It was nothing they could have planned for, not something to be learned from a book or a blog. They’d read the manuals, consulted the experts, taken classes and received high praise. So when the couple spoke with their doctor during the start of the pregnancy’s thirty-first week, you have to understand their surprise in learning that their child did not wish to be born.
“Impossible!” said the woman. “We’ve wished for this baby and nothing more.”
“You’re a liar!” said the man. “We’ll take you to court for such fabrication.”
“It’s true,” thought the child, though no one else could hear. “I would prefer not to participate.”
The doctor explained that no, it was not a hoax or a lark or some prank played on parents-to-be. It was a new test, one developed and certified in the time of the child’s conception. It was not perfect, he was careful to say, but functioned much like the at-home pregnancy test that the woman had purchased six months earlier: dipped in a urine sample she left in the office’s bathroom, the litmus paper would glow green for yes or red for no. He held up a small rectangle the color of a maraschino cherry.
“Is there no yellow?” the woman asked. “We can accept ambiguity, even hesitation.”
“Certainly there’s a margin of error,” said the man. “I demand another test.”
“I cannot tell you,” thought the child, “how certain I am of this fact.”
They could test again, though the doctor discouraged this course of action. Should the test remain red, it would only dishearten them and decrease their investment in the child’s wellbeing. If the test returned green, it would spark more question and hesitation and expose the child to unnecessary anxiety. The best choice was to take the results at face value, as a malleable fact rather than one hard and determined. It was possible, the doctor said, to persuade the child that the world was a good place to be.
It would take effort from both parents, but the responsibility would be more on the part of the mother—the baby was physically within her, conscious of her every thought, word, and action. It was imperative that they begin immediately, and only once the infant was out, growing, breathing, and speaking that they would know of their success or their failure.
“And what if the child is unwilling?” asked the woman. “Is my own health at risk?”
“Can he or she willingly die in the womb?” said the man. “Can modern medicine not intervene?”
The doctor explained that no, the child could not abort itself through pessimism, nor could it harm the woman with its negative outlook. Rather, the child’s feelings toward life would color their interests and lead to a higher likelihood of depression, anxiety, or a generally gloomy disposition. There were no pills, no prescriptions, no perfect remedies. The man and woman looked at each other but did not speak, now nervous of harm brought on by spontaneity.
“It’s not that I’m afraid,” thought the child. “I am just not willing.”
The doctor apologized again for the unfortunate news and said he would continue seeing the couple weekly until their child’s birth. He handed the woman a brochure on mindfulness and another on the power of positive thinking, before sending the pair on their way.
In the car, the couple did not speak. The man knew hardly what to say, while the woman attempted to clear her mind. That was what the brochure said, to focus on emptying one’s thoughts with the goal of mental silence. She was aware that she was no longer alone, not in the way it had seemed for the first six months. She had always felt a connection with her unborn child, but now this being had thoughts of its own to which she was not privy. It would have happened at some point, perhaps with a first crush or a desire to listen to alternative music. Not at six months, not when pure oxygen had yet to replace amniotic fluid and there were two hearts beating within one body.
“Would you like to stop for something to eat?” the man asked.
“I’m not all that hungry. Are you?” said the woman.
“No, but it’s been ages since we’ve had fast food. Maybe the baby would like to try some french fries. Or perhaps a milkshake would entice him or her toward positivity.”
“I would prefer a Big Mac,” thought the child. “I’ve only learned of it through this woman’s suppressed desire for ground meat.”
“A hamburger would be nice,” the woman told her husband, and they detoured off the highway in search of the forbidden treat.
“We need to make a list,” the man said later at their kitchen table. “We must determine the best parts of life that our child should know. We must make them see that the world is a good place, and that he or she should be a part of it.”
“Yes,” the woman agreed. She dipped a fry into her chocolate milkshake, which was one of her favorite dualities. Sweet and salty, hot and cold. She lifted the potato to her mouth, then pulled it away. “But what if we fail? What if it is actually impossible to change the mind of an unborn human? What if we bring forth an unwilling participant? Will we even know if we were truly successful? What guilt that would be to carry for the rest of our lives.”
The man took the potato out of his wife’s hand and placed it gently into her mouth. She stopped speaking and chewed obediently.
“We cannot afford to think such things,” he told her. “Would you like a glass of wine? It might help to relax you and welcome this task. Just a little one, just a taste.”
“Very small,” she said. “The good stuff. I was saving some port for us to share once the baby arrived, but it feels like the baby is already here.”
