Normal couples rent the Empathy Belly so that the man can understand what the woman is going through when she's pregnant.
But I'm not pregnant. We don't have kids. We're not even trying. Patrick is wearing this 40-pound taupe vest full of water and steel balls to see what it would be like if he did it.
If he had my baby.
so. how to begin.
let's just start with the basics. will you have my baby?
We were instant messaging. It was the least confrontational way I could think of to interview him for this story—and he couldn't accuse me of getting his quotes wrong. I was on the deck in our backyard and he was upstairs in the office, an office that could easily be transformed into a baby's room, which sometimes feels painfully obvious. Three years ago, we bought our first house. Like the one we have now, it had three bedrooms.
"You'll be pregnant before long," said the woman who sold it to us. She and her husband had three children there. "There's just something about the house."
I was pregnant a year later. We looked at the urine stick together. "How do you feel?" I asked him.
"Horrified," he said.
I was not horrified, partly because my best friend, Linda, was pregnant, too. I felt weird, but safe, and understood.
Four weeks later, Patrick's father was dead, and four days after that, so was our baby. I call it a baby because it had a heartbeat, a slow one. I do know it's supposed to be called a fetus.
i guess before i can answer, i have to know precisely what that means. what's involved.
I met Patrick in the fall of 1995. By spring, we lived together. We were 20 years old and in college. My degrees are in English, but that entire year, I studied theory. Queer theory, feminist theory, critical theory. In one class, called Bodyworks, about cyborgs and organ transplants and plastic surgery and gender reassignment, my professor, Timothy Lenoir, mentioned that somebody in England was offering a million dollars to the first man who volunteered to get pregnant. "You'd be perfect," I told Patrick. He didn't disagree. We were outspoken feminists.
We spent the next decade following my career around the country. Patrick is patient, self-possessed, and much more nurturing than I am. A family story: When he was 3 years old, he and his mother were sitting and playing on the floor when she got a migraine. She explained to him that she had to lie down and close her eyes. He sat there, silently, for a half hour. He was three.
Sure, Patrick would be a great father, I've always thought. But he'd be an even better mother. Meanwhile, I am career-driven, impatient, and overbooked. I would work. He would stay home at least part-time. He would be the 51-percent parent, the one on speed dial for the doctor and the school, the one who passes along the German language he grew up speaking, the one who knows about science, seafaring knots, button sewing, making a sauce from roux, and inventing ways to build handmade gifts like wooden kaleidoscopes and coat racks (these are real specialties of his).
For his part, Patrick didn't want a child. He didn't not want one, either, although he not-wanted one a hair more than he wanted one. I was the deciding vote. I thought pregnancy would be, you know, exciting, an adventure. I even said those words. And it was, for four weeks. Exciting and freakish, wrapped in cultish significance the way weddings are, part marketing and peer pressure, part romantic fantasy, and part personal experience.
Not that I know personally what weddings are like: Patrick and I aren't married. One night after work in 1999, I stopped at the grocery store, bought white calla lilies and some Guinness, and went home and knocked on the apartment door. When Patrick opened up, I asked him if he would spend the rest of his life with me. He said yes, of course, as if my question were immaterial, and then he ushered me inside to talk about what the hell I was actually asking.
Why had I asked? Because I didn't need someone else to do the asking. And yet we didn't want to get married: too expensive, too religious, too much fighting with family, too traditional. And in Texas, where we were living, and where George W. Bush was governor, our gay friends were suffering enough without being invited to take part in rituals that banned them.
Still, for all my cranky transgressiveness, I also wanted what my straight friends were getting: public acknowledgment of the relationship. We exchanged rings over a drink on the couch, held a small party that doubled as our farewell to Texas, then sent out printed announcements of our commitment. Mostly this confused people, but we were satisfied.
When it came to pregnancy, we wanted to do it our way, too. That turns out to be more difficult.
I took the miscarriage hard (as several people "kind" enough to suggest I get over it made me keenly aware). The truth was, I hadn't remotely adjusted to a person living inside me—that heartbeat: I could see it in passing cars, hear it in slow songs—when the doctor quietly told me that person had died. She turned off the ultrasound machine and wheeled it out of the room, leaving me and Patrick alone. I cried going into surgery, and I was crying when I woke up. The nurse whispered that that's common.
