Saturday, October 3, 2020

Good News, Bad Reactions


It was almost Christmas – the perfect time to announce a pregnancy. Or so I thought.

To make our baby announcement news go over easier, I purchased a pair of picture frames stamped with “Love at First Sight” and inserted images from the 16-week ultrasound in each of them for my mom and my mother-in-law. Then I wrapped the frames and piled them atop the other Christmas presents and cards we were distributing.

First up was lunch with my mom and step-dad. Our holiday tradition was meeting up at a restaurant ahead of all the holiday hullabaloo. I wore my oversized red turtleneck sweater, which kinda-sorta hid my belly, just in case we changed our minds and decided not to say anything about the baby.

After dining on a flavorful Mediterranean meal of gyros, kebabs, and flatbread, my mom, step-dad, husband, and teens all exchanged cards and gifts. My mom saved our baby announcement present for last.

“Do you want to give her some kind of primer?” my husband asked from across the table when she picked up the gift.

“No! That would ruin the surprise!” I said.

My mom opened the Christmas card first. At the end of it, I’d signed all of our names, then added: “…and a new little one on the way!”

My mom paused and looked up at me like I’d just hinted I had cancer or something equally awful.

“This doesn’t mean what I think it means…?” she said.

“Open the other present!” I urged her.

“You almost gave me a heart attack!” she said. She seemed relieved, as if she’d misinterpreted my card and jumped to conclusions. She shared that whenever my brother and his wife told her they had good news, her first thought was, “Oh, no.”

That’s when I realized this was not going to go as I’d hoped.

My mom opened the box containing the framed ultrasound picture and asked if it was from when I was pregnant with one of my teens.

“No…” I said. Why would I give her a framed ultrasound photo of one of her granddaughters from 15 years ago?!

For the life of me, I can’t remember what she said next (I think I blocked it out because it was truly traumatic), nor can my husband or teens. It was something along the lines of, “What were you thinking?” Whatever she said, I do remember that my jaw dropped and my older teen started laughing so hard water almost came out of her nose.

Surprisingly, my step-dad was the emotionally intelligent one in this situation. He congratulated us and got all teary-eyed. He told us that one of his sons was expecting a baby in May, too.

“So you’re four months along already?” he asked.

“Yup,” I said. “I thought for sure Mom noticed that I was getting fat.”

My mother shook her head. I stood up and smoothed my sweater over my belly to show them my bump. Neither of them seemed to see think this was any different than my usual figure. For a second, I thought, “This is happening, right? I’m not imagining this pregnancy.” It was a thought that had looped through my head often in my first trimester when I didn’t “feel” pregnant.

I started to wish we had waited to break the news until a later time. I was deeply uncomfortable and wanted to get out of there as soon as possible.

“Have you been telling people?” my mom asked.

“No,” I said. “You’re the first ones.”

“Oh, thanks,” she replied, affectless.

Someone initiated a toast “to the parents” but it was lackluster. My mom seemed to be trying to muster some enthusiasm, but couldn’t quite get there. She told us we were “brave” more than once, which didn’t feel like a compliment.

“Having a baby is an act of hope,” my husband said.

I’m not sure my mom saw it that way.

On the ride home, I expressed my disappointment in my mom’s reaction.

“What do you care what your mom thinks?” my older teen said.

“I didn’t think I cared, but I guess you’re never too old to want parental approval,” I said.

That, and I wanted the baby to be welcomed. She deserved to be received into the world with just as much fanfare as my teens were. 

We hadn’t even dropped the bigger bomb – that the baby was donor-conceived via IVF. Now I was unsure if we would ever share that with our families, especially if the subsequent pregnancy announcements were received so unfavorably.

The next day we had another lunch scheduled, this time with my husband’s parents. Plans began to go awry immediately. Instead of meeting at a restaurant, my mother-in-law asked us to get take-out and bring it to their senior living facility. My father-in-law was in poor health and had a new, concerning cough, so the request was understandable, but when it comes to family gatherings, I prefer the built-in time limit of a busy restaurant table. I started to wonder if we should delay our big announcement.

As soon as we sat down on the couch in my in-law’s apartment, my mother-in-law started talking about how another family member was going to have a baby any day now. “She and her husband tried for five years to get pregnant and went through IVF!” she told us. “I just don’t know how anyone affords to do that!”

My husband and I shrugged and kept our mouths shut. Clearly, we weren’t disclosing that we did IVF today.

Then, a photo album of my brother-in-law’s wedding ended up in my lap. I already suspected that he and his wife were the favorite couple of the family, and the pictures didn’t quell this suspicion. They looked young and sun-kissed at their very Instagrammable wedding (which my husband attended but I did not). They'd also recently had a baby – the first girl on my husband's side of the family. I already felt like my husband and I were the black sheep couple on his side of the family because we were the only ones who had been divorced before, and seeing photo after photo of the beaming golden couple and hearing about their new little one didn’t help. 

To make matters worse, my father-in-law was in really rough shape. He was in a wheelchair now and couldn’t maneuver around on his own. He couldn’t cut his food or reach for his own water cup. His cough kept interrupting his chewing and once he almost choked. The mood was grim. My husband had been concerned that his father’s death was imminent for months and the scene that day seemed to suggest it would come sooner rather than later. To make a pregnancy announcement seemed insensitive and selfish.

When we finally arrived at the gift exchange portion of the afternoon, I left the framed ultrasound photo wrapped and untouched at the bottom of our tote bag. Today was not the day to share our news. Even if it was warmly received (which I didn’t think it would be), I wasn’t ready for the pregnancy to become gossip fodder – or used as further proof that we were the outcast couple of the family.

Back at home, I unwrapped the framed ultrasound photograph intended for my mother-in-law and placed it on my dresser. I wasn’t going to let all the bad reactions take away my hard-won excitement about this baby.

A few days later, my mom brought a Christmas ornament over “for the baby.” It was a little praying angel. “I’ve come around,” she said. “Congratulations.”

On Christmas Day, my dad and brother came over for dinner. When gift-opening time came, I gave my dad a card that contained the ultrasound photo (I figured he wouldn’t be the type to frame it).  

“Whose is this?” he asked, looking around the table at me and my teen daughters.

After an awkward moment of silence, my husband chimed in. “No teen pregnancies here!” he said.

I was dumbfounded. Did we really have to state the obvious – again? How old did my parents think I was? Was it so out of the realm of possibility that I might want to have another baby?

“It’s ours,” I said. “We’re having a baby. A girl.”

My dad didn’t really have a reaction (which is kind of the go-to reaction for stoic Norwegians such as himself), nor did he ask any questions, not even about the due date. My brother congratulated us and was as curious as a childless younger brother could be expected to be.

Underwhelmed by my family’s reaction to the pregnancy announcement, I started to contemplate posting the news on social media. I tried taking a bump selfie, which was near impossible. When I asked my older teen to take a pic, I didn’t even recognize my face in the photo. I looked old. I couldn't compete with the pregnant Instagram influencers with their lustrous hair, glowing skin, and fashionably sheathed, perfectly proportioned bodies. I just looked like I'd eaten too much Christmas ham. Would it be weird to post a picture of my bump without my head in it? After an hour of airbrushing and cropping and filtering and deliberating, I saved the photo as a draft, then eventually deleted it. I wasn’t ready to share my pregnancy news – not yet, not like this.

Besides, I still had half the pregnancy to get through. Next up: genetic counseling, a 19-week ultrasound, and an echocardiogram at a maternal-fetal medicine (read: high-risk) clinic, because, unbeknownst to me, babies conceived via IVF sometimes face unique – and even devastating – health problems…

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