A Diane Rehm interview with author/mother Amy Chua yesterday has me thinking about how we attempt to fit our children into the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. Chua’s book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, details the author’s quest to raise her two daughters according to the same strict, Old World Chinese methodology she was brought up under. While Chua’s parenting story is in and of itself an interesting one—and perhaps an important read for the mothers and fathers of a generation of overindulged, affirmed-for-affirmation’s-sake children—the nature of Chua’s methodology is essentially moot to what the interview raised in my thinking. That Chua—that any parent—had/has a sense, a vision, about how her children’s lives would unfold speaks to the need in all of us to somehow fit these Beings-Our-Spawn (their births, their subsequent actions and participations, for as long as we can control them) into the stories we tell ourselves. Because what we are up to every day is setting up the narratives that are our lives.
I will go to X college and I will study X and I will become X and when I am about X years old, I will get married to X and then X and I will be married X years and then we will buy a house in X city and buy X car and then we will have X children and they will do X things during their school years and then and then and then….
I know I am not alone in this narration-of-self-and-life. When my husband and I got married, we sat down, looked each other in the eye, and, with complete and utter seriousness, composed the following line of our joint story: “We will not have children for at least five years. We will earn master’s degrees first. We will be somewhat accomplished persons by the time our children come along.”
My husband and I will be married five years this August, by which time we will have a 3 5/6 year old Oddnivore, and a 2 month old Newcomer. Apparently, our attempts at narration have become absolute fiction.
The overall accuracy of any person’s narrative is really no matter–whose ever goes completely according to plan?–who even wants it to? Instead, what I delight in realizing is the way in which each of us is something of a storyteller (when so many of my former writing students would tell me they are not–au contraire)–that we are all compelled by a notion to guide our lives, to cast characters, to set action, to forecast resolution. And I like thinking there is a bit of latent artistic energy in our world, even more than I like thinking I know what is going to happen next.
I wrote the following after one significant falter in my life’s narration: when we learned we were expecting the Oddnivore (although this Oddnivorian knowledge–another falter in our narration–would not come for another year after the moment detailed below.)
Two Pink Lines
I stand in the bathroom of the Ann Arbor apartment I share with my husband, Alex, and stare down at the most remarkable piece of plastic and fiber I have ever encountered. Two minutes ago, I peed on the end of this five-inch long stick. Now it’s trying to send me a message, communicated through two casual dashes.
Hey lady, you’re pregnant.
I am alone—Alex is in the kitchen, cleaning up dinner. In a moment, I’ll start laughing hysterically and he’ll walk back to the bathroom to find out the shape of our future, but for now I stand in stupefied silence. How could this have happened? Okay, I know how it happened—I get the science. What I’m really asking myself is, how could we have been so stupid? No—not we—this isn’t really Alex’s fault. I’m the one who was responsible for calculating when the “safe” and “unsafe” days were. I’m the one who provoked the need to calculate said days when I went off birth control pills because the hormones were causing lumps—albeit benign ones—in my breasts. I’m the one who was so distracted by my “purification” frenzy that I had completely overlooked the use of other—that is to say, reliable—forms of birth control.
A Sunday night phone call from my mother several months ago had inspired this frantic purge.
Jacksie, I wanted to let you know that Honey passed away tonight.
Oh, Mom. (Heavy sigh.) Okay. Are you okay?
I’m just glad she doesn’t have to struggle anymore. She hasn’t been herself.
This is the kind of conversation that takes place when people have been watching someone die for four years, as we had been with my grandmother. And, moments after its ending, this is the kind of conversation that compels fearful hands to conduct a long-ignored self-examination of one’s chest, leading to the discovery of the above-mentioned lumps, leading to one’s doctor’s recommendation that one avoid ingesting hormones–that I stop my birth control pills. Going off the pill was my attempt to preserve life and maintain the status quo. But as my little plastic news-bearer proudly reminds me, as it beams (somehow it beams, or is it the overly-aggressive bathroom lighting bouncing off of it into my eyes?) up from the edge of the sink, that former life has slipped quietly into extinction, and I can no more bring it back than I can raise a mastodon or a Dodo bird.
It is a strange premonition that guides me to this moment. As I end another unremarkable workday, I feel—to put it simply—weird. And my response to anything unexpectedly weird in my life? Get the heck out of it as soon as possible. That means seeking a decisive answer, which means going to Walgreens.
I hate Walgreens at six in the evening, which speaks to the desperate escalation of my suspicions. The after-work crowd zips too fast around what can best be called a terribly designed parking lot. We’re all driving on the cusp of multiple collisions, but Alex and I don’t have the money for that. I’m an admission counselor at the college I graduated from in 2005, B.A. in English earned but now idling in my brain. Alex is in his senior year there, about to finish an art degree in painting and graphic design. We can afford the stuff they sell at Walgreens, just not what might happen on the way to getting it.
Walgreens is normally for products I can find quickly. Granola bars. Ice cream. Toilet paper. Items, too, that I don’t mind revealing to the blue-smocked employees who make themselves readily available to me. Why, I don’t know. They’re not working on commission.
“Can I help you find something?”
“Um, yeah. I think my husband and I made a grievous miscalculation and I’m pregnant. So…the tests are where?”
