Although his wife may disagree, Imagethief believes very deeply that Homo sapiens should have a gestational period of 241 weeks. Forty weeks is simply not long enough for first-time parents to come to grips with the reality of having a child.
The funny thing is that thirty-nine weeks ago it seemed like plenty. Nine months of pregnancy felt like a school-year did back when I was in second grade: about ten minutes longer than eternity. But one of the curious but well-known side effects of getting older is that time compresses. When I was ten the idea of deferring anything for a year was essentially like postponing it forever, or longer. A year hence was simply too remote and exotic a concept to contemplate. Jeez, in a year we might have flying cars, domestic robots and little metal hats that let us read the minds of our alien pets. That was how far off a year was. It was 10% of my life.
When you’re forty, and you’re planning investments with a twenty year time horizon and buying insurance products calibrated in decades, a year is a rounding error. It’s 2.5% of my life, and when it gets to 1.25%, actuarial tables suggest I’ll be dead, or at least enfeebled. Today, planning something a year off is only one step above planning my shopping. I could go pick up some ice cream tonight. Or I could go get it next year. Whatever. I’ve learned the adult magic of deferred gratification. Or even infinitely postponed gratification, where you settle for the vague intention of buying or doing something but never actually do it.
Speaking of infinitely postponed, we got a later start on pregnancy than many of our old friends back home. It was a planned pregnancy that we’d attempted to engineer for two years. I use the term “engineer” with some deliberation. It took a little effort, and when you’re forty time may speed up but other things slow down. Still, when the good news came, the reality of the baby was a long way off. The doctor showed us some paperwork and charts and graphs, but they could have meant anything. Maybe we were having a baby. Or maybe interest rates were falling. It was hard to tell. Mrs. Imagethief looked more or less the same. She did have a bit of a glow, but in a Shanghai June one assumes that is sweat.
Despite many typical pregnancy experiences, the baby seemed a long way off until pretty recently. I believe that denial is an important part of managing the whole pregnancy process. For first time parents, it’s probably the one thing that enables you to cope with the reality of the responsibility you are about to assume. It’s not that we ignored the pregnancy. We were thrilled, after all, and we attacked the project with some gusto. We went to pre-natal appointments and (speaking of long investment horizons) paid for a birthing package. I read all the literature and prowled the candy-striped baby-name websites. They don’t really design them with dudes in mind or they would look more like ESPN.com. I also helped Mrs. Imagethief purchase a staggering array of baby paraphernalia representing the intellectual output of some of the finest engineers on the planet. Anyone who has studied a breast pump carefully will know what I am talking about.
Even our cohort of friends magically shifted. We didn’t mean for this to happen. We didn’t consciously seek it out. It just materialized, as if by some sort of alchemy. It helped that some of our good friends in China were pregnant a bit ahead of us. Those friends were like catalysts for a change that swept across our entire social group. The next thing we knew we were eating at “child friendly” restaurants and having dim sum with four strollers in the room and mothers queuing for breastfeeding space on the couch. It was just like I’d heard about: All our conversations were about pregnancy and parenthood and which strollers work best on Beijing’s crappy sidewalks. It was a bit like “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”, except warm and fuzzy and full of teddy bears rather than dark, spooky and McCarthyist.
Mrs. Imagethief did get big. When we went to Italy last October she was beginning to show a little roundness, but if she wore a jacket it disappeared. Now you could throw a bedspread over The Bump and it wouldn’t disappear. Daily life is all about The Bump: Which clothes go over it, how to manage trouser waists, and the strange and terrible things happening to her navel. The Bump makes it hard for her to turn over in bed or get up from the couch. It’s put her center of gravity about a foot in front of her feet. Mrs. Imagethief now moves like a slightly drunk woman carrying around a 30-inch tube television wrapped in foam. Awkwardness has become a way of life. Baby proofing be damned. We’ve been Bump proofing. I know this sounds a bit uncharitable, and still love her, Bump and all, but it’s quite a thing.
The other thing that changed recently is that we can actually feel the baby. First time fathers aren’t really prepared for what a presence the baby becomes even while it is still in utero. We all grow up hearing about “feeling the baby kick”, and we imagine some kind of delicate, birdlike peck. Ping! Could you feel the kick? That was true about two months ago. Now “kick” has become a polite euphemism for “full body aerobics” and feeling it isn’t an issue. When the kid moves you can see my wife’s shirt undulate. The kid sticks his feet and elbows out and her tummy ripples. It looks like someone has thrown a towel over the cat. Or, perhaps more accurately, over the baby.
All of this may have made the baby feel more imminent to my wife, but it was still not quite real to me. Sure her tummy moved but it could have been anything in there. Maybe ants, or bad dumplings. Who are you going to believe? Some ultrasound technician you just met? Or all those movies you saw as a kid where people incubate aliens inside their bodies?
I don’t feel bad about this. Most of my friends told me the baby wasn’t real for them either until they were actually holding it, at which point there wasn’t really any choice except to get a grip, in both senses of the phrase. I’ve been a conscientious husband during the pregnancy and the basic prep work is done. That’s pretty good for a habitual procrastinator like me. I was the kid who wrote all his papers at 3AM before they were due, a trick that got me through high school and college but wouldn’t have worked at all with the baby. Moss, have you done your homework? No? I’ll see you in detention for the next eighteen to twenty-one years!
But the time for denial is running out and I am coming to terms with the fact that I have baby who, by the book, is due on Monday. For perspective, that’s before my next weekly issue of The Economist arrives. The thing that brought it home was when one of my wife’s friends, who had a similar official due date, had her baby last weekend. Something about that threw the switch. On Friday my wife had lunch with her. On Sunday we got the joyous SMS, which provoked the following reaction in me: Good lord! If it can happen to them, it can happen to us!
Nine months ago I knew in the back of my head that this would happen sometime. But now, as the big day draws near, I’m switching from knowing it to believing it.
Note: Impending parenthood will likely affect Imagethief’s posting schedule. I have every intention of continuing to post, but you’ll understand if my priorities are rearranged for a while. Also, in case you are wondering, this post was reviewed and approved by Mrs. Imagethief prior to publication.