The man went to the basement, retrieved the wine, and returned carrying it along with the two small glasses. He poured, they drank, he poured again.
Late into the night, they drafted the list. On it were things like have breakfast for supper and play hooky from work and watch movies in bed. They decided to go to a baseball game for authentic ballpark franks, to watch people jogging in the park on Sunday afternoons, to wrap themselves with clean towels pulled straight from the dryer.
In addition to small stimuli both comfortable and familiar, they agreed to introduce something completely new each week. Be it an activity, a sensation, or a tangible thing, the man and woman wanted to create firsthand memories with their child as early as possible.
“It’s a shame the weather has begun to turn,” said the woman. “I’ve always wanted to try water skiing. Maybe we can attempt a virtual simulation.”
“I wish airplanes weren’t off limits,” said the man. “I’d like to see the Grand Canyon or Paris. Travel DVDs will suffice.”
The couple went to bed that night with plans of purchasing a dog and taking a trip north to see the leaves change from green to red. They would do tame things, gentle things, but always things that they had not experienced in their own twenty-some-years. One weekly task meant nearly ten chances of swaying their reluctant son or daughter. There was no formula for persuading a life that had not even begun, at least not in the eyes of the law. No birth certificate to place in the family vault, no stamp of small inky feet to frame neatly behind glass. They had not even assembled the crib or purchased the car seat.
“I am here,” thought the child, alone in the night while the man and the woman spooned. “I am frightened by this darkness and all that lies beyond. But I do not wish for light.”
As the man and the woman had planned, week one welcomed the dog: a golden retriever puppy that they had originally planned to purchase for their child’s fifth birthday. They named him Bingo and bought him a leather collar. He ate a raw diet, he slept in their bed. They sang to him, to their child, endless rounds of B-I-N-G-O.
“A dog will show our baby affection,” the woman said. “A dog’s love is pure and unwavering, they’ll bond before our child even arrives.”
“There’s also responsibility, loyalty, and endless joy,” said the man, ticking off each on his fingers. “This is a good start. Every child wants a pet.”
“Why not a cat?” thought the child. “I admire their independence, which I do not yet possess.”
The doctor agreed with their choice to adopt a dog, but implored the couple to think outside the box. A dog is basic, he told them as he smeared ultrasound gel on the woman’s stomach. He asked if they had given thought to an iguana, or perhaps some exotic fish. Maybe a chinchilla?
“No,” the couple said. “We have not. Will it help?”
The doctor said maybe, but that he could not be certain. Every baby was different. The child turned and dragged a foot against the wall of the woman’s uterus in displeasure. The couple oohed and aahed, and the doctor took a screenshot of the sonogram. He encouraged the couple to place it on their refrigerator or nightstand, to keep it with them during their persuasion exercises and to address the child directly whenever possible.
Weeks two, three, and four each involved weekend trips: to New York City, to the ocean in Newport, to the Vermont Country Store and the Green Mountain National Forest. The couple took Bingo so that the puppy would not yet learn what it was to be apart. They told each other that they were taking these drives as a family, and that families were patient when it came to things like motion sickness and sporadic meals and defecating on the side of I-95. They ate fish and chips in Mystic, brown bread in Boston, saltwater taffy on the Jersey shore—all of them, even the dog.
Throughout their drives, the couple repeated beautiful words until they lost their meaning and were just lovely to hold, like a chocolate truffle rolled in one’s mouth until all that remains is the core. Words like murmurous, bucolic, and tintinnabulation. They called each other pet names that made them laugh, like Starshine and Strawberry. Soon Mother and Father, Mommy and Daddy, but never their first names.
“Mama, will you pass me some water?”
“Yes, Dada. Would you like a snack, too?”
“Will I ever know who you truly are?” thought the child.
When they returned home, the couple found the answering machine blinking steadily in their bedroom. The man told the woman that he would listen, that she should go take a bath and peruse one of the lifestyle magazines to which they had recently subscribed. The woman picked one, drew the bath, and disrobed. She poured soap into the rising water and bubbles appeared, forming soft mountains and hiding her belly. She relished the quiet, the incessant hum of the road slowly leaving her ears as she sank into the heat. Bingo pawed at the door and she heard her husband call to him, then again she was alone.
She read some of the magazine’s headlines: She’s Not Fat, It’s Twins!, Losing the Weight Before the Arrival—How Early is Too Early?, My Baby Has A Baby: Five Teens (And Their Moms!) Tell All. She placed the brightly colored pages into the water and let them disappear, drowning the plastered smiles and thousand-dollar prams in a wash of lavender and mint. She hoped that the baby would not somehow absorb the artificial life and leisure features, that the being inside of her would stay as pure as she’d thought he or she was before learning of their resistance. The woman spoke aloud to the child.
