4. GETTING READY

That day when I began to “sort things out,” I scanned the calendar for other clues.

Thursday, January 21 said “Read thesis. Interlibrary Loan.” I was amazed to recall what I had been capable of before my traumatic introduction to motherhood. I had taught high school English for two years after my marriage—one in New Jersey and one in Georgia. Then I had finished the course work for my master’s degree. Since moving to Raleigh, my main agenda, besides getting curtains made and hung and otherwise creating a home in our new house, had been to finish my thesis on the novelist Harold Frederic. The hand-written manuscript was now complete, lying in a box on the sun porch, waiting to be typed. I had spent that Thursday in January, which would turn out to be the day before my son’s birth, reading microfilm of an unpublished thesis on Frederic that was widely quoted by the authorities I had consulted. I had found little additional information, but I had corrected my footnotes to quote this thesis directly, rather than citing someone else’s quotations.

I really had no right to use the Interlibrary Loan Service at North Carolina State University. I wasn’t a student there. But the librarian had gone out of her way to help me. With the baby already dropped into launching position, I’d had to lean back in my seat as I turned the knobs on the microfilm machine and read and read, racing against time.

I flipped back to the December page of the calendar. “Lawrences here” was an entry in early December. That would be when Ed and Diane came over to help with the pictures for the baby’s room. Stewart and I had found some wonderful fabric at an outlet store—bright primary colors and pictures of zebras, lions, tigers, elephants, lambs, hippos, and rhinos in bold geometric designs. Ed carried in the cumbersome overhead projector from his school, and we traced the projections of the rhino, hippo, and elephant onto canvas and colored them with crayons to make bright wall decorations for the room that would be the nursery. Ed helped us make the wooden frames to which we would staple the canvas. The project took a whole afternoon and evening—fun for us all, but were we taking advantage of our friends? The Lawrences always seemed to end up doing more for us than we did for them, I thought.

It was easier for me to get the nursery ready than to imagine a baby living in it. I could think forward to the moment of birth, but I had a hard time concentrating on what would happen afterwards. To prepare myself a little, I had gone to some child care classes sponsored by the Red Cross—every Wednesday evening, according to the calendar. Stewart had begged off. “I can’t give up another night of the week,” he protested. “You know I need my evenings for church meetings and visiting prospective members.” So I went alone. All the other members of the class came as couples.

We practiced bathing and diapering with rubber dolls and learned to do the “kite fold” for the cloth diapers we would be using. (Pampers were only for times when we would be away from home with our babies.) We were also given instruction in two methods of sterilizing bottles, but I paid little attention. I was planning to breast feed my baby, which would mean I didn’t have to worry about bottles.

It had made me a little uneasy to know that meanwhile, in Kentucky, my mother was taking baby care classes, too. “I just told them that I’m a perspective grandmother, brushing up on my skills,” Mother had written in a letter to me. Sis and others advised me, “If your mother comes to help, let her do the household chores. You take care of the baby.” Weighing this advice, I’d been able to see a struggle in the making. I had no idea that I would ever be in such a state that both the baby and I would be utterly dependent on my mother.

On January 13 the calendar said “Nursing Mothers Meeting.” I’d gone to a meeting of the Nursing Mothers of Raleigh with Polly Potts (the woman who rode with me to doctor appointments). These women were as intrigued by elementary biology as Polly was, but they seemed only to be interested in breasts and nursing. There was some of the same “coven” atmosphere in this affiliate of the La Leche League, as there was in the Prepared Childbirth/Lamaze group and there tended to be overlaps in leadership of the two organizations. One woman proudly demonstrated how to sew invisible zippers in dress darts to make nursing easier. Of course, the little metal tabs hung down like tassels, but what did that matter? Several women brought their young babies and hauled them up to their breasts during the meeting. The general message seemed to be that nothing—inverted nipples, painful infections, a doctor’s suggestion to start solid foods, teething—nothing should stop the devoted mother from nursing her child. I took notes on the advice and brought home a book to consult. I wanted to try breast feeding, but in a more discreet, matter-of-fact way. I didn’t want to join a crusade for nursing. I had secret doubts that my tiny breasts would function adequately. It would be a delightful validation if they did.

