I wish we had a husband,” I said to my wife. She was 32 weeks pregnant, and I was carrying the lion’s share of our groceries back to our apartment, three blocks over and one street up. I had surprised myself when I first said this phrase a few weeks earlier, practically spitting it out. Now, I said it almost daily.
Before my wife got pregnant, the division of labor in our home was a utopian 50/50, sorted out by skill set and preference. If anything, my haphazard regard for household minutiae, paired with my wife’s attention to detail, had let me off the hook for many annoying tasks. But as my wife’s pregnancy progressed, my participation in manual chores increased. In the span of one week, I stood atop a step ladder to rearrange a high cabinet, employed a screwdriver on three separate occasions, and reconnected our Apple TV. These tasks, coupled with my fetus-free body, accumulated into a sense of masculinity I had never wanted and grew to resent.
In the beginning, the process of creating our family was collaborative. Both of us assumed we would carry a child at some point, so we decided that my wife, being one year older, would go first. Together, we thoughtfully chose a donor and fertility specialist and coincided our calendars to allow us both to attend the full gamut of appointments, from monitoring every 3 days to the end game of insemination. After an IUI treatment, we impatiently waited 14 days and then scrutinized the pregnancy test stick. We celebrated when the test showed two lines and began brainstorming baby names and visualizing how to best rearrange our one-bedroom Brooklyn apartment to accommodate our upcoming addition.
As the summer heat dissipated and hot coffee replaced iced, my wife’s belly expanded in correlation with my own unexpected feelings of anxiety. At doctors’ appointments, receptionists, nurses, and doctors asked my wife, “Who have you brought along for the visit?” Nobody batted an eye once proper introductions were exchanged, but their first impression stayed with me. I was viewed, initially, as a tag-along in this process, not an equal partner.
At home I felt helpless. My compulsion to share in caring for our budding fetus transformed me into a nudge. Without consulting any experts, I created a list of house rules for her including: do not stand on the step ladder, use extra caution when entering and exiting the shower, do not carry items weighing more than 15 pounds. In the afternoons, I found myself interrogating my wife about nutritional value of her packed lunch, to ensure she was eating enough for herself and our sea monkey-sized life. At night, I asked if she had taken her numerous, horse pill-sized prenatal vitamins, even though she never missed a day. At all hours, I pushed glasses of water in her direction, noting that I had once read pregnant women needed three times the amount of as much water as the rest of us. I knew I was being overbearing, but I couldn’t stop because, in a way, the nagging felt like care-taking.
About four months into the pregnancy, my wife began feeling him move. These movements couldn’t be felt from the outside yet, and I started to develop a complex. Like a lesbian-specific version of Freud’s penis envy, I was seething with pregnancy belly envy. Nobody had warned me that not physically carrying the baby could cause a sudden onset of jealousy. Even when my wife audibly winced from a fetal foot pressing into her rib cage, I coveted her pain, craving the touch of his tiny limbs. My jealousy sprung up when I imagined his half-developed fetus ears listening to her favorite music on the way to work and hearing her office friends throughout the day. More than once, I caught myself imagining unzipping him off her body to take him out for coffee with my friends, hearing the sounds and voices of my everyday life.
About a month later, I could feel the baby move from the outside, which brought about a small sense of relief—and new fixation with getting him to move for me. Coming home from work I would loudly announce myself at above indoor voice-levels and make a racket putting my things away. “The baby always kicks when you start talking,” my wife said. It might have been a coincidence—or a lie of generosity—but I appreciated the notion. I found ways to gently push on her stomach and certain songs to sing that could get him to stir. My connection to him began feeling more tangible and I loosened up on my pestering, except for the step ladder ban and water intake.
I assumed my belly envy had run its course until one night, mere weeks before our due date. We were getting ready for bed, chatting about our soon-to-be son, and suddenly I was sobbing. For the first time, it occurred to me that this tiny human, who I already loved so much, would share DNA with my wife’s parents, sister, cousins, aunts, and uncles. Intellectually, I knew I would be this boy’s mother. I knew all families were created differently. And I knew from personal experience that genes in and of themselves don’t guarantee closeness and love. But in that moment, it felt heartbreakingly unfair that her entire lineage would share something with him that I never could, and it left me wondering, again, about my contribution.
Through heaves, I told my wife I worried the baby wouldn’t be connected to me. She acknowledged my frustration and assured me that by taking good care of her over the past 10 months I had also been taking good care of the baby. I had lugged heavy bags full of food that eventually got to his tiny belly, screwed the bolts to his dresser, and assembled his bassinet. I nodded in agreement, letting the words register and feeling somewhat reassured. My previously unwanted masculine role translated, on some level, into that of a solid care provider.
An exhausted pregnant woman, my wife fell asleep moments after the conversation, leaving me to mull my feelings over alone. I recognized her speech was nice and true, but I felt even better when I remembered something she had pointed out weeks earlier. There was one thing I could do—and she couldn’t—to get in some early bonding time. I leaned over and whispered into her belly, an action physically out of range for her. I began to chatter—directly in his almost fully formed ears—about my day, what was happening on the latest episode of Real Housewives, and all the fun things his mom and I had planned for him when he was ready to arrive.