“Is any of this making a difference?” she asked, and waited for a response. A movement, a flutter, perhaps even an internal voice. Nothing came.
“I do not know,” thought the child.
“Did you say something?” the man hollered.
Upon their visit to the doctor in the fifth week, the couple was faced with an additional conundrum: did they want to know the sex of their child? The doctor suggested they opt in on this knowledge, that they begin to say “our beautiful girl” or “our brave son.” A named being has more agency, he told them. A name will bring ownership to the child’s life.
“It would be more personal,” said the man, “to use just ‘he’ or ‘she’ instead of both. I do not like the singular ‘they.’”
“But it won’t be much longer,” said the woman. “A name is permanent, and we’ve not yet finalized our options.”
“I am more than the arrangement of my genitals,” thought the child. “Do not reduce me to my anatomy. I am already who I will become.”
The couple chose to remain unknowing of their child’s chromosomes and instead searched for nonbinary names. While they preferred traditionally gendered ones like Jessica and Max, they limited themselves to unisex in hope of finding a premature match. In counseling their friends and clicking through lists, suitable options came to include Devon, Mattie, Kai, Alix, and Sigourney.
“Perhaps it’s like naming a puppy,” the man said as he scratched Bingo’s head. “Maybe the baby will tell us his or her name by giving us a sign.”
“So long as it’s not indigestion or nausea,” said the woman, who held her belly. “How do you feel about Jamison, my little one? Or are you more of a Finley?”
“I am neither,” the child thought and held perfectly still. “I am mine and mine alone. Call me Bartholomew, or perhaps Xanthippe.”
For the sixth and seventh weeks, the couple pushed boundaries. They went to the science center in Jersey City to brave the Touch Tunnel, an eighty-foot pitch-black tube through which participants eagerly crawled. It was touted as extreme sensory deprivation while also being to the closest one could be to reclaiming the womb, and the couple imagined it would enlighten them as to their child’s current status. And though it took some coaxing to the tunnel’s operator, the woman scuttled like a crab with her belly raised to the low ceiling, and they checked it off their list.
“How terrifying,” said the man.
“How comforting,” said the woman.
“How tame,” thought the child.
Again the telephone was lit red upon their return home, and again the man told the woman he’d take the message. “If it’s important, I’ll let you know,” he told her. “Why don’t you walk Bingo to the top of the street? I’ll boil water for tea, and have a foot rub waiting for you.”
The woman agreed and placed Bingo’s harness around the dog’s chest, the mesh fabric already taut under stress from the puppy’s constant growth. The woman liked these nightly strolls, which reminded her of the evening walks she would take as a girl in the company of her father. They would walk mostly in silence, save for some prolific observation about the universe or a bit of unsolicited advice. This child-in-waiting would not know its grandfather, who had long since passed and now drifted in the waters somewhere east of Cape Cod. The thought arrived at the woman, who had thought of this many times before but only now felt its weight.
“There is more than goodness to this world,” she thought. “You should know what it means to be sad.”
“I know it through you,” thought the child in return, “but it is distant. Show me again?”
The next weekend, the woman announced that she wanted to swim in the ocean. It was November and the air averaged thirty-eight degrees, but she had not been to the shore since she herself was a child. So the man drove to Atlantic City and, despite the near-winter chill, both jumped into the waves wearing little more than their birthday suits. They played the slots and went shopping for new clothes. They stayed in an expensive hotel, one that overlooked the late-autumn ocean, where they watched pay-per-view movies and took a brief trip to the sauna and more than once indulged in room service. They called it a babymoon: a last-chance vacation before the baby was born, a chance to introduce their offspring to luxury.
“Let’s order soft cheeses,” said the woman. “I wonder if they have Brie and Camembert. A small sampling of each, a bite or two at most.”
“Think bigger. Perhaps Brillat-Savarin or Chèvre-Boîte,” said the man. “Let’s be as lavish as we can. The baby will love it, as will we.”
“I would prefer Limburger,” thought the child, though the man did not request any when he called the concierge.
It was as the man cracked the sugared barrier of a crème brûlée that the woman voiced her concern. Were they exposing the child to too much of a good thing? There should be more variety, there should be more emotion. “I feel like we’re lying,” she said. “This is not how we live day to day.”
