THE MOTHER LOAD
PREGNANT WOMEN DON’T GLOW. EVERYONE KNOWS THIS, YET REBECCA Mitchell was doing her best to be the world’s first truly opalescent mother-to-be. Ten years ago Rebecca used to work the sentence “I lived in France for two years” into everything she said—as in, “There’s a new Chinese restaurant on my block; I haven’t had such good Szechuan food since before I lived in France for two years.” Now it was “expecting” and “pregnant” and “baby” in response to every “how are you” and “how about this weather” and “how ’bout those Knicks?”
To the bewildered woman who’d dialed Rebecca’s number by mistake: “No, this isn’t Marisol, it’s Rebecca—and guess what, I’m with child!”
To the guy on 51st and 6th handing out fliers for Men’s Wearhouse: “Sorry, I may have a baby on the way, but I don’t have a man in my life. Don’t need one, either!”
To the sullen cashier at the corner grocery store as Rebecca handed over a wad of coupons and patted her belly: “Got to start saving for junior’s college fund!”
Recently Rebecca had decided that the years she’d spent in search of the perfect father for her child were largely wasted on that dubious activity known as “dating,” ignoring the coincidence that she judged every man solely in terms of his fatherhood potential and she’d never actually found a man who enjoyed being so judged. By the time she had reached an age she called “thirty-something-wonderful” (in case people thought she was in any way mortified at being single and childless at her age—when actually what they thought when they heard this term was that this was a woman who desperately needed to get off the antidepressants once in a while), she decided to skip looking for the perfect father and went straight to looking for the perfect sperm. No one who knew her thought this was particularly odd, and even people who didn’t know her, had they been asked, would have shrugged and perhaps say that these days neuroses grew on trees and a woman in her 30s making a date with an anonymous gob of semen was ho-hum, so-what-else-is-new news.
The particularly odd thing happened nine months later: Rebecca failed to give birth. The due date came and went, its one-, two- and three-week anniversaries likewise, and yet she remained “with child,” though more figuratively than literally. Mortification finally set in. Rebecca had never failed at anything. She graduated top of her class in law school, she passed the bar exam on the first try, she spoke such flawless French in her two years in France (did she mention that?) that even Parisian boutique owners, those bastions of elocutionary snobbery, were fooled. But here it was, twenty-nine days after her due date, and still no contractions, no broken water, no labor pains, unless you count the two-day MTA strike that forced her to walk 17 blocks to work. Midway she had a panic attack, walked the rest of the way screaming into her cellphone to her beleaguered obstetrician. The doctor (who wanted the damn thing born even more than Rebecca did) said what she’d said two days ago after a thorough examination: the baby was just fine—perhaps, the doctor and many others mused privately, too fine, too contented in his happy little cave of warmth and love, and perhaps even dimly cognizant of the lifetime of therapy that awaited him given the nature of his loving mother. Rebecca could, the doctor hinted none-too-subtly, induce birth any time she wanted. “Absolutely not!” Rebecca shrieked. “I wouldn’t feel right forcing him into the world before he’s ready.” Good call, the doctor grudgingly (privately) conceded. No need to put that poor kid through what awaited him any earlier than necessary.
Ten months, eleven months, twelve months. She wasn’t growing any bigger but simply remained ostentatiously pregnant even a whole year after she’d sent out the glitteringly embossed “I’ve just conceived!” cards to friends and family. Both mother and child appeared as healthy as could be—and as inseparable as ever. Rebecca’s obstetrician couldn’t explain any of it, mumbled something about hormonal imbalances, begged once again to induce birth. Six more doctors had been summoned, had tried test after test, theory after theory, had all been reduced to the same tearful plea for Rebecca to end this madness. Rebecca’s therapist had a more colorful theory involving a twisted variation on hysterical pregnancy: Rebecca was pregnant, certainly, but had been so anxious for so long about not having a baby that she now couldn’t make herself not be pregnant. In the therapist’s version, of course, the double negatives had been eschewed: this was a victory, for both Rebecca and her unborn son.
And it was at this point that Rebecca stopped feeling like a failure and actually began to enjoy her anomalous condition. She always got a seat on the subway. She could work from home or call in sick whenever she felt like it. Though she’d given up dating long ago, until now she’d still had to grapple with obnoxious family members who wanted to know if she was a) married yet, b) finally out of the closet, or c) as ever the deserving object of public pity and private scorn. Well, no longer; she now had the perfect excuse for not being on the meat market. And talk about job security!
