Today is my daughter's birthday, a good time to recall her arrival fifteen years ago. The legal issues of homebirth have improved since I wrote the piece a decade ago, but the perception of birth as a medical emergency persists. The women who attended the birth risked severe consequences at the time, so their names remain changed.
And why not? Dads are pretty helpless where birthing is concerned. The sight and sound of the experience are so dreadful that it’s best locked away in a hospital room. Watching your loved one’s transformation from sexpot wife to snarling mama can unman the most testosterone-enriched male. But the overall experience is so compelling that birth has been creeping back into the family. Dads (and other family members) now can be found in attendance in hospital birthing rooms and even, heaven help us, at home.
Home is where we ended up – or, I should say, remained, but it’s more accurate to note that at no point during those many months of pregnancy did I really believe I’d end up being a dad. Watching my wife turn into a beach ball was amusing, but I didn’t connect it with humanoid output. Even the hard evidence – kicking, heartbeat – seemed cheerfully abstract. For forty years I’d been childless, and the prospect of living otherwise was too sensational to take seriously.
Long ago I theorized that the birth of a child releases in the parents a chemical agent that causes those parents not only to regard a baby’s disgusting habits as cute, but also to find the disgusting-looking baby itself attractive. At twenty minutes past one on the morning of Saturday, January 25, 1997, I was on the brink of discovering how absolutely correct that theory was.
Susan, my wife, was in labor, vigorously stretching and moaning under the shower’s hot spray in the upstairs bathroom of our house. I’d been rubbing her back, walking her around the bedroom, trying not to make jokes (along with a total loss of modesty came a complete lack of humor, about which more below). With a pledge to be right back, I dashed downstairs and stood, quietly, horrified, listening as the patter of rain on the bay window turned into the sharp fingernails of sleet. Our midwife, although skeptical that Susan should have galloped into such fierce contractions – her first throbs kicked in about two hours earlier – was supposed to be en route and should in fact have been here by now.
Sure, I’d joked, I’ll catch that baby if it shows up too soon, but the fuzzy videos we watched in childbirth class prepared me to expect childbirth to look like a wet and rather hairy volcano.
Three hours earlier, our domestic scene couldn’t have been more – well, domestic. We lazed downstairs at our old, drafty farmhouse, Susan in her third-trimester uniform: denim overalls, one shoulder strap dangling, over an old flannel shirt – quick-release gear to facilitate frequent peeing. She sat on what passed for our living room sofa, a folded futon on a homemade frame. I was in the adjoining room, my office, “working,” as we term the process whereby I play computer games, talk on the phone, and occasionally pound out a writing assignment.
Our house sits about fifty feet from a well-plowed state highway; this late in January the highway berms were big and filthy and were being eaten by the drizzle that had been falling all evening. “Soon it’s gonna rain/I can feel it,” sounded in the background, sweet strains from the Fantasticks soundtrack that Susan enjoyed hearing.
When she appeared in my doorway and made the throat-cutting gesture that means “get off the phone,” my mind was so far away from childbirth that I couldn’t imagine what earth-shaking news would warrant such an interruption. “My water just broke,” she said with the ease of an old friend’s hello. I was compelled to respond in two utterly stupid ways. First I asked, “Are you sure?” which won me a look of pain and pity, and then I asked to see proof. Susan waddled back toward the bathroom, then turned and scowled. “It was water. In a toilet full of water and pee.”
After the inspection, Susan waddled back to the couch. “Nothing else is happening,” she said. Birth class led us to expect hours and hours of steadily worsening pain before her water broke. This was the first of a stream of confounded expectations. We also knew that a clock now ticked. Opinions vary as to how long a baby safely can stay tucked up in there once the membranes rupture, but it’s agreed that the kid should emerge within the next day or so.
What really happened – I know this now – was that a new, sentient entity imposed a demand upon her, upon us, that completely superseded what we’d planned. Saturday and Sunday were scheduled full of events. Never mind. This is more important: I have declared my will. You, perforce, will follow. You have no choice.
