My second son was born last week, a healthy, whopping laddie of 8 pounds and twelve-and-a-half ounces. It goes without saying that I’m pleased as punch, happy as a sandboy, and a billion other over-used cliches besides, but I’m not here to discuss those feelings. Little Christopher deserves his own blog-post, which he’ll get in due course. For now, I’d like to talk to you about my experiences of witnessing and assisting in live births.
I’ve been at the births of both of my boys, which I guess technically makes me a birthing partner, although I think the term ‘partner’ somewhat oversells my usefulness during proceedings. I gather that in days gone by the majority of men holed themselves up in the pub as their wives gave birth, blind drunk and desperately trying to decipher a gambling Da Vinci Code within the pages of the Racing Post. They’d then hurry home – usually two to three days later – still melted out of their soot-blackened faces and reeking of a thousand filterless rollies, mildly startled to find a human baby clamped to their wife’s tit. “Shit, the baby was this week? Sorry, love… you got the tea on yet?”
But, hell folks, this is a different world, and my cock-and-ball-owning contemporaries and I are sons of a new age. We want to be there. We need to be there. All the tea in China couldn’t keep us away (unless it was stacked up against the front door of the hospital: then we might have problems). It’s just that… Well. I really don’t know who is the most helpless in that delivery room: the fathers, or their freshly-born offspring. Women – quite rightly so – have the monopoly on the pain, respect and wonder of birth. Men are there to… well, men are there, certainly.
My duties can be broken down under the following sub-headings:
Words of encouragement: Mid-wives, and women in general, tend to excel at saying the right thing, in the right way, during labour, and the woman giving birth – in my experience anyway – tends to respond to their words with gratitude and deference. For all the positive effects my words had over the two births, I may as well have been hollering abuse from the other side of the room. “You call that a push?” “I’m on the clock here, can you hurry it along, please?” “Hey, I can see its head, can you believe that it’s actually fucking uglier than you!”
During the second birth, I got locked into a bit of one-man-up-manship with the midwife.
She’d say: “You’re doing well, you’re doing good.”
I’d say: “You’re doing well, you’re doing GREAT.”
She’d say: “You’re being brave, you’re doing okay.”
I’d say: “You’re being SO brave, you’re doing absolutely bloody BRILLIANTLY.”
She’d say: “Come on, you can do it.”
I’d say: “Can?? You ARE doing it, you ARE doing it.”
At one point, my partner opened her eyes through her fog of agony and locked me with a stare seldom seen this side of Hades. I shut up for a bit, and silently resolved to settle the matter with a fight in the hospital car-park later in the day.
My main issue is, what the hell are you supposed to say to your partner? And how the hell are you supposed to keep saying it for hours upon hours? There are only so many generic phrases of encouragement you can utter before you start to feel like a jockey whispering in the ear of a prize racehorse. I caught myself a few times during the first birth stroking the bridge of her nose and saying things like, ‘Shhhhh, girl, shhhhh, calm, calm, shhhh, you’re doing great, that’s my girl, I’ve never seen your coat looking so shiny.”
Going for a shit at inappropriate times: Whoops, right? I gather my partner cursed my name to the midwife as I disappeared out of the room with a newspaper tucked under my arm. I missed the opening salvos of her most painful pre-birth contractions. I was along the corridor, pushing out an entity of my own. Luckily, I returned in time. I don’t think our repertoire of family memories would’ve been enriched by the tale of, ‘You remember that time you missed the birth of your second child cause you went for a shit?’
Reading the paper: At one point during birth two, my partner’s sister was holding one of her hands, and the mid-wife was holding the other, which left me sitting a few feet away in a comfy armchair with nothing to contribute. My partner was in a great deal of pain, which I caught a glimpse of from time to time as I bobbed my head up from behind the newspaper to say encouraging things like, ‘Oh, you’re doing well, SO well. Fancy giving me a hand with this crossword?’
This is a wo-man’s world…
In most women’s eyes, men are a gaggle of pussies who would never be able to bear the pain of childbirth should medical science ever make that process available to them. I think they’re on to something. I know we men tend to jokingly underplay the agony of childbirth, comparing it to a toe-stubbing or the pushing out of a particularly gnarly poo, but, really, I defy any man to watch a woman grunting and screaming a human being out of her nether-regions, and feel anything other than admiration, empathy and a great, burning sense of relief that they were lucky enough to be born with a cock.
Given the enormity of birth, it’s surprising that women don’t talk about it more often than they do. Can you imagine if men gave birth? We’d never shut the fuck up about it. You see what we’re like after we’ve lifted a reasonably heavy box, or recovered from a bad head-cold. Childbirth would be incorporated into our testosterone-tastic rituals of puff-chested dick-swinging; our conversations with other men would become like tweaked versions of the scene in Jaws where the guys sit around on a boat and compare war-wounds. Or the Yorkshiremen sketch from Monty Python.