But none of these things were as important to her as the fact that her perpetual pregnancy made her special. Nothing is so desirable to a resident of Manhattan, whether fulfilled through bypassing velvet ropes at the It club of the moment or being welcomed personally, by name and handshake, by the chef of any restaurant anywhere, It or otherwise. And to think she’d once been one of those dry, wry, childless women who groused about the way every new mother seemed to think she’d invented motherhood! Rebecca smiled beatifically. She hadn’t invented motherhood, no, but no mother would ever be to a child what she would be to her Kirk. Of that she could be absolutely certain. What she missed out on by not getting to buy cute little outfits and Baby’s First Cellphone she would gain in the form of complete and utter inseparability from her offspring.
And so it was to the surprise of no one at all that several months later Baby Kirk’s first word—faint, of course, but quite distinct—was “mama.”
Twenty-four years passed. Yes, 24. What happened in that time? For a while Rebecca was new news, and there were regular appearances with Oprah, Ellen, and Katie Couric. After the media realized that this was as far as the story would go—woman stays pregnant, refuses to induce birth, mother and sort-of-child doing well—they yawned and glommed onto something else. What happened after that for Rebecca and Kirk was life, plain and simple, the stuff that doesn’t make for particularly good stories but makes up the vast bulk of existence. Rebecca worked hard, won cases, made partner. Kirk homeschooled his way through grade school and high school, did a distance-ed BA in History, and was currently considering graduate programs. They ate meals together, went for walks together, had conversations, listened to music. Life. And then there was Jenna.
She was not the type of woman you’d think would be interested in a mama’s boy, and certainly not the ultimate mama’s boy. Jenna Barnes was not looking to be any man’s substitute mommy; instead, she was quiet and introspective, though more of an ironic, what-a-cesspool-the-world-is sort of quiet-and-introspective, not the weak-willed, malleable quiet-and-introspective that a mama’s boy’s mama would relish because she figured she could easily dominate the girl just as she had dominated her boy. Jenna was 23 and had moved to New York from parts flat, landlocked and suburban, mainly because two years ago she had come to the astonished realization that everyone around her was shallow. Didn’t people like to think about things? Did they never imagine a world outside of their own zip code? Of course she quickly discovered that New York wasn’t any less shallow, but at least people were shallow about more sophisticated things. Raving about the truffle agnolotti at Po seemed not all that far removed from raving about the Bottomless Pasta Bowl at Olive Garden, but you were better dressed while you ate it and sounded smarter when you talked about it and that was worth something, certainly. She got a job at Rebecca’s firm in the in-house law library while she pondered the possibilities of a Manhattan future.
Rebecca befriended her almost before they’d even met. (And why not—this, after all, was a woman who could remain pregnant for over two decades.) Everyone in the office smirked; they all knew Rebecca needed a new victim to attack with stories about her Precious Little Man, and though they all pitied Jenna they did nothing to prevent the delicious spectacle of Jenna’s face going from politely interested to slightly confused to thoroughly appalled as she realized exactly how accurate this description of Kirk Everett Mitchell was. In this, though, they were disappointed; Jenna kept her cool, remaining politely interested as Rebecca prattled on. “Kirk is such a good sport. He doesn’t mind being the only man in my low-impact aerobics class at Crunch. Of course, sometimes he tries to get away with a very half-hearted workout because he thinks no one will notice. As if I wouldn’t notice!”—this last directed toward her navel (still an outie) with a fond chuckle. Jenna didn’t even flinch when the chuckle was answered with an affectionate, “Yeah, I know, Mom—I never could fool you.”
The truth was that Jenna was so anxious to fit in with her new New York lifestyle that she made it her daily mission not to be surprised, confused, disgusted, censorious, or judgmental about anything. That didn’t leave many things that a 23-year-old could be; moreover, she had clearly placed far too much emphasis on the misguided notion that New Yorkers were people who didn’t even blink when they passed Bigfoot and Elvis fighting over a cab or the Loch Ness Monster buying salt bagels and lox. She worked so hard on her blasé that she forgot to have a personality. This could have been a fatal mistake (the whole point of New York, after all, was not blasé but self-importance), yet Rebecca of all people saved her. Seeing in Jenna that first day a willing audience for her Kirk stories, Rebecca immediately invited her to a Ukrainian film festival downtown. Most people would have been annoyed to the point of murderous rage listening to six hours of Rebecca not just reading the subtitles aloud for Kirk but also describing in excruciating detail every color, movement, and nuance displayed on the screen, not to mention a detailed analysis of the film’s post-structuralist sensibilities. Jenna sat through it all, not merely tolerant but actually enthralled. This, she realized, was why she had come here. This would never have happened to her in landlocked USA. She was finally becoming a New Yorker.