For weeks my mind raced. What had I been doing at the time of death? What was wrong with me? Why had I wanted to do this, anyway? I had entered into pregnancy lightly, I realized. How could I not have seen that there was no light way out of it, baby or not?
Less than three months later, Linda's son, Phoenix Lind Anderson, my godson, was born.
At first, I couldn't be around him, which was awful. Then I didn't want to be away from him. He was so happy, I almost took it personally. He coaxed me out of mourning.
Eight months after the miscarriage, we were ready to try again. My desire to have Patrick's child remained uncomplicated. Then, on July 7, 2005, I got two calls from Swedish Hospital instructing me to come immediately. When I got there, I took Phoenix and held him. He was 7 months old. He'd just died, suddenly, of bacterial meningitis.
it's basically an ectopic pregnancy. these can be carried out safely in women, although it's rare. we'd do in vitro fertilization with my egg and your sperm. the fetus would be injected above your intestine into your abdominal cavity. it would hook up to your circulation system by attaching to an organ. (they just need a line, they do most of the rest, and you'd take female hormones, too.) it's like a cross between IVF and the preparation for a sex change.
naturally, it's reversible.
then, you'd deliver by c-section. the delivery wouldn't be dangerous for the baby but could be for you, because the placenta would be attached to your organs instead of to the inside of a uterus. but even that could be solved, since it's possible you could have a uterus transplanted to contain the fetus.
Between the miscarriage and the day that Phoenix died, I often returned to my old line that I'd rather Patrick be pregnant than me. The times I said it, I really meant it, despite the way everyone else laughed it off. I have never wanted my body to become public property. Strangers touch pregnant women and talk to them as though they know them, smugly relating either how the woman's life is about to end or how it's about to begin. Ambivalence and apprehension about the pregnancy, let alone about the arrival of a baby, is discouraged.
Meanwhile, the years that people spend starting families and deciding whether to start them are particularly alienating. Women not in similar situations find it hard to relate. Couples disagree on what to do and why. I find that most people decide to have babies for reasons that mystify even them, and that usually it's one member of the couple who is sure and the other who's brought along. I know a woman whose boyfriend is positive he wants a baby and has convinced her to try. At a party with our group of friends, three of whom have had babies in the last year, I asked her what was motivating her besides her boyfriend. She spoke quietly: "I guess I don't want to be left out. Plus, I don't really know what else I'll do with the rest of my life." Now that's honesty.
When Phoenix died, I didn't think about pregnancy anymore. The whole question just disappeared. Other things were more pressing. My relationships. My job. A new house, not far from Phoenix's grave at Lake View Cemetery (where the office says that Phoenix's grave has the second-most visitors after Bruce Lee's).
And finally, lately, my old fantasy: getting Patrick pregnant.
On January 15, 2007, I read an Associated Press report announcing that uterine transplants were getting close to possible. Two New York doctors were screening potential recipients.
The first uterine transplant was in 2000, in Saudi Arabia. (Doctors had first tested the operation on 16 baboons and two goats.) A fetus made it 99 days in there before the transplant failed. The woman reported abdominal pain and doctors discovered the blood vessels to the uterus had become blocked, killing everything, and the fetus and uterus were quickly removed. The transplant recipient was 26 years old; she'd had a hysterectomy at 20 after a C-section that resulted in hemorrhaging.
In addition to losing their uteruses through such things as operations gone wrong and cancer treatments, some women are born without uteruses. In Saudi Arabia, there's an added advantage to uterine transplantation: Surrogacy is forbidden. ("The Islamic religious position on uterine transplantation was clarified in March 1990, before initiation of this project," according to the case report in the International Journal of Gynecology and Obstetrics.)
In April, the journal Expert Opinion on Biological Therapy ran the article "Uterus Transplantation: Where Do We Stand Today and Where Should We Go?" The last five years have seen a flurry of interest in uterine transplantation, which is complicated because of the tiny blood vessels involved, but far less serious than other organ transplantations because it's temporary, the report says. At this rate, we'll see experiments in rodents, sheep, and maybe a primate species "within the next couple of years," and after that, "the scientific base might be solid enough to support well-founded human uterus transplantations."
That's a little more conservative than the New York doctors taking names, but not much: It's coming. Solving "absolute uterus factor infertility" is "one of the last frontiers to conquer in the pursuit to find treatments for all types of infertility."
And if there's one thing all men share, it's absolute uterus factor infertility.
