A few weeks ago, we were in a prenatal class one evening with a couple that was going that night to have labor induced. I forget why they were inducing — high blood pressure, maybe. I remember thinking that they seemed very calm about it all. The class was to end at 8:30, and they were going to go see a movie and then check in at midnight. I think she was then going to get some kind of drugs before going to sleep and that they were going to do the actual delivery in the morning. If it were me, I remember thinking, I’d be nearly mad with nausea, my heart would be pumping, and my whole body would be atwinge with adrenaline. No way would I be that calm under such circumstances.
As it turns out, I’ll have a chance to see first-hand what my reaction will be. Now that I’m closer to being ready, now that I actively and immediately want this whole childbirth thing to go down, I think I might be pretty calm about it too. 36 hours and counting.
I think one of my main feelings will be one of apprehension, as when you go to a new restaurant and don’t know its particular order of operations. Do you place your order and then move down the line to collect your tray or do they bring it out to you or do they call your name over a loud speaker? Do you pay at the counter after you eat or will the server collect your payment? I won’t know the routine. Do I sit in the corner or stand at her shoulder or do I assume a three-point stance and stare into her crotch? Do I take the lead on counting to ten during contractions or will the nurses and doctor set the pace? I imagine the experience is filled with opportunities for gaffes socially and personally offensive. I plan to commit fully half of them while trying my hardest to commit only a quarter of them.
I also think I’ll have another sort of performance anxiety. There are stereotypical expectations to be lived up to, after all. The hospital staff surely won’t expect the calm, rational person I’d like to think I could be. They’ll want a dad-to-be who’ll be good for stories in the locker room, who’ll put his puffy red face in his wife’s and bellow instructions (“you’re doing it wrong!”); or who’ll weep histrionically about how bad he feels about all this, drawing attention from his wife to himself; or who’ll be frantic and frazzled; or who’ll faint at the first sign of blood or wrinkle his nose in disgust when his wife craps the bed. I’m none of these guys.
And then there are M’s expectations, which are for the time being explicitly only that I be supportive. But I worry that she’ll need me to be assertive and politely instructive when I’m trying to be tender and comforting for her, or that I’ll try to help out by reminding her not to hyperventilate when what she really wants at the moment is for me to soothe her. A week or so ago, she started having a pretty painful contraction and was breathing rapidly. I suggested in what I thought was a calming, gentle voice but what she interpreted as a patronizing tone that she try breathing a little more slowly, and it was clear immediately that she needed no breathing instructions from a lout like me. I mention this not as a plea for sympathy or in an attempt to make her out to be the stereotypical bitchy pregnant woman (for she has assuredly not fit that stereotype). I mention it because I’m afraid I’ll provide the wrong things at the wrong time during her labor and because the thing I want tertiary to a healthy baby and an easy experience for my wife is not to fail her.
And finally, I think childbirth for me will be rather like an out of body experience. Sitting at my desk today, I suddenly began to feel spatially distorted, almost as if I was about to fall victim to the spins and pass out. When I leaned back in my chair, I felt as if I was leaning way forward, almost as if my perspective were from just above my head (as in eyeballs resting on top of my head) and tilted 30 degrees forward. When I leaned up, my perspective changed to another bizarre angle and I felt a little detached from myself. I’ve had similar detached feelings on long trips away from home or when in strange circumstances, sometimes when I’ve been giving some kind of presentation. It’s related also to another phenomenon M and I have discussed wherein you feel as if you don’t know a person you do in fact know quite well, when you can look at your spouse, for example, and feel as if you couldn’t name three facts about her, though you know objectively that you’re quite well acquainted. I think childbirth will be like one of these experiences. I’ll feel as if I’m watching things, and in a way, I will be, self-conscious as I’ll be about my various apprehensions. I’ll be like John Madden drawing circles around my screw-ups and noting things unexpected and wondering if that’s really me down there bumping into the fetal monitor and stepping on the nurses’ feet and thinking suddenly out of the blue that we should have brought spurs to match the stirrups and wondering what we’re going to do for the next two days in the hospital, then thinking how hot the lights are and whether they’ll make me wear a mask after she’s born because I’ve been sick and — holy shit, there’s my baby, my, there’s my, my baby, my baby’s here — and I’ll come splashing back into myself in a rush of blood and heat, my ears ringing, my throat thick as an elephant’s knee, everybody a mint-green blur, waiting, waiting for that cry, that sweet sweet first cry that no amount of petty performance anxiety or worrying or reading or preparation or practice or projection (astral or otherwise) could even have begun to prepare me for.