This conversation doesn’t happen. I move too quickly for any employee to trap me in a verbal snare. But now I have to find the tests on my own. This could take awhile. And I’m hungry. The beast—or is it beasts?—in my stomach howls for food. I am practically sprinting up and down the aisles.
I’ve never bought a pregnancy test before. I’ve taken one, a few days after Alex and I returned from our Toronto honeymoon in August 2006—a mere seven months ago. I didn’t really think I was pregnant, but who can resist the romantic notion of conceiving a honeymoon baby? I checked—the bathroom, the pee, the waiting, the result—but only because I had a test available. Thanks go to my brothers and brother-in-law for having the foresight—or the cheek—to toss one into our wedding day “goody bag,” alongside the condoms and fuzzy handcuffs. I could have waited for my period to arrive, or not arrive, but I’m more about instant gratification. If I have to feel something eventually, I’d rather just feel it right away.
I take at stab at logic and walk to the feminine hygiene aisle. It makes sense to me that all the products associated with the female reproductive cycle will be lined up together. In that case, I expect there’ll be shelves filled with chocolate bars adjacent to the pads and tampons, and a bubble bath or two waiting in the aisle.
Reason pays off—here are the pregnancy tests. Lots of pregnancy tests. I hadn’t realized this errand would involve a choice. Did I want to receive my result as a plus or minus sign? One pink line or two? Or perhaps I’d like a smiley face to announce its congratulations for my reproductive achievement? Wait, though: a smiley face or…what? A frowny face? How pitiless, pregnancy test maker! Anyway, this seems wrong to me—I can think of several instances when a woman would like to be greeted by a smiley for a “no baby in you, baby” test result.
Ever the thrifty shopper, I pick a Walgreens brand box. It’s on sale. And, I decide, how much can the technology vary, really? As far as I know, they’re all pee-activated. It’s also a two-for-one pack, so I don’t have to repeat this errand any time soon.
After I choose my test, I look for something else to buy. What, I can’t remember, but it doesn’t matter. Anything works. Chips and a pregnancy test. Trash bags and a pregnancy test, although that combo seems kind of shady. Tampons and a pregnancy test, so I’m ready for anything. It’s really about preventing the clerk from fixating on the object comprising a one-item purchase. If you buy one thing, you came in for that. If you buy two or more things, you’re just prepared. Economical. Using your time wisely. “I’m really just here for the trash bags, but I thought I’d get a pregnancy test for a rainy day.” You know, in case there’s a nuclear war or economic collapse and I can’t get to a drug store. I’ll need to know about the children I’ve conceived. Tragedy always makes me horny.
Bag in hand, I return to my car and manage to get out of the parking lot and across the street to our apartment complex without incident. Potential baby on board! Don’t hit my car with your ridiculous Hummers, you Ann Arbor former-hippie-now-yuppie crazies. Actually, I’ve always wondered about the person who invented the “Baby On Board” sign. And about the person who would hit you without it. Shouldn’t we all be assuming there’s an unspoken “Human Being Fond of Her Life and Intact Car on Board” stuck in my—and any—car window?
Alex is in the kitchen when I walk in the door. I wonder what he’s been thinking about while he’s been puttering around the kitchen assembling dinner, but I don’t ask. “I got a test, but I’m not taking it until later. If I’m pregnant, 35 minutes won’t make a difference.”
He says okay and we sit down in the living room to eat. I’m grateful that Alex has handled dinner. I can barely manage to feed myself—I’ll happily have popcorn and a slice of cheese and call that “a job well done.” That’s my kind of meal. Simple. Tactile. Although, I like Alex’s dinners. They’re more balanced and sample from more food groups and colors. It’s a good thing I’m married. If we are having a baby, I’m going to need Alex to feed the thing properly.
When I finish, I take my plate to the kitchen. One last act of normalcy, perhaps. Then I return to the living room and say, “I’m going in.” Alex nods. He knows it’s pointless to say anything to me. What can he even say? Good luck? Aim well? Best wishes for a full bladder?
In the bathroom, I open the box and pull out one of the tests. I unwrap it and sit on the toilet. This will be my most significant urine—actually, this will be my first significant urine. I can’t say it’s ever mattered before. Potential pregnancy is already screwing with what matters and what doesn’t. I quickly find I have poor urine-aim—it’s hard to instantly overcome the sit-and-forget methodology of the typical female bathroom break—so I waste a bit on the plastic part of the stick before connecting with the absorbent end. I lay the test on the edge of the sink and wait.
And then the what-ifs come, all the normal ones, and one special for me: if I am, what about graduate school in the fall? I have been preparing to go since September of last year. It’s presently the end of January; my applications have only recently arrived at the five Indiana colleges I selected in an effort to be closer to my mother. Maybe everyone’ll just deny me admission and that will be that. Heck, I might not even be pregnant. This moment is happening because of my suspicious nature, my longing to maintain some semblance of control over my life, not any hard evidence. I’m not even late yet.
I look up at the cheap plastic clock that keeps us on track in the mornings. Two minutes have passed; I can look at the test. More plastic telling me what is so, what to do next. I stand, and there they are: the two pink lines.
And suddenly I am a mother.