By Susan Maushart
Excerpted from Blindsided by a Diaper by Dana Hilmer
I met a life coach a few years back who promised he’d help me
“become more of who I was.” He said that as though it were a good
thing. I’m not so sure.
I never hired the life coach. But I did have three babies in four
years, and in that time, you might say, I became so much of who I
was I went into surplus production. On the down side, my marriage
became more of what it was, too. Turbulent. Tense. Exhausting. Full
of passionate ambivalence.
Nora Ephron says having a baby is like tossing a hand grenade into
a marriage. When I first read that, I was still hoping for a negotiated
settlement. Now that I’m divorced I know a baby doesn’t really blow
things up. (Grown-ups can do that all by themselves.) A baby italicizes.
It takes what is there—a self, a pair, a family—and underscores
it, amplifies it. Pushes it to its logical, and also its absurd, extreme.
The presence of a baby can no more destroy a relationship than it
can save one. But it can and will enlarge it to the point of pixilation.
He was a doctor with beautiful, strong hands that smelled of soap.
On our first date, I had three gin and tonics—for medicinal reasons
only, you understand—and ended up outlining my history of infertility
(if two years can be said to constitute an epoch) in clinical
detail. His bedside manner was exemplary. “Perhaps you and your
ex-husband didn’t have sex often enough,” he said. “People sometimes
Two months later, I was pregnant.
He had two girls, eighteen and nine, from two previous, unwanted
marriages. When he used the word termination, I honestly didn’t know
what he was talking about. He would not say the word baby.
“You don’t love me,” I said.
Two months earlier, we had gone swimming, stupidly, in a stormy
sea and gotten caught in a rip current. We could have died, and we
both knew it. We went back to my bedroom and made love seven
times. And on Valentine’s Day, he’d written me a poem—it was
funny, and clever, and extravagant—to go with the chocolate and
lingerie. We’d spent the day in bed, drinking ginger beer floats and
“It’s because I love you,” he said. “Terminate the pregnancy and,
later, we can have as many babies as you want. I promise.” His eyes
“Just a blood sacrifice?” I taunted. “Well, why didn’t you say so?”
Getting pregnant made me more of who I was, all right. Fifty
pounds more. I hated that version of myself (me: the supersize
pack), hated feeling rubbery and taut, like an overinflated pool toy.
I’d always expected pregnancy would feel ripe, but somehow or
other I’d skipped ripe and gone straight to rotten. And I was not
only disturbed by my body, I was disturbed by being disturbed. As a
feminist, I felt duty bound to embrace my fecund woman-self,
whether it made me gag or not. Rhetoric or no, what I saw when I
looked in the mirror frightened me.
Would I have taken the changes better if I had been with a partner
who welcomed the pregnancy, or even accepted it? Perhaps.
But within the context of an already fragile relationship, the unexpected
body blow to my self-worth made me vulnerable to a
degree I would never have imagined possible. The balance of power
between us—a transaction (I now realize) disastrously tied up with
his status and my desirability—lurched.
He was Australian. I was American. Two nationalities that, on the
face of it, seemed a match made in multicultural heaven: similar
enough to be sustaining, different enough to add spice.
But once I became pregnant, and the deeper I advanced into
parenthood, the more we were . . . italicized. The differences—in
accent, in outlook—that had initially attracted us inverted, like
some cheap optical illusion, in the blink of an eye. What was once
enticing and exotic was now simply alien.
I realize now that I had fallen in love with an Australian archetype:
the dry humor, the cheerful contempt for authority, the
insistence—not always convincingly—on a “fair go” for all comers.
But you can’t have a baby with an archetype. And God knows you
wouldn’t want to marry one. I thought I knew what I was getting
into, though; I had lived in Australia long enough to have also
encountered the darker side of the Australian way of life—the
parochialism, the arrogance, the sexism so unexamined it was
almost exuberant. Yet when those same qualities revealed themselves
in the father of my child, I was shocked.
While we were dating, he had seemed genuinely delighted by
my career success and the financial independence that went along
with it. He was proud that I was a “serious” academic. (As opposed
to what? I used to wonder. The kind that does stand-up?) It never
occurred to me that I wouldn’t have an equal marriage, that we
wouldn’t approach parenting as a fifty-fifty proposition. I was aware
that the rest of the country was experiencing—now, how can I put
this diplomatically?—a noticeable developmental delay in these
areas. But we were different. Weren’t we?
From his perspective—a perspective drawn from a harsh workingclass
childhood in an Irish Catholic family of ten—parenthood wasn’t
a “lifestyle option.” It was more like a terminal illness. A life sentence.
