Watching your wife give birth is a wild ride, at the very least. Having been through it four times, I feel qualified to speak a little bit about it. I have a friend who claims that watching his wife give birth is harder on him than actually giving birth is on his wife. I find that probably a touch insensitive, though I can understand what would lead him to the idea. You can’t help when your wife gives birth. Not really.
Guys move the furniture around. They get asked to do it, and they flex a little, knowing they were asked to do something specifically because of the body they have. It’s a bit egotistical, but it’s also quite subconscious. And every guy does it. No matter how much we pride ourselves on our minds and whatever else, we still are proud to be the ones who do the lifting and other grunt work.
But we can’t with the whole giving the baby thing. God made it that way, and not even the manliest man can change that. He has to sit and watch his wife do all the work; watch her strain, sweat, and push and flex. On the one hand, it’s hard as a human being, just to watch someone go through the pain and the effort. In addition, it’s the sort of thing YOU’RE supposed to be doing. It makes you feel helpless on a lot of different levels. You can’t make her feel better, you can’t help her get the job done, and she’s doing the physical work that’s supposed to be your department.
So, in a very real way, watching your wife give birth is sort of a psychological torture. You are completely useless.
Of course, the last sentence is not completely true. In fact, the whole purpose for being there in the room, with her is the emotional support. Which, of course, is traditionally her job. I get to hold her hand for several hours (about eight and a half, this time around) and tell her to “breathe.”
I understand, on an intellectual level, that telling her to relax and let her uterus do the work, and to breathe normally, is actually very helpful to my wife emotionally and even as a reminder of what she’s supposed to be doing. However, it’s not a tangible thing. When men think of service, we think “build stuff,” or “repair stuff,” or, even better, “tear stuff down.” We can go to a yard, rake up all the leaves, then stand back, and say “You can see
what I did here. There were leaves, and now there aren’t.” With “breathing…” well, how do I know it’s even been done right? How can I see that I did any good? It’s all well and good when my wife says “thanks” and tells me how it helped, but I still don’t see it. I have to take her word for it (not that I think she’d lie… in fact, my wife would scream at me if I did it wrong).
And don’t forget physically exhausting. My greatest fear at this point is that people will think I’m diminishing what my wife does. Sure, she’s done more. She is more tired. I know that. But the next time you wake up at 1 am to tell someone for the next eight hours that she’s doing fine and to keep going that you won’t be tired. No, I didn’t have some muscles constantly flexing, sometimes painfully, and I didn’t push that 9 pound creature out of my crotch, but I’m still tired and in need of a nap.
So, clearly, there’s a lot of ground to argue for the man’s suffering. I don’t know that the two types of trials can be compared directly, actually, since people have varying capacities for dealing with problems of different sorts. However, the biggest problem with my friend’s argument is that as a man watching your child come into the world, you aren’t thinking a whit about any of that.
At one in the morning on April 29, 2006, my wife elbows me in the ribs. “Eric? The contractions are ten minutes apart. I need your help.”
Granted, this is the most trying part of the labor for me. I’m still in bed. It’s still absolutely dark, and there’s very little either of us can coherently say during the 9 minute stretches between the end of a contraction and the start of another. My eyelids are in complete and utter rebellion, trying to force a cranial shut down for at least another five hours.
However, combating this impulse are two very important concerns. First, if I don’t stay up, I am officially a jerk. There is no argument that could defend myself successfully. Even if I’d been awake for the 24 hours previous, I am a jerk if I don’t stay up. That would be my own judgment on myself, not some judgment (perceived or true) made by the rest of the world.
Second, I’m excited at this point. We’ve been waiting forty weeks for this to happen (actually, forty-one weeks). While I wasn’t thinking about it all the time, as soon as that due date passes, you can bet that I’m jumping at the slightest hint that labor is imminent. Even though no sane person not between the ages of 14 and 22 is awake at this hour, it’s like Santa Claus is going to appear any moment.
My job at this point is not just to hold her hand, occasionally massaging her lower back or legs, but also to watch the clock. When she says “here comes another one,” I need to be able to say how long it’s been since the last one started. This means I can’t go through motions. I have to be conscious enough to do basic arithmetic using a number I saw ten minute previous. Good thing I’m excited. If I’m really on the job, I’m counting seconds too, so I can say how long the contraction lasts.
This stage goes on for an hour. After each contraction ends, I stare at the digital clock and mentally will it to progress. If we can establish that the contractions are coming at regular intervals, (or even better, ever shrinking times), then we can go to the hospital. Once we’re there, the baby will come. We’ve got motivation to get this done. Of course, since, once again, there’s nothing I can do to stimulate the contractions, this leaves me trying to alter the course of time until I hear “Here comes another one!”
