Bryan Parys is overwhelmed with worry that a burrito will kill him before his unborn baby grows up.
Since I’m in the midst of a job search, I have to pop back up north to my hometown of Laconia, New Hampshire, for a few days here and there to do some house-painting work with my father-in-law’s business. I’m usually gone for two or three days at a time, and each time I’m gone, my six-months-pregnant wife wakes up dry heaving.
She had a fairly textbook first trimester—a Magellan-like morning sickness that circumnavigated the boundaries of “morning,” a healthy heartbeat that prompted clichés from nurses like “he or she’s going to be a runner/gymnast/acrobat,” and cravings for things she hasn’t wanted since she was a teenager.
Continuing the most-women-experience-blank formula, her second trimester has found her with more energy and free of the a.m. queasies. That is, until I leave for the night.
“It’s so gross,” she tells me over the phone during one of my stays in Laconia. “There’s no food in my stomach when I wake up, so I just stand over the toilet hacking until I’m late for work.”
“Aw, that’s so cute,” I say. “It’s like our kid already misses me!”
“That’s one way to see it.”
At first, it really did seem Hallmark-ish to me. Especially considering I had grown a little frustrated at the small amount of “changes” I can physically sense during the pregnancy. While part of this extends from that sympathetic guilt of feeling completely normal while the harmony of Natalie’s body turns into a Philip Glass opera, it’s mostly because it seems like none of this will feel real until I see amniotic fluid for the first time.
Instead, this expecting father has to settle with a pregnancy of the mind—a brain baby full of fetal questions that grow intermittently, and, at certain times, convinces me that something massively beyond my grasp is about to happen. I have to nurture the concept of a child, making all my reflections and pseudo–a-has feel like the fading edges of an ending dream. I certainly don’t think men get the short end of the stick here, but would it be awful to throw up a few times, knowing that it wasn’t the flu, but some heraldic prophesy dialed in from my approaching progeny?
This was all an intriguing mental exercise for me until I relayed Natalie’s father-based sickness to a poet friend of mine. “Oh, shit,” he said. “Your kid’s already got your anxiety! She’s worried you’re going to disappear.”
And then, just like it always seems to, the sneaky memory of my father’s passing when I was 4 years old returns with a slew of questions, the last one, as always, What if, like your father, you don’t make it past age 38?
My mental pregnancy has driven me crazy with clichés it’s ridden with. Even otherwise eloquent artists like Michael Chabon and Ben Folds have shown themselves prone to that circus symphony of off-key voices singing, “The minute that baby arrives, everything changes.”
I certainly don’t want to devalue the bigness and verity of that change, or suggest that, out of spite, I’ll be the first one not to change. But, I mean, have you known anyone who’s reported, “The best advice I ever got before becoming a parent was when someone told me things would never be the same”?
Instead, I feel like I’m gestating with questions, and I’m afraid of what happens when they start contracting and taking on a life of their own. And that’s the key phrase—a life of their own.
Normally, this is my parental day-mare: a beige, thin-carpeted living room, furnished with sagging, overstuffed couches, the floor littered like a Pollock painting with primary-colored plastic toys from Walmart and Kohl’s. Half-chewed, drool-logged Cheerios line the cushions, and some hand-me-down TV blinks like a twitching eye between neutered kids’ programs and McDonald’s commercials.
But these are mundane problems. Since my experience with pregnancy is largely mental, the real nightmare is internal, defined by a tug-of-war between what is realistic, what is paranoia, and how those two things combine to create their own mutable realities.
Take one of our latest date nights: burritos at Chipotle. As usual, for thrift, we split a chicken burrito, meaning I have to get the hot salsa I love on the side. Since it’s not actually that hot, I snag a bottle of green Tabasco on the way to the table. Soon into the meal, my half is a soggy mess of distilled spice that gives off as much fumes as a gas station. Natalie looks up at me, her pale oceanic eyes freezing on me, reminding me that I have acid reflux and esophagitis, and that, oh yeah—these are two conditions my father had before his esophageal cancer set in.
After pushing my plate away, I lean back and make a fist over my sternum, my cheeks puffing to hide the burn of a burp. Natalie knows the sign language well, and pauses the scene forever with, “You can’t leave me alone to raise this kid.”
And this is my daddy issue: that burritos can actually ratchet up the fear of early death.
But you can’t live in your own projected destinies, whether they are fears of death, or delusions of grandeur. Clinging to the dream of spending my 30s on countless successful book tours can be just as dangerous as thinking I’ll expire the same way, and at the same time, as my biological father.
This logic works for me on most days. But logic isn’t necessarily a dominant feature of cognitive pregnancy. In fact, logic seems like a crackling veneer we shoddily reapply over our worst fears; it only takes one unexpected thwack to pierce such thin armor. That surprise seems to arrive when you’re actually trying to change the way you think of that fear.
To get a better handle on how I can halt the progress of my heartburn, I did some casual Wikipedia-ing. Chew slower, steer clear of caffeine, red wine, spicy foods—the usual list of my favorite things. Toward the end of the article, I came across the word “premalignant.” A pulse of heat thumped through my chest—this time generated from the hot sauce of language. That logical voice came in, trying to triage the fear: “Look—you know Internet diagnoses are the stuff of hypocondria. Move on.”
When Natalie came home a few hours later, I was frantically making a tofu lasagna. I started complaining about my day, and before I knew it, I was mad at her.
“What’s the issue?” she asked. “I didn’t do anything but walk in the door!”
“You just, you could try to be a little more sensitive. That’s all,” I said, having no idea what that was supposed to mean.
“Sensitive? About what? What are you talking about?”
I didn’t know, so I continued slinging senseless I’m-the-victim phrases. “Look! I just really need your support here!”
At this point, I was just projecting my disturbance onto her. Because she’s patient and doesn’t throw things, she was able to tease out the source of my mania: that I considered myself sprinting towards death. Premalignant. That pre had hooked in deeper than I thought. Everything felt pre-cancerous, and the only way to not be identified as premalignant was to die of something other than cancer.
At my most lucid moments, I can see this mortal paranoia for what it is: an addiction. When I think about my future family, and the picture is blurry at best, I turn to finding parallels between my dad and me—stomach issues, a penchant for facial hair, that we both started families around the same age. The numbness that comes with drawing morbid parallels doesn’t do anything but stop me dead. The awareness that you are going to die is not going to push you to some Socratic acceptance of the inevitable, but will lock you inside your brain and keep you from building connections with your spouse, child, anyone.
Sometimes I put my hand over my heart, and I think about how impossible it seems that it just keeps beating. I become so aware of that miracle that I’m afraid I’ll think it into stopping itself, as if the logical can transcend biology.
I sure as hell hope so.
—Image via andymangold/Flickr