Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Miracle of Birth: A male version of the Experience

After the ManWeek initiative which encouraged men to talk more openly about their feelings, we've all been encouraged to write a longer piece which will be collected into a book for father's day. At a bit of a loss as to what to write, I initially decided to tackle Birth and then later the diagnosis of Aspergers because I felt that they were good emotional topics.

I showed my submission to my wife but she thought it wasn't all that good, so I'm going to write something completely different. There was nothing new in the Aspergers section (nothing that I haven't already talked about here anyway) and I've already posted the first bit, so I figured I might as well make part 2 available here.

So here it is, my "rejected" discussion on my emotional reactions to my son's birth. It's not really anything to do with aspergers (because at the time I didn't know about it) but it may interest you to pick the aspie traits.

Fatherhood and Birth
I’m not entirely sure when exactly fatherhood starts but I get the feeling that at least in some cases, it starts before conception. In my case, my wife had cooled down on the whole “baby thing” and was actually settling into the comfortable “dinks” (double income, no kids) lifestyle when I surprised her with the news that I wanted to become a father.

I literally dropped the news on her on Christmas day, 1998 by giving her a book of Celtic baby names. When I got a less than positive initial response, I tried to pass it off as a joke but I wasn’t believed.

It took most of the year to convince her to give up her happy (unfettered by responsibility) lifestyle and in the end, it wasn’t so much my prompting that did the trick as the fact that she had a succession of horrid employers who sapped her will to work and convinced her that the role of stay at home mum was preferable.

Regardless of what they say in magazines and on TV, pregnancy is still a women’s domain. Men just don’t get a look-in. Being pregnant is something that wives do with their mothers and sisters and I spent most of those nine months of incubation feeling abandoned while I watched my wife talk excitedly on the phone and read "what to expect when you're expecting".

My "practical advice" was ignored (probably wisely) and my innocent but stupid questions were treated with scorn. I visited the gynaecologist with my wife only once or twice and asked a bunch of even stupider questions while my wife barely hid her irritation. In contrast, I went to every single appointment for our second baby (though I was late and missed a couple).

Note: "Would-be" fathers; This is a must! Drop everything and be there for the appointments. I wish that I had been there when I was needed.

My wife, as with most wives these days, chose all the “healthy alternatives” over the sensible ones. She opted for no pain relief, or gas at best and she wouldn’t even entertain the idea of a caesarean. Nope, it had to come out the “normal way”. Even worse, she had her heart set on the whole cloth nappies routine. The thought of my business shirts being washed in the same water as a dirty nappy truly terrified me and I had visions of all my white shirts turning brown and starting to smell.

Thankfully my suggestion to use disposables until we “found our feet” worked and we never switched to cloth – perhaps we never found our feet.

In the lead up to the birth, I was feeling pretty ineffectual and I felt that I was being shoved aside so that her mother could take centre stage with her. Don’t get me wrong, I like my mother in law as much as most husbands but I just couldn’t handle being squeezed out and I complained voraciously. In the end, we reached an agreement and I got the coveted helper role.

I figured that we’d better brush up on our baby handling technique. After all, I knew very little other than something about supporting their necks when you hold them. We attended some classes but instead of learning how to care for the baby, they just taught us how to give our wives massages during labour and showed us a succession of truly horrific and traumatizing videos which made “Hellraiser” look like a Disney film. It seemed we were just going to have to learn on the job.

The birth itself was traumatic. Very traumatic. My wife had a fall in hospital during labour and the delivery took eighteen hours. I’d have suggested a caesarean in an instant if I thought I wouldn’t suffer for it later but those “new age” mothering rules about natural birth were too strong.

It was a very confusing time. My wife had laid down some rules about pain relief and definitely no epidural. I’m a stickler for rules and so during one of her screaming fits, I translated her cries as “no! she said she didn’t want one”. She gripped my arm tightly and I and felt her transfer some of her pain to me. Fortunately I recovered quickly enough to realise that she’d changed her mind. All her rules were now gone.