Children swallowed you up, like a great maw. And once over the
threshold, there was no going back. Especially if you were a woman.
One day you were Murphy Brown. The next you were the mother in
Sons and Lovers, crooning mournful lullabies and blacking the hearth.
“We never talk to each other anymore,” I’d begin. “Talk?” he’d
reply. “You have your girlfriends for that.” (This from a man who
loved Joyce, who listened to Puccini and Fauré and Gregorian
chants, who wrote poetry along with prescriptions.)
In truth, we both became flattened into paper dolls. He was The
Man, who worked hard all day and expected “a bit of consideration”
for it at night and on the weekend. I was The Woman, too distracted
by love for my child—and too exhausted by the demands of caring
for her—to mount an effective protest. It was as if having a baby
released in him not his own inner child, but his own inner father: a
man he’d feared as much as he’d loved, whose anger had smoldered
like a damp fire in a too-small house.
Our experience was unusual in its intensity. But in other ways
it was textbook stuff. New parents are often astonished—and
appalled—at their own regression to gender stereotypes after the
birth of a child. I certainly was. Family patterns I was sure I’d rooted
out years earlier reasserted themselves with dismaying vigor in
those early months, like some hardy, noxious weed. At times, I felt
as if we were literally reading from a script of 1950s family life: “Not
another meeting?” “You call that dinner?” “You’re never here when
I need you.” “But what do you do all day?”
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For any couple, the birth of a first child—no matter how joyously
anticipated—constitutes both a culmination and a crisis. Which is
why, as newborn parents, we experience delight and apprehension
in roughly the same degree. A heightened sense of danger is an
adaptive response, reminding us that our babies (and ourselves)
need special protection. At the same time, it can close us down
No wonder the issue of trust looms so large. A kind of structural
paranoia seems to be part of the package, and whoever or whatever
is not entirely with you is perceived as entirely against you. Perhaps
there is simply no energy for discerning shades of gray.
Fear makes us “rigid,” as we say. Which is why in a time of crisis we
instinctively seek refuge in the familiar, the predictable. We become
not only more of who we are, but more of where we come
from. More gender bound, more role fixated, more hostage to class
and culture. After all, there is safety in stereotypes. And in our craving
for emotional comfort food, anything too novel, too challenging,
too highly spiced may prove impossible to assimilate. Thus does
parenthood make cowards, or at least conservatives, of us all—
especially at the start.
It’s all so very understandable once you think about it. The problem
is, at the time, so very few of us do think about it. We are so focused
on childbirth, we forget about the labor it takes to push a family into
the world. And then we wonder why the mortality rate is so high.
“You never really know someone until you live with them,” my
mother used to warn. I used to think she was being dramatic. Now I
know she wasn’t being dramatic enough. In fact, you never really
know someone till you have a child with them.
Maybe you never really know yourself. In my own case, my sense
of who I was culturally underwent a deep shift after my first child,
and I was bemused to find myself becoming more and more
“American” with each passing milestone. Even my accent became
stronger. American, suddenly, was no longer a geopolitical designation
but a question of identity, of tradition. Almost (I am tempted to
say) of destiny.
I consciously sought out other Americans, for the first time since
moving to Australia. My mothers group—the women who formed a
human life raft for me in those early months—consisted of three
Americans, a Brit, and a Rhodesian expat. I realize now that, in part,
our group solidarity was all about not being Australian.
Before the baby, I hadn’t really noticed how, or whether, I fit into
the cultural landscape. Now I was conscious of feeling “foreign” for
the first time. The local lingo—formerly a source of fascination—
grated now. “Nappy” for diaper, “dummy” for pacifier, “pram” for
stroller or carriage. Having to remember that babies didn’t spit up,
they “sicked up.” That they went “down” for naps—like prizefighters
or drowning men—and woke up for “feeds.” That, instead of
a pediatric nurse, one visited the ominous “clinic sister,” with her
sensible cardigan and gleaming stainless steel scales. (“Why is your
child crying?” she demanded to know during one early visit. “Possibly
because she’s a baby,” I replied icily.)
I could have assimilated. Over time, indeed, that’s exactly what I
have done. What I have had to do. But my initial response was to
cling to my sense of differentness. To wear it like a flag.
Having a baby did not create irreconcilable differences in our relationship.
But it did expose them. It did rub them raw. Our relationship had always been all-consuming. Even at our best, we’d had a
tendency to be emotional demand feeders, draining each other
with a frequency and an intensity that excluded others, and
exhausted ourselves. With a baby to care for, such profligacy was no
longer possible, or even thinkable. Now, I came to the relationship
premasticated, as it were—chewed up and spat out by the demands
of new motherhood.
