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I’ve been thinking in percentages for months now, so I’ve had a head start. Congenital heart defect, 1 percent. Spina bifida, 0.07 percent. Down syndrome, for a baby born to a mother in her early thirties, between 0.1 and 0.2 percent.
We found out my wife was pregnant in September, right after we got back from our honeymoon, right after we started trying: Too good to be true. Too nervous to look at the stick, my wife asked me to read the results. There were no symbols to decode, just a word: PREGNANT. Hopping around the bathroom we felt giddy and sick, two people who by their natures expect the worst celebrating something suspiciously great.
Marfan syndrome, 0.02 percent. Microcephaly, 0.12 percent. Tay-Sachs disease...
Tay-Sachs is a fatal genetic disease that disproportionately afflicts Ashkenazi Jews like me. In November, we found out that my ethnically Armenian wife is a carrier, a 0.3 percent chance. Of course: Just our luck. I knew my odds of being a carrier were about 1 in 25. I went to get my blood drawn. Dazed, sitting in that weird Falun Gong coffee shop on Eighth Avenue, we told half-hearted jokes about my wife being an honorary Jew. Then we did the morbid math.
If we were both carriers, there was a 1 in 4 chance the baby would have two copies of the bad gene, a death sentence. 0.04 x 0.25 = 0.01. For the next 10 days we took turns freaking out about the one percent. “It’s one percent,” one of us would offer, briefly composed. “It’s. One. Percent,” the other would respond, slunk into the couch, staring straight ahead.
Eventually, we heard from our “genetic counselor” — not a person who tells you what career you’re cut out for based on your DNA, it turns out — and the news was good. I pictured my college statistics professor and felt a little rush of gratitude toward him, as if he embodied the unsentimental odds of the universe. We told our families and went out to an expensive meal, at which I yet again broke my promise to stay sober in pregnancy solidarity. My wife was too relieved to care.
Compared to the agony of many expectant parents, our first trip into the Probability Zone was benign. But this way of thinking, this sense that our health and happiness were down to a dice roll, stuck. Over the winter, as the coronavirus set its own unsentimental course, I was tuned into a new frequency of fear, a low buzz of risk and consequence out of a Don DeLillo novel. I came down with a bad respiratory illness at the end of January and spent feverish hours googling flu death statistics. Was this any sillier than worrying about Zika virus or spina bifida? Jaywalking, wearing noise-canceling headphones on my commute, rushing down the subway steps — these all suddenly seemed less like New York City table stakes and more like deliberate and fraught bets. I wasn’t afraid for my life, exactly. I was afraid for our joy.
Now it is April, and as the virus occupies my city, we are all spending more and more time in the Probability Zone. We are all now making morbid calculations and a thousand decisions, small ones and big ones, based on them. True, New Yorkers love “there but for the grace of God” chitchat about one-in-a-million subway nightmares and street grate disasters. But my wife and the people we know live in a predictable version of the city, a safe version of the city, in which it is impossible to get a substandard cup of coffee and in which the chances of a catastrophe have never been lower. Had never been lower. Real material fear has come for those of us who usually just tweet about such things, even as we know we have less to fear than so many others. For these New Yorkers, who can’t work from home and can’t get good health care, the Probability Zone is far crueler.
COVID-19 death rate, 6 percent. COVID-19 death rate among Americans under 18, 0.11 percent. In-utero transmission rate from COVID-19 positive mothers to infants, unknown.
Now everything outside our home feels uncertain. Every time either one of us leaves and comes back, we bring the outside in — a bad feeling that could harden into a reflex with lasting consequences for the city. Every time we come back, we have rolled the dice again. Only, we don't know the rules of the game. The studies have small sample sizes. The results have been contradictory. Everyone walks around nursing a theory about why some people get sick and others don’t, some idiosyncratic solution of recency bias, media diet, and half-forgotten high school biology. Everyone’s Probability Zone looks different, changes constantly. We are told not to wear a mask, and I resent the mask wearers. We are told to wear a mask, and I resent the maskless. We are told that some of the masks are fake, that wearing masks wrong can trap the virus against your mucus membranes, that you can stick a mask in the oven to purify it. Outside, when there’s no one around, my wife sometimes removes her mask to steal a full breath. She’s 8 months pregnant and she gets winded. This annoys me — doesn’t she know that she’s adding to the number? Then I’m annoyed that I’m annoyed. I’m not the pregnant one. I have no idea how she feels. Am I trying to protect her or am I trying to control her body? I have stopped policing her sips of wine. How the fuck would I make it through this without wine?
