There are many kinds of serious disorders and phobias that I cannot understand.
Androphobia: fear for men.
Gynephobia: fear for women.
I take pity on those people. Who could have feared creatures of socialization?
Chrometophobia: Fear of money.
Who in the world is afraid of money?
I have always thought these phobias are ridiculous and illogically based. But I know someone who is afraid of one thing – so afraid that he breaks down in nausea and cold sweat whenever that thing happens to be around him.
My husband. He fears babies.
Yes, tiny little creatures with pink skin and peachy lips. The living crawling cuties in diapers, with skins smelling of the subtlest aroma of powder. The wailing kiddos in cotton pajamas, not knowing how to speak, nor hurt anybody. Babies. The kinds women love to coo at and get involved in a series of cheek pinching activities. Harmless, adorable, babies.
I do not understand how he can despise such creatures, yet be afraid of them. I try to get into his head, I really do, but I cannot see why. Everytime he spots a baby in the safe crook of the mother’s arms, he begins sweating uncomfortably. He squirms and does not stand still, until I whack him in the shoulders and he shoots me a look of annoyance.
“Get a grip,” I tell him calmly, and watch him sweat some more until the baby is gone.
“The thing is, I cannot understand how a baby works,” he says to me this one time, when I ask him how unbelievably silly he can act in front of a baby – albeit a sleeping one. He skittishly shakes his head and makes a face.
“A baby is not a machine, darling,” I reply, trying to be as rational as possible.
“I know, but I cannot understand how to communicate with them. I wish I could know what they are thinking.”
“Speaking babies,” I am unable to stop myself to forget my sarcasm. “They will be scarier than babies that cry and do nothing.”
He makes yet another face and does not bring up the subject ever again.
But of course, such a thing is inevitable. He prevents himself from going to baby-bash parties. He refuses to attend first birthdays and instead sends wine with handwritten cards. These he can do, until I find myself shrieking in the bathroom, my hands clutching the thin plastic strip dipped in urine, showing two clear reddish lines.
I wish I can show you his face when he reacts to the news.
I wait for a more enthusiastic response, but he does not elicit more. He hugs me, and I cry joyful sobs into his chest.
These months go like a fast blur. He helps me redecorate the house, paints the walls a neutral color of beige and yellow, tolerating my morning sickness and the cravings for spicy takoyaki rolls in the middle of the night. He makes love to me tenderly and kisses me on the forehead every so often, but he is afraid of touching my tummy. He holds me at arm’s length, always being extra careful, often remembering his fear even in the brink of a moment’s pleasure.
“This is utterly ridiculous,” I scream at him, one morning when I am feeling especially cranky. “This is like fearing a chicken before it is hatching its eggs!”
He shakes his head at me, probably too used to my hot-tempered tantrums by now. But he finds a way to ignore my complaints, and still acts as if I were a porcelain going to crack in the slightest touch. Moreover, he is still avoiding my stomach. It is bulging and stretching beneath my nylon shirt, already the size of a basketball with the navel bumping the smoothness.
“I just want to be touched,” I plead when this has turned beyond unbelievable. “I just want you to be happy for this baby. For us.”
“You know how I feel about babies,” he argues. “And I am happy for us, I do.”
“Your actions say otherwise,” I say, fired up with anger. “How long are you going to avoid us, until the baby turns thirty?”
That is probably the meanest thing I have ever said to him, but still he does not say anything. He looks apologetic. I forgive him for a moment, but as I inch closer to cuddle him, he jerks back involuntarily at the touch of my belly to his skin, and I get upset all over again.
“See you when the baby is thirty,” I tell him before I slam the front door closed.
He occasionally offers to shop for baby stuffs with me, especially when the delivery month is near. I have a hunch the baby is going to be a girl, so I buy more pink blouses than the pale blues reserved for boys. My husband does not think he can handle even thinking of a baby being born, let alone pick outfits for it. So I take my best friend and my mother shopping.
“He’s going to get over it,” my best friend sootes reassuringly.
“How is he going to be a good father if he is afraid of being one?” my mother shoots a comment from the back of the car. My best friend and I eye each other. Taking them together on one shopping trip turns out to be a not-so-good idea.
He does not often check out the nursery either. I spend most of my time there, humming a soft melody to myself as I hung the colorful plastics in animal shapes all over the place. I stick glow-in-the-dark stickers and stars of the galaxy on the wall, so my baby can see a full sky looming over it and makes it feel safe. I line up a fashion show’s worth of baby clothes so it can be fashionable, basing the collections on colors and seasons of the year. I place hardcover books with children’s posters right beside the plush toys, and little pillows on the small bed right by the window.
It is when I am doing all these I find him standing by the door, his face owns the softest expression I have seen him have.
“Come in,” I whisper, holding out my hand so he will make his way inside.
He shakes his head slowly. “I’d rather stay here.”
“And be a stranger? Come on.” I urge him, and this time he takes a tentative step.
