Maternal Instinct by David Stromberg

From the moment I suspected my ex-boyfriend had left me pregnant I began to fear childbirth. Not for myself — for the baby. How could I allow it to undergo such trauma? From its warm, dark, insulated womb it would have to squeeze through a passage that was obviously too small for its body into this horrible unprotected world with all its bacteria and coldness and blinding light. It would have to go from never breathing to being totally dependent on air. It would have to exist in the raw world without any prior exposure or preparation.

Of course I knew there were ways to minimize the trauma. I could have a caesarian section – I didn’t care about the scar — and it would at least save the baby the pain of squeezing out of the inside world into the outside world. But then the transition would be much more sudden – and the physical pain I managed to save the baby might translate into psychological shock. I started realizing that no matter how the birth happened the baby would be traumatized.

I thought that if I could just carry it in my belly – for a while longer or even forever – I would take the burden on myself. But I knew I couldn’t. The baby would push its way out.

At first I talked to the fetus and tried to convince it not to grow too quickly. I told it that there was no need to rush things — life was not a race. I would carry it as long as it needed me to without ever complaining. I wasn’t in a rush to get pregnant again – I had patience and could wait as long as it needed to meet the baby in person.

I even started fantasizing about all kinds of futuristic procedures that would allow the baby’s brain and personality to grow and develop inside my womb. I imagined a giant machine that I would hook it up to and that would allow it to exist in the world through its mind without having to actually face the rawness of reality. When it was old enough it could make its own decision about whether or not to be born into the world. If it decided against birth and instead wanted to remained the size of a preborn infant I would carry it until the end of my days. I would even arrange for a replacement womb to be built and a transferal when I died that would give the baby all the same nutrients and mediated access to the world it had always enjoyed – and it could continue its peaceful wombly existence.

But when I went to the doctor for a checkup he told me that the fetus was developing at a normal pace. All the tests had come back with stable results and from what he could tell so far I was on track to give birth on time. As soon as I left the doctor’s office — riding on the elevator, walking down the street, taking the bus back home – I spoke to the fetus and told it to slow down. It needed to trust me on this. I was its parent and all I wanted was for it to experience as little pain as possible. If it continued to grow this way I would have no choice but to give birth to it in a matter of months and this would be such a painful and traumatic experience that it would never forgive me all its life.

At home I looked all over the internet for ways to prolong my pregnancy. There was an online forum of men and women who shared my concerns and who’d posted various experimental methods they’d discovered to extend the time it took to come to term. The main thing according to the sites was for the pregnant women to do everything she could to stress herself out. Some women had managed through specific stress-inducing methods to close themselves up in such a way that, ignoring their doctor’s advice to induce pregnancy after the third overdue week, they gave birth as many as four or five weeks late. Some had several births under their belt and posted their personal experiences, comparing regular-term pregnancy to what they called extended-term pregnancy, and how much bigger and healthier their babies came out. The women who’d succeeded doing this expressed how happy and grateful they were for being able to give their infants those few extra weeks in the womb. They were sure their children would appreciate it as they grew up and would thank their mothers for taking on the extra burden.

I decided to follow the suggestions made on the online forums and started stressing myself out — thinking about all the terrible things I’d survived as a child. The emotional abuse that sometimes spilled over into physical beatings, the total disregard for where I was and what I was doing, the deep alienation I faced at school and at home. I reminded myself how later, when it came to going to college and finding work, I’d had no one to count on but myself. I thought of the difficult unpaid internships I had to go through when I was still a college student and the temp work I did in the hopes of getting an entry-level job. It had worked – I was now a full employee with healthcare benefits and a retirement plan — but had it been easy? Absolutely not.

