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Public Nudity

Last summer, when I told my agent that I was pregnant, she honestly offered her heartiest congratulations – she’s a warm, generous person – but I could see a flicker of anxiety cross her pale, pretty face. "So you’re due … Read More

By / April 23, 2009

Last summer, when I told my agent that I was pregnant, she honestly offered her heartiest congratulations – she’s a warm, generous person – but I could see a flicker of anxiety cross her pale, pretty face. "So you’re due when?" she asked, slicing open a delicate square of ravioli with her fork.

We were having lunch in the garden of an Italian restaurant near Gramercy Park – the sort of place at which your average person only dines when on expense account – and I had already plowed my way through my own too-small bowl of pasta, my first-trimester hunger having stubbornly hung around through the first weeks of the second trimester. "December," I told her. "The beginning of December." She arranged her features into something resembling composure. "And the book’s out in April," she said. "That’ll be fine." Clearly, she was comforting herself as much as me. "Coleman was an easy baby, right?" I nodded. This was true. Coleman rarely cried and slept pretty well, which is pretty much what people mean when they say a baby is "easy." But he was still a baby and, thus, required almost constant attention. (Like most babies.) He was also huge, which meant that he needed to eat pretty much around the clock. Most of my memories of his first months involve sitting in a chair nursing him or racing around various parts of Manhattan or Brooklyn frantically trying to find a place, any place, to sit down and nurse him. (Note to new moms: The Gap and its sister stores will let you nurse in their fitting rooms, no questions asked. You don’t even need to pretend to be trying something on.) "This one will be easy, too," my agent said. "Yes," I told her, and I truly did believe this to be so. According to my mother, who sometimes takes a rather romantic view of the past, all babies in our family are easy. Besides, easy or not, this baby would be four months old by the time my novel, A Fortunate Age, came out, which was pretty much old enough to be left with my husband or sister for a couple of hours, if I needed to do a reading or suchlike. We’d left Coleman with a sitter-or, okay, a pair of very close friends–for the first time when he was just shy of five months old. With our second, we’d be more carefree and cavalier, or at least less nervous, right?

Four-odd months later, in December, when Pearl was born, a parade of friends came to visit and, as I’ve written about elsewhere, anxiously asked about the novel – when was it coming out again? – after they’d finished cooing over the baby and presenting her with organic onesies and miniature cashmere hoodies. "April," I told them, and watched their faces melt into that odd mixture of concern and anxiety, and, in one case, a bit of Schadenfreude. "It’ll be fine," they told me, as my agent had back in July. "It has to be," I told them, "since Pearl isn’t going anywhere." And I did truly believe this to be so. Sensibility-wise, I tend not to worry about things until I’m deeply mired in them, which is to say, I tend to think that things will just work themselves out. (And when they don’t, well, okay, I sometimes completely freak out.) This is basically how I feel about having kids, in general. For years, I listened to friends say things like, "I just don’t feel like I’m ready to have a baby," and nodded sympathetically, but the truth is that I don’t think anybody is ever ready to have a baby, an event that, no matter how cool you are, kind of eradicates your life as you knew it. You just have to make the decision, know that nothing can prepare you for what’s to come, and hold steady as the walls come tumbling down.

This was what I was prepared to do regarding the whole baby-and-book thing. But as the publication date approached-coincidentally, it happened to be Pearl’s four-month birthday-my resolve became a bit shaky. The problem, I suppose, was less simply Pearl’s existence and more that there was also Coleman, who was doing his own bit of freaking out about this new baby sister who, like him before her, was basically on perma-feed (she’d clocked in at nine pounds, six ounces, so she was even bigger than her brother at birth, a fact I’ve been hesitant to share with him lest it instill some sort of inferiority complex), keeping me locked in our tattered glider for the majority of the day and way too much of the night. And there was our less-than-ideal living situation, with all four of us in a studio, while our apartment was renovated. All of which somehow contrived to prohibit me from doing anything at all. When getting myself a glass of water seemed like a challenge–Coleman would scream and throw himself on me the minute I started toward the kitchenette, then stick his grimy hands in the glass once I’d returned to his side-it seemed impossible to do the million publicity-ish things one is supposed to do when publishing a novel, things that are not quite my forte even on a good day. Despite this, the novel proceeded on its march to publication, and my publicist proceeded to book me a bunch of readings in the city. With each new date, I felt a little thrill-I would be reading at KGB, where I’d seen favorite writers read over the years, and at two of my favorite bookstores-but as the calendar began to fill with events, I began to worry. Pearl was, as expected, an easy baby. Even easier than her brother. She started sleeping through the night at eight weeks. She smiled all the time. But because, again, of our weird living situation, she wasn’t really on a sleeping schedule. How could she be, when the minute I got her to sleep, a wild-haired four-year-old jumped on her screaming, "I’m a leopard seal and Pearl’s a BABY PENGUIN." (You guessed right. Leopard seals eat baby penguins. These are the sorts of things he learns at his hippie preschool.) If you have a baby, you know what I’m about to say: Because she wasn’t (and isn’t) on any sort of schedule-as Cole had been at that age-there was no way we could leave her with a sitter, for she might wake at any time and need to eat. And to eat, she needed me, since like her brother she’d refused the bottle. Evan and I, in the two minutes we had alone each day, had hushed conversations about what to do, but we couldn’t come up with an answer. Meanwhile, I frantically lined up sitters-once again, if you have a baby, you know the difficulty of finding sitters for six nights in the space of two weeks – knowing, at the very least, we couldn’t bring Coleman with us. Not unless I wanted top be accompanied by a floor show.

