Amnon Ben-Ami, Lymph Around the Nipples, 2007, oil on canvas

This story originally appeared in Chicago Literati, December 23, 2016. It appears here reposted.

Maternal Instinct

David Stromberg

From the moment she suspected her ex-boyfriend had left her pregnant she began to fear childbirth. Not for herself – for the baby. How could she allow it to undergo such trauma? From its warm, dark, insulated womb it would have to squeeze through a passage too small for its body into the unprotected world with its proliferating bacteria and cold air and stark light. Having never breathed before it would have to start breathing. With no prior exposure it would have to exist in the raw world.

Of course there were ways to minimize the trauma. She could have a caesarian section – she didn't care about the scar – and it would at least save the baby the pain of getting stuck between the inside world and the outside world. But then the transition would be much more sudden and the physical pain she managed to save the baby might translate into psychological pain. No matter how it happened the baby would be traumatized.

If she could just carry it in her belly forever she would take the burden on herself. But she couldn't. The baby would push its way out – even if she knew better.

At first she tried talking to the fetus and trying to convince it not to grow too quickly. She told it that there was no need to rush things – life was not a race. She would carry it as long as it needed her to without a single complaint. She wasn't in a rush to get pregnant again – she had patience and could wait to meet the baby in person.

She started thinking up all kinds of futuristic procedures that would allow the baby's brain and personality to grow and develop inside the womb. She would hook it up to a machine that would allow it to exist in the world through its mind without having to actually face it in the raw. When it was old enough it could make its own decision about whether or not to be born into the world. If it decided against birth and instead wanted to remained the size of a preborn infant she would carry it until the end of her days. She would even arrange for a replacement womb to be built and a transferal upon her death that would give the baby all the same nutrients and mediated access to the world it always enjoyed and it could continue its peaceful wombly existence.

But when she went to the doctor for a checkup he told her that the fetus was developing at a normal pace, that all the tests came back with stable results, and that from what he could tell so far she was on track to give birth on time. As soon as she left the doctor's office – riding on the elevator, walking down the street, taking the bus back home – she spoke to the fetus and told it to slow down. It needed to trust her. She was its parent and all she wanted was for it to experience as little pain as possible. If it continued to grow this way she would have no choice but to give birth to it in a matter of months and this would be such a painful and traumatic experience that it would never forgive her all its life.

At home she scoured the internet for ways to prolong her pregnancy. There was an online forum of men and women who shared her concerns and who had posted various experimental methods they'd discovered to extend the time it took to come to term. The main thing according to the sites was for the pregnant women to do everything she could to stress herself out. Some women had managed through specific psychological stress-inducing methods to close themselves up in such a way that – ignoring their doctor's pleas to induce pregnancy after the third overdue week – they have birth as many as four or five weeks late. Those with several births under their belt posted their personal experiences and also compared regular-term pregnancy to what they called extended-term pregnancy. The women who had succeeded all expressed how happy and grateful they were for being able to give their infants those few extra weeks in the womb. They were sure their children would appreciate it as they grew up and would thank their mothers for taking on the extra burden on their behalf.

Taking a cue from the online forums she started stressing herself out – thinking about all the terrible things she'd survived as a child. The emotional abuse that sometimes spilled over into physical beatings, the general disregard for her whereabouts and activities, the alienation she felt at school no less than at home. She reminded herself how later when it came to going to college and finding work she had no one to count on but herself. She thought of the demeaning unpaid internships she had to go through as a college student and the temp work she took on in the hopes of it turning into an entry-level job. It had worked – she was now a corporate employee with healthcare benefits and a pension fund – but had it been easy? Absolutely not.

Thinking about these things succeeded in causing her stress and at her next checkup the doctor said he saw some worrying signs – it was still too early to tell but a certain result suggested there was a slight chance of premature birth. He asked her whether she was stressed out about the pregnancy and she lied and said that she was completely fine with everything that was happening. He apologized for prying into her private life but said he couldn't help but notice that she came to all the checkups alone – was she perhaps bringing this child into the world as a single parent? Did she think she needed some support? He knew a wonderful social worker who he thought might be helpful – if this was something she wanted. She thanked the doctor from the bottom of her heart. Yes, she said, she was going to be a single parent, but this didn't worry her in the least bit. She said she'd been brought up by a single mother and that there was nothing wrong with that except a social stigma that prevailed even in our times. He apologized again and said he hadn't meant to insult her or her mother in any way. He was sure that everything would be fine and said that for now the results only pointed to statistics and probabilities. He told her to come back in two weeks so that they could follow up those results and see whether they could put any of these hypotheticals to rest. Judging by how well things had gone until now, he said, he didn't foresee any real complications.

As soon as she left – riding on the elevator, walking down the street, taking the bus back home – she started speaking to the baby more frantically. You can't be born early, she said, that's not the point. This is no good. This will only increase the trauma. As if normal childbirth isn't hard enough – now you want to be born prematurely? Don't you understand how dangerous this is for your mental and physical health? Stop! Stop it now – or else!

When she got home she searched online for a connection between stress and premature birth. She found out that in pregnancy stress had unpredictable effects that could both shorten and prolong the term. She thought about posting a comment on one of the longer-term pregnancy sites about her experience – warning potential mothers who considered stress-inducing methods that it could lead to prematurity – but in the end she decided against making a fuss. She didn't have any proof that the two were connected and neither did she have the authority to tell these women that their methods might be wrong.

She did some more research online and found a few documented cases in India in which women became so in harmony with their pregnancies through yoga that they easily carried their infants into a tenth month. She immediately signed up for a yoga course – which she had always been too embarrassed to do before but which for her infant's sake she was ready to give a try – and three times a week twisted and turned her body in every possible way in order to come into one with the new organic forms developing within. With one pose after another she focused on this harmony that she sensed she lacked and that she so wanted to achieve for the sake of her baby so that it would not have to be born too soon.

At her next checkup the doctor apologized for having to tell her that the worrying signs had not gone away – that in fact they had increased. He didn't know how to tell her this other than directly: even if the fetus managed to come to term, which he greatly doubted, he didn't think it had a chance of fit survival. He reassured that these things happened. Sometimes it was stress and other times it was too much physical exertion. Sometimes it was neither – just fate. He apologized for having had to tell her these things and said that whatever choice she made he'd support her as fully as he could from the medical standpoint.

She left the doctor's office in silence. Outside she wandered aimlessly through the streets. She wanted to say something to the baby but was lost for words. It had betrayed her. It had taken all the good things she'd tried to do for it and discarded them with its stubborn nature. Not only did it want to be born – it wanted to be born early. And to do so sick. Everything she'd hoped to give the baby, all the warmth and protection of her womb, had been viciously rejected just to spite her. She realized that this fetus had already developed an ungrateful nature before it had even been born – that in order to get back at her for giving it life it was already plotting to burden her with the responsibility of its existence. Instead of appreciating everything she did to prolong its stay in her womb it was in a hurry to make her pay for her crime of bringing it into the world.

She had news for this baby – it wasn't the boss of her. Not yet. No one would enter her life with the sole purpose of making it a living hell. Not even the fruit of her own womb. She had managed to escape from her abusive mother. She had managed to escape from the alcoholic boyfriend that had impregnated her. And she would manage to escape the wrath of this good-for-nothing baby.

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