A lifetime ago, in my first marriage, when I was contemplating pregnancy, my fancy OB/GYN recommended I take the Mercedes-Benz of prenatal vitamins. Even with insurance they cost $30 a month, probably because they included a separate pack of mercury-free fish oils to promote optimal eye and brain development. “Babies on these vitamins will be smarter than all of us,” my doctor said, ripping the prescription from her pad and handing it to me.
The expensive vitamins matched my husband’s and my expensive life. We owned a 100-year-old house in the heart of historic Atlanta, a lovely place that needed about $15,000 of repairs a year to keep it that way. We ate out a lot, and always at our favorite restaurant on Saturday nights, where our typical tab was around $150. We took frequent vacations, staying in boutique hotels in Manhattan, San Francisco, Chicago. This might have been OK if we could have afforded our padded lifestyle, but we couldn’t, and so we were perpetually strapped for cash. Any advance either one of us received for a book went immediately to pay back taxes, credit card debt or repairs to the house. We were writers living like executives, knowing that our financial choices did not make sense, but also knowing, on some deep, unspoken level, that if we stripped away the soft padding that surrounded our shared existence, all that would remain would be two fundamentally incompatible people.
We never managed to have a baby together, which I now recognize as a blessing. Eventually we separated. By the time our divorce finalized we’d been living apart for nearly a year, and I was committed to the process of stripping away the nonessentials, a process that would come to represent both my exodus from my marriage and my entry into a less anxious, more authentic life. During that year I relied on other people’s keys, as I moved four times in 12 months: from one cheap sublet to another. All the while I navigated the selling of my own house, the dividing of debt and assets, and the winnowing of 10 years' worth of accumulated stuff. During that time I also finished writing a novel and took on as many teaching gigs as I could. I paid off the money I’d borrowed from my parents when I first separated from my husband, and even managed to save a little bit of cash.
Shortly after my divorce finalized I started dating Sam, whom I married a year and a half later. We are a very good match.
While my ex-husband and I rarely looked closely at bills, Sam is meticulous about his finances. He describes himself as a “generous tightwad,” which to me translates as someone more comfortable spending money on others than himself. The moniker fits, his methods work, and I’ve found myself becoming more and more like him when it comes to finances, from applying for a cash-back rewards credit card since I no longer keep a balance, to making homemade gifts both for the charm of giving them, and the cheapness of execution. We spend money on the big things (a trip to Panama to mark our first anniversary, a small house in the heart of the city), but we live by a daily ethic of thrift. A nice discovery: If you are with the right person, and you are not in financial dire straits, being thrifty is fun. It makes you feel smart and in control of your life, and it allows you to be generous toward others and causes you care about.
In my first marriage I was wishy-washy about having a kid. But I knew from early on that I wanted to have a child with Sam. Indeed, pretty much the second we got married, I was ready to get pregnant. Which was lucky, because a second is about how long it took. Which takes me to where I am now, in my third trimester, my belly tight and full.
From the get-go, I attempted to approach my pregnancy with sensibility and not preciousness. I eschewed the fancy prenatal vitamins, instead buying ones from Target with plenty of folic acid, which run me less than $3 a month. Friends and family have offered everything from gently used crib sets to baby bottles to onesies. I am delighted by their offerings, loving the idea of a reuse/recycle baby. A few weeks ago I received a catalog in the mail from hawkers of high-end baby products. I felt a sense of condescension as I flipped through the pages advertising tricked-out nurseries, complete with a Versailles theme for one’s little prince or princess.
This is not to say that I don’t want my baby to have a good life — quite the contrary. But I think a good life is less about providing my child with stuff and more about providing him with a sense of love and belonging in the world. I’m also cognizant of the fact that by virtue of being born into a well-educated, middle-class household with parents who love each other, our child has already won the lottery, big time. He is going to be OK with or without the $30 vitamins. Lord knows, my child will be the most important child in the world to me, and I will care about him more than any other child out there—unless, of course, we have another who will also receive my fierce mother love. Still, I don’t want the birth of my baby to make me hyper-focused on, say, designer nurseries, pimped-out strollers, and in utero tutoring for private school, while turning a blind eye on the grossly inequitable world we live in.
