was buffeted by swift and changing tides of emotion. But it wasn’t depression or baby blues; I wasn’t sad. I just felt plugged in to an awareness of life—the miracle of a child, the cataclysmic changes in myself, my husband, and our marriage—and how unspeakably awesome and beautiful it all seemed. In this mingling of intense pain, profound happiness, abject terror, and the deepest contentment I’d ever known, I was in a place I’d never been. And Jeffrey was right there with me.

He worked from home for almost eight weeks while I recovered and we all adjusted—he did the laundry, he made our meals, he took care of me so that I could breast-feed our baby and recover from childbirth. He hadn’t morphed into a couch potato or a helpless buffoon. On the other hand, he definitely wasn’t my boyfriend anymore. He was my loving husband, the doting father of our child, and my partner in every sense of the word.

And in spite of the huge shifts within me and without, motherhood has not changed me so much that I am unrecognizable from the person I was before. I am now different, but not less. I discovered a fuller, more enriched version of myself. In labor, I was introduced to a woman who was stronger and more determined than the girl I knew. In motherhood, I found more patience, more compassion, more intuitive power than I knew I had. In marriage, my love for Jeffrey is even deeper than it was; we are fiercely connected by parenthood and our shared devotion for the tiny life our love created. I discovered I am still a writer, still a wife who madly loves and ardently desires her husband. But now I’m a mother, too. I’m not saying it isn’t a challenge to be all those things. Actually, some days, it’s pure madness. But it’s a blessing to have a life so full . . .isn’t it?

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So, at the moment, we can’t spontaneously stroll out for a drink . . . but, hey, maybe we were drinking too much anyway. Between my work and the baby, I’m so exhausted at the end of the day that I haven’t seen the end of a DVD in months . . . but most of them have been really awful anyway. I did, however, manage to conduct a ten-city book tour (husband, breast-feeding baby, and occasionally my mother in tow). And in the weeks after Ocean was born, I finished my novel with this little bundle snoozing beside me in her bed. As different as things are, I find that the important things are the same. Parenthood, like any intense experience, is a crucible. It changes you, certainly, but it also shows you what you were made from in the first place.

In addition to entering parenthood from a good place, I think there’s something else that contributes to our contentment in our new life. Instead of trying to claw our way back to a “couplehood” that no longer existed, we totally surrendered to our new existence. We adapted. Perhaps this and this alone is the key to survival—not to mention happiness—in marriage and in life: to embrace the change inevitably wrought by dramatic events, to recognize that looking back is not only pointless but destructive. What doesn’t bend breaks.

Right now, Ocean Rae is our life. We still take trips, still head out for the day on the boat. Except now there’s a whole lot more to carry—lots of gear for our little pal, travel systems, life jackets, diaper bags, Pack ‘n Play, toys, teethers, sippy cups. We do have some baby-sitters now and have ventured out on our own a couple of times for dinner or parties; and it’s wonderful to have a date with my husband. But we’re always ready to go home to our baby.

So who are we now? Am I the blissed-out mom gazing lovingly down at the angel in my arms? Are Jeffrey and I more in love than ever? Do we still have sex? Am I more at home in motherhood than I ever imagined possible? Or . . . am I a harried, exhausted stress case struggling to find my way as a mother, a writer, and a wife? Are Jeffrey and I squabbling in the fatigue and stress of fresh parenthood? The answer to all of these questions is, of course: yes.

Because parenthood is a kaleidoscope; the picture shifts with each turn of your wrist, with each change of light. What you see depends on how long you linger on any given moment.

—Lisa

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