Glenn McGee considered getting pregnant when he was a wunderkind bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Bioethics. It was 1999, and revered British scientist/IVF-pioneer Lord Robert Winston had just announced in London's Sunday Times that "male pregnancy would certainly be possible," a concept he outlined in his book The IVF Revolution.
Another British fertility expert, Dr. Simon Fishel, put it bluntly: "There is no reason why a man could not carry a child. The placenta provides the necessary hormonal conditions, so it doesn't have to be inside a woman."
"Having reviewed all the science, what we know is this," says McGee, now director of the Alden March Bioethics Institute in Albany, New York. We talked a couple of weeks ago on the phone. "These little creatures are very much self-determining, much more than we knew even 10 years ago. So could they be born? Yeah, probably."
How would a man get the hormones he needs?
"The embryo sends signals that change the hormone levels in the body; males are capable of producing almost enough of the required hormones necessary to carry a baby on their own. If they didn't, they'd take some pills—so not an issue."
Would taking the baby out cause hemorrhaging?
"In the time since this issue was hypothesized in the '70s and '80s, based on research in the '50s, lots of things have changed. One is there've been many, many, many, many more successful births in women where the baby was in the gut—upwards of 200 recorded in the medical literature. That means that for a man, it's the same sort of thing."
The science isn't the problem.
"I would have been first in line, I really would have," McGee tells me. "I actually thought it would be kind of cool to be pregnant—I was jealous, in a way."
But there was no line to join, no physician offering to inject a baby into a man's belly. ("I'm not sure where I got that from," said Timothy Lenoir, my professor from the Bodyworks class all those years ago, about the million-dollar reward. Internet searches turned up nothing, but I did find references to three straight couples who requested male pregnancy from Dr. Fishel in the late 1990s. He refused them because of the medical risks, not ethics.)
McGee is nearing 40 now—in fertility terms, this is called "advanced maternal age" (though what that really means is "advanced egg age"). He says a younger, stronger man would be a better candidate for an experimental procedure like this.
A man like Patrick. Patrick is 31.
in a word, my answer is no.
Patrick is German, but more specifically, his mother's father was East Prussian, and Patrick has the same big build and geometric jawline as his grandfather. He doesn't exactly look like Arnold Schwarzenegger, but he could do a good impression.
When I picture Patrick pregnant, I picture Schwarzenegger in the movie Junior. It came out in 1994, but I hadn't seen it until I recently rented all the male-pregnancy movies I could get my hands on. I found Junior; Night of the Blood Beast, a B horror movie from 1958; and A Slightly Pregnant Man, from 1973, with Marcello Mastroianni as the pregnant man and Catherine Deneuve as his wife. (Rabbit Test, the Joan Rivers–directed 1978 film with Billy Crystal as the world's first pregnant man, isn't out on DVD.)
The movies are good for surveying attitudes toward male pregnancy, at least. In Junior, Emma Thompson plays Schwarzenegger's love interest and unwitting egg donor. At the start of the movie, she complains that men should have to live in women's bodies for a while. Later, she's screaming that men get to have everything else and shouldn't be able to take pregnancy, too. Which pretty neatly sums up the reactions I've heard from women when I've asked them whether they'd want their husbands and boyfriends to carry their children. I surprise myself by not being ambivalent. I guess I can't see the downside. (Is there a downside to men sharing child rearing?)
Mastroianni wanders through A Slightly Pregnant Man potbellied and utterly bewildered, like he's lost in thought about whether to fire his agent. But the movie treats his pregnancy like it's almost normal. He may be the first, but men all over the world are spontaneously becoming pregnant. A doctor tells him it's been caused by the chemicals in modern food.
"We face a complete revolution in the nature of our species," the doctor announces. "You're either the first victim or the first triumph."
When a TV interviewer says to him, "You must feel weird as hell," he responds, "Not weirder than any woman." The women in the salon where Deneuve is a hairdresser—as well as a swishy guy in another scene—decide male pregnancy is a good thing. And Deneuve is proud of her husband's overalls and growing belly. Their young son wants to know why his daddy is pregnant. "Is it on account of women's lib?" he asks.
She answers, "The men decided to help out the women."
The pregnancy is progressing normally. He will have a C-section. "Delivery? The word is obsolete," the doctor tells him. "The man who gives birth will be a better man, because he will understand what it means to create," the doctor announces.
