I think fresh semen smells like aspirin, which is made from a mold that grows on birch trees, which of course are phallic.
My second pregnancy happened because I thought I was immune to semen. My doctor had told me my chances of conceiving at thirty-nine were slim to none. Within a few weeks of her proclamation, I had missed a period. A few months later, I got married, and a few months after that, the twins were born.
Because my first husband was infertile, my firstborn was conceived using frozen sperm from Donor 1368 at the Roseville, Minnesota sperm bank. I never even saw that sperm, and definitely did not smell it. I had it shipped to my doctor, who expertly thawed and inserted it when tests indicated I was ovulating.
I chose the donor with totally different criteria than I had ever used to choose a partner. In an effort to conceive a child I would understand, a child like myself, I chose a donor with characteristics like mine: extroverted, Northern European background, musical, a good student. It turns out that extroversion is the most heritable characteristic; my son is also definitely musical. He would also tell you that he’s incredibly stubborn, and impulsive, but that unlike both of his biological parents, he finds school to be boring; academic achievement is not a priority for him.
One advantage of using a sperm donor is that you can blame all of the negative traits on the donor, unless, of course, you know that you and/or your genetic family members also possess those traits in spades. I had conveniently forgotten about so many of my male relatives who hated school. So much for my experiment in genetic engineering.
When my oldest son got to be in his teens, I asked an old friend how I could have had a child who didn’t care about school. My friend and I met years ago in college, when we were both writing poetry and taking creative writing classes together; his father was one of my music professors when I was a voice major. I’m not sure if he ever finished college; actually, in many ways, he reminds me of my son. My friend has managed to avoid marriage, children, and other hazards of body fluids. He lives on a houseboat on the Gulf of Mexico and makes his living as a masseuse at a spa.
He snorted. “You? You’re surprised you had an artist for a child?”
My abdomen turns into a bubble filled with salt water. The only way to see inside is with a machine that assaults the bubble with sound waves.
The technician wears a white coat, and green scrub pants. She turns the lights low in the room and tells me to lay back on the table while she rubs a clear gel on my belly.
She uses her magic wand to aim the sound waves into the bubble at every angle. They turn the outline of the fetus white. She looks inside his body, shows me his heart beating, his kidneys, his brain. He buries his head into the placenta as if it were a pillow, as if the sound were unbearable. I want to tear the wand out of the technician’s hand and throw it across the room.
The first time I’m in labor, I ask for the epidural. They make me wait a long time. It’s a back labor, with the baby’s head pressing against my spine. Nurses press hard on my back to try to get the baby to turn over.
At one point, I get angry and say, “Can’t you push any harder?”
I look in a mirror across the room and see the nurse’s knee in my back. That’s when they finally say okay to the epidural.
The second time I’m pregnant, it’s with twins.
When I arrive at the hospital, the nurses whisper, “You are so lucky! You got the best anesthesiologist.”
He injects something into my spine. He gives me oxygen before each push. Even though I am forced to have these babies while on an operating table, prepped for a possible emergency C-section, I can say that I’ve had worse cramps during my periods than the labor pains I had with my twins.
I have been in hard labor for eighteen hours. The baby is turned over backwards, his skull scraping along my spine. The epidural wore off hours ago and they can’t give me another one.
A male doctor walks in with an entourage of medical students. I lie there, totally exposed, trying to push.
He yells at me. “If you wanted to have this baby, you would have had it hours ago. You aren’t even trying.”
I sit up, try to stand up, but am stopped by the nurse.
“You motherfucking asshole!” I yell. “Who do you think you are? Do you think you’re talking to some dumb woman who is going to take that kind of shit from you? Since when does any man get to tell a woman how to have a baby? Get your fucking students out of this room and send in a female doctor. No man is going to deliver this baby!”
His face blanches and he shoos out the students. A few minutes later, a female intern arrives and delivers the baby, a boy. He arrives like Superman, his fist raised, cord wrapped around his shoulders.
After my first son is born, when I see all the blood on the bed, I am amazed. I ask the nurse on duty if it’s more blood than usual, and she says I’ll be fine.
