A Tale of Two Mommies (Or Who Wore the Maternity Pants?)

When two women decide to have children, they draw straws to decide who conceives and gives birth. Or they try to guess a number between one and 100 that an objective party has silently chosen in their own mind. Or the woman who really wants to carry the baby volunteers to undergo the ten-month physical feat of endurance and strength. Or they take turns, a Hers & Hers-style pregnancy with each getting to experience the successive focus of pregnancy and motherhood.

I wouldn’t know. None of those ways describe how my wife and I decided who would bear the children and usher them, bloody and screaming into the world. It was a forgone conclusion that I would, because my wife was unable to conceive. It made even more sense for me to take the pregnancies since she had the steady, successful career. She had more education, more professional experience, and a knack for taking risks that paid out tenfold. Logically, financially, practically — it just made sense for me to shoulder the pregnancies and the requisite recovery times.

I quit my part-time job in a library and prepared. I made myself as healthy as I could for pregnancy while my wife made sure we had savings and health insurance. She went with me to the track where I ran early in the morning during the first and second trimester. She made late-night runs for the salsa I loved, she cooked me the eggs I craved daily, she happily ate the spaghetti and spinach that had become my favorite dinner. She came with me to all the appointments with the obstetrician, watched the ultrasounds in wonder, and shared the sonograms with her family and friends. When my lower back pain escalated during the final trimester, setting off sciatica, she found a prenatal massage therapist and made appointments for me. She subscribed to a “This Week in Pregnancy” calendar that let her know what size our little bean had grown to.

I enjoyed that first pregnancy. The physically strenuous nature of it, the research I could do that contributed to a healthier pregnancy, the attention I got for being the mother-to-be. Putting so much time and energy into keeping me and the baby healthy was very much an athletic pursuit for me. A scientific experiment to grow the healthiest baby I could, while being the healthiest mom on the planet. Competitive? No, why do you ask?

Throughout the months, I realized that my wife’s anticipation was different from my own. She was connecting to the pregnancy in unique ways. She stayed present, interested in the baby and the way the baby would fit into our lives. But she was more focused on when the baby would get here and became a third member of the family, instead of being my ride-along. That part — the post-labor part — felt hazy to me, distant, outside of my control. It wasn’t until the third trimester that it became clear: she felt left out of the pregnancy, and she was looking forward to being more involved as a mom.

She would have loved to carry our child. Would have met the body changes with joy. That she was physically barred from being pregnant did not make the situation easier. She hid it well. But now I understood why she looked forward to the birth with such clear-eyed intensity. I remained very much stuck in the theory of what mothering a newborn would be, preferring to leave childrearing in the theoretical realm. Instead, I focused on excelling at trimesters, prenatal exercise, and knowing all I could about going into labor.

As the oldest of nine children, my wife grew up tending and caring for her younger siblings. She knew the reality of having newborns and toddlers around. The mess, the odd sleeping hours, the constant needs of tiny humans. My youngest sister was born when I was five years old, and I had no recent experience in caring for babies and children. In fact, I frequently told interested parties that I didn’t like children very much, had not planned to have any before I met my wife. But I hastened to reassure them that I would definitely adore my own children. Of course I would. Right?

Once labor was done, baby boy swaddled, his eyes glistening and goopy from the medicine they smeared on his eyelids, I held him, happy to have the ordeal of birth over. I had survived the thing I feared, the test of physical strength that I had prepared for. Somehow, I hadn’t prepared for the exact moment I became the mother of a living child. I felt wrung out, stung by the episiotomy, swollen from IV fluids, tender all over, still unable to move from the dregs of the anesthetic in my spine. And now they handed me a living being that, horrifically, required everything.

I expected to feel the in-love, bonded-for-life feeling that other mothers had talked about. But all I felt was a terrible sensation of being off-kilter and the expectation to perform. My wife held our baby, and she had the lit-up face that I had expected to feel on myself. She held our baby boy and everything in her, the aura of her, bloomed. I struggled to rise to the occasion. She could not stop smiling, whispering, talking to him. When I held him, I didn’t know what to say. I had so much to learn, and I felt behind on day one.

In the coming days and weeks, my experience of motherhood was marked by struggle: struggle to learn to breastfeed, struggle to make enough milk, struggle to sleep, struggle to calm my anxiety, struggle to stop crying. I became mired in deep postpartum depression while trying to hide that I didn’t feel the way I was “supposed” to feel. Meanwhile, my wife sensed that I was overwhelmed and she carried the baby everywhere. If she was home, she was holding the baby.

She bought a sling and carried the tiny boy next to her body as she cleaned the house, cooked food, or did laundry. She sang, talked, and napped holding our child. She fed him supplemental bottles of formula when my milk supply refused to grow. She carried and held him now with all the devotion and love that I had imagined feeling in utero but now seemed distant, on the other side of thick glass. I knew how to use my physical strength and endurance to be successful; I had no idea how to be emotional and vulnerable, and motherhood required that of me.

I had been a super-star at pregnancy. So why was motherhood difficult? I couldn’t adjust to the deep sense of failure I felt at being a mother who could not hold her newborn without wanting to die. How could I be the one who carried and grew that child for all those months and not be up to the task of actually being a full-time mother? I hadn’t expected my wife to be the naturally maternal one, though I was deeply grateful.

The reason I hadn’t expected it is because, at the time, my wife had not yet come out as transgender.

We were a lesbian couple masquerading as a heterosexual couple when our children were conceived, carried, and born. Years later when the evidence of something being different for my wife and for us began mounting, when it had to be spoken out loud or break us all, I remembered the birth of our first child. I remembered all the times I had said with wonder and a little envy that she was more maternal than I was. We each nurtured our children in ways that the other one couldn’t, but our mothering came out in stunningly different but no less feminine ways.

Our children are beginning to be teenagers now. I’ve been asked many times over the last few years: “Who’s the mother?” I like to answer, “We both are.” If they press on, “Oh yeah, of course! But which of you carried them?” I know they mean which one of our genes did the kids get, who is the biological parent. I used to explain. I used to say, “We both are because my wife is trans so we have the phenomenal good fortune to have children that look like both of us.”
I’ve learned to be less forthcoming now, to let the mystery remain.

When someone says, “Which of you carried the babies?” My answer is, “We took turns carrying them.” see entire issue

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