Jewish Journal


April 8, 2004

A Manual for the Auntie-to-Be


It seemed that lots of people -- including total strangers -- had plenty of advice to offer my sister and my brother-in-law before the birth of their first child, an event the entire extended family anticipated for late summer 2003. And it wasn't just a matter of kindly (if ultimately incorrect) projections about the baby's gender or rueful warnings about all those sleepless nights to come.

"I heard that you're not supposed to eat tuna fish when you're pregnant," one woman in a New York City deli remarked, loudly, when my sister sank her teeth into her once-a-week tuna treat during her seventh month.

The willingness of so many people to "share" scarcely surprised me. Like the suggestions that streamed in for the bridal couple between the engagement and the wedding, child-related counsel appeared to come with the territory of a pregnancy. And if the pointers weren't enough for my sister and brother-in-law, they could count on the insights and instructions buried within the books that quickly crowded out the suddenly antiquated wedding prep manuals on their bookshelves. Not to mention the countless classes they soon registered for, on everything from how to bathe a newborn to negotiating the relationship changes "when two become three."

I confess that before my sister's wedding, I didn't sense too much that was personally life changing for me. And since I'd previously served as a bridesmaid, it wasn't very difficult to perform that job again. Bridesmaiding seems a contract position of sorts, which ends as the band packs up and the bridal couple drives away in their limousine.

But I quickly found preparing for the birth of a first niece or nephew to be different, especially as a still-single and childless future aunt. For one thing, while there is plenty of advice, these days, even for bridesmaids -- and perhaps ironically enough, my sister has co-founded a popular Web site on that topic (www.bridesmaidaid.com) -- there is little written to provide counsel for the more significant lifelong position of aunt-to-be. Nevertheless I was surprised by the events and changes -- some subtle, some less so -- that I experienced in the months between sister's announcement of her pregnancy and the baby's birth. Others might be just as surprised by analogous "symptoms," such as:

Feeling the Baby Kick -- Sure, I have lots of friends who are moms, and I've watched the growth of their families very attentively, but no matter how long I've known them or how many secrets we've shared, it's never quite seemed appropriate to ask, "Can I touch your stomach?" It wasn't until my own sister's pregnancy that I could press my palm against a mother-to-be's bare skin -- and wait to feel a baby kicking her from within.

Consulting on the Baby's Name -- As a writer I have the opportunity to name characters all the time, and I'd owned a book titled, "6,000 Names For Your Baby," expressly for that purpose long before my sister started thinking about beginning a family. But one of the biggest surprises -- and privileges -- of my sister's pregnancy was my role as "consultant" and confidant in the name selection process (and there was an extra bonus -- being allowed to remain in the room for one final confidential discussion after the baby arrived but before her name was announced).

Expanding My Consumer Savvy and Lexicon -- Babies "R" Us. buybuy BABY. I didn't know about any of this before. Frankly, I didn't care. And I certainly never saved those Pottery Barn Kids catalogs that for some reason arrived regularly in my mailbox. Now they are stacked with pages marked and items circled. Like the first-time grandparents on both sides, I get to spoil this baby.

Learning Infant and Child CPR -- OK. Some details of obstetrical procedures I probably didn't really need to hear about. There are reasons I chose not to go to medical school. Twenty years ago, as part of the middle school "health" curriculum, I had received certification in first aid and CPR. But thanks to my sister's insistence that anyone who planned to be entrusted with solo time with her child needed to acquire some training in emergency response, I contacted the American Heart Association. I enrolled in a Heartsaver CPR for Infants and Children Course. I studied the manual and prepared for my class -- two weeks before the parents-to-be.

I learned a lot in that class that surprised me. I hadn't realized, for example, that, this year, one in every five children would be injured significantly enough to require emergency treatment. I hadn't realized how many preventive measures could be taken to avoid crises situations. And I certainly didn't know about other aspects in the "chain of survival." I'd already understood the best way to place an infant in her crib ("back to sleep") and known something about car seat safety, but I appreciated my instructors' additional tips on how to handle 911 calls and other strategies (that of course I hoped I'd never have to use). I was proud to report that I'd only missed one question on my written test -- a record my sister matched; my brother-in-law, a member of Phi Beta Kappa and tops in his law school class, scored a perfect 100. (You can imagine the pressure on the grandparents.)

But the biggest surprise was how much closer my sister and I -- who certainly had our share of sibling struggles over the years -- became throughout her pregnancy. From speaking on the phone only occasionally, we found ourselves speaking multiple times each week. We planned a trip to buybuy BABY (with grandma-to-be) that would include Auntie Erika, visiting specifically for the occasion, as well.  Everyone in the family referred to the baby, whose gender remained a mystery until delivery, by the nickname I gave it: "Kicky." Via e-mail I viewed every single sonogram and smiled over photographs of the baby's newly assembled bassinet. And when my sister was admitted to the hospital (for the real thing, after having stalled preterm labor for several weeks) I only hoped I'd reach New York in time.

That, I'm not sure anyone expected.  

Erika Dreifus is a Massachusetts-based writer and teacher. Her fiction and essays have appeared in such publications as the Boston Globe and Lilith.  

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