When my wife was pregnant, she loved to play the blame game. Her court. Her rules. When her back hurt. When her stomach ached. When she found herself baffled by one of the half-dozen child-rearing books we purchased for some sense of security.
“You did this to me,” she would say, the cocktail of exasperation and gleeful bravura in her voice chased only by a knowing grin best translated by text as “J/K.”
You. Guilty as charged.
I never really minded this little inside joke of hers. After all, she was carrying our child and doing a fantastic job of it. But now, finally, and without unequivocal fear of hormone-fueled blow-back, I have a legitimate reason to say the same thing in return.
And I have a recent afternoon of shopping to thank for it.
See, when every lame fortune cookie philosophy and cliché catchphrase encourages us to “enjoy the journey, not the destination, man,” there is one place that has proudly, staunchly embraced its position as an epicenter of arrival. It’s a little place called, Destination Maternity. Take heed, husbands and fathers-to-be: escaping this maternity superstore is impossible.
Now, I don’t exactly count myself among the manliest of men. As a writer I hold a pretty sissy job. At home I like to get complicated in the kitchen when time allows. I can appreciate a perfectly folded bath towel and creative interior design — even Meryl Streep. (Her Julia Child was rock ‘n’ roll.) But as I walk through the doors of Destination Maternity, I feel like Tarzan.
Everything in this place is designed specifically for expecting mothers. We are greeted by a sprightly clerk — let’s call her Erica. Her kind eyes and inexplicably chipper mood fling sharp arrows at my manhood. It’s an all-smiling, full-frontal assault on the emotional barricade I had erected between myself and this place. If today was a movie, she’d be played by an overly spunky Anne Hathaway. Erica will break into song any minute now; I can just feel it.
As my wife is directed to the clothing section, I turn to follow, but Erica addresses me directly. Great, here comes some backhanded compliment about how supportive I must be or maybe a lame crack about the chromosomes assigned to me in the womb.
“Can I get you water or orange juice?” she asks warmly.
This isn’t about being thirsty. It’s not about the drink. Hospitality is the nectar they’re doling out here, and I’m onto them.
I decline. I don’t want Destination Maternity to get its hooks into me. I want to be an unaffected outsider, an anthropological observer, and she’s trying to woo me straight into being a willing participant. Taking Erica’s beverages would be like a chaperone doing the robot at the prom when they’re really just there to stop the youngsters from necking. And that’s how I feel here: a chaperone. Sure, I’m involved with some vague sense of responsibility, but in truth, this is not my gig. I may have checked my balls at the door, but not my brains.
I round the corner, sans beverage, and then I see it. The horror. I am face-to-face with a giant wall of large, tan bras. Not lingerie, mind you. Bras. Bras as utilitarian as jockstraps. My wife asks me to help search for her size, and the over-under on my breaking point nosedives south. I feel like I’m on a reality show now, and an audience watching at home is placing bets on exactly when I am going to snap.
Once you’ve seen this wall of bras, you cannot unsee it.
I’m so distracted that when my wife’s lips move, I can’t hear a word. Long after she has disappeared into a dressing room, I stand there alone, transfixed by the almost Orwellian obelisk before me.
With this image burned into my retina came the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach that everything was changing all at once. See, it’s the little changes that mask the most significant one. While you’re busy painting a nursery and loading up on Elmo diapers and stacks of adorably tiny clothing, the truth sneaks up when you least expect it: having a child will change your relationship with your wife more than anything else ever will. More than buying a home. More than a move, or a career change, or even infidelity.
Your child’s first cry in the delivery room is the morning bell ringing out across the factory floor. Time to clock in. Congratulations. You and your wife, your friend, your love, are now co-workers. Co-workers given an endless assignment. Co-workers without a boss.
Perhaps sensing my realization, or following some company-wide edict to herd all men towards the nearest television, Erica informs me that I am welcome to have a seat “over here.”
“Over here” is four black leather recliners and a hi-def flat screen.
As expected, the coffee table in the middle displays recent copies of men’s interest magazines. Half of them are about golf. I don’t know anyone my age that particularly loves playing golf, much less reading about it. Now I feel like I’m at the doctor’s office.
And the whole set-up feels too composed, too fake, like a diorama of guy stuff. I think I am offended. Yep, I decide to be. Here, in the midst of countless things a mother needs, is some artificial oasis of items some executive somewhere else thinks men want.
This chair looks nice, though. Definitely nap-worthy. Expecting a long Saturday of shopping, I call a mental truce and sit.
Next to me is a middle-aged man, early 40s maybe, chugging a bottle of water with his eyes glued to the flat screen as he sinks low into the leather. This isn’t a chair. It’s quicksand. I don’t know where my wife is or why I am here, but I find myself forgetting my surroundings and studying this man.
He’s so calm. So assured. He’s probably an amazing father.
What’s his secret?
We sit for five, maybe ten minutes making small talk, and in that time I never once catch him checking his watch or grumbling or craning his neck toward the dressing room searching in vain for his wife. He is Zen. No longer a faceless stranger stranded with me in a flood of tan nursing bras, he is my sage, and I, his willing protégé.
I want him to explain everything to me. I want him to call me “grasshopper.”
“They need more stores like this right here,” he says to me in a measured tone as he draws the bottle of water to his lips.
Then he says nothing else, just drinks, and I swallow hard. His words. My own insignificant snark. My fleeting, internal rebellion against the little things we do for our women that end up turning us into men. Not the things we like to do. The things we ought to do.
Because the truth is, all those fortune cookies, Internet memes, and fuzzy philosophies are wrong. The destinations are an important part of the journey, especially when they are places we men never thought we wanted to go. Especially when they are for this new-found career called fatherhood — which isn’t so much a lifetime job as it is the job of a lifetime.
I start looking around for Erica. I think I will have that orange juice.