My publication date arrived and with it, my book party, to which we brought both kids, and I told myself, as I sipped an overfull glass of icy wine, and Pearl was passed from friend to friend along the long stone counter of our neighbor’s bar, and Coleman played with his friend Izzy – the daughter of two close friends from Oberlin – that this was all good, that I was somehow, finally living the life I’d always wanted, that Evan and I were like…I don’t know, some unnamed, glamorous writers of yore, who had a big, happy, bohemian families and brought their kids to dinner parties and let them fall asleep on the piles of coats in the bedroom. Three days later, on the day of my first reading (Good Friday!), I was feeling a little bit less thrilled. Coleman was home from school on spring break-had been for two days-and I had been pretty much unable to secure more than a moment to myself to figure out what I was going to read, much less practice reading it. We’d just moved back to our apartment, which was now completely filled with boxes marked "tea cups" and "fondue pots" and "punch bowl" – all things I’d happily lived without for five months and was pretty sure I could live without for the rest of my life – and Evan, who thrives on order, was consumed with unpacking and alphabetizing our thousands of books and endlessly moving things down from the studio in which we’d been staying, all of which needed to be done, but not, perhaps, right at that exact moment, I thought. Somehow, thanks to the arrival of the sitter, I managed to take a shower and dress myself, all the while wondering if I was really going to do this, to get up in front of an audience and read from this novel I’d managed to write, without having really prepared myself, without being absolutely sure the section I’d chosen was the right length, or that I’d hit every sentence right, or look up enough to maintain everyone’s interest (or at least not seem like an awkward teenager mumbling her way through Speech and Debate). I couldn’t quite explain it, though: How had I managed to write this novel in the years following Coleman’s birth – including his infancy – but now, with the addition of Pearl, was somehow unable to find an hour in which to prepare a ten-minute reading? Is having two kids really that hard? Or am I just deficient in some major way? Regardless, we managed to get to the bookstore on time, with Pearl asleep in her stroller – that was the choice we made, in the end, to bring her with us – and it all went as well as could be expected under the circumstances. Or so I’ve been telling myself. The following Monday, I was scheduled to do another reading, followed by an interview conducted by my editor, at my favorite bookstore, McNally-Jackson, in SoHo. Over the weekend, I carved out bits of time in which to practice, and by the afternoon of the reading I felt a bit more calm. We’d been unable to find a sitter for this reading, so Evan would stay home with Coleman, and my friend Kira-who is known in our neighborhood as something of a baby whisperer-would accompany me to the reading and serve as Pearl wrangler, though I figured that good baby would fall asleep on the walk to the bookstore, just as she had on Friday. No such luck, of course. Though she yawned and yawned, P seemed to sense that something exciting was happening – or perhaps she simply picked up on my anxiety, as babies tend to do – refusing to fall completely asleep. This was, I realized as we arrived, the worst possible scenario: She was going to become exhausted and cranky while I was reading. Which meant she was going to start crying and, yes, need to nurse while I was reading. It’ll be fine, I told myself, though I could see Kira was thinking the same thing and worrying about being responsible for a screaming, inconsolable, overtired infant. Friends began to stream in, including, bizarrely, three people I’d known in high school, members of the popular, jocky class who had largely scorned me (as I, in my combat boots, had scorned them, I suppose), but who now hugged and congratulated me as if we’d been best buddies. As the bookstore’s clerks brought out more chairs-the audience was swelling-I took my seat on the little stool appointed me ("a sort of singer-songwriter set-up," the manager joked), went through my spiel about the book-five Oberlin grads move to New York during the tech boom of the late 1990s and gradually lose the idealism of their youth-and began to read, amidst Pearl’s squawks and cries. Pretty quickly, those little squawks turned into shouts. At the back of the room, Kira jostled her, trying to comfort her to sleep. I told myself, with steely resolve, to ignore the situation. Kira could get any baby to asleep – had, in fact, gotten Pearl to sleep just a week earlier, at my party – and would be fine. I read on. And then, suddenly, as I found my place on page seven, came a scream so enormous that the entire audience, as one, turned their heads to the back of the room. Pearl had reached the end. I put the book down. "Okay," I said. "Hand me that baby." Kira, happily, raced to the front of the room. "Now," I said into the microphone, "comes the public nudity part of the evening." Two seconds later, Pearl was silent and happy, and I was somehow managing to hold both a 400-page hardback book and a seventeen-pound baby, while perched on a small wooden stool, aiming my voice toward the microphone, and keeping my sweater pulled down low enough to cover my left boob. She stayed on my lap for the duration of the event, first asleep, then awake, staring out at the audience with her huge, brown doll eyes, smiling and laughing, and generally stealing the show from me. And I suppose I learned what every mother must eventually learn: Eventually you must cede your powers to the next generation. I’m not sure, exactly, how my publisher felt about these shenanigans, but for me, in a way, the whole thing was more fun because of all the craziness. Pearl, I suspect, took a little pressure off me, let me relax a bit more in front of the audience than I might have otherwise. But I also realized that, well, if I can manage to hold my own while half-naked and nursing a massive baby, then I can do pretty much anything. Except be in two places at once, which is the subject I’ll turn to tomorrow. Until then.

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