Pretty soon the three of them were going window shopping, gallery hopping, to plays, to concerts, to the Met. And as such is it so very surprising that, thrown together thusly, there should not be some attraction between Kirk and Jenna? As with any two people who click right away, they insisted on discovering how very much they had in common. They shared interests in piano jazz, in southern gothic literature; they laughed at vintage George Carlin and yawned at recent Jerry Seinfeld; they hated the Yankees, united in staunch support of “the other New York team.” For Jenna there was something else, too: something about Kirk being stuck in his mother’s womb all his life spoke to her sense of being stuck inside her own head for so long.
But oh, of all the impossible loves of the world, this had to be the impossiblest. Montague and Capulet, Muslim and Jew, priest for confessor, stepfather for nymphet, lovers separated by centuries and the physical untenability of time travel—all seemed the overwrought moonings and frettings of drama queens compared to her own forbidden passion.
She wondered, hopefully, if maybe she wasn’t really in love with Rebecca. How much easier her life would be if this might only end up a lesbian May-December affair! Then they could all live together most happily, the three of them, like some sort of child’s storybook called “Kirk Has Two Mommies and Still Lives Within One of Them.” But no, lately much of the time she couldn’t stand Rebecca. Did she have to go around bragging that she’d been pregnant for 25 years? She said it like she’d been in a POW camp for 25 years, as though she’d done some noble service for humanity that should render everyone in awe of her. And the way she had to order for Kirk when they went to a restaurant—“I’m eating for two!” she would announce each time the extra entrée came to their table, making Jenna want to fling her food at Rebecca and say, “You might as well make that ‘eating for three,’ Rebecca; clichés make me lose my appetite”—and even though Kirk was perfectly capable of choosing what he wanted to eat, he inevitably let Rebecca decide. “You’re the one who has to taste it, Mom, so it’s only fair. No, don’t order a cheeseburger just for me. I know you don’t like beef. Get the tilapia again. Really. I insist.” Tilapia! Damn her!
Rebecca, of course, was no dummy about all of this. She realized what was going on, and she knew instinctively that the most important thing for her was not to lose control of the situation. At some point Jenna would either confront her about Kirk or give up on Kirk and leave, and if that point occurred when Rebecca was unprepared, Kirk might blame her for driving Jenna away, and Rebecca would be left with a resentful 25-year-old fetus in her womb, a prospect that made uterine cancer seem picnic-like by comparison.
It was then that Rebecca decided it was time to induce birth.
After all, she was pushing 60. She still looked good for her age, granted, but it was one thing for people to admire her for being a brave “nontraditional mother,” as they had when she was in her 40s; it was another thing entirely for them to start looking at her, ironically, in the same way they looked at preteens who’d gotten themselves knocked up—disapprovingly, disdainfully, what-is-she-thinkingly.
So into the delivery room they went—but just the two of them. Jenna wasn’t there, wasn’t even in the hospital, and wasn’t the least bit sorry not to have been asked. Despite the fact that a separation of Kirk from Rebecca was exactly what she had hoped for, Jenna found herself more than a little grossed out. There was something so unwholesomely Oedipal about a grown woman giving birth to a grown man. Should a man really be sentient as he passed through his mother’s vagina? (Ew.) But at least this way they’d be separated, assuming of course that Rebecca consented to cutting the cord. (She had to; it would be way too symbolic otherwise. People would talk, even more than they did now, and not nearly so respectfully. A 25-year pregnancy was one thing; being Siamese twins with your own son was just asking for a crudely comic headline in the Post.)