And then, after 40 weeks, it's over in an instant. An X-ray reveals that there's nothing in Mastroianni's belly at all. It was a hoax. "Mass psychosis" is the diagnosis. None of the men around the world were actually pregnant. They all were... coping with feminism through delusion?
1. fear—i would be afraid of the discomfort/pain/potential death involved
2. i think one has to really be into fucking with gender to want to do this, or at least to be the first person to do it. no, not gender—even more transgressive: sex. serious transgressions are horribly difficult for the people transgressing, and people choosing to transgress really have to be motivated by something other than just the thrill of transgression. i admire transgression, but i myself transgress in incredibly minor and safe ways, if at all. i'm a supporter of transgression, not a transgressor.
3. i find the idea of something growing inside of me, even something i've chosen, to be FUCKING CREEPY. i have this perception also of female pregnancy, even though i know it's natural.
ultimately, i don't want a child badly enough. i have doubts enough about wanting to bring an ordinary child into this world, much less the first child literally born of man.
One day nine years ago, Lee Mingwei's mother was watching the morning news in her home in Taipei, over tea with friends. A report came on about a scientific breakthrough: the first pregnant man in the world. The man was her son.
"She stuffed her friends out the door, and she called me and she said, 'Son, are you pregnant?' I mean, very seriously, she was almost in tears, she said, 'Are you pregnant, my son?'" Lee remembers.
Lee is not pregnant; he is an artist. But on his website, www.malepregnancy.com, he has been pregnant for the last nine years. It's an art project that began when he and Virgil Wong, another artist who's gay, were talking about how nice it would be to birth their own children. "He said, why don't we start making this happen in a virtual world, and see where it goes, and maybe eventually something might happen in the physical world," Lee tells me by phone from his home in New York.
The website "documents" his pregnancy, with ultrasound images, interviews with him, and videos of him on the street. The idea was not to fool people, though clearly some people were fooled. It was to trigger speculation about what might happen if male pregnancy were real, to cause couples who came across it online to think about the option for themselves.
In performance-art projects around the world, at places like the Museum of Modern Art and the Venice Biennale, Lee has done things like inviting individual strangers to stay a night with him, and taking a flower named Lilly with him everywhere he went for 100 straight days. But every time he gives a talk, what people really want to know about is male pregnancy. Someone always brings it up, he says. They want to know how he was treated when he went out in public wearing the pregnancy costume ("no one ever looked at me twice—maybe they thought I was fat"), and they accuse him of doing the unnatural ("being in a car is not natural; your body wasn't made to go that speed"), or of trying to render women obsolete ("woman is so much more than a birthing machine").
He's had the chance to conduct the only extended poll I know of about public attitudes toward male pregnancy. Who's for it? Just the medically challenged? Gay male couples? Transgender couples? (A relatively famous female-to-male couple, the writer Patrick Califia and his now-former partner Matt Rice, had a baby in 1999, but biologically, it was lesbian babymaking.)
For most people, it's either laughable—"I'm trying to be serious with you even though this is a really silly conversation to me," Pamela Madsen, director of the American Fertility Association, told me—or threatening.
Some of Lee's gay male friends have told him they hate the idea of their bodies becoming like women's, because that will make them unattractive to other gay men. A gay male friend of mine found a more profound crisis: "If even this last essential difference between the sexes is not so essential, then what am I doing saying I am only attracted to one sex? If I could be attracted to a man who does what only a woman can do, am I still gay?"
It's questions like these that have me convinced that real-life male pregnancy would be revolutionary. The fake New York Times headline in the Deneuve/Mastroianni movie—"The Most Important Event Since Man Walked on the Moon"—sounds like an understatement.
And then there's this reaction, predictable but chilling: A group of Christians stalked Lee, repeatedly telling him he'd be punished. Finally, they sent him an e-mail with his home address and a warning that they were going to plant a bomb in front of his home. He was so scared, he moved.
"The most receptive group of people so far have been the straight couples," Lee says.
I have no doubt that a man will be pregnant someday, and I say this on the strength of one factor alone: the increasingly anything's-possible attitude about infertility.
A report published in early June revealed that the number of women age 40 and over having IVF has increased tenfold in the last 15 years. Their rates for success aren't great, but that doesn't deter them—people who want babies want babies, and they will use all the technology at their disposal to try. It's shocking to read the scientists' conclusion that uterine transplantation represents a "final frontier" in "curing" infertility. Tell that to the people who struggle year after year with infertility, a condition that seems, especially in this can-do environment, to grow more psychologically intractable with time, not less.
