I was not prepared when my first son decided it was time to be born. On the brink of my ninth month of pregnancy, the only baby shopping my husband and I had completed was the purchase of a cradle from a used furniture shop. The cradle sat in the bedroom of our small rented house, a novelty. “How cute!” it said. “You’re going to have a baby!” I’d never been a big shopper and money was tight. I’m also a long-time believer in that old adage, “Why do today what you can put off until tomorrow?” For heaven’s sake, I had another whole month before that baby was going to show up.
Except that I didn’t. It was a Friday afternoon—the holiest time of the week for a middle school teacher like me—and I was headed out of my portable classroom, bag of to-be-graded papers over my shoulder, to celebrate. This particular Friday was an even greater celebration than usual. My friend and co-worker, Christy, was hosting a baby shower in my honor at her place after work. With my watermelon belly and my swollen ankles, I climbed into my car and headed out of the parking lot.
I’d been teaching in El Paso only a year and a half, after a stint at a private prep school in Mexico and far from my home in the Midwest. I was grateful to Christy, another transplant to the desert, for hosting the shower. I felt really clueless about the whole process, had never even stepped foot into a Babies R’ Us. My husband and I had chosen not to find out the sex of our baby, as I like surprises, and life doesn’t have many surprises bigger than this one. I think that was part of the reason that I hadn’t felt inclined to shop for baby clothes. I was waiting to find out who I was shopping for. I had also declined to register for my shower, asking instead for gender-neutral items, whatever people thought I needed, because I sure as heck didn’t know.
There might have been some hesitation on my part not to jinx anything, as well. I had no reason to be worried, having been blessed with easy conception and a routine pregnancy. Maybe it was fear inspired by What to Expect When You’re Expecting or the childhood development class that I had taken at UTEP early in my pregnancy that had detailed so many ways that things could go wrong during those vital weeks and months in utero. Maybe it was the feeling of being so far away from home or a general belief that it was better not to count my chicken before it had hatched, so to speak.
At any rate, here I was on my way to my baby shower, and not a moment too soon, as I would soon learn. As was my custom on Friday afternoons, my first stop out of the parking lot was the ATM at the nearby Wells Fargo bank. There are extensive lists of restricted activities for pregnant women. I’ve never seen “using an ATM” on one of those lists. Yet, when I twisted my body to retrieve my cash, I swear I felt a small pop. Not thinking much of it, I continued my drive across the city to Christy’s apartment. Slowly, I began to feel a warm, wet sensation spread over my lower half. Like I had peed my pants. But I hadn’t.
“What the heck is going on?” I had spent hours worrying about going into labor and getting stuck on the international bridge between my home on the Mexican side of the border in Cuidád Juarez and my hospital on the American side in El Paso. My current scenario was not one that I had envisioned. “Did my water just break? I think my water just broke.” At least it wasn’t in the classroom in front of all my students. “Do I stop the car? And then what?” I kept driving.
When I got to Christy’s place, I parked the car and heaved myself out. The upholstery in the driver’s seat was wet, wet, wet. My leggings, too.
I burst into the apartment and shared my news. Neither Christy nor any of the guests who had arrived at that point had given birth before. We were all freaking out. Christy found me a towel and a big pair of gray sweatpants, so I could go into the bathroom, clean up, and change clothes. Much to my relief, by the time I came out, my aunt had arrived. Finally, a real adult!
This was seventeen years ago, before everyone had cell phones, so we had to prioritize. We decided to call my OB/GYN first, so we knew what the plan was going to be before we called my husband, who was at work in Juarez. I loved Dr. Lacy. She was warm, funny, and a mom.
When I briefed her on the situation, she first assessed my medical condition. “Are you having contractions?” No. “Any bleeding?” No. “Are you feeling fine otherwise?” Yes.
Then came the important question. “Have you opened your presents yet?” No.
That’s when Dr. Lacy gave me the best advice of the day.
She told me to stay.
“Open your presents.” She said that I could come to the hospital when I was done. I couldn’t eat cake or any of the other delicious food spread out on Christy’s kitchen table. But I could take the time to sit in that circle of women. Women who—with the exception of my aunt—hadn’t known me all that long. Women who, despite that fact, had arrived bearing gender-neutral onesies and sleepers, blankets, bibs, burp rags and teethers. Women who had wrapped their gifts in tissue paper and bows with love for me and for my baby.
Women who helped to usher me from the before to the after of motherhood.
Jennifer Hernandez lives in the Minneapolis area where she teaches middle school ESL, wrangles three sons and writes for her sanity. Her work has appeared recently in Mothers Always Write, Silver Birch Press, Gingerbread House and The Good Mother Project. She has performed her poetry at a non-profit garage, a bike shop filled with taxidermy and in the kitchen for her children, who are probably her toughest audience.
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