And so Ms. Rebecca Mitchell, age fifty-isn’t-she-something, was delivered of a strapping eight-and-a-half-pound 25-year-old man. He looked a little dazed and slimy, but otherwise was fine, as was she. In fact, Rebecca and Kirk were the steadiest people in the room; none of the medical personnel seemed to know quite what to do next. Oddly, the thing that unsettled them the most was the fact that, though one could hardly expect it to have been otherwise, Kirk was naked. No one was ever completely naked in a delivery room except the baby—but this wasn’t really a baby; babies didn’t carefully wipe the goo out of their eyes with extended index fingers and say, “Ew,” and then turn to look over their shoulders, abashed, and add, “Sorry. Nothing personal, Mom.”
“That’s quite all right, dear, though you might want to keep your eyes shut just a bit longer. Heeeeeeere comes the placenta!” Seasoned medical professionals with years of training in all things gross and gooey collectively muttered “ew.”
Rebecca’s über-maternal instincts had, of course, been right. As soon as Jenna finally met her ex utero beloved, it was clear that the wounds she’d suffered from Cupid’s arrows would most definitely heal, and in record time. Oh, sure, he was the same Kirk she’d known before—the same sensitive, intelligent, charmingly funny man who loved the stories of Flannery O’Connor and the riffs of Thelonious Monk and made up insulting limericks using Yankees’ players’ names. She simply didn’t feel the same way about him any more. It wasn’t that Kirk had been her Unattainable Ideal, only desirable so long as he was out of reach, like those who were married, famous, or fictional with Fabio on their cover. No, it was worse than that. She had to admit it: when it came right down to it she was just as shallow as the next New Yorker. She’d always thought she’d be OK with a guy who made less money than she did or who was shorter than she was. Now she realized that she was only OK with the lower income thing so long as he had a cool job she could brag about, like food stylist or graffiti artist, and only OK about the height thing so long as it only came down to shorter than she was when she was wearing chunky heels. She couldn’t deal with a grown man who might drown in a Venti Frappuccino.
She was disappointed in herself, but also relieved. At least now she knew the truth. She quit the law firm and managed to snag an enviable slave-wage, slave-labor job at a new fashion magazine called Mia (which industry insiders dubbed “Meow” due to the legendary cattiness of its staff, a fact that only made securing the job even more of a coup for Jenna). Last anyone heard, she was getting in on a summer share in the Hamptons with 37 other girls. Predictable, assuredly, but it allowed her to turn her introspection into an urban smugness—that she, alone, had a sense of irony about the triteness of it all. “Guess what, darling, I’m going to the Hamptons this summer,” she drolled over salmon skin roll and cosmos. “How terribly original of me. Three and a half hours on the jitney just to drink $19 martinis with the exact same people as in Manhattan.” She could hardly wait.
As for Rebecca, she was quite happy once again. What she lost in feeling special for being 25 years’ pregnant she gained in agitating for her company to hire Kirk to replace Jenna. They couldn’t very well discriminate against him, now, could they? If the Santa Claus of disabilities could give Janey a special keyboard for her carpal tunnel and Timmy a special chair for his back spasms, they could most certainly build a tiny—yet stately—set of office furniture for Kirk. The latest set of doctors all concluded that Kirk was obviously well past puberty and would remain this size forever—but Rebecca didn’t care one bit. She grew excited, began to glow all over again. It would be wonderful; they could go to lunch together and he, ever well mannered, would smilingly offer for her to taste his meals—“in case you miss eating for two, Mom.”
And Kirk himself? It’s hard to say. He was never much of a talker, and not just because everything he said got filtered through the walls of his mother’s uterus. (Ew.) For a while, though, he did seem genuinely heartbroken that Jenna wouldn’t see him any more. He’d get over it, people said, which is what people say about everyone. Obviously they cared as little about Kirk’s relationship woes as they did about anyone else’s but their own and their own exes’; with Kirk, they only wanted to know one thing: what was it like? Being born? They knew this was an indelicate, inappropriate question, but still they’d ask, in those rare moments when Rebecca was out of earshot lest she answer for him along the lines of “the most beautiful pain I’ve ever felt.”
Kirk didn’t seem to mind the question, though his answer was disappointingly always the same: “I know most people cry when they’re born. Well, I wanted to cry, but I didn’t. I couldn’t. I’m a man, after all.”
For a moment, his listeners would acknowledge that this was true: despite his tiny stature and spectacularly bizarre life up to this point, he was still a man, with a job and some hobbies and the memory of one who broke his heart. For a moment he seemed quite normal.
Then Rebecca would instantly appear—still aglow after all these years—to get, as she always did, the last word. “You certainly are, dear. And I’m so proud of you for it.”