I phoned Claudia, the midwife, got her answering machine, phoned her pager, left a message. “You should go to bed,” I suggested to Susan, recalling our birth-class warnings. (“Be prepared for a lengthy and rigorous labor. A laboring woman should sleep as much as possible during the first phase of contractions.” “How are you supposed to sleep when you’re in labor?” asked one participant. “Vodka,” someone else advised.)
Not for my teetotaling wife. She didn’t give up alcohol for her pregnancy: she rarely drinks under any circumstance. But she can track down a hidden cup of tea at twenty-five paces. So she fussed over some tea, fussed over her supply of drinking water, and by the time all the fussing was over and she finally climbed into bed, contractions began.
These weren’t easygoing, hey-we’re-on-our-way contractions. These were big ones. I had been warned, and I won’t deny this, that a mom-to-be becomes wholly and aggressively humorless once those contractions begin. Nevertheless, “Know what I read?” I asked as Susan leaned against a wall and groaned. “I read that having a baby is like pushing an orange through your nose.”
“Shut up,” she said. She was noting the time of each contraction. Sleep was no longer an option.
We planned, although we told almost nobody, to have the baby at home. Because my wife was nearly 40 when she got pregnant, her once-friendly gynecologist declared her a high-risk patient and demanded a series of invasive tests. The more we learned about childbirth, the less we wanted to deal with doctors.
We found an underground of midwives, ardent practitioners persecuted by New York’s laws, who agreed to sneak over and help us. We attended a series of Bradley Method classes. Husband-coached childbirth, as those classes once archaically were termed, but at least I felt involved and ready.
Until I was actually confronted with this humorless termagant in active labor. Would the midwife never arrive? Never mind that she was driving on an icy night from a city that’s an hour away: I needed her!
Susan required from me all the encouragement I could muster. This I knew, this had been instilled during those weeks of classes, and if had seemed dorky then (“You’re doing so well, keep it up, oh, that’s excellent!”), I now felt like a complete horse’s ass. Shouldn’t you know what you’re encouraging? “You’re doing great!” At what? She dragged around the house with a hand on her hip like an arthritic grandma about to collapse, moaning, growing increasingly grumpy. On the other hand, I had excellent reason to encourage her. The better she did, the less chance there was that I’d have to intervene if the midwife didn’t get here in time.
Part of the home birth rationale is the fact that females from the beginning of mammalian history successfully have dropped their young in their nests. The process was hard-wired in the recesses of instinct, requiring only total faith in what for my wife was an unknown, unprecedented, and increasingly more painful process.
“You’re doing great!” I told her, hoping I didn’t sound to her as phony as I did to myself. I followed her to the shower, where she purposefully blasted herself with scalding water. “Let me get you more water. Why, we probably don’t even need a midwife.”
It was 1:30. Two hours of labor and this was nothing like the long, easy approach we’d been promised, the stroll up the mountain that constitutes the first of three stages. Of course, we’d also been promised that this first child would under no circumstances appear on its due date. No, this seemed like something in the midst of the fiery stage two.
“Going downstairs for a sec,” I told the shower curtain. “Be right back.”
How surreal. How detached and isolated I felt. Standing in the living room of my peaceful house, the delicate chatter of sleet outside. I could pretend there was nothing else going on ... but I was going to have to force myself through it. It will be over at some point. The same assurance I used to offer myself when forced to lumber, last in line, around the athletic track as a chunky high-school kid.
That baby’s coming out, and I’m going to have to deal with it using whatever is lodged in my instincts right now. I glanced around the room, thinking that it would be the last time I did so as a childless individual.
That’s when a pair of headlights came to an abrupt stop on the street outside. “We’re here!” cried Claudia, and with her was, nice surprise, our Bradley Class instructor, Jane. We’d earlier invited her to attend this event but neglected to call. “I figured you wouldn’t mind,” said Claudia.
“How’s she doing?” asked Jane.
