I wasn’t ready to be a father – I knew that. I was thirty-nine, had no job, and lived in one of the most expensive cities on the planet. I had always assumed that I would have children, but I hadn’t spent a minute thinking about it. In short, although not young, I was stupid.
Emily told me she was pregnant when we were walking down 34th Street, Manhattan, going to Macy’s to buy wedding rings. Our wedding was in a few weeks and, true to my habit, I had postponed my purchases at the last minute. I had a scholarship at the time at the New York Public Library, downtown, and had to google “wedding rings near me”. It was Macy. All around us on 34th Street people were shopping, rushing, driving and honking their horns. Emily told me, and I thought, OK, here we go. We are going to have a child.
Then I thought: we have to buy very cheap wedding rings at Macy’s.
I was born in Moscow and came to the United States with my parents and older brother when I was six years old. I grew up in a suburb outside of Boston and dreamed of leaving to become a writer. After college I moved to New York and did odd jobs and wrote short stories, which I sent to literary magazines, which never got back to me. To see my name in print, I started doing journalism. I also started translating things – stories, oral history, poems – from Russian. Eventually I started a left-wing literary magazine with friends, published a novel, and traveled as much as possible in Russia to write about it. It was a decent literary career, really more than I could have ever hoped for, but it didn’t bring in much income; When Emily and I met, I was living with two roommates in a large, cockroach-infested apartment on Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn.
At the time, Emily was a writer for Gawker, a media gossip website. She was bright, beautiful and very funny; she could also be very mean. She had grown up in an upper-middle-class family in suburban Maryland, but she had a chip on her shoulder. We dated for a while, we broke up — she dumped me at a Starbucks, in Cobble Hill, which later closed during the pandemic — and then we started dating again. Eventually, we moved in together, in a one-and-a-half-bedroom apartment above a bar in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Emily had quit working for Gawker and, with her best friend, had started a small feminist publishing house. The year she became pregnant, she published her first novel, “Friendship,” about two best friends whose relationship is cut short when one of them falls in love. . . Pregnant. I was working on my second novel, about Russia. The library scholarship accounted for most of our income that year. Strictly speaking, we still didn’t have a lot of money, but that didn’t matter, because we didn’t have kids either.
I guess it’s not exactly true that I hadn’t thought of the children. I hadn’t thought about the birth itself, or what kind of clothes a baby wears, or the practicalities of infancy. “As a child, from the moment I understood what it entailed, I worried about childbirth,” Rachel Cusk writes in “A Life’s Work,” her dark and bright memoir of motherhood. She feared his pain and violence and what would happen on the other side. To that, truly, I had given no thought.
But I see, in retrospect, that I had spent years soaking up the heroic male literature of family neglect. There was Henry James, champion of art about life (“You don’t have to have children,” says one of his writer characters, “I mean of course if you want do something good”); Philip Roth, who refused to have children; Tolstoy, who had many children and a long marriage but still managed, at the very end of his life, to leave them. “Man’s intellect is bound to choose / Perfection of life or work,” wrote William Butler Yeats. I would choose the job. I’d been married once before, while still in college, and at the time I was adamant that the relationship wouldn’t interfere with my writing. My time must be mine; I must have adequate quantities; if my writing is not done, then all is lost. My insistence on this ultimately doomed the relationship. The lesson I learned was not that I had to keep things in perspective, but that I had to organize my life in such a way that it revolved entirely around literature.
Once, shortly after Emily and I started dating, I hosted Russian writer Ludmilla Petrushevskaya in New York. Anna Summers (my ex-wife) and I had translated a book of her scary fairy tales, and Petrushevskaya, then in her seventies, flew off to do some reading, buy some clothes for her kids at Century 21 and eat Thai food. . She was, and is, in my opinion, the greatest living Russian writer, the ultimate chronicler of life in that country at the end of its most terrible century, and one evening towards the end of its stay, as we were eating Thai food, she suddenly looked at me and said, apropos of nothing: “You know, Kostya, I started writing when I was little. But I didn’t become a real writer until I had my first child.
I don’t know why she decided to tell me that. Maybe she was just speaking. But, at the time, I thought it was because she saw in me a person leading a superfluous existence. I had thought that I had devoted my life to literature. That’s not what Petrushevskaya saw.