“It looks amazing. A kid is going to pop out and stay here for a hell of a long time.”
I smile. “The kid can stay forever if she wants.”
“I like to call her a she. I want her to be named Grace, if she’s a girl. Or Joy.”
“Grace? Joy?” he laughs. “I thought you wanted a more stylish name.”
I hide a smile. “I thought of Mercedes and Jodie, alright. But I think Grace is a perfectly humble, stylish name.”
We stay there, my head on his shoulder as we sit cross-legged together by the littlest bed in the world, made for a baby to stay and be loved.
The kid comes faster than everyone predicted. My water breaks just as I am fixing myself a bowl of macaroni and cheese, and when I glance down, clear liquid is trickling down my legs, making its way to the floor. I scream and panick and know that my husband is the first person that should learn of this, even though he is the last person who will whoop with joy.
He comes running down wearing his lopsided glasses, his blue pajamas still wrinkled with sleep.
“What? What?” he shouts, forgetting that he always speaks sleepily in the morning. “It’s before six. What? What?”
And he sees me in a state of panic. He sees my nightgown drenched. He sees the stricken look of my face, and pure joy in my eyes. He goes to start the car.
The way to the hospital is short and quick. I am ushered by a nurse to a pale-walled room. It scares me, but I am not that afraid. He squeezes my hands and smiles nervously, and I nod.
He watches as the baby fights its way down my womb, out to the world. He watches as he flails his tiny fist in the air, crying on the top of its lungs as it breathes the first breath of air.
“How did you know?” he asks, his breath puffy.
“Just a hunch.” I smile, but my cheeks are stained with salty tears and sweat. I cannot stop, and he looks across the room at his wife and his daughter, but he is unable to hold us together.
For the first few days he still hasn’t held our baby properly. He stays as far back as possible, being the last person to play with her, always the one volunteering to take baby pictures just so he does not have to be in them.
“I really don’t wish you’re so afraid of her,” I glance at him sadly. “I don’t want her to grow up without a father to love her properly.”
“I’m sorry,” is all he says.
“I need reasons.” There are times when I am more stubborn, demanding something more than he can give. “Tell me why you can’t touch them. Tell me why you don’t want to hold them.”
“I told you before,” he starts getting frustrated. “The smell of baby powder makes me want to throw up. Holding a crying baby and touching a diaper make me ultimately helpless. I want to sock the tiny little thing in a basket and never see it again, but that is just how my phobia makes me feel.”
“Don’t you want to.. love her?”
He pulls me closer and lays his curly head on my lap. Heavy, warms tears soak to my thighs. “I want to. I do.”
“You can’t love your daughter from a distance,” I say.
The tears keep seeping down to my skin, along with my own.
“She makes me feel uneasy,” he points at Grace, who is sitting on her pink stroller, watching us eat. “What is a baby supposed to eat, anyway?”
“She’s the cutest thing in the world.” I coo her and she gurgles with a happy smile.
My husband shivers, a reaction I despise. “Look at her black bug-eyes,” he thrusts another finget at her. “She’s following our every move. It’s like she can understand what we’re all saying and doing, but none of what she does makes sense.”
“She is a baby, not an alien,” I reply patiently, permanently beginning to feel like having to take care of two kids.
Grace starts to whimper. My husband looks at her, probably willing for her not to start tearing up, which she does exactly.
“Great.” He pushes his chair and leaves the room, leaving me with dirty plates and a baby that refuses to stop crying.
I come down with a fever not so long after. The house is a riot of noise and chaotic mess. I wear a cotton mask around my face, my skin is burning and breaking cold sweat, my hands shake all the time and I feel like fire is being shoved down my throat.
“Rest, rest,” my mother keeps saying as she dusts off dirt from my bookshelves and cater for Grace. “Where is your husband anyway? You need to rest and he needs a sprinkle of reality.”
I suppress a groan and try to get some sleep.
I am awaken by a loud wail later that evening. Dinner is still uncooked except for cold porridge on the fridge, Grace is still unfed without her regular bottle of milk, and I am still not getting better. I climb down the stairs, slowly making my way to the nursery to find Grace.
My husband is there, standing by her bed. I stop and watch him, uncertain if I should interrupt the moment. He seems unsure whether he should pat the hysterical child’s head or stick a plastic nipple full of milk to her mouth to calm her down. At first he lets out a finger to trail the hairlines of the child, but lets go and moves back as soon as Grace reaches out to grab his finger. He stands still for a very long time, until he scoops down and takes Grace with one sweeping movement. His hands tremble and he makes the usual noises as he tells himself to calm down and be brave.
The kid must have felt the surface of her father’s cool skin when they touch. I am not even sure how he feels when for the very first time, he strokes the velvety skin of his daughter’s without hesitation. He brings her closer and lets her nuzzle his neck, until he relaxes his awkward pose and kisses her on the cheek. She quiets down almost instantly.
I smile. There is no need to wait until Grace is thirty. There is still plenty of hope left for him.