Dispatches from the Delivery Room, Part 2: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Labor Pain

Watching your wife go through labor is kind of like seeing the one you love turn into a werewolf. There is nothing you can do to stop the transformation; your wife possesses decreasing cognition of why she shouldn’t tear you apart; and the townspeople agree that you are not to be trusted to make the difficult decisions that might need to be made.

When my wife’s contractions were getting to be about five minutes apart, she could still speak to me as a friend. She very calmly made the arrangements for our three-year-old to be looked after. She put the house in order, and even accepted my comforting touch whenever her five minutes of peace expired. We got into the car and drove to hospital like married people.

Even though the contractions were only five minutes apart, the hospital wasn’t satisfied that she had made enough progress to be admitted. They made us walk the halls for an hour, after which they became convinced that we had no business there. They sent us home; we were welcome to come back when we were serious about having a baby.

A lot can go wrong when one finds himself alone in a car with a woman in labor. Even though we were heading home, I drove as though it were an emergency. I was sure that I would be pulled over for speeding at any moment. I imagined how I would explain myself to the cop. “My wife is in labor, Officer. So, naturally, we are driving away from the hospital as fast as we can.”

Back home, my wife’s contractions gained in intensity. There was no more quiet conversation in between. To make matters more frightfully confusing, those damned pains would not pace themselves at regular intervals like they do in all the training literature.

We tried every position, short of standing her on her head, to alleviate her agony. A warm bath helped for a few minutes, but soon became just another terror associated with the pain. All the while we debated the wisdom of returning to the hospital. What if all of our screaming and writhing were still not worthy of their hospitality? What if they sent us home a second time? That wouldn’t make us feel like social outcasts.

After three or four hours of this, my wife crossed an invisible line. I could no longer reach her. She had gone into werelabor. The transformation was manifest in her incongruous plea, “Help me! Help me! DON’T TOUCH ME!”

Her sister helped me load her into the car, for she was beyond the management of a single human. At the second stoplight, the cruel spirits of labor overcame her. “I can’t stand this!” she moaned. “I gotta get out of here!” Only my quick finger on the auto door lock kept her from laboring against traffic in a busy intersection and causing chaos in the streets.

Our son was nearly born in the middle of this intersection. Despite his mother’s fervent attempt to have it all out here, I stuck to my guns and insisted upon a hospital birth.

In the hospital again, the doctor did another cervix exam. She announced to us that it was four centimeters dilated, which was enough progress for us to earn a bed at their inn. I’m not sure if it were four centimeters or not. I truly believe that, having seen the wild light in my wife’s eyes, the doctor knew what answer she had better give before she pulled on her gloves.

Finally invited to give birth among polite society, my wife howled for pain medication.  The hospital staff insisted on observing certain formalities first. This only left my wife more desperate. I soon found myself caught between calculating civilization and the primal needs of raw nature, trying to forge a peace between two powers with which I held waning influence.

This was when I understood that they were both right. Raw nature had no good reason not to tear me apart. I was merely an annoying noise that brought relief no closer. At the same time, civilization could not trust me to make calculated decisions. The werewolf was too much a part of my heart.

In all fairness, my wife only turned werewolf under the most stressful conditions imaginable. I often turn into a Frankenstein while sitting around the house, without provocation. (Photo credit: my three-year-old son with his Fisher-Price camera.)

*****OFF TOPIC BONUS CONTENT: My book of short stories, A Smile Through a Tear is currently being featured on Sandy’s Spotlight. Sandy’s Spotlight is a blog that features authors discussing their books. Click here to see me looking all awkward on video as I talk about the book. I look a little Frankenstein-ish there too.

You have one job, and one job only

With the delivery date for the new baby sneaking up, I was trying to remember all the things necessary to prepare for the hospital stay. There are certain things that the father is expected to do during and after delivery, and I was trying to bring one or two of them to mind so that I could present myself to the hospital staff as a useful addition to the family.

When my wife discovered that I was struggling with these recollections, she reminded me why I couldn’t recall any of the tasks on the modern father’s list of delivery room activities. “Remember what I told you last time,” she said. “I don’t care what they think you should be doing; you have one job and one job only. Do you remember what that is?”

The wavy lines that momentarily affected my vision indicated that I was flashing back to summer, 2008. My pregnant wife had just finished watching her 100th Lifetime movie about children switched at birth. We had gone to birthing classes for a number of weeks, but that training paled in comparison to what can be learned from Lifetime’s You Have the Wrong Baby Weekend Movie Marathon.

This was the moment of the defenestration of all of my weeks of training on how to be a supportive birthing partner.  “You can do whatever the hell you want until the baby’s born,” my wife explained. “Once the baby is born, you have one job. I don’t care what they tell you to do, you do not take your eyes off my baby. I will not have some stranger knocking on my door in five years, telling me I got their baby by mistake. I am not spending my time raising somebody else’s kid for them.”

She let this sink in for a minute, while she looked like she was moving on to something else. Then she came back at me all of a sudden, pop-quiz style. “What’s your job?”

“Watch the baby,” I replied confidently, like I was proving that husbands can pay attention when they want to.

Watch? Did you hear me use a word as weak as watch? No, you did not. I said you are to keep your eyes glued to that baby from the moment he comes out of me until we get home. You are chained to that baby, do you understand?”

“What if you need me?” That seemed like it was the type of concern a woman would appreciate coming from her man.

