My life is over, again.
As of 10:36 yesterday morning, I am now the father of a gorgeous, tiny, precious, unbelievable baby girl. It’s amazing and exhilarating and exhausting, it’s wonderful and terrifying and overwhelming and… well, you get the idea.
Childbirth is one of those things that’s just impossible to describe to somebody who hasn’t lived through it, like an artist trying to describe to a blind man what blue looks like, like an addict trying to explain to a non-user what the first hit of a designer drug is like, like a man trying to explain to a woman what it’s like to pee standing up, like a woman trying to explain to a man why the toilet seat must be lifted and replaced when the man uses it. (Really? All that work? Come on.) If you’ve been through it, you know exactly what I mean without my having to say a thing; if you haven’t, no pithy words I could summon could adequately communicate all the feels.
But that won’t stop me from trying.
Here, then, is what it’s like to be a dad when your wife is having a Caesarian section.
Our daughter’s birth was scheduled for us (how twenty-first century) by doctors who apparently know a thing or two. None of the fuss over going into labor, having her water break in the back of a cab, no contractions and heavily practiced deep breathing exercises. We showed up to the hospital at 8, suited up — me in sterile hospital blues, she in a robe which for reasons I don’t fully understand does not close in the back — and waited while a parade of nurses, orderlies and doctors marched through the room, hooking my wife up to this, asking her about that, sampling her fluids and sticking her with sharp things. The man’s job during all this is to wear a sympathetic face and communicate love to his wife (or the mother of his child).
At 10, the last leg of the parade swept through and carried my wife away with it to an OR, and me to another smaller prep room, this one with sinks and single-serving scrub brushes and non-slip mats on the floor, actually not entirely unlike the dish-washing areas of many restaurants I’ve worked in. Another processional of doctors and nurses filed through intermittently, scrubbing in and then pushing the door open with their butt and walking in backwards. I was alone in there for about twenty minutes while they prepped my wife, and that was the point at which the mind really began turning somersaults.
Up until that point, I had not been separated from my wife, so no matter what was going on, no matter what needles were being shoved in her arm or what plastic bands slapped around her wrist, we could always catch each other’s eye with a things-are-okay-I’m-right-here sort of look. Now, she’s in another room about to be sliced open and I’m cooling my jets on a stool next to a dish sink. So here the scenarios start to play out.
What if something goes wrong? What if a nurse carrying a tray of surgical tools trips and she catches a scissors in the eye? What if the baby comes out missing a finger or a hand? Will she ever live a normal life? What if the baby is ugly? Will I be given the chance to trade it in for a better model? What if I pass out? Will they laugh at me and draw a bunch of penises on my forehead?
Then the real serious scenarios start to play out.
What if the anesthesiologist was drunk last night and the epidural goes awry and my wife is paralyzed from the waist down? What if they nick an artery and my wife bleeds out and I have to raise these two kids by myself? What if the baby comes out stillborn?
And I start to hyperventilate.
See, modern medicine is magic, but childbirth is one of those things that they can only clean up so much. There’s no doubt that complications in childbirth are much fewer and farther between than they used to be, and the odds of something significant going wrong during a birth are low enough to make me feel silly when the scenarios begin to unfold like parallel universes in my head. But at the end of the day, it’s still a living thing clawing toward the light while another living thing squeezes the first one forcibly out of its body cavity. It ain’t exactly like ripping off a bandaid. Then there’s the Caesarian section, in which doctors slice open said body cavity, pull out the living thing and assorted viscera, and then stuff the blood and guts back inside and stitch the whole thing up like they’re Chinese sweatshop workers slapping together a pair of Nikes.
So I go into the OR and find my wife paralyzed and restrained, tied down like Gulliver to a great table covered with sheets to shield her and me from seeing the really gruesome bits. A nurse digs my wife’s hand out from under a swathing of towels and bubble wrap and we clutch at each other’s fingers for reassurance, and I see what I am pretty sure are some of my same fears — certainly similar ones — reflected back in her eyes.
There’s no standing on ceremony, though, and immediately the antiseptic smell of singed flesh fills the room while tubes which run to — there is no other word for them — buckets on the floor below the table fill with reddish, yellowish fluid. A lot of it. I try not to look. I squeeze my wife’s hand again.
“Here she comes, dad.”
What, already? I get gently shoved past the divide where I see the backs of a lot of scrubs and my wife’s pregnant belly — laid open — they push on it like a deflating volleyball and out she pops: tiny, wriggling. purple, howling, beautiful, mine. I fight to breathe around the tightness in my chest. I squeeze my wife’s hand and tell her she did wonderfully, then turn my back on her like she’s a customer who’s paid up and scurry to the little one’s side. I’m suddenly self-conscious about pointing the camera at her privates.
Then wife and I are separated again — we are escorted through a labyrinth of holding rooms and processing points. I sign things, baby gets poked and measured, and when we meet mom again it’s like a calm sea after a storm. There isn’t much to say, it’s just us and our daughter and a love swelling like an inflating hot-air balloon.
With our son, things were different. He was born with a serious trauma, rushed across town in an ambulance, and separated from his mother for three days before spending twenty-six days in the NICU at Children’s Hospital. Seeing him for the first time — for both the wife and myself — was a bolt of lightning, laying us flat and burning that feeling of protectiveness and connection into our souls. Our daughter’s arrival on this earth was almost anticlimactic. No trauma, no separation, no nerve-wracking month-long hospital stays. We may go home tomorrow. She didn’t hit us like lightning, but like a slow-acting nerve agent released into a crowded subway. We just sat in the room with her for hours while she worked her magic on us.
From the time they first wheeled my wife into the OR to the time our daughter was with us was less than an hour. Her delivery was scary, but now begins the really frightening part — raising another human when I’m barely capable of keeping myself above water. Luckily my wife is a lot smarter than I am, and she looks like she has a plan, so I will be following her lead.
Long story short, she has all her fingers and toes and all the necessary parts to qualify as human, so we will probably end up keeping her. If my contributions here slow down in the near future, blame it on her. I know I will. To paraphrase Johnathan Coulton, she’s ruined everything — in the nicest way.