January 11, “2:00 PM, Dr. Betts.” Throughout the three and a half years of our marriage, Stewart and I had visited various marriage groups and counselors. Stewart thought that most people needed help to make their marriages work, and he wanted ours to work. I did, too, but this seemed like yet another instance of turning to experts for help with something that should come naturally. But, Stewart argued, in addition to any help we would get with our relationship, in his first job as an associate minister, it would be useful for him to consult another professional on problems he was encountering with church members. So we had kept our first appointment with a psychiatrist who had been recommended to us, Dr. Wilmer Betts.

Although he planned to see us as a couple, for the initial interview he spoke with us separately. Dr. Betts was bald and plump, and his eyes, which could twinkle, were mostly kept hidden as he took careful notes. I ran over a list of goals for myself as Dr. Betts occasionally looked up and nodded. “I want to be more in touch with my body,” I said. “I’d like to be warmer, more affectionate. I need to know how to be more on the giving end of things, not always taking like a selfish child. I’d like to be more comfortable just being myself, not having to prove myself all the time with my accomplishments.” At the very end, glancing at my enormous stomach and laughing nervously, I added, “Oh yes, I need to learn about being a mother, too.”

Dr. Betts stapled his pages of notes. “All right,” he said. His voice tipped up after each phrase as if it were a question. “Very well? We’ll start our appointments later? After the baby comes?”

I knew nothing about how to buy clothes and other equipment for a new baby. Fortunately, my friends had helped me out. On Friday, January 8, according to the calendar, I’d attended “Shower—Mrs. Johnson.” The senior minister’s wife had invited various women who were active in the church to attend a baby shower. This was probably a tedious obligation for many of them, I realized. “Haven’t you bought any clothes for the baby yet?” asked one woman in amazement. “Are you planning to send Stewart out to buy diapers after you get home?”

We played silly games like “Baby Bingo” and “Fill the Carriage.” But the gifts were pretty and practical. Someone gave me a crockpot, so that I could prepare dinner before the late afternoon hours when a baby was likely to be fussy. Anne Dickens, a lovely woman I had only met once before, gave me a cart for sorting laundry. Amid the silly surface chatter, Anne told me, “I have eleven children, so I’ve learned a lot. Sometimes things don’t turn out the way we’ve planned. If you run into any problems, call me.” I could tell that her offer was serious.

Mrs. Johnson, in her hostess role, asked each woman to sign a book of advice before leaving. Most wrote little suggestions like “Rock your baby as often as you wish.” Stewart’s secretary, trying to disassociate herself from the trivial aspects of the evening, refused. “I don’t need to write anything down,” she said. “I know everything. And pretty soon you will, too.”

The other baby shower wasn’t on the calendar, because it had been a secret. Ed and Diane, too, had been worried that the baby would arrive to find no clothes or infant seats or other amenities. Although by now they had a tiny baby boy of their own, they told Stewart they would host a surprise shower for us. It wouldn’t be a “hen party” like Mrs. Johnson’s. The men would be invited, too. Stewart gave them such a big list of potential guests that the party would never fit in the Lawrences’ small house. “Do you want us to rent the Dorton Arena?” asked Diane. Luckily, another couple on the guest list volunteered to host the party at their large home.

Not knowing where Stewart wanted to take me that evening, I had insisted on cleaning up our kitchen before we left, so we were late. When we arrived, we found the church musician playing special entrance music as each couple arrived and was playfully announced. When we came in, everyone shouted “Surprise!”

I opened the mountain of presents, more than any three babies could ever need. I was overwhelmed. I was also depressed by the thought of the task of writing fifty of the kind of personal, chatty thank you notes my mother had taught me were required.

After a while, the older couples left. The rest of us stayed and danced. I even managed to dance to a few slow numbers, although I couldn’t stand very close to anyone. “Come on, show us some of those childbirth exercises,” someone teased. When I refused, another woman acted out the sudden at-home birth of her second child by pulling a doll out from under her dress.

I couldn’t know at the time how each birth is, in its own way, a surprise.

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