by Saskia Vogel
Normalcy. It’s all I wanted to return to. But during the last leg of a half-year-long book tour for my debut novel Permission, I was suddenly pregnant with my first child, flying into the path of Hurricane Dorian. My climate-change anxiety surging, I opened my laptop to work on the translation of Greta Thunberg and her family’s latest book Our House Is on Fire: Scenes of a Family and a Planet in Crisis. The text boomed, Save the planet: Stop flying! I felt like a hypocrite. I questioned the sanity of bringing a child into this world. A child, so far just a smudge on a screen with a flickering heart. I spent my days managing waves of panic: its health, future, and well-being, ours. But as I entered my third trimester and COVID-19 was shifting our reality in Berlin, I felt oddly well-equipped for the crisis. I felt calm.
Weeks after sitting out the hurricane in Nova Scotia, I almost lost the baby. Measures were taken, but all anyone could really tell me was We’ll have to wait and see. It had been the same the years my husband and I were trying. We’d been given so slim a chance of conceiving that we’d started to make peace with childlessness. As my pregnancy progressed, the doctors’ answers to our questions remained unchanged. They could offer tests and statistics, I could slather my belly in oil to ward off stretch marks, but there were no guarantees. It was either going to happen or not. My therapist and I had been talking about this for years: how I needed to let go of my fantasy of control.
These lockdown days are much like my regular days—us working from home, preparing the house and ourselves for the baby, now relying on mail-order and limiting news—but saturated with unease. The world, the social body, is changing. No one can say how it will be. Our fantasies about the baby’s early life are moot. We’d wanted to bring the child into a loving hubbub of family and friends. Now, overseas visits from my parents and sisters are indefinitely on hold. Grandparents here in Berlin, over-70s, are in isolation. I think about the role smell plays in memory, touch as a communication. How will it impact the baby to have only us? (For how long?) I discipline myself to stop thinking about California as a point of arrival or departure, of seeing my family, my home. It’s all I can do to keep the sadness in check. I’m trying not to think into the future. I do my best to prepare, but it’s out of my control. The on-march of a child made this concept concrete.
For a long time I didn’t think about the birth itself. My birthing plan had only ever been “get the baby out safely.” The trust I have in the German system has helped me feel relatively secure even as the pandemic has progressed. But as our orientation meeting at the hospital drew near, it wasn’t clear if my husband would be allowed to attend the birth. A fresh fear arose. I’d been thinking of birth as a medical procedure. I hadn’t realized how deeply it was about us, the moment when baby makes three.
It was our first question for the midwife and the first truly satisfying answer. From an epidemiological perspective, she said, my husband and I are the same person, and so inextricable. We’d all be present for the dawn of our new life. Recovery was a different story. Five days alone in a hospital room I couldn’t leave with only my newborn for company and nurses with differing opinions speaking to me through my car crash haze. I was sure I’d never see my family again. That the pandemic was already over, and they were conspiring to keep me here. It was the hormones talking. So this is what they mean when they talk about hormones, I thought in the light of a new day, having calmed myself down by narrating the night to myself as if it were a fiction.
Life back in the world was gentler for us than I imagined it would be. Though whenever I’ve met our Berlin family or a friend, an old feeling rises to the surface. A hypochondria from my single days: that there is no such thing as safe sex, only safer sex, and even if I imagine I’ve taken precautions, I can think of seventeen ways I could nonetheless have been infected. Having decided to become the same epidemiological person as my husband’s mother, we move in with her in the countryside. At least one grandparent will get to have something like a normal time with their grandchild. At least our child will have nature for company, will see a horse, a raccoon, a deer, a fox, even if it’s mostly just us. At night in bed we listen to the dormice running through the walls and his gentle moaning breaths.
In the cracks, hope springs. Things that should already have been done get done. This morning, the news that the Redskins have finally decided to ditch their name. I hope. I hope. I hope. I hope. I am hoping for the best. I am forever a believer that around the next bend we will arrive at the idea that a society structured around well-being for all is the only society worth building, and then will draw that future down from the sky.
My dad calls from Los Angeles and says he’s heard that there’s a legitimate way to get to Germany via Austria, which includes testing and quarantine. I feel parts of my mind light up, hope, want. And then risk. Mind the risk. As much as you want this, mind the risk. I promise to look into it, and I will, but I can’t. I can’t ask him to take this trip. I think about all that I have risked for fleeting pleasures, and if this time the risk would actually be worth it.
I sing to the baby and all the songs that come are songs of the West. I sing to the baby. The idea of a visit. The balance of risk and will. The awful thought: This is a thing I could make happen. It is within my control.