In the early spring of 2003, just as my third trimester began, my husband, Ted—a journalist—flew to the Persian Gulf to cover the earliest days of the Iraq War. We were living in China at the time, and the SARS epidemic had begun raging. Doctors were worried about the risk to pregnant women and doubtful about trusting the official reports on the spread of SARS. My doctor in Beijing said he felt sure the government was lying about how fast the illness was spreading, but he could only guess how much was being covered up. That was all Ted and I needed to hear. I flew to Pittsburgh to spend the final months of my pregnancy with my in-laws. We’d planned all along to deliver the baby in the United States, but suddenly I was hurrying there months ahead of schedule.
As the weeks progressed and my Braxton Hicks contractions intensified, it became clear that my first responsibility to my unborn son was to remain as calm and positive and strong as I possibly could.
Ted managed to call on the satellite phone once a day, even if it meant lying down on the rooftop of his Baghdad hotel to avoid gunfire. We stayed connected despite the thousands of miles between us. I watched CNN obsessively, as though keeping tabs on the war would somehow help keep Ted safe. In my first trimester, I’d wondered how I’d manage the job of being someone’s mother. Now at the end of my pregnancy, as the days crawled by, I grew confident in my ability to take care of this little person. There was no time for doubting myself. I had to stay focused on carrying this baby to full term.
I had only seen my son’s grainy image on the ultrasound, but I felt as if I knew him already. Mason and I lay awake together through long nights spent hoping Ted would come home safely, choosing to believe that he would. Mason would roll around in my belly and I would tell him when my fear threatened to get the best of me. I’d promise him I wouldn’t let it bring tears, or contractions. Sometimes, I’d say it out loud.
Early on, Mason helped me learn the most useful skill a mother can have: not to sweat the small stuff. Amid the obvious concerns of whether my husband would make it home to meet his son, and whether my son would make it to thirty-seven weeks, other upsets seemed minor. Like the time my house sitter in Beijing called to say that the children of NBA player Wang Zhizhi, who lived upstairs, had flooded their apartment and, subsequently, mine.
“Don’t worry,” I told my house sitter. “It’s only water.”
There was silence, then:
“The plaster walls are kind of melting,” he said, “and I don’t know what’s gonna happen to your stuff. How come you’re not freaking out? You usually, you know . . . freak out over stuff like that.”
The answer was simple. “Ted is alive, or at least he was an hour ago when he called, and Mason is still in my belly at thirty-five weeks. If both of them are healthy and unharmed, I’m not going to freak out over a flooded apartment.” (I must confess, though, that I asked him to move all my favorite shoes to higher ground; a girl’s gotta draw the line somewhere.)
On June 14, as week thirty-seven began, Ted returned from Baghdad as promised. Six days later, I went into labor.
Labor—I’d been so worried about how I’d handle it. But when we finally found ourselves in the delivery room, I trusted that Mason and I would find our way, just as we had through that last trimester. It was as if the three of us were already a family, pulling together to accomplish something. (Six hours into laboring, I did beg for and get an epidural. I’d had my fill of positive thinking by that point.)
When the nurse put my boy in my arms six hours later, it was more like a reunion than an introduction. We’d been there for each other through three strange, uncertain, and ultimately life-changing months. Suddenly, the days ahead seemed far more manageable.