There were times when I longed to get both of them, husband
and daughter, onto a schedule. But I never succeeded. It was a case
of constant nurture on command, with both stakeholders vying
loudly and indignantly for attention.
Yet, compared with the primal, urgent tasks of infant care, my
partner’s requests for service (as I then construed them) seemed so
petty, so beside the point, so babyish. Who cares if your shirt is wrinkled?
I’d fume silently as he huffed and puffed his way through the
wardrobe each morning, sighing ostentatiously. I felt much the
same way about his not-so-subtle hints about sex and “proper
meals,” which is to say, disinterested to the point of wonderment.
I realize now he was looking for a sign that I valued his contribution,
as breadwinner, to our life as a family. I knew, even then, that
he felt taken for granted. But the truth was actually worse than that.
I was beyond not being grateful that he went out to work and I
didn’t. I was resentful. Not because I really wanted to be in the
workforce. (I was so desperately bonded to my daughter at that
stage, I could barely journey to the basement to do laundry without
misgivings.) But because I understood the workforce. I knew who I
was there. At home, I didn’t . . . not yet.
But then I’d always loved my job and considered it a privilege.
He’d despised his and felt “real life” happened elsewhere. The result
was we both felt aggrieved. The Who Has the Harder Job? show had
begun—and it ran for more seasons than I care to count. Inevitably,
we both ended up losers.
And yet the possibility that we might have switched roles was
beyond imagining. That’s a fact I find, in hindsight, both tragic and
telling. I can’t help but wonder what life might have been like for us
had we been able to cast off the deadweight of our own unexamined
I resented his hands-off approach to parenting, but I can’t honestly
say I encouraged him to be a more active father. I never exactly
withheld the baby. But I did have a habit of taking her with me
wherever I went: shopping, the office, the bathroom. It just felt
safer that way. In the evenings, if she had been fed, cleaned, and
snugly wrapped, he would hold her for perhaps an entire local
newscast at a time, till she drifted off. But that was all.
In retrospect, I can see I was in some ways what the literature
calls a “gatekeeper”—someone who subtly but unconsciously discourages
a partner’s help in a bid to retain control. It was a perfect
way to punish both of us—all of us, really.
He’d made it clear at the outset he’d never really wanted us. On
some level, I was making clear that the feeling was mutual.
When our daughter was a few months old and settled into what
seemed a predictable sleep pattern—waking only once in the
night—I started rising at 5:30 to take the dog for a run on the beach.
I remember the shock of recognition the first time I threw myself
headlong—cracked nipples aquiver—into the surf. I surfaced with
the transfiguring assurance that I was, despite it all, still me. The sun
was the same old sun, and Jack—still barking at the temerity of the
Indian Ocean to advance and retreat without permission—the same
One day, perhaps a week or two into the new routine, I came
home to find the baby awake and the man colicky. “She woke up,
and you weren’t here,” he said coldly. “She’s hungry.” The next day it
happened again. And that, as we both knew without having to say
it, was that. My run on the beach was his ironed shirt: a small gift,
the withholding of which was so pointed (or so it seemed), so disproportionately
It was as if the fissures in our relationship, which, when viewed
from above, had made such interesting patterns, now deepened into
chasms. As far as empathy for my partner’s plight goes—and “plight”
was exactly how he experienced our child’s infancy—frankly I had
none. I was so totally “with” my daughter in all the minutiae of her
newborn life, nothing and nobody else stood a chance. “Try to see
things from my point of view,” he’d plead. What? I’d think. Why? Now
I can see what he was getting at. He’d already been through this
transition, twice in fact. He was forty years old, in a job he despised,
clinically depressed and numb with self-loathing. I can see all that
now. Then it was as if my emotional intelligence had dried up like
spilled milk on a hot day. And I still don’t know why.
We had two more babies together—astoundingly, it seems to me
now—before we split up for good. When I ask myself why on earth
we stayed together as long as we did, the answer is as clear as it is
utterly mysterious: Those children could not not have been born.
And everything else is just conjecture.
It is a truism that trust is at the heart of every strong relationship.
My experience taught me that, where there are gaps in that trust,
new parenthood—like some powerful ultraviolet light—will cause
them to fluoresce. And the flaws that were hidden from ordinary
sight loom up unmistakably in its glow.
I suspect that every relationship, regardless of its tensile
strength, must bend under the weight of new parenthood. Some
exhibit remarkable resilience. Others sag, or scar. And a few,
inevitably, give way entirely. My own was the last kind.
So having a baby, I am convinced, doesn’t really change a couple
for better or for worse. It simply makes you more of who you are.
Peeling you back like a piece of fruit and showing how all the sections
fit, and where the bruises are.