“I won’t need you.” It sounds harsher than I’m sure she meant it. “I’m a grown woman. Nobody’s gonna stick me in the wrong family until it’s too late to do anything about it. I don’t care if I’m half dead, you are going wherever that baby goes.”

And that is just what I did. From the moment our son was born, I followed him around like a Secret Service agent, except that Secret Service agents probably don’t let their charges suck on their little fingers for three hours straight. If they do, I respect them all the more because that can really wear on a little finger.

At least somebody got to close his eyes for a minute during our hospital stay.

That little boy did not go anywhere in that hospital without me. When a nurse offered to take him to the nursery so Mommy and Daddy could get some rest, my wife just about called 911 on her. We didn’t want rest; we wanted our biological child, not whichever baby happened to match the number on our claim ticket at checkout.

So don’t come knocking at our door telling us we went home from the hospital with your son.  The boy we brought home was under strict guard the whole time. And just in case I did doze off for minute while I was watching him, we’re raising him in a barn, so you wouldn’t want him back anyway.

 

Before you try to claim your “switched at birth” boy back, you should know that this is the lady we employed to teach him table manners. (Credit: Steve Hillebrand/USFWS)

 

This miracle will require smelling salts

Two things in life can leave a man utterly shell-shocked. One is war, and it is called a stain upon the fabric of humanity. The other is childbirth, and it is called a miracle.

With the arrival of the new baby growing near, I find myself harkening back to arrival of the last baby—that magical day when my wife squeezed every last drop of blood out of my hand.

It is rumored that childbirth hits the mother even harder than it hits the father. On the birthing day, it was easy for me to believe this. Later, when my wife was making plans for the next one while I was still huddled in a corner, shivering and swatting imaginary flies from my face, it seemed like maybe her scars were more physical than psychological.

Even after it was all over, you can still see the effects of the trauma in my vacant eyes.

The pain a mother endures at the birth of her child is not to be discounted. Nor should the sights a father must bear be shrugged off as insignificant. The sounds that assail the father’s ears are worst of all. It is much easier to avert one’s eyes at a crucial moment than it is to clamp a hand over each ear. It is also more effective, and less moronic.

My big moment of trauma came at the administration of the painkillers. My wife had made the nobly ridiculous decision to forego drugs during delivery. Instead, she planned to rely upon an organic system of pain transference: whenever the pain became intense, she would grab hold of the most conveniently available part of my body and squeeze her pain away.

This plan worked through hours of contractions. Just when her Kung-Fu grip was beginning to make me resemble a wallpaper print of red hand on white background, her fingers tired themselves out. She broke down and called for the epidural.

My wife had previously instructed me on the dangers of the epidural. If they missed by just one inch with the needle, she could be paralyzed. As she explained this, she held her index finger and thumb about a millimeter apart, but she called the space between an inch because she doesn’t go in for those hoity-toity French units of measurement.

I was relieved to see two anesthesiologists enter the delivery room. Ah, I thought, they have weighed the gravity of this moment and have sent their two best men. I helped the nurse pull my wife up and swing her legs over the bed as the two men set up for business behind her back.

The nurse enlisted my help in holding my wife while the drug was administered. It would be crucial, the nurse told me, to hold her very still, in spite of her pain. Though much of the blood had been squeezed out of my arms, I felt confident, now that a team of experts had set to work around my wife’s spine. I was strong, the man of the family. If the woman could take a needle in the back, the man could certainly hold her still.

I held my wife close, pressing my head against hers. I couldn’t see what was transpiring behind her; unfortunately, I could hear everything.

What I had imagined to be two highly-skilled specialists turned out to be one full-fledged anesthesiologist and his trailing apprentice. I’d rather have had a mature second opinion in the room, but as long as there was one well-trained professional at the helm, it should be all right. I didn’t mind if the trainee stood quietly to the side and watched. They have to learn somehow, right?

I had just settled into this conclusion when their voices convinced me that the actual anesthesiologist had handed over the needle to his boy sidekick. I know these can’t be his actual words, but this is what I heard the anesthesiologist say to his little helper: “Here ya go, Skip. Why don’t you give it a whirl this time?”

I started panting. This kid’s virgin jab was aimed at the spinal cord of the love of my life. If he had acted with self-confidence, I would have made it through the ordeal. But he started right in asking questions. Again, this might not be verbatim, but when your loved one’s future is at stake, you hear “Right around this spot, maybe? This side, over here? What’s that, a bone or something?”

It’s difficult to hold someone perfectly still when you are shaking like a leaf. I was squeezing my wife harder than she was squeezing me, which is saying a lot. Why did they have to practice on my wife? Couldn’t that kid go learn someplace else?

The final straw came when the anesthesiologist coached: “No, over a little, a little more. No, that’s too far. Now, up a little. Steady.” And this part I’m not really paraphrasing. I would have protested except that there were too many black dots forming in my vision. They distracted me from what I was about to say, then they began to distract me from standing upright.

I had 10 seconds to leave my feet voluntarily, before they left me. Rather than being macho, and dragging everyone down with me, I did the honorable thing. I turned to the nurse and calmly explained, “I’m about to faint.”

Three months later, and the boy was still concerned that I looked a little peaked.

The stalwart nurse took over my burden. I fell into a chair. Luckily, the apprentice had guessed close enough to the spot and the procedure was over. The nurse eased my wife back into bed before pushing the intercom button. “Man down. Man down,” she announced to the nurses’ station.

The outside nurse understood perfectly. “We’ll send in some juice for the father,” she replied.

Six cups of juice later, my son was born. Manly man that I am, I was back on my feet by then.