Now here I was, five years later, about to be a father. It was serious business, involving doctors, nurses, life and death. Immediately, I worried about the baby. Was he comfortable? Was he safe? Was he getting the right nutrients? At the same time, I started trying to figure out, almost in spite of myself, how I was going to make sure none of this interfered with my work. I had a vague hunch that would be the case.
I had a friend, Eric, from college, who I kept in touch with after his child was born. I asked him for a beer and told him that Emily was pregnant. I asked, “What do I need to know?”
“It’s tough,” Eric said. “It’s not easy. You need a lot of things.
“Yes, a lot of things.”
Sure! I was delighted. It was something I could handle. I bought a children’s chest of drawers – with a little nook at the top for a changing mat – from Russians in Sheepshead Bay. One of Emily’s friends gave us her daughter’s old crib; another gave us her old cradle. Emily’s parents bought us a car seat and a stroller. My dad bought us the mattress for the crib. My friend AJ, who had just had a baby, sent us what looked like a big pillow with a little depression in it, which she called a “dog bed”, to put our future baby in. We bought onesies, diapers and a changing mat. One day, Eric’s wife, Rachael, came to our house with a baby carrier. Her daughter was sleeping in the car downstairs; technically, I think it was illegal. Rachael threw the carrier on our bed. “Here,” she said. Someone had sent a stuffed rabbit for the future baby, and Rachael grabbed it by the throat and placed it on the baby carrier. She tied a strap around her waist, then leaned over the bunny and threaded her arms through the suspenders. “Like this,” she said. We nodded, not understanding. “OK, bye,” Rachael said, and she walked back down the stairs to her daughter. We now had a baby carrier.
The stuff kept the fear at bay. If the baby showed up tomorrow, we would have a place to lay him down while he slept, a surface to change his diapers on, means to transport him down the street or in the car. But we were still scared.
Or maybe I should stop saying “we”.
Before the baby, Emily and I were very similar. We both liked to drink coffee, read books and work on our laptops, sometimes together at the local cafe; before going to bed, we liked to watch an HBO show and eat a chocolate bar. If we were on the beach, we liked to go swimming. Emily was on her high school swim team and remained an excellent swimmer.
Pregnancy has both brought us together and separated us. For a while, including at our wedding, we were the only ones who knew. Then, later, it was up to us that every little thing counted: in the ultrasound, we studied the expression of the lab, or we examined small photos to see if we could distinguish the face and the character of our baby.
But it was also undeniable that this was all happening to Emily, inside Emily, and not inside me. It was as if we discovered that Emily had a superpower – a partly debilitating superpower that would lead to incredible physical pain, but a superpower nonetheless. We were then afraid of different things, and in different ways. I was afraid of my ignorance. Emily was afraid of pain. But Emily was also prepared: she had read the literature and she knew a lot of moms. Once pregnant, she downloaded an app that told her all about the baby. “Our baby is the size of a pea,” she told me. Then: “Our baby is the size of a plum.” Eventually, our baby was the size of an eggplant. He was in good hands with Emily. The weak link was me.
Emily wanted a home birth. I thought that was crazy, but she said she didn’t want to take a taxi to the hospital and maybe give birth there. I imagined looking at the taximeter when my child was born and seeing, like, one hundred and ninety-eight dollars. I agreed to explore the option of home birth.
We watched a flimsy documentary called ‘The Business of Being Born,’ in which former daytime talk show host Ricki Lake, pregnant with her second child, sings the praises of home birth and denounces a system American hospital that pumps women full of drugs and then pushes them to have cesarean sections that they do not need. Near the end of the film, Lake gives birth at home, without medication. The director of the film is also pregnant, but ends up giving birth in the hospital, because her baby comes out the wrong way (legs or buttocks first, called “breech”, as in panties). The film is quite convincing as an indictment against a for-profit medical establishment. By proposing home birth as a sort of opt-out movement, it is less effective. There are many people who cannot or should not give birth at home. When the director has to “transfer” to the hospital for a caesarean section, the news should be that her baby has survived. But, in the context of the home birth paradigm, the director is presented as a failure.
Still, we remained open to the idea. We interviewed a midwife named A. She was young and seemed nice enough, but as we were finishing she said a very strange thing. “I have a question for you,” she said. “If something goes wrong, will you still be proponents of home birth?”