Which leads me to bassinets, and how, as far as my theories on being a socially conscious parent go, the baby poop hits the fan. When I first got pregnant, I was reading a fun book on parenting by Clyde Edgerton, in which he suggests that an Igloo Cooler (with the top removed) is just as good a bassinet as an expensive lace-trimmed thing. Right on! I thought. And then I read about the “baby box” given to all new mothers in Finland, which consists of a rectangular cardboard box, fitted with a mattress, filled with an assortment of onesies and blankets. If the parents want, the baby can sleep in the box for his or her first three months. The infant mortality rate in Finland is unprecedentedly low. Hooray for the baby box! Maybe, I thought, Sam and I could get one. Or why not pad a laundry basket and use that as the bassinet? Or pull a drawer out from the dresser, line the bottom with a foam pad, and make like pioneers?
This line of thinking occurred months ago, before my belly grew, before I knew he was a he, before I saw his little fists clutched around his face during the ultrasound, before I felt his kicks and flutters and somersaults inside me. This was before I went online to look at baby cribs and bassinets, and started reading up on recalls and toxic finishes. This was before I accidentally clicked on a website listing all of the ways that a baby might die in his or her sleep, choked by a toy, or a loose blanket, or a barrette that falls from the top of a dresser onto his mattress, as was the case in one study I read.
My reaction to this horrifying web of over-information was to search for the cleanest, simplest, safest bassinet I could find, preferably with some sort of hermetic seal on top to prevent barrettes from falling in. And I found one — minus the seal — made by the ever-practical Swedes, minimalist in design, with no ruffles or mobiles or junk to harm your baby, no toxins in its finish either. All for a mere $300.
“I thought we were going to use the Igloo cooler,” Sam said, and I felt like I might start weeping. Did he really expect to put our baby, whom I had carried inside of me for nine plus months, into something one usually stocks with ice cubes and beer?
I started searching online for cheap, safe alternatives. The one cheap “infant sleeper” I found had some reports of head damage to the baby. I hyperventilated further. My solution to this new onset of panic was to do yet another Internet search, this time for best practices for sleeping infants. They are to lie on their backs, they are not to get too hot, you need to make sure to give them enough tummy time during the day so their front muscles don’t atrophy. Reading all of this did not ease my anxiety. And then the panic really set in, as I realized, in a concrete way that I had not before, that soon Sam and I will be bringing home an infant whom we are in charge of, when we have never, ever cared for an infant before.
During my divorce I realized that stuff doesn’t matter that much. I want that ethic to translate to how I raise my child. I want that ethic to translate to my child, for him to feel connected to the wider world, and not isolated in a cocoon of my making. Yet there I was at 2 a.m., Googling away, growing more and more anxious the more I read, and beginning to imagine the $300 Swedish bassinet as my only hope and salvation, a bassinet with a halo over its head.
The next morning I woke up feeling almost hung-over from all of that Googling. And in my groggy, remorseful state, a humbling thought occurred: A $300 bassinet will not guarantee certainty or even safety for the life of my baby. Nothing will. Sam and I, along with every other parent out there, along with every other human being out there who loves someone deeply, are screwed. We live in a fragile, uncertain world with no guarantees. Eight pounds of flesh, made of Sam’s and my genes, will enter our lives sometime this spring, and we are going to be totally helpless in the face of him, because we will love him in a way that we have never loved before. The stakes are so, so high. And surely that is one of the reasons why companies market to the fears of new parents. They know they’ve got us by the short hairs.
And so I am trying to take some deep breaths, and to continue to look for bargains and hand-me-downs when it comes to so many of the things that our baby will need: bottles, a Snugli, books, clothes. But I’m going to let myself off the hook if I need to buy an expensive something or other to feel a little bit safer when it comes to caring for our newborn. I recognize that all of this — this whole essay — is an exploration of what is often dismissed as “first-world” problems, but jeez, this is the world I live in, and if nothing else, a baby makes you realize that you’re not above it all. In fact, you’re just like everyone else: connected by profound vulnerability.