Last year, I participated in the Penn Marriage Pact: an online survey that algorithmically matched students with “optimal marital back-up plans” (a.k.a. paired them with another lonely soul who could potentially stand in as a kind of matrimonial last resort). As part of the process, I was emailed my “Hot Takes” — three survey questions that I had answered in a drastically different fashion from my peers.
Anna’s Hot Takes:
- I embrace change. I had Strongly Disagreed, which apparently only 4% of Penn students were on board with.
I struggle with change. Like the way old people do, only I’m barely over the hump of twenty-one. Since I can remember, I have met every new chapter in life (more like every new page, or even paragraph) with an endless scribbling of WHAT IFs. What if I just like… don’t go through puberty? What if I don’t make friends? What if I can’t learn to drive? What if I don’t get into college? What if I don’t ever meet the right person?
My grandmother once described to me dreamily how, at the end of your life, you could see all the threads of your life come together and understand why everything had happened in the order that it had. I longed to be at the end. I had no interest in the work of knitting; I just wanted the damn blanket already. I needed to see those threads.
- I want a family with ____ children. (I had designated five children, which only 5% of Penn students agreed with, the rest opting for a lower number of desired offspring.)
The third question was “There is a place for revenge when someone has wronged me,” which I had Strongly Agreed with. That’s an issue for another essay.
Having grown up in a family of five children, there was, for a long time, no doubt in my mind that I would replicate the fun-loving and vibrant environment that had formed me. I had long ignored comments from the haters throughout grade school about the cost of living with such a big family, the difficulty of raising so many children and/or the horrors repeated childbirth might rage on my vagina. Until now.
Last summer, an innocent happy hour led to a nasty morning-after, and along with it, the latest and greatest stage of Next Phase Fatalism — in the form of a fun little math problem. Add Hot Take #1: complete aversion to change, with Hot Take #2: the desire to have a big, happy family, and you get sheer, unadulterated panic.
I have never taken kindly to nausea (does anyone?), but this time was different. I lay in bed, racked with hangover regret as I prayed in the darkness to just make it all stop. Alarm bells rang in my head: how could I possibly survive morning sickness — and the full spectrum experience of pregnancy, not to mention pregnancy five times over — if I couldn’t handle a few moments of spicy-marg-vertigo?
In the vein of my weighty and sophisticated scribbling-on-the-pages-of-life metaphor, I often scribble my What Ifs so hard over each new page that they obscure what’s actually happening in real life. Which sucks, because it sometimes seems that as life gets more complicated, the scribbles will only grow more complex and terrifying. And somehow, I had flipped all the way to a stage of life that was chapters away.
Over the course of the next few weeks, my pregnancy anxiety mushroomed into an overall parenting-dread. I confided in my boyfriend, Jonah, that I was sure I was going to be a terrible mother and I probably shouldn’t have kids at all. I was much, much too sensitive, too narcissistic, too emotional, and surely my spawn would mock and eventually hate me for my clear insecurities and insufficiencies. I would be better off remaining childless than to inflict the unborn with such a poor excuse for a mother.
Jonah’s response: you’ll be an amazing mother! Like magic, I forgot my worries and left every insecurity behind in the dust, a new woman. LOL, can you imagine? (In the words of our Matriarch Cher Horowitz: as fucking if.)
This new mothering fear was especially disturbing because, while I had bashed pretty much every aspect of adult life by this point, that area of life had been left pristine and untouched by the otherwise ruthless What If Meanies.
As I’m sure you know, the answer to the What Ifs is to, as they say, “live for now.” Pregnancy is faaar away. Living for now is deep breaths, meditation and journaling. Living for now looks like gratitude journals and long walks in the park and asking the Meanies if their questions are “grounded in reality.”
Spoiler alert: living for now doesn’t quite cut it. So today, I decide, I am done with living for, in, around, or any other preposition, The Now. I wash my hands clean of it, and resolve to enter into the What Ifs. To go through them. Rather than struggle, day in, day out, with staying present and battling perfectionism, I will dive into all that I catastrophize head-on. Theoretically, perfection is only impossible because we only get one shot at life. What if I can get two? Maybe practice can indeed make perfect.