After an hour to ninety minutes of this, I finally feel brave enough to suggest my wife needs to call the doctor. One of the problems with being the father of the coming baby is that you know you’re out of your league. No matter how well you’ve studied all the manuals your wife made you read, you are in the position, roughly, of the freshmen intern hired primarily to make coffee. You have no good ideas. If you suggest something, the best result you can hope for is laughter. More likely, you are going to end up with a red, hand-shaped welt on your face.
Fortunately, for me, my wife agrees. I get the bag and the camera, and get myself a bowl of cereal (hey, maybe she can’t eat, but I’m gonna be hungry quite soon — my belly is quite Pavlovian, wake it up and it starts to drool). Then, when my wife is off the phone and getting on something she can go into public wearing, I call grandma. Grandma knows a whole lot more about what’s going on and when and why in life, but this is the one time in my life I can tell her to do something. In moments she is on her way.
The car ride in is awkward. Not in the “what do I say?” sort of way. But if it’s difficult to go watch regular labor, knowing that my wife is having a contraction while I’m doing 60 (gradually increasing to 70 and beyond) on the highway is maddening.
The following several hours are a marathon of impatience and frustration. The contractions are regular, but they aren’t getting closer together. There’s a machine that somehow measures contractions — how strong they are and when they’re happening, so I don’t have to wait for my wife to tell me. I can just watch the seismic readings on the chart being printed out. I get excited as I see a big one coming. But I have to hold it in, or face the wrath of a woman too busy to distinguish joy over the labor progressing and joy over someone in pain.
Then they start slowing down. What? Slow down? They’re not supposed to get father apart? We’ve been doing this for hours! The man in me wants to grab the phone, call the doctor, and tell him to get his over-educated self down here and do something about this. But that man also knows that he is not on his home turf, and he does not call the shots. You keep your head down and fire when ordered. So I wait.
Eventually the doctor gets his over-educated self down here and does something about it.
Things finally start to move, and eventually, we get to the final stages of labor. Generally, I can handle this. Watching the head emerge is a strange experience. There are at least three different things going through your head. One is “Holy…! That’s a person’s head
in there!” Another is more like “Yikes! You’re gonna get it out of there
?!” The last is much more “She’s almost here! Yeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!”
This time, however, maybe it was because it had been many hours since I’d eaten and been standing for a while, I nearly pass out. For some reason, I was really worried that everyone present would think I had a weak stomach. It’s the one area where I have any sort of authority. No one is listening to me anyway, so it really doesn’t matter.
Finally the baby comes out. Getting perfect Apgar scores.
Describing emotion is not something that language is really equipped to do, so this is where we enter the most difficult part of describing what goes on.
The baby comes out and the doctor puts her on mom. My wife gets to hold our new daughter. Tears stream down her face, from exhaustion, pain, relief, or joy, I can’t tell, but I’m pretty sure it’s all of the above. She (my wife, not the baby) is emitting sobs and laughter at the same time.
And the only think I find myself capable of doing is stroking my wife’s hair, and staring at this wonder, every so often uttering, “That’s our new daughter.” I’m a bit lost. I find that while I’m re-entering the part where I’m supposed to be in charge again, I have no idea what to do. I keep feeling moisture gathering at the corners of my eyes, but I’m not sure if I’m supposed to let them come out again, so I simply say “our new baby,” again. I’m vaguely aware that I sound, and probably look (what with the tears there but not coming) pretty stupid. But I pretend no one else is there. I need to hug someone, and I do my best to put my arms around my wife who has collapsed into the bed. I’m not entirely successful, but she puts her head against me. I say, “I love you. You did it.” The two thoughts aren’t really connected. I don’t love her because she did it, but they’re both coming through my head.
There’s a great urge to hold the baby, nonstop. I get annoyed at the nurse who took the baby and is still still cleaning/checking, and doing whatever else she’ll need during these first few moments. But I let her be.
I finally get my chance. She’s nine and a half pounds, which is quite large for a newborn (though not excessively so), but she’s small and fragile. How on earth does she have fingers smaller than the last segment of my pinky finger? This hair is so soft. Her cry isn’t in the least way bothersome. It almost sounds like conversation. There’s nothing so soft as a baby’s face on your own, either.
There’s a bond that’s almost visible. You can certainly feel it. I’m connected to this child. One part of me, the man that’s frustrated he hasn’t been in charge wants to yell out, “I made this!” But I think, no I didn’t, it all happened inside her. But how else do you explain this touching of spirits? She is truly my daughter. I’m swarmed by emotions: I’m possessive, protective, caring, tender, loving, and joyful. Like an elevation of something spiritual inside me. Yes, she is indeed mine, and now I have to spend twenty years teaching her to no longer be so much mine as she now is. Yet, that bond will always be there. No matter where she does, what she does, or who she’s with. She will always be mine.
It’s incomprehensible that I could be so intimately involved in such an incredible event, yet I am. “I love you,” I whisper again as I sit next to my wife and lean in close. I say it not to my wife, nor to my new daughter, but to them both. At this point, they are all that’s in the universe.