It’s during traumatic events like birth that time seems to slow down and those negative thoughts come creeping in. I’d always had issues with depression and my “Frank Spencer” style handyman abilities hadn’t exactly given me a lot of self-confidence. I was terrified of stuffing this one up too.

I remember taking a peek and seeing the baby’s head halfway out. Unfortunately, this baby had no sense of direction and was facing the wrong way. He was also being pulled with the forceps at a bad angle, and one which has left permanent marks on him – he’s now eight and I still see those foreceps dimples every day.

Looking down all I could see was what looked to me like mangled meat. I now know that what I was seeing was blood pooling in the hollow of the nape of my son’s neck but then, all I knew was that this was about where his face should be. I started to freak out but my gritted teeth and locked muscles kept me solidly in place. Instead of being a comfort to my wife, it was her presence which kept me sane in those last few minutes and I found myself huddling down near her shoulder. It didn't help that the doctor wasn't at all verbal in his reassurances.

There’s no taking away from the intense experience of a woman giving birth and I have no intention of doing so. This post is about me and my experience because I couldn’t possibly speak for my wife – her pain must have been a thousand times worse.

The thing is, that I think that the husband’s part is often overlooked, glossed over and even treated with contempt. I’ve heard the words “What are you talking about? You didn’t have to suffer!”, from my wife but I’ve also heard other women saying it to their husbands.

Birth, like most parts of marriage, is a shared experience and in my son’s case, there was enough suffering in that little episode for both of us to share.


Saja said...

Gavin, thank you for sharing a man's perspective on his child's birth.

I hope you have exaggerated some things for humorous's sad to me that you felt pushed aside and that your wife was irritated with your "stupid" questions. A husband who is engaged and interested in the pregnancy and birth is a wonderful thing to have!

We used cloth diapers with the first three, but never switched over with #4...that was a c-section and we started with disposables since I was out of commission the first days. I have to say, disposables certainly are convenient and we've never had the leaks we used to have with cloth.

(To assuage your brown-and-stinky-shirt worries: cloth diapers always got their very own load all alone in the washing machine :-). )

Marita said...

That is a really interesting account from the Dads POV.

I'm so grateful my husband was there for the girls births. He didn't need to say much just hold my hand and it anchored me in a safe place.

Drew said...

I remember the "pushed aside" feeling and the idealistic use of cloth diapers (which never came to pass).

One thing I always will remember, especially with the first one when you don't know what is going on, is the utterly painful feeling of helplessness.

Your wife is laying on the table in the most agony imaginable, the woman you love is in screaming pain and there is nothing you can do but just watch? No comfort, no soothing, nothing.

But at the same time you have to be there, to suffer with her. It's kinda like she suffers physically and you suffer emotionally.

The euphoria afterward washes all of this over though.

M said...

My only experience with birth so far is from the inside out. I don't remember much about it, really. It was dark. Then there was light. I cried a lot. That was about it.

It was anti-climactic after 9 months of waiting. I'm assuming, from the parent perspective, it's far more intense.

SAHD DAD said...

Wow. Our paternal experiences couldn't possibly have been more different. From the very beginning my wife and I did everything together. Starting with the hormone shots for the IVF treatments, and then through all (and I do mean all) of the doctors appointments, the baby classes that actually focused on useful things like helping a choking baby, spending part of each day for six weeks in the hospital with my wife when she had to go in early for preeclampsia, and then spending a week sleeping on a fold-out chair in her hospital room with her for five days after the baby was born. She wasn't given a choice on that cesarean and she didn't want her mother anywhere near the birthing room.

I was also given one, very specific task to perform (before we knew that she'd already be in the hospital when it came time to give birth). I was supposed to tell the people in the admissions office "This is my wife. She's in labor. She wants all the drugs you can possibly give her, and she wants them now."

My SAHD Life

Anne Marie said...

I appreciated the male perspective. Although I never treated my husband as if I was the one who suffered so he'd better not complain, I never thought about the man's feelings through childbirth.

Btw, I used cloth diapers for the first three out of necessity, and then for the fourth one out of desire. The fifth one, well, I was in my last year of law school and didn't have time to wash diapers. I like cloth.