What if I can test drive each stage of life meticulously, combing through it for every nasty surprise that might come my way? I’d catch every red flag with precision and laser-sharp focus. It’s funny because my mom loves change and lives for surprises. In fact, she has always warned me not to live with someone until we were married because it would ruin the magic of the experience. Day by day. Everything at its time. Live for Now, and every other goddamn bumper sticker. Namaste.
No more. The time is now. I’d ruin every surprise — before it could ruin me.
Exposure therapy involves exposing the target patient to the anxiety source or its context without the intention to cause any danger. Doing so is thought to help them overcome their anxiety or distress.
This morning, I woke up to a baby on my doorstep. Not an angel, nor Professor Albus Dumbledore nor stork of any kind dropped it off. Rather, the good folks at amazon.com have delivered me my little bundle of joy. More accurately, they have presented me with the bump that precedes the baby; a baby-in-waiting of sorts. This morning, I am expecting.
That’s right. You didn’t know that you can order motherhood from Amazon? In my hands, I hold the future. And lemme tell you, my future smells like synthetic rotten fish. Not only does the stomach stink of plastic silicon, but I can make it shake with my hand like a bowl of jello. It costs $120 — thank God for Amazon returns — and weighs approximately 5.5 pounds. From my vantage point, it is almost identical in look and consistency to a hairless Egyptian Sphynx cat. And lo and behold: it comes with a freakish little indent of a belly button, “designed for comfort and realism.” Briefly stripping down, I strap myself into the belly. It’s exhilarating — but I can’t button my jeans. A later problem.
For a few days, the fleshy blob sits on the kitchen counter, a fun gag that scares visitors and doubles as a stress toy for me to jiggle while I speak to my sister on the phone. I decide I will begin my pregnancy at the start of a fresh week, as all expecting mothers do.
Sunday comes around and I begin to have second thoughts. For the first time in maybe two years, I am cripplingly ill with a nasty cold. Tempted to push my pregnancy to a later date, I remind myself this is not how conception works (ordering a smelly jelly bump on Amazon is how it works, right?) and decide that the show must go on. I test for COVID and strep, and, armed with my negative results, gear up for WWC: Week With Child.
On Monday morning, I pull out the only dress I own that could possibly stretch over my soon-to-be-prominent belly. To get the stomach on, I have to place it belly-button-side-down on the bed and fall flat over it like a pancake, wrapping it around my naked body and attaching it tightly and securely to the velcro band that encircles my lower back. I stand. The package is secured. I scroll through the garbage dump of journalism that is the DailyMail app on Snapchat, as is my daily custom, and am informed that JLaw has debuted her baby bump today. You and me both, sister.
I’m satisfied: tying my shoes is difficult, but not impossible. The real trick comes when I drop my eyebrow gel and realize that bending completely over is a luxury I no longer can afford. Retrieving said eyebrow gel is a slow and dedicated ordeal to which I am not accustomed. But I manage.
Oh, and the extra weight on my bladder makes me reaally have to pee. My doctor once informed me that if I was having this much trouble holding in my urine at such a spritely age, I would almost certainly need a catheter during and after real pregnancy because of how it would affect my bladder control. This fact, obnoxious little bugger, sits comfortably and unbothered in the back of my mind, the ever-present backseat driver sticking out its tongue and reminding me that if I think it’s bad now, things are only getting worse.
No longer. I stand up and square my shoulders, my belly protruding out in front of me like a world of its own. Grabbing a sip of water downstairs, there’s a disconnect as I feel the liquid traverse into my little mouse belly hidden behind the giant balloon stomach.
It’s funny because I’ve actually always harbored a secret fantasy for being pregnant as a student. It probably started with the movie Juno and came to a real peak during Kylie Jenner’s 2018 pregnancy. I’ve had a longtime fascination with teen moms (shout out MTV, they definitely played a role there too). Throw in a splash of religious upbringing — religious teachers and cousins becoming young mothers — and a pinch of middle-child-attention-problems, and voila! The obsession was born. I had been, for a long time now, secretly in love with the idea of showing up to class or a party, bump in tow, like an untouchable and holy vessel.
