The nine couples attending the first week of my wife Ceci's natural childbirth course look on as she points to a chart that provides a preview of a baby-in-the-making's journey from conception to birth.
When she reaches the part of the chart that details what will happen between months four and five of conception, our daughter Cali, sitting cross-legged on the floor, a plastic diapered baby in her arms, sets it down gently, swaddles it, and stands up. "The fetus is really starting to grow at a fast pace," she tells the group. "So the uterus has to get bigger, and in a special way. It has to make room for the changing size and shape of the baby, now about a third of the weight it'll be when born."
Cali takes the pointer from her mother and traces an invisible circle around the uterus on the diagram: "As you can see, the top part of the uterus, here between the Fallopian tubes, is stretching up towards the mommy's chest."
The students are impressed. Their amber-haired, agate-eyed teacher, nearly 5 1/2 years old at the time, knows her business. As well she should. Cali is a natural childbirth junkie. She has been sitting in on her mommy's classes since infancy, and is well versed on the ins and outs of the subject. Such is Cali's fascination with the world of birth that odds are just as good that she'll be found at home absorbed in watching one of Ceci's collection of birth videos as one of the more 'child appropriate' DVDs in her own collection.
Cali wraps up her presentation to the childbirth students with this avowal: "When my mommy gets pregnant again, I'll help take care of her placenta."
After class ends, as Ceci chats with a couple of her students, and Cali and I pack up the teaching materials, I say to my daughter, "What did you mean, you'll take care of the placenta?"
"I'll make sure Mommy gets lots of rest, does lots of healthy exercise, like gentle yoga and low intensity zumba. I'll see to it that she meditates, so she'll be stress-free. I'll make sure she eats only good things, doesn't drink anything with caffeine. That way, her placenta will be in tip-top shape. Because the placenta nourishes the uterus where the baby will be growing. So if I take care of Mommy's placenta, then the uterus can do its job."
"Let's say we go along with your plan and you become a big sister," I say. "Mommy and I will have to spend a whole lot of time with your little sibling."
"I'll spend a lot of time with her too, Daddy. I'll help raise the baby."
"That's great, sweetheart, it really is. But I want to make sure you understand that if and when we have another child, we'll have another family member to whom we'll have to devote a lot of time and love and attention."
"Of course you will, Daddy. Daddy, are you listening to me? I'll raise the baby too. I'm ready -- to help care for her, love her, give her lots of big-sister attention. I'm ready to help you and Mommy figure out her needs, so you know how to care for her in a way that makes her giggle more than cry."
She's not done with me. "Daddy, baby raising is about being in tune with baby needs. I'm closer in years to a baby, so I know better where they're coming from. When I cross paths with a baby, they can see right away, 'here's someone who understands.'"
"You've convinced me," I say. "You are ready." To myself, "Am I?"
"You'll do fine, Daddy," says my little mind reader. "You're readier than you know. So is Mommy. You should see how you two look at other people's babies with dreamy looks on your faces."
"Sweetheart, maybe I am ready in many ways, but I'm not so ripe for daddyhood anymore."
Cali's look is thoughtful. She takes her time with her reply, making sure each word is just the right one: "That nice lady, Mrs. Heaven, she knew what she was talking about." Cali is referring to the woman who owns a soul-food diner we frequent. "The last time we were there, she asked you,
'When are you going to give your daughter a little brother or sister?' You said you weren't sure you would, because of your age. What did she say? 'You're at the perfect age. You'll give her so much of yourself, just like you do your daughter here.'"
Then Cali says, "Daddy, I need you and Mommy to make a baby if I'm to fulfill my identity goal."
"My identity goal, of being a big sister. Being a big sister is who and what I'm meant to be.
"Look at me, Daddy," Cali says now. "Can't you see a big sister waiting to be born?"
"I'll make sure she grows up, not down," she throws in for good measure.
She traces an arc with her hands. "Make sure her mind and heart and spirit grow upward and outward. So she won't wilt."
I study my daughter. She is raising me, helping me become a far better person than I would be if I didn't have her in my life. Cali falls into my arms, knowing I'll catch her, and hugs me.
"Don't worry, Daddy. You and Mommy go ahead and have little Cybele Margarita or Christopher Amado when you're ready. Oh, and by the way, you're ready now."
Soon after this exchange, Ceci became pregnant again. She had a miscarriage two months later. Many a tear was shed. "I'm still here!" Cali reminded us, going out of her way to keep our spirits up even as she coped with her own sadness over the loss.
With the passage of time, I started to wonder whether I'd been ready, ideally, to add to our family. Would the time ever be truly right and ripe for me to become a parent again? Or had I passed my peak, and then some?
Studies show that children born to young adults have longer life spans. Does that mean that those of us who've passed our child-bearing or -rearing prime but still have (or try to have) children are somehow remiss? An adult may be ripe biologically to have a child, but not ripe mentally or emotionally, or not ripe enough financially. Some might declare, upon deciding to be a parent, "I'm as ready as I'll ever be." But that might just mean they aren't going to get themselves any readier than they already are - even if they're not very ready at all, and are in fact in a state of woeful unpreparedness.
When making monumental life decisions, such as to become a parent, or to have another child, or to radically change course in life in some way, it might be prudent or even wise to take an honest tally of where you are, or think you are, in various dimensions of ripeness.
Still and all, no matter how carefully you've considered momentous decisions, they often require a leap of faith over a moat of uncertainty and even anxiety. What matters most is one's combined ripeness and readiness to attempt the leap.