Yesterday, I met Bean for the first time. Bean is the 12-week-old fetus turning summersaults in my wife's belly.
It all happened so fast. I only moved to England three years ago, and now I'm doing my part to populate this already-cramped island.
Our pregnancy (I will take the literary license frequently assumed by men and call it "ours," despite my actual, physical role in the act having long passed), was entirely planned and desired. But it still managed to surprise me when Bean popped up on a computer monitor in the darkened hospital scan room.
Bean waved at me, as if to say, "I'm really here, tough guy. Get used to it."
All the emotions which were fertilized in my mind about a year ago, when we started seriously discussing procreation, came unexpectedly and instantaneously to full term. Fear, joy, anxiety, helplessness and yes, even slight panic all hit me, all at once. None of them wiped the smile off my face, but the shock was real.
I spend eight hours a day enveloped in the news of the world. It's not been very good news lately, for the most part. The headlines I write frequently herald death, destruction and, lately, the collapse of the global economy. I don't think it's an effort on my part, or by the rest of the world's media, to sell doom and gloom. It's just what's going on.
Is bringing a child into this humanity — which has yet to figure out how to even feed millions of its own — really a good move? Is it fair?
What about doing it here? Britain. This isn't my country. Will Bean be British, or American… will he or she call my wife Mom, or Mum? Do I care? What about the more practical concerns? Am I confident enough in Britain's socialized healthcare system to entrust it with the health of my wife and baby?
Everybody over here complains about the National Health Service, or NHS, which is funded entirely by taxes. It is available to all residents, no insurance necessary. Many people do opt for private care in Britain, deciding the NHS doesn't provide a level of care they're happy with.
When we moved over, I seriously considered coughing up the extra cash for private care. Having lived in America most of my life, and having heard horror stories, I was doubtful of the capabilities of socialized healthcare. My wife comes from North Yorkshire and has an ingrained strong working-class ethic. She was having none of it.
NHS hospitals and doctors' offices do not generally boast fresh coats of paint or large, modern art sculptures in spacious, well-lit foyers. I miss all that. I now realize how privileged the insured masses in America truly are.
I've now gone through one fairly minor orthopedic surgery after a fairly major car accident, six visits for monitoring of a chronic health problem, and one nuchal translucency scan at NHS hospitals, and out of 10, I rate the cumulative experience a solid 6.5.
This country has some of the best doctors in the world, the technology is state of the art, and I never, ever have to watch a television commercial trying to sell me the latest drug to lower my cholesterol or make me happier/continent/less fat. I like that.
It's not perfect, it's not even great, but it's very good and it's for everyone. A right, not a privilege.
The receptionist who greeted us yesterday sat in a tiny, slightly dingy office in a hospital that was founded in 1733 (the buildings are not quite that old). But, she was friendly and she gave us the information we needed. We had to shell out roughly $30 for a DVD and some photos of our scan, but that's an added cost I can live with.
In the scan room (also small, no art on walls, rather institutional), the technician was very friendly and we had no concerns over her expertise.
She measured the layer of fat behind Bean's neck and later told us there was a very, very low risk of our baby being born with Downs Syndrome. This was the greatest relief I have felt in a very long time.
Before my wife got pregnant, I had probably thought of DS a total of five times in my life. When she started sharing the voluminous research and statistics with me, usually as I tried in vain to watch television, the possibility of our baby being unhealthy slowly became the elephant in the room that is my brain.
Excluding other factors, the overall risk of having a child with DS is about 1 in 800, but the risk increases quickly with the age of the mother. My wife is 31, and for her age the usual risk is 1 in about every 440. The hospital took that number, combined it with a blood sample and the fat-on-the-back-of-the-neck check (nuchal translucency), and gave us an actual risk factor of 1 in 10,800.
The tests can never give a proof-positive result; it's always a likelihood, a percentage chance. Statistics here show that about 70 percent of parents who are told their child is very likely to be born with Downs Syndrome chose to terminate the pregnancy.
For months, we both agreed we didn't want to know. However our baby popped out is how we would raise it and love it. Neither of us ever voiced even a hint of the possibility that we might end the pregnancy based on test results for Downs Syndrome or any other disorder.
But in the end, we didn't have to make the decision.
What if our technician had told us there was a 1 in 10 chance of us having a Downs baby? Would we have been brave enough to stand by our moral position? I like to think so, but we tend to judge our own actions better with hindsight, and I'm fortunate enough not to have that advantage.
For anyone who has faced the quandary and chosen not to have a baby with such a serious condition, I respect the decision. This must have been the most painful choice you ever had to make, and I don't envy you. I can't imagine losing Bean.
To the countless others who knew their baby was likely to be born with a serious health problem, and chose to raise it and love it anyway, I respect your decision, too. I wonder if I am truly as brave as you are — as brave as I boldly claim to be.
Six months before Bean is even scheduled to see the light of day and parenthood is already fraught with thoughts of perilous decision making. Nobody ever said this would be easy.