In real life, it’s less romantic. I tiptoe down Locust self-conscious and bashful, certain that people will notice, question, or laugh. Surprisingly, no one in class humors me with any kind of reaction. This gets annoying after a while (did I say “pinch” of middle-child-attention-problems? I meant “heap”), so in no time I’m fully embracing my belly, bracing my hand gingerly on it when I get up to use the bathroom and patting it lovingly during the lecture. Shhh.. baby. It’s only Marketing 211, you have nothing to be afraid of.
Walking back from class, I feel protected by the gelatinous mass on my stomach, which I think needs a name. As I pass my reflection on the side of a building window, it occurs to me that I look exactly like my mom. I vividly remember a summery black maternity dress with printed daisies that she has worn throughout my entire childhood; almost identical to the one I’m wearing now.
The sucky part is, because the belly (Genevive? Sheryl?) is engineered like an enormous sticky boob, minus the actual sticky part, the crevice between my actual stomach and backside of the fake stomach is hot, sweaty and probably smelly. All my ladies out there know exactly what I’m talking about. I can feel a rash brewing as the fleshy mass wiggles around on my abdomen.
By the time I get home, my cold has reached the emptying-the-tissue-box phase, and all I can do is stay in bed in misery. Somehow, feeling so crappy feels the most in line with my conception of pregnancy so far. I’m tempted to remove the sweaty mess and hang it up to dry, but alas, I’m going for the real deal here. Real mothers can’t unstrap. So I remain fatigued, headache-y, nauseous from the pressure of the five-pound meatloaf, and peeing endlessly. But hey, I can balance my laptop on my stomach. It’s the little things.
Living on the third floor is generally a bit of a bitch, but my fertile state has brought it to a whole new level. When my nose starts hideously and uncontrollably running while in the kitchen on the ground floor, I accept that I must make the trek upstairs to reach my beloved tissues. I stand at the foot of the stairs, my adversary, my Everest, for a full minute. I can’t do this, I can’t do this. One, two, three, go. Halfway back down the stairs I realize I forgot the tissues. Pregnancy brain. When I finally drag my fat ass up the stairs, the tissue box is empty. We call this rock bottom.
I tell myself I’m growing more resilient. Part of my goal is to grow stoic and even bored in the face of any kind of discomfort, rather than allowing it to be my kryptonite. As I fall asleep, hand on giant belly (apparently, during pregnancy IRL you’re not allowed to sleep on your back because it can kill the baby, but I choose to prioritize my gushing nose and sleep elevated on my back atop a mound of pillows) I’m triumphant.
I’m slightly better in the morning. Since the stomach doubles as a weighted blanket, I sleep soundly enough. Jonah discovers a pair of plastic suspenders in the Amazon package which means I’m able to hook the stomach up and have less of the weird shifting around. Paired with a tank top under the belly to stave off stink and sweat and I’m good to go. I don a black stretchy skirt with printed flowers (floral vibes seem to go with the whole “growing life” aesthetic I’m trying out). I hug my bump. In a weird way I’m starting to quite enjoy being fake pregnant.
Believe it or not, the elderly auditor in my Jewish Folklore class is the first to take note of my obviously changed state. He keeps staring at me, then looking up to the sky as if in prayer. The confusion is clear on his face. Did this tween-ass looking whore get knocked up? No, Donald, she’s just crazy. Does that make you feel better?
The next-to-closest acknowledgement I receive is at the flu shot clinic. The organizer takes one look at me and asks, “Student or staff?”
“Student,” I reply with a bright smile, daring her to react. Her brief flash of hesitation and cocked eyebrow satisfy me. And what of it? Headed back home, I take my sweet time waddling across the intersection. Who would dare hit a precious conduit of life like myself?
By the third morning, I have hit my stride. I am in the Family Way. I have a bun in the oven. I am in a delicate fucking condition, and I own being pregnant. As far as I’m concerned, I INVENTED being pregnant. As it’s the first day of my part-time remote internship, I deck myself out in a tight black minidress, my best “working woman” blazer, knee high black leather boots and my The Matrix dark sunglasses. Stand back, folks, the MILF is in the building. As I strut confidently down Locust (Cat)Walk, one heeled boot at a time, my friend Judy cackles. Sporting my boldest ensemble yet, I don’t get looks — I get gawks. Getting to drink up my pariah-superstardom is short lived however; Judy remembers we have a guest speaker in class and we’re late.