In terms of the technology, male pregnancy sounds almost elementary—at least in the risky-for-the-man ectopic-pregnancy model McGee talked about. Ectopic pregnancies occur in about 20 of 1,000 cases. Of those, abdominal pregnancy accounts for about 1.4 percent. It's no picnic: For women with abdominal pregnancies, massive bleeding is par for the course and up to one-fifth of the women die. But even the more technically challenging uterine-transplant model—safer for the man—is close to being possible. Compared to the feats of, say, IVF, or the birth-control pill, or bone-marrow transplantation, the challenges of a male pregnancy seem trivial.
But when you throw gender in a blender, people freak out. This leads me to believe, as Patrick hypothesizes, that the first cases of male pregnancy, whenever they are, will arise out of dire circumstances. It will be based on need.
That doesn't mean there's anything wrong with wanting to do it because you want to do it. I want to witness the societal transformation it would bring about. But if somebody wants to do it because it would be more convenient for the family, then how is it any different from freezing your own eggs and doing IVF after 40 so you have a chance to get your career going? Or using a surrogate because you don't want to be pregnant? Or scheduling a C-section around business meetings? There's no law regulating any of those things.
Patrick is barefoot, his Empathy Belly pushing obscenely on his apron as he stands at the stove, flipping fried potatoes.
I heard about the Empathy Belly from a friend who'd taken a childbirth class where it was mentioned. It simulates, according to the website, "over 20 symptoms and effects of pregnancy, including: weight gain of 30 pounds; fetal kicking and stroking movements; shallow breathing and shortness of breath; increased blood pressure, pulse, and body temperature; bladder pressure and frequency of urination; low backaches; shift in center of gravity; waddling; fatigue; irritability; and much, much more!"
The device was invented by Linda Ware, a mother of twins, 17 years ago on Vashon Island. Since then, it has been used in childbirth education, teen-pregnancy-prevention classes, anger-management programs involving domestic violence against women, medical and nursing schools (especially for male obstetricians who treat pregnant women without ever knowing what they're feeling), and on TV and in the movies. You can't buy one: It's only for sale to educational programs and for rent to private couples at places like the little Birth & Beyond store in Madison Valley.
We'd both wear it, I told Patrick the night before, just before we did the IM interview, before he told me no. "May the best woman win!" I declared.
But now, it's becoming clear that he isn't going to become the world's first pregnant man, or even the fiftieth. He'll wear this thing for three hours—the maximum recommended time, which tells you something right there—and that will be his entire career in pregnancy. I'm grateful he's humoring me for this project, but I can't help but be disappointed that I'm being humored.
let's say, just for kicks, that you DID have my baby. what do you think it would be like for you?
i think i would feel like a freak, because everyone would be able to see what i'm doing, and a lot of people would think it's fucking weird. i would be hesitant to go out in public. i would also be afraid of doing something accidentally to end the pregnancy, like, uh, falling down the stairs. i would be frustrated by the physical limitations.
i presume i would be excited that we were going to have a baby. i presume that i would find the fact that i am bearing that baby very reassuring, that i have a closeness to another human being that i have never had before and will never have again unless i have another baby.
oddly, i don't know if i'd feel closer to you. i think i'd feel very selfish about the child. i think i would feel closer to the child than to you, possibly.
i think i would feel proud of the child in front of others, like, "look what i did!"
When I say that I don't want to be the mother, that I want to be the father, it's partly because of my assumption that the mother magically knows what to do with the child, and therefore has to be involved in every second of at least the first few years of a child's life if she's around. I feel this way maybe because I was raised by a single mother, or maybe because, even among my enlightened friends, the fathers are always asking the mothers what to do.
I know my understanding of fatherhood is crude, but it's starting to look like science's has been, too.
"Women are not the only ones who are built for parenting, and recognizing that is good for fathers and the rest of us, too," Slate's Emily Anthes wrote in June of this year. "Historically, when men did more than donate sperm to a pregnancy—by suffering physical ailments along with their wives—they got called crazy."
It was a condition called "couvade" (from the French word couver, meaning to incubate), and it was applied when husbands of pregnant women reported weight gain, nausea, cravings, and insomnia right along with their wives. It was also thought to be psychosomatic bullshit.
