Childbirth is an utterly brutal experience.
There were some, at various point throughout my road to fatherhood, who lead me to wholeheartedly believe that childbirth was a beautiful and harmonious experience in which new life delightfully prances into the world. I now consider them to be the most despicable of liars. It begins with contactions at 10pm. After they are the suitable distance apart (which took about twenty-four hours), I call the NHS helpline to inform them. They connect me to the nearest hospital and after a few seconds on the line, the attendent tells us to get to the hospital because it’s time.
I call a cab and we’re downstairs with our meticulously packed “hospital bag” in a minute or so. That poor cab driver. “To the maternity ward!” I say, in a voice that I imagine war generals use when they are commanding their troops to advance. He doesn’t find it all that funny, neither does Stephenie. Amidst screams of contractual pain, we traverse the bending streets of Edinburgh at 2am about four miles to the Royal Infirmary.
Skip ahead and after about nine hours of labor, one austere and indifferent mid-wife, a doctor who looked like she was eleven, and a short beating administered by Stephenie in response to jokes that I could swear were both relevant and clever, the new, much nicer midwife tells Stephenie it’s time to push.
Note to partners here, it is not your time to push. Crapping your pants in the middle of childbirth will not earn you any points of solidarity. I’m bracing myself for the moment of family serenity I expect will be the reward for what has been no fun thus far (and if I didn’t think it was fun, it’s hard to imagine how Stephenie was feeling). But it isn’t coming.
I’m the type to ask too many questions, and up to this point I had restricted myself to a handful an hour. But after twenty minutes of pushing, the look of concern on the midwife’s face was beginning to overpower the sheen of confidence she began with. Sort of like on a plane, when you see the flight attendants hurry to their seats and buckle up, I knew this wasn’t particularly quotidian for the midwife. The doctor was called in.
After a brief examination, he looks up at us and advises that we get transfered to the “theatre,” whatever that means, and have an assisted birth. Perhaps early on, we would have protested. But seeing Stephenie in this much pain makes it a simple choice. But it isn’t just the pain. It’s the look of uncertainty on her face.
They tell you in the classes leading up to the actual birth that soon-to-be mothers will, in the middle of labor, want to give up. They start asking for their belongings to be packed. They might want you to call a cab. They might cry and tell you that they changed their mind, and they want to go back home, make dinner, and watch something on Netflix. And you’ll stand there, knowing that all those things are impossible and that you are utterly unable to actively contribute.
The thing is, after nine hours of labor, and an hour of pushing, Stephenie’s no longer sure that she can do it. And that’s worse than the pain. So it’s time to go to the theatre. And to be honest, I’m becoming more scared as minutes pass and there’s no baby.
So we’re all lead out and split up in different directions. Stephenie is taken directly to the theatre and I’m ushered into a small room where I changed into scrubs. The nurse that is leading me to the changing room tells me that my wife will be “rational again” after she gets some drugs.
Being the fat american that I am, the scrubs are absurdly tight on me, which is only a slap in the face after a bad fall. I place my keys, wallet, and phone, along with all of my clothes into a locker and walk, like a fat kid wearing wetsuit, into the theatre.
Stephenie’s already there. She’s being placed on a table and one of the eight medical staff members crowding the room is administering a spinal anesthesia. Another member of the medical staff stands me by her head and admonished me to stay there. I can’t see what’s going on, but, finally, Stephenie has stopped feeling pain. Our nice midwife places her hand on Stephenie’s abdomen and explains that, because she can no longer feel her contractions, Stephenie will have to push when she says so. After a few pushes, and what I assume various incisions, a bloody baby is tossed on to Stephenie’s chest. It’s too fast for us to even process what’s happened. A second later she is whipped away into our midwife’s arms and the three of us (midwife, baby, and I) walk to yet another room. Here, the baby is weighed, checked for deformity, and finally, relieved of her umbilical chord. This last feat is apparently my job. I wonder if they assume standing around like a doofus for nine hours should be rewarded with the consolation prize of the reasonable facsimile of action.
