By Susan Rebecca White
(not pictured above)
Back when I was still shell-shocked from having separated from my husband of nearly seven years, when we still had a massive amount of financial untangling to do before we could truly own our own lives, when I was still kept awake at night by waves of panic about not having enough money to support myself, a friend told me, rather matter-of-factly, that I had a pile of shit in front of me that I had to eat. Not only that, but all I could use to do so was a tiny spoon. The good news, she said, was that one day I would reach the end of the pile, and then much lovelier things would be placed before me.
Her prediction turned out to be correct. I met Sam just as my divorce finalized. I like to say that he was my prize at the end of all of that shit, like the toy buried at the bottom of a box of Cracker Jacks—except of course, that’s not fair to the Cracker Jacks or to Sam.
When Sam and I first started dating, I was subletting a small carriage house in my native Atlanta. The carriage house was built in the 1920s, had hardwood floors and French doors, and the walls were painted a cheerful yellow. Sam lived about a mile away, and since we both worked from home, sometimes I would fix pimento cheese sandwiches and invite him over for lunch. He would bring sweet tea. After we ate, we would take a walk around the neighborhood before we both returned to the more practical details of our day. One sunny spring afternoon, after our walk, Sam and I tumbled into bed—work be damned.
We were thirty-six and forty-one years old, and we were in bed together on a Wednesday afternoon, sunlight streaming through the blinds and making stripes on the quilt. It was hard not to feel as if we were getting away with something. This was not what most of my friends—in the middle of marriages, careers, and parenthood—were doing. Yet Sam and I were not cheating on anyone, were not making up excuses to our bosses, were not neglecting our children. Both divorced without kids—his divorce more graceful than mine—we had each eaten our fair share of shit to get to where we were, in the giddy stages of early love. It was heaven.
After dating for nearly a year, Sam and I took a trip to Panama, snorkeled over undulating jellyfish, kayaked in the middle of the blue, blue ocean, gripped each other’s hand as our cab driver weaved recklessly in and out of Panama City traffic. Back in Atlanta we celebrated our one-year anniversary by having spaetzle at the same Alsatian restaurant where we had our first date, and it was there that Sam proposed.
By the time we married in a tiny ceremony in our home with a homemade cake and a bouquet picked from my friend’s garden, I was thirty-seven, Sam forty-two, and we wanted to have a child. Given our ages and our level of commitment to each other, it was tempting to start trying on our honeymoon, but I had a novel coming out the next month, and a tour to go on, and I didn’t want to be distracted by the “am I/ am I not” game one inevitably plays while trying to conceive. And so Sam and I waited until my book tour was over in July. At the end of that same month, seven days before my period was due, I took a pregnancy test and was rewarded with a faint blue plus sign.
I felt incredulous that this—pregnancy—was happening to me. I had always felt on the outside of things, a consummate observer. For a long time, this was my preferred mode of being—it gave me an illusion of control that I desperately needed. Agonizing over choices was infinitely preferable to actually making them. Which is why I spent much of my first marriage trying to figure out whether or not to have a child. It was far easier to wrestle with that question than to face the truth of my situation: that I was in a marriage that no amount of therapy would fix, and that I had willingly put myself into this untenable position in order to avoid fully committing to life, with all of its vulnerabilities and uncertainties.
I am now nearly nine months pregnant, my belly big and tight, my energy low, my body taking on a life of its own, and subsequently doing all sorts of embarrassing things. When I sneeze, I pee! When I walk ten feet, I get winded! If I don’t eat a bowl of prunes every morning, I’m constipated! Despite the all too earthy side effects, I love being pregnant, love that I get to experience the bizarre and amazing process of reproduction. I love feeling our son roll and kick inside me. The sheer physicality of the late stages of pregnancy makes what began as something abstract (revealed only by mild nausea and a plus sign on a pee stick) into something much more real. And the realness of the pregnancy has brought me closer to the astounding prospect that we will soon have an infant to care for. That once I deliver the baby he will be in our charge, and I will somehow learn to breastfeed, and get by on little sleep, and grow more patient as small tasks become mighty endeavors. Soon there will be a human manifestation of our love—living, crying, and pooping among us—and we will love him in a way we have never loved before and will consequently be more vulnerable than ever.
Still, I am not yet a mother. I am intellectually aware that a mighty and miraculous wrecking ball is about to smash up the life we know, but I do not understand this on an emotional level. How could I before our son arrives? And so I find myself suspended between the life I knew and the life I am entering, much as I was when I boarded the airplane that took me away from my first husband and our home together and into a future yet known.
This means I am acutely aware of what I am losing: right now Sam and I are still a two-person unit with a host of inside jokes and allusions. We are newlyweds and we are playful. Hopefully we will remain playful as parents, but there is a weight that will come with our new responsibility that we cannot ignore. Post-baby, we probably won’t spend many Sunday afternoons playing Ping-Pong at the local sandwich place. Most likely I won’t cook as elaborately as I do now. Cheese soufflé will no longer be on the rotating menu, nor will I make homemade soda syrups and granola bars. We will have to watch ourselves and not act horribly toward one another when sleep-deprived and overwhelmed with the stresses of new parenthood. Chances are, we will not always succeed at doing so, and our own warts and shortcomings will be more fully revealed.
We are trading one reality for a more intense, harder one—one that for us will be richer, and deeper as well—and we are both ready and excited for the change. And yet the other day, I found myself weeping over what we are losing, our sweet courtship of pimento cheese sandwiches and afternoons in bed. I found this unsettling: it felt like my old, non-committal self coming back into play, the woman terrified of getting herself into something she couldn’t get out of. My tears also felt disloyal toward my unborn son, whom I already love with a startling ferocity. But then I tried to be gentle with myself, the way a mother might be, to allow myself to be sad about the ending of this time when we know each other only as a couple, this time of burgeoning love among people who are not new to life, who weathered some hard things before meeting (and who will surely continue to weather hard things as life goes on). I imagine that twenty years from now, I will think of our early, heady days as a couple with sweet nostalgia. And probably also with a touch of condescension, as in: We thought we were close back then, but look at what we’ve been through now, look at how the roots of our lives have entwined.
It seems that in life there is no gain that comes without loss. Surely one day I will think back on our son’s infanthood with nostalgia, as well as his days as a young child, a boy, and then a young man. To live fully is to commit to things we are terrified to lose, all while knowing loss will come. It occurs to me that life is a series of deaths we must endure, and even somehow embrace, in order to let new life in. Maybe the same is true of our corporeal death, when our bodies will grow cold and lifeless. Maybe instead of fearing that day, I will try to take comfort in the model life has presented so far: New life sprouts in the spaces made by the losses we learn to endure.
SUSAN REBECCA WHITE is the author of three novels: A Place at the Table, A Soft Place to Land, and Bound South. A Place at the Table was recently released in paperback. It is a Target “club pick” and a finalist for the Townsend Prize, Georgia’s oldest literary award. White has also published several essays in places such as Salon, Tin House, The Huffington Post and The Bitter Southerner. She lives in Atlanta with her husband Sam Reid and their (very) soon-to-be-born son.