It wasn't psychosomatic bullshit.
In the first weeks after babies are born, the level of testosterone in a father drops—by about a third—to make him more nurturing. During the pregnancy, fathers-to-be have high levels of some of the same hormones that increase in pregnant women. Among certain primates that split child rearing the way humans do, the fathers gain as much as 20 percent of their body weight during their partners' pregnancies.
"There's also preliminary but tantalizing evidence that fatherhood can change the brain," Anthes reports. "A 2006 study found enhancements in the prefrontal cortex of the father marmoset. After childbirth, the neurons in this region showed greater connectivity, suggesting that having young children could boost the part of the brain responsible for planning and memory, skills parents need when having kids gives them more to keep track of. The neurons also had more receptors for vasopressin, a hormone that has been shown to prompt animal fathers to bond with offspring."
Unfortunately, research in human fathers remains "on the fringe." Nobody knows much about what's going on in dads. Not knowing, we assume nothing's going on. But consider this: Men have mammary glands. They are fully capable of lactating if given hormone treatments. (It even happens by accident if they take certain medications.) Who knows what else they can do?
The trouble with things being so equal in couples today is that there's no wife. This generation of men is expected to be emotionally involved in the family and this generation of women is expected to be professionally involved in the world. So it makes perfect sense that many couples set out to split kid duty down the middle. But society isn't set up for it.
"Don't you have a wife?"
That's what the partners at his law firm asked Sigrid Fry-Revere's husband when he tried to reduce his hours to help raise their kids so they both could work almost full-time. He became such an outcast at the office that he switched to lower-octane government work, she told me over the phone. She volunteered to talk about male pregnancy because she likes the idea of couples having a choice. After years of working sporadically when her four kids were young, she's now director of bioethics studies at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington, D.C.
"Scientific advancement is what humanity is about," she told me.
To hear a stalwart of the other side, I tried to contact Leon Kass, who sits on the president's Council on Bioethics (he was its chair from 2002 to 2005) and who famously opposed IVF when it was being developed in the 1970s. He once wrote an essay on "The Wisdom of Repugnance," or, basically, on why we ought to follow our instincts when it comes to what bioethicists refer to as "the yuck factor." Kass e-mailed that he was too busy to talk.
Several times, when I've brought up male pregnancy, friends and acquaintances have acted as though what I'm talking about is a perversion of nature. I'm not so sure it's nature they want me to respect so much as the nature of gender that we've set up—a nature that science and society have chipped away at for as many years as it's been built up, that used to shut men out of the birthing room and women out of the voting booth. Meanwhile, Patrick and I are more like each other than we are like even our own recent ancestors.
I have plenty of respect for nature: the usual mix of fear and awe. It's when nature gets involved that miscarriages happen and babies die suddenly. I think of nature simply as the universal condition of not being in control. When everything is up in the air anyway, well, why not throw a uterus into Patrick's belly and see what happens?
The Empathy Belly comes in a black plastic suitcase and it's heavy. "It's a good thing you brought someone to carry this," the woman at the store tells me, handing it to Patrick.
Little does she know.
Following the directions in our kitchen over drinks—we've decided we will cheat at least that much in our "pregnancies"—we fill a giant gold pouch with hot water and stuff it into the belly of the taupe suit, which is like one of those garments the dentist throws on top of you for X-rays.
We squeeze two seven-pound lead balls into side pockets and we Velcro on a sand-filled sac meant to push on Patrick's bladder. The hot water will raise his temperature and his blood pressure, the balls will feel like kicks from the baby when he moves, and there are built-in breasts on top. Under it all is a punishing rib-squeezing belt that restricts breathing—a pregnancy corset.
The directions say that Patrick should pick things up off the floor (I make him lug up our fat 10-year-old cat), sit in a chair and push himself up to a table and a desk and pretend to eat and work, and lie all the way down on the floor and get up again. He's also supposed to get all set up with the standard late-pregnancy pillow arrangement, which, as I've learned from Linda, involves five pillows wedged under various points around the swollen body. When that's all set up, he's supposed to roll over and set it up again on the other side, like he'd have to do in the middle of the night.
And then I'm supposed to solicit him for sex. He gives me the finger.
The instructions also say to look in the mirror.
"It's grotesque," he says. "I feel like the belly draws attention to itself and hides any other forms. It's the focal point of the body now."