We sprint, my belly bouncing up and down. Now, I’m no speedster even without fake-child. In my current state, I almost topple down the stairs, all the while squealing how my water’s going to break. We make it to class, late and breathless. While the professor introduces our guest speakers, everything makes sense. Staring at the tight brown checkered skirt stretching across her abdomen, I realize she’s pregnant. No shit. A sister in solidarity. The second I sit down, I have to pee.
It has only taken 72 hours for Instagram to fill my entire feed with pregnancy, babies and miscarriages. Even though I’ve heard a million times how miraculous the marvel of creating life is, it has never really sunk in that people actually create a human being inside of themselves. The idea of being so responsible for another’s life is so… absolutely repulsive.
Working in the library, I sit in a small jail-cell-like closet on the third floor so that I can take off my mask and focus on my internship tasks. It’s musty and windowless, with greenish fluorescent lighting that mocks me for the full five hours I have committed to working. A few hours in, the room begins to engage in a gentle spin, which gradually — and by gradually I mean nauseatingly and alarmingly — progresses to full-on vertigo. Without thinking, I stand up, rip my dress off in one swift motion, followed by the dreaded claustrophobic belly. No time to reflect. I sit back down in my tank top only, and get back to work. There’s no maternity leave here.
I’ll admit it: walking back from the library in the heeled boots that seemed so cute at 10am is now pure agony. It’s safe to say that I experienced a real bell-curve of joy and acceptance with my few days of pregnancy: by the end, I’m so fucking over it. I’m itchy and uncomfortable to the point that I feel I could explode. My lower back threatens to collapse as I drag myself and the belly, now safely re-attached, up the West Philadelphia streets in the dark. Miraculously, I run into Jonah (aka the Baby Daddy — call him that, by the way, he asked me to ask you to) and demand that he carry his pregnant girlfriend home. So he does. And it’s sweet.
I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them have never happened. Worrying is like paying a debt you don’t owe. I have spent most of my life worrying about things that never happened. Drag your thoughts away from your troubles… by the ears, by the heels, or any other way you can manage it.
To implement phase two, I decide not to kidnap an actual child, though I can’t say I didn’t think about it. (If anyone needs a good start-up idea, Rent A Baby is a niche, untapped market.) While discussing the next best option with my friend Chelsey, she points out that it might be safer for everybody if I just borrow her Canis familiaris for a couple of days. Desperate times. I take her up on the offer.
I hate dogs. I actually hate most animals, with the exceptions of horses, the only animals I could convince myself as a young girl actually understood me, and also because they know their place, which is in the stable, and not in my house, but I try to avoid telling people for the simple reason that it screams maniac. I started out straight-up afraid of dogs, which then grew into the more socially-acceptable “ehh, they just don’t do it for me.”
The truth is, I hate the slobber, the smell, the barking, the jumping, the wet nose and, did I mention, the smell? For the purposes of my experiment, though, taking care of Dolce — my new bestie — is perfect.
At the end of an especially hectic week, I wake up to an email from Chelsey. The subject line reads: “Dolce care sheet.”
Hungover, I lean back and groan. I completely forgot. Jonah, who lays beside me, laughs uncontrollably. Did I mention he loves dogs more than anything?
He’s in disbelief. “You’re fucked. You’re taking care of this dog, like full time?”
Clearly, Jonah is too eager to see me suffer, so I decide he cannot be the one to accompany me for doggy pick-up. I enlist Isabelle, my roommate and another dog-sympathizer.
At Chelsey’s, I attempt a half-hearted and awkward pet of Dolce’s little back. It doesn’t go well. Thank God for Isabelle, who picks up the reluctant pooch and carries him out of Chelsey’s apartment and down the block. We walk in the brisk sunshine as Isabelle coos and ahhs and says all the right dog things. I walk beside her, stiff with a fake smile plastered on. I miss being pregnant.
En route to my house, Dolce poops, but I can’t quite bring myself to go there with him yet. Feels like more of a second date type of thing. We leave the shit on the road — don’t tell Chelsey.
Thankfully, since I have work, my friends take Dolce for the day. Childcare rocks — noted. I make sure to feed him, though, so he knows who his new mama is.
