The first few nauseating months of my pregnancy dragged by, but during months three through five, I felt creatively on fire. Not only was this life growing within me, but I got to bring to life one of my favorite characters, Alma in Summer and Smoke. I did worry what our developing fetus might be experiencing as I rode my character’s emotional roller coaster every night, eight full-blown nervous breakdowns a week. As soon as I’d arrive home from the theater, I’d rush to play Mozart with the speakers lying on my belly to help calm any potential baby trauma.
Throughout my pregnancy, I also carefully repeated our parenting mantra to my husband: “Fifty/fifty, Tommyyyy, rememberrrrr, fiftyyyy/fiftyyyyyyyy.”
I said it after I had to drop out of that play because I was no longer credible as a virginal spinster. I chanted it in our car on the way to our coed baby shower, and especially during my twentytwo hour, virtually pain-medication-free labor. “Puff, puff, pant pant, argh, puff puff, pant pant, don’t forget, fifty motherf*cking fifty!!”
BUT RIGHT AFTER our baby Wilson was born, my concerns didn’t center around Tommy’s reneging. I feared I was going to be the worst mother on the planet. Even though I’d felt deeply connected with Wilson in utero, in reality I didn’t have that instantaneous bond I expected. I got how daunting the responsibility was; this tiny human’s life was literally in my hands. But I mostly just felt anxious to lose the seventy pounds I’d gained and get back to work. Jesus Christ, new mothers shouldn’t feel that way, right?
Apparently fathers got a cultural pass. You always heard men say, “Nah, I didn’t start to feel a connection to our baby until he was out of diapers.” Or “Nope, didn’t really feel close until they were old enough to play sports with me.” And nobody batted an eye. The phrase “paternal instinct” didn’t even exist in the English language! But moms had to be gobsmacked right out of the gate.
For the first few weeks, I kept having nightmares that I’d forget about Wilson, accidentally leaving him in the car if I went to a café or to my spin class. Also, it was pretty uneventful—I mean, all he did was sleep, eat, fart, sh*t, sleep, eat, fart, and then . . . um . . . oh yeah, sh*t. Even though others swore he grinned—Look! There it is! See? He’s smiling! Awwww! That’s definitely a smile!—I always knew it was just gas. Because that’s what my face often looked like when I farted.
Stuck at home alone, I became frantic that show business at large had forgotten all about me. My agents would soon stop returning my calls, casting people would start asking them for a Christine Lahti “type.” If I ever worked again, I’d only get to play the “mom” parts, which were not only brain-paralyzingly boring, but always number fourteen on the call sheet. In spite of all my careful strategizing about how I would “have it all,” it became clear that would only be possible if, like my character on Chicago Hope said, “I gave up eating, sleeping, and bathing.”
In those early days, while Wilson lay next to me in bed, I feared I’d roll on top of him and squash him into a newborn pancake. I’d lie awake staring at him, in awe of the miracle that was his cheek, the poetry of his pillow lips. I watched as his doll hands instinctively knew to grasp my finger and hold on for dear life, the way a robin clings to its branch. If he cried, the comfort that my breast gave him seemed overwhelmingly powerful. Trying to match his breathing as it slowed and sped up again, I wanted to know what he dreamed . . . if he dreamed. I’d finally fall asleep, only to wake up next to a tiny stranger.
While nursing him in those early weeks, I’d try to make eye contact with him. It was like trying to connect with a squirrel. Days passed as I searched for him. I wished I could somehow reach inside and pull him out. But Wilson would only hold my gaze for a few seconds, curious but mostly disinterested. Instead he’d make those rubbery, goofy grimaces, reminiscent of a pug’s. And just like when seeing a pug’s face, I’d laugh out loud but would always be somewhat alarmed.
Then, after about six weeks, we were sitting on his blue-gray rocking chair one late afternoon, the one that rolled more than rocked, like riding ocean waves. I had just finished feeding him and tried peering into his eyes as usual. He started to cry, and I saw he had a full diaper. I took him to his changing table to clean him up, and as he lay there, like he’d been underwater the whole time, the person who was my son surfaced, looked into my eyes, and smiled . . . through me.
Or maybe I’d been the one underwater this whole time. Perhaps I’d forgotten that loving someone and feeling connected to them takes a lot of hard work; that the more you put in, the more you get out.
My breath caught in my throat. My eyes filled with tears. I’d never felt so close to anyone in my life. Suddenly, as if I’d known him forever, I understood volumes about him. My heart exploded in ways I never knew possible, and I was a goner.
TRUE STORIES FROM AN UNRELIABLE EYEWITNESS: A Feminist Coming of Age by Christine Lahti. Copyright © 2018 by Christine Lahti. On sale April 3, 2018 by Harper Wave, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.