He does not want his photo taken. I cajole him the same way, I imagine, that men cajole their girlfriends to have sex on camera. "Come on," I say. "I'll never show them to anyone. They're just for me."
After seven minutes, his back starts to hurt. The rest of the first hour goes smoothly. He says the rib belt isn't so bad, since he's used to constriction from having asthma.
But that doesn't last long. He's getting cranky, but what's making things worse is that I'm cranky. All I can think of is that he'll be taking this thing off soon, and it will be my turn to put it on.
"It's not fair that if two people want a baby, it's always the same one who has to carry it, always the woman," I whine. Even as I'm saying it, I feel ridiculous. I want to believe that I'm sticking up for women in general, women in horrible situations compared to my paradise, but I remain unconvinced. And, being embarrassed, I dig in and continue.
Which leads to a fight.
It's hard to say what the fight was even about—I think it was my attempt to take out any anger I've ever felt about being a woman in a man's world on my wonderful, supportive spouse. Needless to say, I did not win, and by the end I felt extremely sheepish. Have I mentioned that Linda, a woman who has actually suffered—who has given birth to a child, then lost him, then steeled herself through having another one—spent that fight sitting quietly next to us, me belligerent and he swollen with fake baby, on the couch? Sometimes I feel stupid for not just shutting up and having or not having a baby already.
It is time.
Patrick and Linda strap me in. She holds the heavy part and he does the straps.
It's at this point that the 1950s B-movie Night of the Blood Beast comes to mind. In the film, an astronaut crashes to earth and dies. He has no heartbeat. But mysteriously, he stays warm, and eventually he wakes up. It turns out he has been impregnated by a shaggy alien.
This is awkward, considering that the astronaut's fiancée is there when they discover he's been knocked up by somebody else. The way they figure it out is through an X-ray machine that shows squiggly little animals inside his belly. They look like sea horses. (Sea horses, incidentally, are one of the only animals on earth for whom reproductive roles are reversed. Male sea horses get pregnant, not females. Sea dragons and pipefishes are the same way.)
Eventually, the alien speaks—he says he's here to save humankind from developing nuclear technology. But the people taking care of the astronaut don't believe him—and they kill the astronaut, the sea-horse babies, and the alien in a fiery explosion. They're not sure they've done the right thing, though. Maybe the alien was telling the truth about protecting humans? "We'll never know" is the last line in the movie.
What got me, of course, was the astronaut's experience being pregnant. When he wakes up, he acts strangely to his fellow humans. He is aggressive, like a mother bear guarding her young. He defends the alien, pleading with the team on its behalf.
"I don't feel that I have entirely free will," he tells his fiancée. He says he doesn't trust himself, and he can't figure out how he feels about the alien until the very end of the movie, even after the alien tears off the head of the doctor who has been treating him.
He feels alone, but not independent. But he's not scared. And then he dies.
This spring, I accidentally scheduled my annual appointment with the gynecologist on the second anniversary of our baby's due date. Patrick went with me, and we explained up front that we were a little fragile. The doctor was kind and listened. She asked whether we were trying again, and we said no.
The doctor spent the rest of the appointment acting like it was only a matter of time. She gave me a sample of prenatal vitamins. "Good luck with trying!" she called out as we left. To a gynecologist and to many family members and friends, once you've been pregnant, you can never go back.
If I'd had my wits about me, I'd have explained that I wanted to get Patrick pregnant instead.
After he wore the Empathy Belly for three hours, I dreaded putting it on. I grumbled. I hauled my Empathetic self up the stairs and made Patrick and Linda avert their eyes while I looked in the mirror. I wanted to look alone, since I think of pregnancy as being lonely. When our baby died, Patrick hardly felt anything. Men believe babies when they see them. The body that carries them bonds to them.
My reflection shocked me at first. I cringed. I think I sort of moaned. But before long, I heard myself pointing out good things. My legs looked longer with this mountain looming over them. When I had to pick my heavy self up off the floor, I refused help; I felt strong doing it. I walked around some more and sat down.
"You get used to it," I said, and then I took it off.
My plan was to wear it the following night for the requisite three hours. But I didn't.
The next morning, the belly was due back at the store. I packed it up and this time dragged the suitcase myself. Seeing I was struggling, the store clerk met me at the door. I handed over the case like it was a hot potato.
"How was it?" she asked.
I pretended not to hear. I had no idea where to begin.