After chowing down on his fine feast of stinky Cookie Crisp-looking pellets and even stinkier grub in a can (I mean really, how does anyone handle this muck without vomiting?), Dolce pitter-patters over and stretches out next to me. I stare at him, perplexed. Do I need to burp him, like a baby? I give him a few of my famous wimpy pats on the back. The more I think about it, Dolce happens to be the exact kind of dog I’d get if I absolutely had to — and I mean was forced through threats of physical violence — get one. He’s really sleepy, and wants to be scratched.
I give in. I scratch. My first mistake.
Cut to night one, and Dolce’s sleeping in my bed. Dogs sleeping in human beds used to be my number one point of distaste when railing against the whole pet thing. (Well, that’s not actually true: humans kissing dogs on the mouth is my least favorite. But dogs sleeping in beds is a close second.) What can I say? I got home drunk from Halloween — like any good parent would — and he was in the bed. Who was I to refuse the poor pooch a good night’s sleep? He wasn’t bothering anyone.
In the morning, Jonah warns: “Don’t wait for too long to feed him. He might throw up on an empty stomach.” Noted. More similarities to his Mama.
On our daily walk, we run into one of my louder, more abrasive and obnoxious sorority sisters. The second she lays eyes on poor Dolce she grabs out and reaches for him with a squawk of delight. Dolce visibly recoils and jumps back, which seems to surprise her, though she only laughs.
I, on the other hand, am proud of my son, for doing exactly what I yearn to in such a situation, but am socially conditioned against. Good riddance. Good boy!
“What did you do with the real Anna Naggar?”
My friends from home are beyond baffled at the idea of me, dog-despiser-extraordinaire, a new mongrel-mama. But I’ve leaned into the role quite smoothly. I got the hang of it, just like I did my phony pregnancy. By the time Friday night rolls around, I am leaving him for the first time. I feel like my mom as I flounce downstairs in red lips and perfume, giving rapid-fire instructions to the nanny, a.k.a. my roommate Caitlyn: “Call me if you need anything!”
Out with friends, I start to worry about Dolce. What if Caitlyn gave him too much to eat? Much like a baby, he can’t talk. What if she can’t read him properly? I’m eager to get back, and worry about him some more as I watch a movie with my friends in the other room. Suddenly, a group of loud, drunk Halloweeners enter through the front door, fawning over him loudly. Something pulls at my heartstrings. Is it jealousy, protectiveness? I try to refocus on the movie.
For someone who was so rigidly prudish about change, I have become totally easy. I’m a slut for change. Tonight, I welcome Dolce to my bed with open arms, practically rolling out the red carpet and petting him as I fall asleep. Please don’t tell anyone. I mean it.
I wake up peacefully the next morning with sunshine streaming through my window. The weekend is here, and having a dog-child is way easier than I thought. One might call it a piece of cake. But then, as I stretch, I notice two large bullseyes of yellow and brown splotched across my white sheets. The outer ring is a piss yellow, building a perfect concentric circle around the small piles of flat, brown shit that announce themselves proudly on my bed.
The terrible twos have arrived. Dolce lies on his back with his soft white stomach completely exposed. That’s right, ladies and gents: I’ve slept in shit. It’s my biggest fear and reason for rejecting all dogs, realized. Dolce has taken a shit on my life and does not seem to regret it one bit. In fact, the little stains of brown that dance around his mouth tell me he quite enjoyed his tasty little accident.
No time to think. I race downstairs to get away from the scene of the crime. Someone made cookies last night. Their small, brown, round and flat nature only serve as a mocking reminder of what’s in my bed. I go back up to feed the little devil before he can cause any more trouble and am somehow shocked all over again by the nasty surprise. For the past few days, Princess Dolce has insisted on being carried up and down the three flights of stairs that separate my bedroom and the kitchen. Today, he gets a light kick, and suddenly is well and able to make it down. Mama’s not fucking around anymore.
Downstairs, Dolce hesitates around his breakfast. Judy wrinkles her nose. “Maybe he knew it was time to be taken out?”
I am instantly defensive. “I TOOK HIM OUT LATE LAST NIGHT.”