I lost so much blood I should have had a transfusion. A different nurse tells me this one day after I’ve given birth, when I find it hard to stand long enough to shower. I wonder if the male doctor had withheld the blood transfusion, if I had made him angry.
I tell them I feel too weak to go home. They send me home anyway.
When I get home, I am still bleeding heavily. The toilet gets clogged because I use too much toilet paper. My husband gets angry. He takes the toilet plunger and beats a hole into the bathroom wall.
This day, one day post-partum, as he rages in the bathroom, despite my head swimming from blood loss, I decide that if he ever lays a hand on me or the baby, I will kill him. Luckily, he soon has an affair and divorces me, so that proves to be unnecessary.
Two months after he leaves me, I go to a therapist. I tell him I think I’m going crazy. He asks why I think so.
“Because I’m just so happy my husband left me,” I say. “It seems crazy.”
He laughs and laughs. “Go with it,” he says. “I wish more people came to see me when they were too happy.”
My breasts fill and fill. The milk won’t stop. I pump the extra and fill up the freezer. I pump it and throw it down the sink. The baby is fat and happy.
When I have my twins five years later, there isn’t enough milk for two. One baby can’t latch on to the breast. I’m either pumping for one or nursing the other. I’m not sleeping. My mother comes to visit.
“I fed you formula and you turned out just fine,” she says. “You’re forty years old and this breastfeeding nonsense is going to kill you.” She kind of laughs at the end of that, but I don’t think she’s really kidding.
She buys me a warehouse club membership so I can get a better deal on formula. I get good at mixing powder and water into small bottles. I start sleeping more. I admit she was right.
How many times have all of my kids had pink eye? Is this a rhetorical question?
One of my twins has an inordinate amount of ear wax. His ears must be cleaned once a day. I often forget and he has brown gunk around his ear canals. I feel like a bad mother.
Endolymph and perilymph
By the time he is three years old, my oldest has sensory problems. His vestibular system isn’t working—the fluid in his ears is not balanced. He cannot get dizzy, no matter how many times he spins and spins. He goes to therapy, where they spin him around and around. I wonder if they are trying to spin the fluids into the right places, as if he is in some kind of centrifuge. Eventually, the problem resolves itself.
Some people say that breastfeeding mothers don’t find their own baby’s poop to be disgusting. That’s total baloney as far as I’m concerned. It was very disgusting, but after you deal with something six to eight times a day for months on end, you just get used to it. I grew up on a farm, and the pig lot was not that far from the house. I didn’t like the smell of manure, but I did get used to it.
As a baby shower present for the twins, my new husband and I received a Radio Flyer wagon stacked almost to the ceiling with boxes of diapers. The diapers lasted about a month. We broke at least one diaper genie, which by the time it was retired, had absorbed the smell of shit into the plastic. Never buy a used diaper genie.
When I was pregnant, I had to be eating constantly, or I got sick to my stomach. I gained forty pounds with my first pregnancy (one baby), and I gained eighty pounds with my second pregnancy (twins). I never had morning sickness, but I had to sleep on my right side to avoid reflux.
When they are three years old, twins both have tonsils so large that they require surgery. One has snored for more than a year. When he comes home after the tonsillectomy, I cannot sleep. I’m constantly getting up to check to make sure he is breathing. I can’t hear him snoring, so I think he is dead. I know it is not logical. I stand in the doorway to their room, listening to him breathe.
How many times have I wiped mucus off a kid’s face? How many times have I forced one of my sons to blow his nose? How many times has a kid sneezed in my face? After a while, it just doesn’t matter. I try to think of it as a way to challenge and strengthen my own immune system.
I tell myself, “If you have kids late in life, maybe you’ll be healthier when you’re old.”
I try to look on the bright side.
Sebum (skin oil)
For the first year after the twins are born, the skin on my hands cracks and bleeds. I change at least sixteen diapers a day and wash my hands after each one. I try hand sanitizer, but that makes it worse. Finally, I buy neoprene gloves and keep them by the changing table. My hands look eighty years old until the twins start potty training.