“But we’re not lying,” he said. “These are all things that exist, we’re just filtering them for consistency. It’s sad enough that the baby is showing trepidation. If anything, there should be more jubilance. I know one thing we’ve not shown our offspring.” He touched the woman on her bellybutton, which had recently exposed itself and tingled upon contact. Her heartbeat picked up as he moved his hands down to the space between her legs.
“That’s not what I mean,” the woman said, “though it would be fun. Is it too mature?”
“It is my origin story,” thought the child, who soon fell asleep to the familiar horizontal rocking.
On the Tuesday morning of week eight, the telephone rang early. The couple was enjoying their French press coffee (half-caffeinated) while tag teaming a crossword puzzle, and the man solved for the thirty-eight-down vacancy (knucklesandwich) before answering. The pause between his “hello” and “I see” was long enough to draw the woman out of her search for twenty-three across (oloroso). She placed her pen in her mouth and chewed, then withdrew; was it BPA free? Was the ink toxic? She was suddenly concerned as the child shifted, and she lay a hand to her belly to feel the movement. With less than one month to go, she was more and more eager to have her body and mind again to herself.
The man returned the phone to its cradle and wrote in sixty-four across (twerk). “It’s not good news,” he told the woman. “Let’s have more coffee and go for a walk.”
“Tell me, please. We have no secrets,” she said.
“It will upset you.”
“But the baby. Ignorance is bliss”
“And knowledge is power.”
“Why must you speak in proverbs?” the child thought.
The man poured more coffee, added honey, then milk. He took a sip, set the cup down, and announced, “It seems that my mother has died.”
“And?” asked the woman.
“And eight across is axolotl.”
“She’s dead. That’s it.”
“When did it happen?”
“Last night. In Milwaukee. I should have been there.”
“But you didn’t know,” she said. “How could you have gone somewhere you didn’t know you needed to be?”
“I knew that it was happening, but not that it had happened. There were messages on the answering machine, on my cell phone. I didn’t tell you.”
“And now she’s dead.”
“Yes. The funeral is in two days.”
“Something bad. We’ve needed this.”
“No, we haven’t. This is terrible and unexpected.”
“Yes, and you should have told me. We could have been with her.”
“It could have waited until after the baby arrived. We would have had to drive there, since you can’t fly. It would have been a nightmare.”
“But was inevitable,” she said. “Our child must learn of sacrifice. Not everything can be planned, and we won’t always be able to protect our son or daughter from sadness and displeasure.”
“I don’t want you coming to the funeral with me. Think of the child.”
“The child who will be here soon, God willing.”
“I would prefer to shield you both from this for as long as possible.”
“Do you think this baby doesn’t already know?”
They stared at each other in silence, the woman’s torso a closed parenthesis separating them. It had become a magnet of dual polarity, one that both pulled them together and pushed them apart over the course of the last two months.
“I’m leaving tomorrow and will be back on Friday. You’re not coming with me,” he said. “Neither of you.”
The man left early the next morning and the woman, to her chagrin, stayed behind. She lay on the couch and watched daytime television, fed herself butter pecan ice cream and gave Bingo the sweetened dredges. She felt captive in two ways: the first to her husband’s will. He left her to feel like a child instead of someone capable of creating one. The second confinement was to her own body, to her child, to the wellness of a being who did not consent to their own existence. She had never given it thought, the possibility that the act of creation involved more than a willing sperm and egg. What of the zygote, the embryo? What of the fetus?
In spite of her swollen feet, the woman walked laps around the neighborhood late into the evening in an attempt to calm her nerves. She left Bingo at home, asleep on the couch. She had grown more uncomfortable in the husband’s absence, more agitated and ready for his return. Together the woman and child circled the houses with Rockwellian scenes framed in their windows. The air grew colder as the sun dropped, and the woman felt her face tingle at the presence of inner heat against outward chill. She wondered if the child knew what it was to be two things at once, to experience fear along with intrigue or desire amidst loathing.
“We’ve hardly addressed you this whole time,” she said to her child on the sixth go-round.
“I know,” thought the child. “It seems rather silly, when I am the reason for this fuss.”
“What must you think of us? We are to be a voice of reason, and we do not even speak to the one who has caused us to act so foolishly.”
“You’re very well intentioned, though not often realistic.”
“There can’t be a silver lining to every gray cloud. It can’t always be sunny.”
“I know nothing of weather, but go on.”
The woman continued walking and smelled cigarette smoke. She imagined a teenager home from college, sneaking out to a back porch to indulge in their recently developed nicotine habit. She smiled, having once been there herself.