Standing in front of the mirror brushing my teeth, I burst into deranged laughter. I’m dressed in a collared button-down pajama shirt covered in different dogs with Jewish names — Schnauzerberg, Goldman Retriever, etc. The pups don yarmulkes and spin dreidels. I accepted it as a hand-me-down from a friend and had been wearing it ironically as a proud dog-loather. Now, it ridicules me. It stands for exactly what I am. A crazy dog lady, cleaning shit off of her sheets on a Saturday morning. And it isn’t even my own.
My pity party unsuccessful, I march Dolce over to Jonah’s for a second attempt. As it turns out, Jonah feels bad for the dog, and drags him into the shower. As I watch him scrub Dolce’s squirming face, my heart warms. Briefly.
Dolce gets the silent treatment for the rest of the day. My son has disappointed me. I’m terrified to have him sleep in my bed again. Night comes, and I bite the bullet. It’s our last night; my sheets can take another round if they must. I allow Dolce begrudgingly back onto my bed, this time designating him a special spot on the edge that I’ve covered with a towel.
To my great relief, the canine controls his bowels this time around. And just like that, the whole picture changes. It all clicks; the stain on his mouth, the weird flat nature of the shit, the fact that it didn’t smell like shit… the memory of walking into my parents’ dark bedroom at a young age, shaking my mom awake to share the dreaded and disgusting news: Mommy, I threw up.
Dear Lord, forgive me for projecting onto my own child. Dolce puked. And I ruined our last day together through my own evil parenting confirmation bias.
Parenting Rule #1: Don’t project your fears and expectations on your helpless, innocent children.
Parenting Rule #2: Know the difference between puke and shit.
It’s time for Dolce to go back to his real home. I walk him back to Chelsey’s and it’s an uneventful goodbye. Back at home, despite my failing as a puppy-parent, I feel free. The house is clean and quiet. That night, at 6pm, my heart jolts. Did I remember to feed him?
A man complained to his rabbi about how overcrowded and loud his house was. The rabbi advised him to bring all of his barn animals in with his family. After a few weeks, he finally allowed the man to remove the animals. The man returned to the rabbi: “We have such a good life now. The animals are all out of the house. The house is so quiet and we’ve got room to spare! What a joy!”
– A very abridged version of a story I was told as a kid
Blessed is the joy of empty nesting. Hallelujah!
Home free, I set my mind to the next stage. Perhaps a midlife crisis? A tattoo, a career pivot? Do I attend parent association meetings? Nothing feels right. It is then that I remember a crucial step, skipped over perhaps in a subconscious attempt to avoid the most terrifying of all: in between fake-pregnancy and fake-child, there must, of course, be fake-labor.
After a scrumptious Friendsgiving feast, I usher my housemates into the living room for a very special screening. On YouTube, I search: “labor and delivery vlog.” We get a lot of soft and fluffy influencer crap, so I switch to “labor and delivery vlog GRAPHIC.” Let the exposure therapy begin.
And there she is, my knight in shining hospital gown: Destiny Diamond. Three minutes into the video, it begins. The entire house shrieks in unison. It’s a loud, horrified scream — the kind usually reserved for when someone breaks into your house wielding a rusty knife. The stuffing, mashed potatoes and Fireball come together for a not-so-graceful triple-axle in my stomach. Blood spurts everywhere. I hide my head in my hands, but Isabelle drags my face back to the screen: “YOU DID THIS. YOU CHOSE THIS.”
We have so many questions. What happened to Destiny’s vagina? Why does the baby’s head look like a pit lodged in an avocado? Or a bloody cabbage? Since when are umbilical cords that thick?!
Thankfully, the labor is short and sweet (actually, it’s just short). When it’s finally over, Destiny breathes in relief as she strokes the abnormally large baby on her chest. On one end of the room, Kelsey sighs. “It makes me want to have a kid. It’s kind of like running a marathon; what an accomplishment.” This may come as a surprise, but I don’t run marathons, nor have I ever had the urge to do so.
“So sweet,” Isabelle agrees.
“I’m getting a surrogate,” Judy declares. I’m with her.
After we retire to our bedrooms, stuffed and a little traumatized, I feel unsatisfied. The labor didn’t feel like enough. Not scary enough, long enough, shocking enough, terrible enough. Do I need to watch more? Maybe with Jonah? Maybe alone, without the humor and support of friends? Something’s missing.
In an uncharacteristic move, I decide that it can wait until tomorrow.