Preparing for Home Birth

I was not prepared to be a father—this much I knew. I was thirty-nine years old, didn’t have a job, and lived in one of the most expensive cities on the planet. I had always assumed that I’d have kids, but I had spent zero minutes thinking about them. In short, though not young, I was stupid.

Emily told me she was pregnant when we were walking down 34th Street, in Manhattan, on the way to Macy’s to shop for wedding rings. Our wedding was a few weeks away and, true to form, I had put off shopping for it to the last minute. I had a fellowship at the time at the New York Public Library, in midtown, and I must have Googled “wedding rings near me.” Macy’s it was. All around us on 34th Street people were shopping and hurrying and driving and honking. Emily told me, and I thought, O.K. Here we go. We are going to have a kid.

Then I thought: We need to get some very cheap wedding rings at Macy’s.

I was born in Moscow and came to the U.S. with my parents and older sibling when I was six. 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 worked odd jobs and wrote short stories, which I sent to literary magazines, which never wrote me back. To see my name in print, I started doing journalism. I also started translating things—stories, an oral history, poems—from Russian. Eventually, I started a left-wing literary magazine with some friends, published a novel, and travelled as much as possible to Russia to write about it. This was a decent literary career, truly more than I could ever have hoped for, but it did not bring in a lot of income; when Emily and I met, I was living with two roommates in a grand but cockroach-infested apartment on Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn.

At the time, Emily was a writer for Gawker, a media-gossip Web site. She was brilliant, beautiful, and very funny; she could also be very mean. She had grown up in an upper-middle-class household in suburban Maryland, but she had a chip on her shoulder. We dated for a while, broke up—she dumped me at a Starbucks, in Cobble Hill, that later closed during the pandemic—and then started dating again. Eventually, we moved in together, to a 1.5-bedroom apartment above a bar in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Emily had quit working for Gawker and, with her best friend, started a small feminist publishing house. The year she got pregnant, she had published her first novel, “Friendship,” about two best friends whose relationship is disrupted when one of them gets . . . pregnant. I was working on my second novel, about Russia. The library fellowship was the bulk of our income that year. Strictly speaking, we still didn’t have much money, but that was O.K., because we also didn’t have any kids.

I suppose it isn’t exactly true that I hadn’t thought about kids. I hadn’t thought about actual birth, or what sort of clothes a baby wears, or about the practicalities of early infancy. “As a child, from the moment I gained some understanding of what it entailed, I worried about childbirth,” Rachel Cusk writes in “A Life’s Work,” her dark, brilliant memoir of motherhood. She feared its pain and its violence and what would happen on the other side. To this, truly, I had given zero thought.

But I see, in retrospect, that I had spent years imbibing the heroic male literature of family neglect. There was Henry James, champion of Art over life (“One has no business to have any children,” one of his writer characters says, “I mean of course if one wants to do anything 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 walk out on them. “The intellect of man is forced to choose / Perfection of the life, or of the work,” William Butler Yeats wrote. I would choose the work. I had been married once before, while still in college, and at the time I was adamant that the relationship not interfere with my writing. My time must be my own; I must have adequate amounts of it; if my writing does not get done, then all is lost. My insistence on this eventually doomed the relationship. The lesson I took from this was not that I should keep things in perspective, but that I should arrange my life such that it revolved wholly around literature.

One time, not long after Emily and I had started dating, I hosted the 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, by then in her seventies, flew over to do some readings, shop for clothes for her kids at Century 21, and eat Thai food. She was, and is, in my opinion, the greatest living Russian writer, the final chronicler of that country’s life at the end of its most terrible century, and one evening toward the end of her stay, while we were eating Thai food, she suddenly looked at me and said, apropos of nothing, “You know, Kostya, I started writing when I was a little girl. But I didn’t become a real writer until I had my first child.”

I don’t know why she decided to say this to me. Maybe she was just talking. 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 wasn’t what Petrushevskaya saw.

Now here I was, five years later, about to be a father. This was serious business, involving doctors, nurses, life and death. Immediately, I was worried about the baby. Was he comfortable? Was he safe? Was he getting the proper nutrients? At the same time, I started trying to figure out, almost despite myself, how I was going to make sure none of this interfered with my work. I had a vague foreboding that it would.

I had one friend, Eric, from graduate school, with whom I’d kept in touch after the birth of his child. I asked him out 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 stuff.”


“Yeah, a lot of stuff.”

Of course! I was delighted. Stuff was something I could handle. I bought a kids’ dresser—with a little nook up top for a changing pad—from some Russians in Sheepshead Bay. One of Emily’s friends gave us her daughter’s old crib; another gave us her old bassinet. Emily’s parents bought us a car seat and a stroller. My father bought us the mattress for the crib. My friend A.J., who’d just had a baby, mailed us what looked like a large pillow with a little depression in it, which she called a “dog bed,” for putting our future baby down onto. We bought some onesies and some diapers and a changing pad. One day, Eric’s wife, Rachael, came by our place with a baby carrier. Her daughter was asleep in the car downstairs; technically, I think, this was illegal. Rachael threw the carrier on our bed. “Here,” she said. Someone had sent a stuffed bunny for the future baby, and Rachael grabbed him by the throat and put him atop the carrier. She secured one strap around her waist, then bent down over the bunny and threaded her arms through the shoulder straps. “Like that,” she said. We nodded, uncomprehending. “O.K., bye,” Rachael said, and ran 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’d have a place to lay him down while he slept, a surface on which to change his diapers, methods for transporting him by street or car. But still we were scared.

Or maybe I should stop saying “we.”

Before the baby, Emily and I were very similar. We both liked to drink coffee and read books and work on our laptops, sometimes together, at the café on the corner; 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’s swim team and remained an excellent swimmer.

The pregnancy both brought us closer and pushed us apart. For a while, including at our wedding, we were the only ones who knew. Then, later on, we were the ones to whom every little thing mattered: at the sonograms, we studied the expression of the lab tech, or examined little photos to see if we could make out the face and character of our baby.

But there was also no denying that this was all happening to Emily, inside of Emily, and not inside of me. It was like we’d discovered that Emily had a superpower—a partly debilitating superpower that would lead to incredible physical pain, but a superpower still. We were scared of different things, then, and in different ways. I was scared of my ignorance. Emily was scared of the pain. But Emily was also prepared: she had read the literature and she knew lots of moms. Once she was pregnant, she downloaded an app that told her all about the baby. “Our baby is the size of a pea,” she would tell 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 this was crazy, but she said that she didn’t want to take a cab to the hospital and possibly give birth in it. I imagined looking up at the taxi meter as my child was born and seeing, like, a hundred and ninety-eight dollars. I agreed to explore the option of home birth.

We watched an unconvincing documentary called “The Business of Being Born,” in which the former daytime talk-show host Ricki Lake, pregnant with her second child, sings the praises of home birth and denounces an American hospital system that pumps women full of drugs and then pressures them to have C-sections they don’t need. Toward the end of the film, Lake gives beautiful birth at home, no drugs needed. The director of the film is also pregnant, but ends up giving birth at the hospital, because her baby is coming out the wrong way (legs or butt first, known as “breech,” as in breeches). The film is pretty compelling as an indictment of a profit-seeking medical establishment. In proposing home birth as a sort of opt-out movement, it is less effective. There are a lot of people who cannot or should not give birth at home. When the director has to “transfer” to the hospital to get a C-section, the news ought to be that her baby has survived. But, in the context of the home-birthing paradigm, the director is made to seem like 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 wrapping up, she said a very strange thing. “I have a question for you,” she said. “If something goes wrong, will you still remain advocates of home birth?”

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