My first thought, when offered the chance to cut the chord was Would you like to read some Greek? No thanks, let’s each stick to our assigned roles. But knowing that Stephenie would want me to, I brandish the pair of scissors offered to me and set to the task. A task which proves to be more difficult and fibrous than I was expecting. After my meager success, which was adulterated by the fact that it took a few attempts, we return to the theatre and I’m told to sit in a plastic chair in the corner of the room with our new daughter.
But Stephenie is still on the table and the doctor is still working. One of the staff members is walking between the doctor and a whiteboard fastened to the wall and writing down a series of numbers: 50ml, 100ml, 50ml. I realize that the numbers are measurements of blood lost. Over and over again, I’m assured that everything is fine and that this is normal. Eventually, the doctor himself comes over and explains that everything is fine now, but there was considerable bleeding that needed to be stopped.
Finally, we’re taken to the recovery ward. Shortly after, Kadence starts to cry and continues to do so for about a month. We never really got that peaceful, nirvana moment.
What’s worse is that infants are difficult. They cry and you don’t know why. They don’t care about you. They can’t always be easily consoled. Worst of all, they don’t sleep when you want to sleep. Some of the tensest times of our marriage so far were in the darkest moments of winter in Edinburgh at 2am. Since labor began, there has been no rest and we are both continually losing the battle against discouragement.
I would like to tell you that there was one moment that I can say was the turning point. I love my daughter. I love her more than I thought was possible for something that’s only been around for a few months. And watching her learn the smallest, most insignificant things brings me joy that is absolutely incomparable to anything else I have ever experienced. But it wasn’t like that at first. For some people, infancy is a beautiful time of mutual joy. It wasn’t for us. We we’re easily discouraged, overly tired, and felt guilty because in those first few weeks, we changed our minds about wanting to have a baby.
No one tells you that might happen. They talk about how cute infants are and how great it is to be a mother or a father. They tell you that children are blessings from God and that nothing in life compares. They tell you that although you will be very tired, you’ll be equally as happy. And when we weren’t immediately happy and content with this new addition to our family, we were guilt ridden, embarrassed, and depressed. I was afraid that I would never love my daughter in the way that every father I had ever talked to loved his. That’s a bad feeling.
I’m not trying to say that our experience was particularly difficult. People have been having babies for thousands and thousands of years. We’re not special or different or unique in any sense. We didn’t have it worse and have no reason to complain any more so than anyone else. We were not more tired or helpless than any other new parents. So, this isn’t a sob story. Overall, we had it (and have it) good. Our baby is healthy, our marriage in tact, our household blessed in so many uncountable ways.
Although we didn’t experience the immediate and lasting joy that I had heard about for so many years from new fathers, we learned an utterly invaluable lesson. Babies are remdiners that our lives do not belong to us. When I look back to all of the parts of the experience that irked me about early fatherhood, I realize that they bothered me because in so many ways I idolized a life where I was my own master. I expected to get of out my life what I want and although marriage had changed me in many ways, there was still much work to be done. I didn’t like being uncomfortable and for the first time in my life, I was continually in a state of discomfort.
I am reminded that my life is not my own when I wake up with Stephenie at 3am and, although we both want to sleep, I sit up with her as she feeds our daughter who cannot assuage her own hunger.
I am reminded that my life is not my own when I have to change a diaper regardless of how disgusting I find it.
I am reminded that my life is not my own when I get our baby up from her nap, and she looks up at me with little innocent eyes, and I know that I would die to protect someone who probably forgets who I am when I leave the room.
My life is meant to be spent on her now. But it reminds me that my life wasn’t meant to be spent on myself in the first place. It helps direct me to a greater, more meaningful purpose. It helps me to be what I was created to be.
For us, early parenthood wasn’t a beautiful time. It was dark and scary and filled with reluctant regret. But it was a time of intense growth. Babies are not blessing because they bring you immediate or continual joy. They are blessings because they are reminders of who we are. I can experience a very different type of joy when I realize that I do not belong to me.