Thinking about these things really did stress me out and at my next checkup the doctor said he saw some worrying signs — it was still too early to tell but a certain result suggested there was a slight genetic complication that also carries a tiny statistical chance of premature birth. He asked whether I was stressed out about the pregnancy and I told him that I was completely fine with everything that was happening. He apologized for prying into my life and said he’d noticed that I came alone to all the checkups. He asked whether I was bringing this child into the world as a single parent. He also asked whether I need some support. And he said he knew a wonderful social worker who he thought could be helpful — if this was something I wanted. I thanked the doctor from the bottom of my heart. I told him that, yes, I was going to be a single parent, but this didn’t worry me in the least bit. I’d been brought up by a single mother and there was nothing wrong with that except a social stigma that prevailed even in our times. He apologized again and said he hadn’t meant to insult me or my mother in any way. He said he was sure that everything would be fine and that for now the results only pointed to statistics and probabilities. He told me to come back in two weeks so that we could follow up those results and see whether we could put any of these hypotheticals to rest. Judging by how well things had gone until now, he said, he was hopeful we’d end up avoiding any real complications.

As soon as I left — again riding on the elevator, walking down the street, taking the bus back home – I spoke to the baby again. You can’t be born early, I told it, that’s not the point. This is no good. This will only increase the trauma. As if normal childbirth isn’t hard enough — now you want to be born prematurely? Don’t you understand how dangerous this is for your mental and physical health? Stop! Stop it now – or else!

When I got home I searched online for a connection between stress and premature birth. I found out that, during pregnancy, stress actually had unpredictable effects that could both shorten and prolong the term. No one had mentioned this on the longer-term pregnancy forums. I thought about posting a comment on one of their sites about my experience – in order to warn potential mothers who considered stress-inducing methods that it could also lead to prematurity — but in the end I decided there was no point in making a fuss. I didn’t have any proof that the two were connected and I also didn’t feel I it was my place to tell these women that their methods might be wrong.

I did some more research online and found a few documented cases in India where women became so in harmony with their pregnancies through yoga that they easily carried their infants into a tenth month. That same day I signed up for a yoga course. I’d always been too embarrassed to go but for my infant’s sake I was ready to give it a try. Three times a week I started twisting and turning my body in every possible way in order to “come into one” with the organic material forming inside my womb. With one pose after another I focused on our growing harmony, which I knew I lacked, and which I really wanted to achieve for the sake of my baby so that it would not have to be born too soon.

At the next checkup,the doctor said he was sorry to have to tell me that the worrying signs had not gone away — that in fact they had increased. He didn’t know how to tell me this other than directly: even if the fetus managed to come to term on time, which he greatly doubted, it would almost surely be born with life-long complications. He assured me that these things happened to the healthiest of women and that it had nothing to do with my own biological or genetic qualities. Sometimes it was stress and other times it was too much physical exertion. Sometimes it was neither — just fate. He apologized several times for having to tell me these things and said that whatever choice I made he’d support me as fully as he could from the medical standpoint.

I left the doctor’s office. I couldn’t think. Outside I wandered through the streets without knowing where I should go. I wanted to say something to the baby – but I was lost for words. It had betrayed me. It had taken all the good things I’d tried to do for it and discarded them with its stubborn nature. Not only did it insist on being born — it wanted to do it early. And to be sick. Everything I’d hoped to give the baby, all the warmth and protection of my womb, it had viciously rejected just to spite me. I realized that this fetus had already developed an ungrateful nature before it had even fully developed–and that in order to get back at me for getting pregnant it was already plotting to burden me with its crippled existence. Instead of appreciating everything I did to prolong its stay in my womb it was in a hurry to make me pay for my crime of trying to bring it into the world.

Well I had news for this baby — it wasn’t my boss. Not yet anyhow. No one would enter my life with the sole purpose of making it hell. Not even the fruit of my own womb. I’d managed to escape my abusive mother. I’d managed to escape the alcoholic boyfriend that had impregnated me. And I would manage to escape the wrath of this good-for-nothing baby.

David Stromberg is a writer and translator. His publications include four collections of single-panel cartoons, the last of which, BADDIES (Melville House), was called “fantastic” by The Los Angeles Times. He is currently editing two collections. He has published translations in The New Yorker, Partial Answers, and Asymptote, and fiction in Ambit, Atticus Review, and KGB LitMag.