Everything leading up to the baby was wrong. During the 41 weeks that the kid baked, my wife endured a lengthy bed rest, a frightening ultrasound that showed no heartbeat, a leg swollen to the size of a utility pole, a chipped tooth, a robbery, countless passive-aggressive marital spats, and humiliating false alarms. I endured my wife. If we believed in omens, we might have worried that Beelzebub’s handmaiden, not a tender infant, was on her way.
This was our third baby, so you’d think Sarah and I would have a handle on such things. But pregnancy does not reward a couple’s past with mercy in the present. It has no tolerance for bellyaches about one’s age or level of fatigue, and it certainly does not care that you are coaching your five-year-old’s T-ball team. It just does its thing, bulldozing through your life like a 40-ton freak show for its own vicious amusement.
I was asleep, encamped in an Indiana beach house with various family members and the World’s Dumbest Dog, when Sarah went into labor beside me. I woke my mom, who was confused because she’d left her hearing aid in New Mexico, and roused the dog, who was on the third day of a senseless poop strike. The four of us piled into the Odyssey at 4 a.m., bound for the hospital at the University of Chicago, where our groggy OB awaited our arrival. (The plan, for some reason, was to drop off the mutt at a friend’s in Hyde Park. Apparently no one in the entire state of Indiana could take care of her.)
Sarah requested silence during contractions. The rest of the time she requested “Firework” by Katy Perry. So I’m driving 98 miles per hour on the toll road with my laboring wife, my deaf mom, and my constipated dog, taking little comfort in Katy’s chipper assurances that after a hurricane comes a rainbow—an assertion that naively presupposes you’re going to survive the hurricane. When we got to Chicago, we stopped on 59th Street, where the dog shot out of the minivan and tore through the dewy grass before losing interest and deciding, in fact, that she did not need to drop anchor.
My wife’s attachment objects for the previous two deliveries had been, respectively, a big blue exercise ball and those crunchy ice pellets exclusive to hospitals. If I came between Sarah and either, she might have ripped my face off. This time, the attachment object was my face. During every contraction, she decided her cheek needed to be touching mine, which led to tender matrimonial gems such as “I need your @#$%ing face!” More than terrifying, it was the worst chafing of my life.
The baby weighed nearly ten pounds. Watching the long body continue to slide out of Sarah little by little, I was certain there couldn’t possibly be more in there. There was. A girl! But a girl so purple and limp that no one in the room seemed to say anything for the first five minutes of her life. A coven of physicians hovered around the baby warmer, trying to coax her into pinkness. When Abigail finally announced her arrival with a healthy yowl, the mood in the room was more relieved than jubilant. Thank you, pregnancy. And goodbye forever, you sadistic twist.
Despite everything that led up to her birth, Abigail is pure bliss. Sure, we dealt with a jaundice scare, breastfeeding trauma, and the inevitable sleepless nights, but the kid is more Zen than the Dalai Lama’s carpet. It took all of 30 seconds for her big brother and sister to accept her presence and welcome her into the fold.
When we picked raspberries in Michigan or went fishing in Indiana, she came along. When we went bowling, her car seat rested by the ball return. The days we painted Star Wars characters on an old table or made up a song about all 44 U.S. presidents (watch the music video here), Abigail watched from her bouncy seat. We lugged her to the beach. To the pool. To an RV show and a county fair and the kinds of restaurants where you throw peanut shells on the floor. She was always there, watching, content to be noticed once an hour, cooed over briefly, and forgotten. She practically changed her own diapers.
People love to posit theories about birth order and to pigeonhole children accordingly. Big mistake. Kids have their own ideas about who they’re going to be, and those ideas are strong enough to override any external circumstances if we would only let children be. But we can’t.
Sarah and I made every mistake imaginable with our first child, falling prey to ridiculous sleep-training programs and half-baked codes of discipline. With the second, we overcorrected our mistakes to a dangerous degree, like a car swerving to avoid a squirrel and plowing into a truck. And all the while we perpetuated the birth-order myths (first child: overachieving control freak; second: angsty conniver), projecting them onto the kids and clucking our tongues when they made them realities.
By the time our third child emerged, we had lost interest in what parenting philosophies worked and what irreparable damage we’d done to whom. These days, we just do whatever makes sense at the time—which is usually nothing. The tyke is happy to watch. When she’s prepared to enter the fray, she’ll let us know. With our family’s power structure already set in stone (I’m not sure about the specifics, beyond the fact that I have no power), Abigail is learning coping skills that her older siblings may never have. She already understands one of life’s big lessons: how to be ignored without taking it personally. As the baby of my family, I cultivated the same skill and flew under the radar all the way into adulthood.
In the end, I don’t know if Abigail’s temperament is the result of birth order, parenting, or dumb cosmic luck. I don’t care. Every day, as our five-year-old son jumps out of bed and runs right past us to kiss the baby, the miseries that preceded her arrival fade a little more. “Look!” he said one morning, pointing to the ceiling.
There, reflected off the iPad we’d hung over the bassinet as a makeshift sound machine, a perfect rainbow sprawled across the woodwork like a declaration.
Goddammit, Katy Perry. You were right.
Illustration: Jan Feindt