Yet somehow my wife exudes calm, in the kind of “Que Sera, Sera” way I associate with Buddhists and stoners — not exactly with the woman I married. Her therapist says this is because of “pregnancy hormones.” Her hair is thicker and her skin is brighter. She has heartburn. She grabs my hand to her belly in delight when the baby kicks, but sometimes it’s too late and he’s stopped. Her experience is physical. Mine is abstract. She seems to have left the Probability Zone. I spend all my time there, reworking my algorithm based on studies about pregnant women in Wuhan, feeling grateful for the dependability of Amazon deliveries and the Capital One mobile banking app.
We retreat into telemedicine, teletherapy, telepregnancy. We attend a virtual birthing class. I’m distracted by the bookmarks for Gothamist and Smitten Kitchen on the doula’s shared desktop screen. I wonder if she’s baked the “i want chocolate cake” chocolate cake recently. A couple in Alabama keeps cutting in and out. Three hours pass. When it comes to medical interventions, the doula concludes, “Always remember BRAIN.” It stands for BENEFITS, RISKS, ALTERNATIVES, INTUITION, NO, NEVER, NOT NOW.
We want to know which way the baby is facing, so we video-chat a friend, a midwife in California. She tells me to press around my wife’s stomach to try to find something round and protuberant — it's likely to be the head or the butt, and we can triangulate from there. So I go about trying to seize my unborn son’s butt, with all the grace of a bowling alley arcade claw. Incompetence leads to ticklishness, leads to laughter, leads to failure, leads to Netflix.
One day, we learn that our hospital has banned partners from the delivery room. We are COVID-19 risks.
“I had been doing so well until this,” my wife says. “But I don’t know how I can make it through labor alone.” We discuss fleeing to where we grew up, but worry about infecting our parents. We hatch harebrained schemes to get me into the hospital. One of them involves bribing the medical staff with baked goods. Or maybe I could contract and recover from COVID-19 in time for the delivery?
I tell her I’ll be there the whole way on FaceTime. Don’t worry about it.
A small part of me is glad for the ban. Doctors are masters of the Probability Zone. They deliver lots of babies — we only have one. If the doctors at this hospital have consulted the Zone and concluded that I am not safe, then I will swallow my pain and update accordingly. Maybe all the other hospitals have it wrong. I read about critically sick women in labor, intubated, unconscious, cut, sewn. If it is unsafe for these women to experience childbirth, they will have to update accordingly. They will have photographs. If our son spends the first months of his life in a NICU, we will have to update accordingly. We will get Seamless delivery and see him as often as possible. If he doesn’t meet his grandparents until he is 2 years old, if he never meets his grandparents, we will have to update accordingly. We will Zoom — or we won’t.
When the governor announces an executive order requiring that the hospital let partners in, I cry, mostly but not entirely out of relief. I had adjusted my fear hypothesis and now I have to adjust it back.
For now, that’s where we are. We have enwombed ourselves, and we will stay here until my son has to leave. Recently, when I’m lying in bed and I can’t sleep for running the odds, I picture him. I don’t see him in my arms or my wife’s arms. But I see him, new and good, with a chance — whatever that number is — and I stop imagining what could go wrong.
The other day, I came across a neighbor on all fours at her front door, disinfecting plastic containers of Thai food with Clorox wipes. She’s such a nice person, with two kids under 2.
“I know I look crazy,” she said with a laugh. I wanted to give her a big hug. Instead I hoped she could see from my eyes that I was smiling underneath my surgical mask. Then I rushed inside. ●