Monday, April 11, 2005

Thoughts on My Village

Thoughts on My Village by Laura Moulton
Illustration by Muriel Green

It takes a village to raise a child. So the saying goes. In my case, the village showed up as soon as I became pregnant, and it's hung around ever since. Family, my students, old ladies, the neighborhood can collector, and the occasional odd bird in the grocery store. All characters from my village. They stepped forward bearing gifts, patting my belly, clucking at its size. They gave me fresh vegetables, and bottles of vitamins, tiny baby blankets. And they gave advice. Unsolicited and occasionally unwelcome advice.

Advice on Pain:

"Get the epidural", said Rosario, one of my Mexican students. "The epidural is your friend," she said. "I'm a nurse. I know."

"Not true," said Tomoko, from Japan. "All you need is breathing," and she clasped her delicate white hands together over her belly and said "Like this: Hee Hee whoooo, Hee Hee whoooo."

Once a week I drove to the correctional facility outside Portland. The women prisoners in my writing class had their own advice. Deborah said, "When you feel the pains start to come on, eat a bag of those little Hershey bars. That's all you need." But Star said, "Chocolate's fine, but you also need a bar to hang from and a towel to chew on." I paled, and they must have seen my face. "It's no worse than a big trip to the toilet," Deborah said. "That's bullshit, " said O'Nesha. "Everyone knows it's like a train wreck through your privates." And thus began an argument about the true nature of labor pain.

Art, who has sickle cell anemia and collects bottles and cans in our neighborhood, admired my belly, and told me to keep my feet up, to take it easy. He warned my husband that during labor I would place terrible curses upon him, and that he should avoid getting too near me, as I would break the bones in his hand, squeezing.

Advice on the Sex of the Baby:

Another student, Gerardo, is an obstetrician in Mexico, but works at Carl's Junior here in the States. After class he often asked me questions -- how I was feeling, and was the baby kicking? I asked if he could tell the sex of the baby by the way I was carrying it. He studied my belly for a minute and then said, "In my village, if a woman's abdomen is bonita, is nice, we say she's having a girl. If it is so-so, ugly" (here he turned his hand side to side) "then we say it's boy. In your case ... "Maybe boy."

People had plenty of theories: If you carry it high, it's a girl. If you look "ugly" during your pregnancy, it's a girl, because girls steal your beauty. If your belly sticks out in a point, it's a boy. When I asked my high school students what they thought, boy or girl, Ryan from the Philippines said "Depends on your elbow" and I said "My elbow?" and looked at one. "It's a boy," Ryan said, "because you looked at your right elbow first."

Unhelpful Advice:

"You're strong," Gerardo said. "I think you should be able to do it." He showed me pictures of himself in green scrubs, delivering babies in Mexico. Photos of blood-covered babies, corkscrew umbilical cords, his front covered in slickness. I gripped the corner of my desk, and said "Thank you very much."

A woman straight out of a Flannery O'Connor short story limped up to me in a line at a Safeway, and planted her hands on my stomach. "When's it due?" she said, through a gap where her front teeth should have been. Her hair stood up in the back, as though she'd just climbed out of bed.

"A few days ago." I shifted away from her slightly.

"They gonna induce if it don't go?" she asked.

"It'll go.," I said, grimly. It's going to come in the next few days."
Then she rubbed my belly and observed that I wasn't all that big. Maybe it'd be another month. She cackled and limped away. I fled the store feeling like she'd placed a hex on me.

My husband and I went for a walk to a nearby park. A woman in a purple sweat suit trotted after us, and hollered "scuze me" (and I thought, Ah hell, because we'd been hit up for hand-outs so often the past days -- and so close to Christmas. I thought that being "great with child" should make me exempt from panhandlers). But the woman said she had a gift, that she could look at a pregnant woman and predict the sex of the baby, when it would be born, its weight and height, and so on.
"Okay," I said. "Shoot."

She put her hands on my giant stomach. "It's a boy, definitely. He'll be about 8 pounds..and 19 inches." She cocked her head. "I'd say you're about 8 months along."
What she didn't know was that I was five days overdue by then, feeling big as a house, and very cross about it. She didn't know that I'd go more than a week past my due date before I birthed my 9-pound baby boy.

There, in the park, with her hand on my stomach, she said "What a special thing, having a baby." We said yes. It was true.

And then she asked, "Could you kind folks spare some change?"

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