Life in a Skinner Box: A Memoir [Chapter 6.4]

When I posed the baby question to Chris, I got a somewhat neutral response. It was always difficult for me to read Chris’ emotions in times like these, when big decisions were on the table. His affect was essentially the same as it was for the little decisions. Chris rarely showed extreme emotions, like anger, rage, enthusiasm, or outward joy. He typically cruised along somewhere between melancholy and contentment—not a huge range. Once again, I felt like it was up to me to make the call.

I went for a drive and had a huge talk with myself. Was I ready for a baby? Was I ready in every sense of the word? Emotionally? Mentally? Physically? I tried to synthesize what I’d learned from my own experiences and from my education.

I knew from my mom’s life that she wasn’t ready to have me when she did. She’d gone into motherhood with so many unresolved issues from her own childhood. So many of her own needs for love and self-esteem had never been met. Abraham Maslow would say her primary motivations were focused on getting those old needs met at the expense of other things. Stated another way, acquiring love and self-esteem were what would be most reinforcing to her and she spent her time and energy trying to achieve those reinforcers. Sadly, until her own needs were met, it was not reinforcing for her to give love to a child.

I searched inside myself and wondered if I still had major unmet needs for love, acceptance, status…and felt grateful that many of my needs had been met in large part by my father, as well as by other female relatives in my life. I was also thankful that before having a child I’d been able to travel, experiment, “have fun,” and take my education further than I’d ever dreamed. I felt satisfied and fulfilled in some very core areas.

I evaluated more academically the way Dad had parented me. He had managed to become aware of many of his early childhood problems and in essence “broke the cycle” by learning as much about behaviorism as he did. It wasn’t just behaviorism that made Dad such a great parent in my mind, though. His philosophies on religion, politics, social class, education, evolution, and Humanism—along with what I believe to his own deep intrinsic love of learning—influenced him and brought joy, awe, compassion, self-awareness, vulnerability, open-mindedness, honesty, and a sense of giving into his parenting. I hoped to bring all of those things into my parenting, too. Yet, of all those things, the one I perhaps valued most was the time he spent with me engaging mentally and emotionally in the moment. It was the songs we sang, the games we played, the bike rides, the conversations, and the shared music that allowed me to live in the moment and experience life with awe and joy.

Even though I know I will want to copy so much of my dad’s behavior as a parent, there are a few things I must admit I won’t. I felt deep abandonment regarding Bridget. I don’t ever want to do that to a child. And, although Dad presented me with so much factual, logical knowledge and he modeled intellectual curiosity and critical thinking, I think I might have benefited from more actual guidance or mentoring in my decision-making and its consequences, especially when it came to social situations and relationships. For instance, I am grateful Dad ensured I got on the birth control pill and didn’t judge me for my sexual feelings with Ryan. However, there were emotional and relationship ramifications surrounding those events that I didn’t know how to deal with. I don’t actually blame Dad for what he didn’t give me, because I know with all my heart that he would have given me those things if he could.

I’ve learned from my own mistakes, as well. After my experimentation with drugs, I know I’d handle that differently with a child of my own. I’d give them the same information and truth that Dad had given me, but I’d also make compelling cases for learning to tune into all the “natural highs” there are to be had in life and for fiercely protecting our ability to feel high, find meaning, and cope with adversity without drugs.

Another thing I hadn’t known at the time, but am grateful for now, was that my educational psychology degree—especially all I’d learned about child and adolescent development, the educational system, and ways to more effectively parent and teach—inadvertently increased my knowledge about and confidence in being a mother.

So, yes. I felt more at peace with myself and settled than I ever had before. I was definitely emotionally and mentally ready for the challenge. There was one last concern…Did I have enough energy left over after work to give a little baby the amount of attention it deserved? I was stepping into very unfamiliar territory and knew I’d be traveling most of it on my own. I had no reason to expect Chris would be more engaged in this baby than he was me. Was I ready to navigate this on my own with no emotional support from him? I decided I was. In spite of everything, I was bursting with love to give, and couldn’t contain my excitement when I thought of the bond I could experience with a baby.

We were very fortunate. It took two tries, across two months, to get pregnant. For the first time in years, I initiated sex with Chris—on the days I knew I was ovulating. I felt awkward doing so because we’d never really become comfortable with each other in bed. I’d certainly never complained about Chris’ lower-than-average libido. But what that meant was, if he didn’t initiate it, it didn’t happen. There could easily be three-month intervals in between sex for us. I understood the biological necessity of it for men, so I tried to embrace it when Chris did initiate. Sex just wasn’t something I was interested in much anymore. It had been a long time since I was able to achieve much pleasure from it with Chris, I’m assuming because there was no longer a thriving emotional or mental connection between us. Even though he was gentle about it, I always felt uncomfortably cracked open.

Being pregnant around Chris was a bit awkward too. As I grew bigger, I became more self-conscious. He exercised diligently to keep himself in excellent shape. I’d never heard him say anything complimentary about my body, and I’d never caught him looking at it. He wasn’t one to hold hands or give hugs, and I think, over time, a part of me couldn’t help taking Chris’ disinterest in any physical contact with me as a global rejection of me and my body. I wondered if he found me disgusting. I reminded myself to be thankful he was around for more than just my body.

My pregnancy went smoothly right up until my water broke two weeks early at 6 p.m. on a Sunday. I was almost six centimeters dilated by the time I reached the hospital bed. As I waited for an epidural, the pain I felt was horrendous. I kept feeling like I had to pee, but I couldn’t go. The nurse putting in my I.V. missed my vein, and my arm painfully ballooned up. I saw flashes of light and had a gripping fear that I was dying. Chris hovered silently, clearly overwhelmed.

The epidural calmed things down and within an hour, I was pushing. The nurse told Chris to grab my hand. I asked her if she could decrease the amount of the epidural a little because it was making me nauseated. She did just enough that I could feel the baby slowing moving down and out. After four good pushes, baby Jax was born. He had a full head of brown hair and big blue eyes. As I held him, I felt such a swell of so many positive emotions, like love and awe and joy and serenity and anticipation, all mixed together with a fierce protectiveness. Chris asked me if there was anyone we should call, like our parents.

“No, not yet,” I said.

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