“You must know that you do not need ever stay committed to something beyond choosing to live,” she said. “You do not need to go to university, nor do you need to work in finance. You will not have to wear dresses or pants or anything else that causes your heart to cry out in pain.”
“All I know is this skin,” thought the child. “I hope that is acceptable.”
“I suppose there must be boundaries, though. Like needing to eat your vegetables and being in bed by nine o’clock. You can have too much of a good thing.”
“But what of the uncertainty? I am more sure now that I do not want to join you. There are so many rules, so many constraints. I wish to float here in perpetuity.”
The child stretched and touched the walls of its mother’s uterus, which had grown thinner with the passing of time. The woman felt the child move inside her, and she touched where the child’s fist protruded. She pressed and imagined the child felt her, that it knew its mother’s love was more than just biological dependency. What she felt instead was the rush of water through her pants, the sensation of being wet and warm, then suddenly shivering and cold and alone.
In the backseat of the taxicab, the woman called the man and told him that she was going to the hospital. The driver tried to be polite and turned up the radio, where a DJ was announcing the start of a phone-in contest. The woman had thought about not calling her husband, thought that maybe he should also have to miss a pivotal moment since it had been so easy for him to make that decision earlier for her. The phone had worn its battery down to nine percent, and a call would only bring it lower. But her fingers found the buttons, her throat found its voice, and she took a sharp breath in while speaking quickly through the crest of a contraction.
“You need to come back now,” she said. “This isn’t going to wait. We need you here.”
“I’ve just arrived in Milwaukee,” he said. “Even if I catch the next flight, I won’t be back until tomorrow. I hear first labors often take a long time. Can you wait?”
“Hang up and call the radio station,” the child thought. “You have a better chance of winning these sold-out concert tickets than of him returning in time.”
They did not argue for long, as everything was matter of fact: he was there, she was here, and the baby was on its way. The woman hung up and agreed to call again as the labor progressed, though she gave herself permission to let the battery expire. She did not have family in the immediate area, nor friends that she wished to inform of her whereabouts. She would let the phone die, would leave the man wondering, wandering. She would teach her child the meaning of spite.
“It is not for someone else to say where you can and cannot go,” she thought to the baby as the nurse wheeled her through the maternity ward. “You have every right to want not to join us. And I will not fault you for choosing that route, but you are going to arrive regardless.”
“Thank you,” the child thought in return. “Is this what it means to be validated?”
“We are going do this together,” the mother thought. “I am your ally. Even when you do not want to eat your peas, or go to the bathroom, or get up early in the morning for school.”
“None of those activities sound appealing,” thought the child.
The woman did not think of the man when the doctor sat at her feet, poked beneath her gown, and announced that her cervix was three centimeters dilated. She did not think of him when she felt the pinch of a needle delivering an epidural, nor when the nurse placed ice chips into her mouth. She did not think of him when, eleven hours after she arrived at the hospital, the doctor told her it was time to push.
“This is painful,” thought the child. “Everything is tight and I am scared. I would really rather stay here and be alone together with you.”
“I know it hurts,” thought the mother. “You must trust me. You must come out.”
The woman pushed. The child resisted. The doctor reached. The man arrived.
“Has it happened?” he said. “How are you? How is our baby?”
“You left,” she said, “and I stayed. I don’t want to see you. Get out.”
“Milwaukee must be dreadful if you’d rather be here than there,” thought the child.
The doctor told the man to hold one of the woman’s legs and instructed her to push. It was time now and had been for too long; the child needed to come out if they wanted to avoid defect or death. The woman tried to argue, said the man should wait alone outside.
“It was for your own good,” the man said. “I was protecting you.”
“I know myself best,” the woman said. “Do not doubt me.”
“I agree,” thought the child. “I understand.”
The doctor once more told the woman to bear down. She pushed to get the baby out, to get the men away. She pushed to reclaim her herself: she had carried this child for almost nine months, had shared a body and a brain and the most intimate of thoughts. She pushed so that she could hold this small being who so staunchly disagreed with the concept of life, so that she could tell it how she too was full of doubt and rage and a slight feeling of numbness. She pushed, strong and hard, because that was all she could do to make the moment cease.
She continued until there was no more pressure, no more presence. It was the space after a period, the silence after an alarm. The doctor lifted the child up, a wrinkled trophy for the new parents to see. The man held out his arms, while the woman lay back into the bed.
“A miracle,” said the man.
“A relief,” said the woman.
And the child, for the first time in her mortal life, took a deep breath and screamed.