Monday, January 19, 2015

Baby Fat

            A nineteen-pound baby was born recently in Atlanta. I saw his picture, and he was both longer and plumper than most infants, and as sweet as any of them, from the tiniest spidery preemie to, well, this one, asleep in a nurse’s arms, sucking a binkie.
            A friend saw the picture and erupted in tsks and frowns. “Look at that,” she said. “Already obese.”

            Not all that long ago, I was pregnant. I was older than most moms, and I was larger, too, but healthy and strong.
            When either an older or a larger woman gets the pregnancy diagnosis, silent alarms go off, and everyone in the doctor’s office is thrown into emergency mode. As a mom who was both old and fat, I guess I’m just lucky the place didn’t implode. While the baby hummed along inside me, evolving from shrimphood, the doctor fretted, called for blood sugar tests, found me a specialist—all on the premise that I was in a high-risk category, and mine was a dangerous pregnancy.
            I started checking my blood sugar and trying to keep it within the desirable range. My blood sugar has always been on the high end of normal, but the high end was considered the deep end of the pool, and my doctor wanted me in the shallows. We monitored; we dieted; we regulated. Being in the shallows made me feel weak and faint, but she liked the math.
            The details are as boring as they were worrisome. At the end, I was brought in for induction, then sent home for a week because the bun needed more oven time. In another week—still two weeks before my due date—I went in for induction and was wheeled off to the preparation area, where I waited and worried. I was sure I’d have a twenty-pound baby—that no one in the hospital had ever seen anything like the manatee residing in my salt bed.
            I really wanted a natural birth. I see a natural birth as my link to history—a way, in this entirely modern world, to be like my grandmother, and her grandmother, and all the mothers throughout time. It’s painful, and it doesn’t have to be, but that pain feels essential, elemental, traditional. We go through it, we get past it, and, generation after generation, we prevail. Obviously, if there were real danger, I’m no fool—I have a doctor, and I’d be willing to do what it takes to have a healthy baby at minimal risk to self. But the truth is that there is nothing more natural than having a baby, and this is true for all women, all along the size spectrum.
            What I ended up with was an operating room full of people, the anesthetist over my shoulder, a vat of my own ruby blood right in my eyeline. It was terrifying; it was quick. Suddenly, there was a baby in the room.
            My son was fat—beautifully so. He was not, however, the record-breaker who was feared. They weighed him once: ten pounds, two ounces. They weighed him again: nine pounds, fifteen ounces. I tell everyone the first weight; the second is the weight indicated on his birth certificate. All that worry—my little booklet full of blood sugar numbers, an unwanted early surgery—and there he was, in the normal range, just sort of large for a baby. Ten pounds, two ounces. My baby, birth certificate be damned, was ten-two.
            Look at that. Already obese.

            In summers during college, I earned money as a medical records clerk, full time, usually on the night shift. Some weekends I worked day shift, and my job then was to fill out birth certificates. I am an excellent speller, and it’s a skill that came in handy when I approached parents who were almost always younger than I was and asked them for the baby’s name.
            “Stephanie Michelle,” a mom might say, maybe with her partner or her own mother beside her, maybe, tragically, alone.
            “How do you intend to spell that?” I’d ask.
            I grew accustomed to the pause. “How do you think it should be spelled?”
            I am responsible for numerous Michaels who were born in the late 1980s in the Appalachian part of Ohio and who do not spell their name M-I-C-H-E-A-L. I was also the final judge on some name options. “What do you like better—Kyle or Cody?” a mom would ask.
            Of course, I was all in for Cody.
            I enjoyed going to the new moms’ rooms as they got used to holding a newborn. I liked seeing the special outfit picked out for the baby’s first picture or for the trip home. Some abandoned moms were just happy to have someone who would let them show off the baby.
            On summer day, I was filing lab reports when a transcriptionist came in with the news. There was a baby upstairs weighing fifteen pounds, and he looked like a little toddler.
            Without another word, we hit the elevators and made our way down the hallway to the labor and delivery area, where there was an observation window for viewing the babies. It was pretty easy to find the fifteen-pounder, and my friend and I weren’t the only ones looking. There were unit secretaries and phlebotomists and gift shop clerks and candystripers, all gawking at the sleeping baby. The nursery was full, and the big guy was boxed in by babies a third its weight.
            I have to confess that I like chubby babies best of all. The skinny, spindly ones puzzle me, like when the woman at the zoo once handed me the blue-tongued skink. How does one hold such a thing? Where do I put my hands? Fat babies seemed sturdy and obvious, and I always knew just what to do with them, how to hold them close.
            My mother says that when my older sister was born premature, she looked exactly like a spider—spindly and covered in dark hair. She has never mentioned my dimensions, but I am a middle child.
            By now, that big baby from the hospital would be around twenty-six. He might have a giant baby of his own, or a passel of them, like a patch full of the ripest pumpkins.

            There are two ways you can have baby fat. One: you can be a child who still retains some soft features from babyhood. The other: you can give birth and have a noticeable tummy for a few weeks—but no more. Then your fat is something else—something shameful.
            It is no longer OK to be a fat baby, with big pinchable cheeks and a dimpled butt. Once the sign of health and vitality, fat is now an unacceptable variant. And giant babies, like that little boy in Atlanta, are objects of pity and disgust. Let’s hope the mom registered for a baby-sized elliptical machine.
            But welcome to the world, big fat baby. Have some milk. Let me hold you while you sleep. I am more than happy to make room for you.


  1. FWIW, I weighed just over 9.5 lbs when I was born. My mom told me that when they wheeled her to the nursery to see me amidst the other babies, an old, farmer-looking guy was standing at the window, and said "Look at the big redheaded one. He must be 3 months old."

    It's not new -- just louder.

  2. You were just starting a whole life of being super cuddly. That farmer, sadly, died without ever once being cuddled. :)

  3. Two of my nephews were very tiny preemies, and though they are mostly okay, each has some problems from being born so early and so small. There are worse things than a little baby fat.

  4. I am extremely uncomfortable around all babies and will not hold them until they can stand on their own, so I am not sure that my opinion matters at all, but, for what it's worth, I have always thought chubby babies were much less scary than the skinny, lizard-y ones.

    I was rather large baby. 9 1/2 lbs and 21 inches, not as exotic and exciting as a 15 pound kiddo, but pretty respectable. ;)