When people say, “there’s a bun in the oven,” I think of how hot and sweaty I was when I was pregnant, how my whole body felt like an energy generator, like I actually was cooking something in that big bubble.
When I was pregnant, I peed at least once an hour. I got up to pee in the middle of the night, four days overdue, and I couldn’t stop peeing. I sat and sat on the toilet, peeing and crying, thinking I had finally gotten so huge that I was entirely incontinent. I had no idea how I would even get off the toilet again. Then I realized it wasn’t pee. My water had broken. Amniotic fluid looks like pee, but does not smell like pee.
My first kid wasn’t a puker. In fact, the first time he threw up, other than the usual baby milk spit-up, was when he was four or five years old. I will never forget the look of astonishment on his face, like “that can even HAPPEN?” I relate to that, as I have not actually thrown up for more than thirty years. The twins, on the other hand, were more like normal, average people. In other words, they puked, but since I hadn’t had kids that puked, I wasn’t ready for it.
We lived in a house that had one previous owner, Harry, who had built the house and died in the house. My oldest son, who was four years old, claimed to be visited by Harry in his room at night, but found him to be benevolent. Though I’m not a big believer in ghosts, I talked my son through it, and told him if he ever felt scared to come to my room.
The twins were infants at the time, and I rarely got more than four hours of sleep at a stretch. I was in a dead sleep when I woke up with a start to hear someone calling my name.
I poked my husband, who seemed to be asleep. “Did you call me?” I asked.
“No, I’m sleeping,” he mumbled, turning over.
I got up and looked out into the hallway, thinking my older son was calling me. I checked and found him fast asleep. Confused, I went back to bed and dozed off again.
Someone was pinching my right thigh, next to the knee, and saying my name again; I woke up with a start and looked over at my husband on my left. There was no way he could have reached over and gotten back into the position he was in at the other edge of the bed so quickly. I got up and looked into the hallway. I heard a noise from the twins’ room. One of them was on his back in his crib, vomiting and choking. I turned him on his side, cleaned him up, and sat with him the rest of the night.
“Thanks, Harry,” I whispered as I rocked the baby to sleep in the rocking chair.
I cried when the ultrasound for my first pregnancy showed me the first glimpse of my son, and cried again when they told me about a smear that showed where the other baby had been. I cried when my first son was circumcised. I cried when he broke out in hives for no reason. I cried when he needed a nebulizer to breathe. I cried when I counted how many breaths he took per minute, trying to decide whether or not to take him into the hospital. I cried when he almost died from anaphylactic shock. I cried when he was diagnosed with sensory integration disorder and ADHD. I cried when no classes or therapists or schools seemed to be willing or able to help him. I cried every night after the kindergarten teacher called and complained about what he done that day. I cried when I found out I was pregnant again and my boyfriend smiled and asked me to marry him. I cried when we saw two babies on the ultrasound. I cried when I realized how many diapers I was going to be changing. I cried when a U-Haul truck t-boned my minivan and only a few inches saved my son, me, and my unborn twins. I cried when I did the physical therapy to fix my neck and back. I cried because I didn’t want to take the pain meds while I was pregnant. I cried when they were born early and one of them stopped breathing. I cried when he started breathing again. I cried when he stopped breathing and I had to revive him myself. I cried when, on the same day, my older son was hospitalized for the flu and one of the twins was hospitalized for seizures. I cried when one of the twins was diagnosed with autism. I cried when he spoke, walked, argued, looked me in the eye, and did everything else his twin was doing. I cried when my neuro-typical twin patiently helped his brother navigate the world. I cried when their father was diagnosed with three medical conditions in one year. I cried when their father stopped talking to me. I cried when he decided he couldn’t be married anymore. I cried when their father put them first and made a divorce seem almost easy. I cried when I realized we were still friends and good co-parents. I cried when my teenager fell into a depression and substance use. I cried when he almost failed out of school. I cried when I took him to residential behavioral treatment. I cried when he came home and started smiling again. I cried when all of the boys and I settled back into life as a family.
Rumpus original art by Lauren Kaelin.