I moved my mouth. Unintelligible garble emerged. I led them upstairs. We found Susan showering, our meager supply of hot water going lukewarm. Jane helped her out of the tub, then slipped into place behind her, murmuring phrases of encouragement. Claudia pulled a stethoscope from her bag and kneeled to take a reading under Susan's belly. The two women effortlessly took charge. As I watched each new contraction roll in, it struck me that nobody was in charge. The three of them were joined in a deep kind of knowing — how to get that baby out. Susan, least experienced of the three, was learning to surrender to what her body was telling her to do. As Claudia put it, “Just listen to the cues.”
“Let's try this,” said Jane, massaging long strokes down Susan's back, kneading with a vigor I was too intimidated to attempt. “You need to breathe like this,” said Claudia, demonstrating a gentler rhythm. “How do you feel?”
Susan moaned in reply.
“Good! Let’s see where you are now.”
Where you are now. Midwifespeak for a vaginal exam. If labor invites a loss of modesty, this examination is the R.S.V.P. And it baffles me to think that a measurement in centimeters is achieved in that chamber without calipers or measuring tape. I watched Claudia rummage around, frown thoughtfully, and giggle.
“Hey, Jane,” she said. “Guess what. She’s at eight.”
Jane laughed in reply. But these were not laughs of amusement. Some kind of primordial bonding was in progress. Moaning was part of it. In the wordless language of long-married couples, much is conveyed by monosyllabic grunts. These sounds, however, were unknown to me.
Susan now sat astride the toilet, Claudia at her feet. Jane stood to one side, rubbing Susan’s shoulders. I tried not to look as superfluous as I felt.
“Let it out,” said Claudia.
Susan moaned again. Not a moan of pain nor anything related to sorrow. This issued from deeper within.
“That’s great. But I want you to really open your throat and let it all come out. Relax and moan.”
Susan moaned. A lower, richer moan.
“Terrific! Remember: ‘cervix’ means ‘little throat,’ so if you want that throat to open, you really have to open the other one. Moan for me.”
This time they moaned together. Then Susan let loose with another one – a primal one, a moan so compelling that it seemed to release us from this room. As it faded we heard a strange, unhuman response: one of the cats was on the other side of the bathroom door, joining in.
Then there was a long pause. Susan stood in a half-squat, staring ahead suspiciously. “Where's my next contraction?” she demanded. “Nothing's happening. This is getting scary.” Again she moaned, although I would have believed she was lip-synching to some Russian basso profundo. Then: “I have to shit!” she declared.
Claudia and Jane exchanged a look. Then Claudia reached down and rummaged in that chamber again. “She’s ready.”
We trooped across the hall into the guest room, where the bed was outfitted with plastic under the sheets and a box of midwifery equipment awaited. Claudia placed a birthing stool on the bed and she and Jane positioned Susan to squat there. And push.
“You’re doing fine.”
If I’d felt superfluous before, now I saw myself as an intruder. I appointed myself errand boy. I learned my place quickly. I fetched a flashlight for Claudia. I opened sterile packets of latex gloves.
“Push,” said Claudia. “That’s great. Push some more.”
Susan later told me that the kid took over at one point and found a footing against which to kick. Even with a bright flashlight trained on Susan’s distended pudendum, I couldn’t make head or tail of what was going on in that busy place. Head, it turned out. A scrub of matted hair, followed by a miniature head and the tumultuous splash of the baby's body into Claudia's hands at 3:13 in the morning. “Talk to your baby,” the midwife said to Susan.
“You're here!” my wife cried as Claudia placed the infant on her chest. “I can't believe it's you!” She stroked the baby and laughed and wept. Someone steered me to sit by Susan’s side, where I felt too awed, too bashful to touch the baby at first – our daughter, as we then discovered. We were eased into the bedroom and put to bed, the baby loosely swaddled, sleeping against Susan's skin. I fell asleep to the birdlike sighs of my infant daughter’s first breaths and the murmurs of our midwives, quietly cleaning house.
They were gone when I awoke four hours later. I crept downstairs and prepared a lavish breakfast for the new mother, which I served to her in bed. “Thank you,” she said. “I couldn't have done this without you.” In fact, I know otherwise, but I was grateful for being allowed the privilege to participate.