“You think that’s bad? I was in labour for eight weeks without sleeping or eating, gave birth to a baby the size of a rhino, in fact it was a rhino, pushed so hard that it ripped my arse and balls off, lost fifty litres of blood, three of my limbs actually exploded, and just prior to delivery a squad of terrorists broke into the room and started stabbing me with kitchen knives. And I never felt one bit of pain.”
“And you try telling the women of today that… they won’t believe you.”
The two questions most often levelled at a man who has attended the birth of his child are ‘Did you cry?’ and ‘Did you puke?’, the latter because women don’t merely think that men would be incapable of handling childbirth: they deem them incapable of handling even the sight. I understand why some men find childbirth unpalatable; why it might engage their gag reflexes. It’s gross. It really is. The word ‘beautiful’ is banded about a lot in this context, but I’d just like to disavow any prospective fathers out there of that notion. A sunset is beautiful; a rainbow is beautiful; morning dew glistening on the grass as birds chirp from the trees is beautiful. But a roar of feral agony and an explosive squelch of blood and human tissue? That’s resolutely not beautiful. Unless you happen to be Ted Bundy with a cricket bat.
In the run-up to birth number 1, my partner gorged herself on episodes of One Born Every Minute (or Jeremy Kyle for Slightly More Respectable Poor People, as I like to call it), an activity from which I abstained on the grounds that I only want to bear witness to pain and horror if I absolutely have to. Because of this, I went into the birth ignorant of its mechanics and intricacies. In particular, I was woefully unprepared for the first glimpse of my son’s blue, gunk-covered cone-head as it pushed through my partner’s vagina like something out of HR Geiger’s nightmares. I remember expressing concern that I appeared to have sired one of the X Men.
I couldn’t watch heart surgery without reaching for the barf bag or a big bag of valium, but live birth doesn’t seem to revolt or frighten me. It may not be beautiful, but the process is undeniably fascinating and filled with wonder (an easier sentiment to express if you happen to be watching it instead of doing it, I’m sure!). That being said, our second child was born in a birthing pool, and I did describe the moment of birth as looking like someone had thrown the mattress from Hellraiser II into the bathtub at the end of Fatal Attraction.
Mere minutes after Christopher’s birth, my partner was poised to receive an injection that would hasten the appearance of the afterbirth. It wasn’t required. As she stepped down from the birthing pool, the placenta performed a spectacular dive for freedom, only halted by her quick reflexes, and the help of the midwife, who grappled with the umbilical cord like a magician doing a difficult trick. I got to look at the placenta, long and hard, as it sat wholly intact on a table. I always imagined it to be some sort of thin, almost-ephemeral, jelly-fish-like substance. It isn’t. It’s like a T-Bone steak, almost as big as some babies. Fred Flintstone’s dinner. Women, I salute you again. You have to give birth twice, you brave sons of bitches. And a shout out to my partner in particular: just gas and air the second time? Hardcore. I’m sure you’ll never throw that fact in my face the next time I’m a wee bit tired or feeling under the weather…
The tears of a clown
Births are one of the few times in a man’s life when he’s permitted to cry (football being the other) without being judged an insufferable weakling or some sort of emotionally-unstable, nascent spree killer. Having a good sob at a birth is now mandatory; indeed, my partner considers my lack of post-partum tears a weird, almost unforgivable omission, and possibly evidence that I’m a psychopathic half-Vulcan robot. This judgement has left me feeling a little like the protagonist in Camus’s The Stranger, whose inability to cry at his own mother’s funeral indirectly leads him to the gallows (apologies for the slightly pretentious literary reference; at least I didn’t use its French title, L’Estranger). To make matters worse, I feel like I’ve sold my sons short, given that I didn’t cry at their births, but I did cry at Ghost and Watership Down.
I did cry that day, though. My toddler, Jack, was brought to the hospital in the afternoon by his grandpa and grandma to see his newly born little brother. Afterwards, as I was staying with mum and baby for the next few hours and didn’t know exactly when I’d be home, Jack was going back to Grandma and Grandpa’s house for a sleep-over. As he was being carried down the corridor in his Grandpa’s arms on their way out of the ward, I locked eyes with him, and he seemed to give me a sad, wistful little smile that doubtless I imbued with my own feelings of separation anxiety. My eyes started to glaze over with a thin film of tears. I’d never slept under a different roof from him since his birth.
I still haven’t. When I got home he was in the house with his grandma and grandpa, in the process of having a story read to him. He just couldn’t settle without his Dad. Well, he name-checked the cat, too, but I’d like to think I was the greater part of his motivation… he does love that bloody cat though. When I heard his little voice drifting down from the top of the stairs, I actually punched the air with happiness. And even though his unexpected presence in the house deprived me of the rare treat of pornography with the sound turned up, I couldn’t have been more glad. See? I do have a heart.
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