In Midwifery Today, Summer 2001, NO.58:
I’ve been asked to write about the homebirth experience from a man’s perspective, and am eager to try. I’ve always been sort of a “guy’s guy,” steering my life with my willpower, and often only feel my truest feelings afterward. Even now, more than a month after the birth, I still often feel as if I’m stirring awake from a year-long dream.
I really can’t speak for all, or even most men. But I do know that as far back as I can remember, I assumed that I would one day have children. My biggest worry around childbirth, always lurking there beneath the surface, was that I wouldn’t be adequately present for my wife during pregnancy and delivery. A few male friends had warned me that the moment of birth was terrifying — that even though everything was fine, they’d feared the worst. Most of all, I worried that I wouldn’t know how to be both reliable (even heroic, if the situation called for it), and at the same time remain vulnerable and nurturing to my wife — visibly so, no less. Bottom line, I feared that I’d forever be exposed as not caring enough, not worthy of fatherhood.
At the outset of our midwife visits — by Jill, our midwife, and her assistants, Angel and Meleah — my hidden apprehension only got stronger. It seemed that all the women — my wife, Mia, particularly — were already relating to this pea-sized foetus, so deeply and personally. There they would be, the three birth specialists, sitting Indian-style around my prone wife, massaging her, testing her, reassuring her, while I had no instinctive sense how to participate. To me, Mia had more of a “condition.” An exciting and potentially miraculous condition, yes — but a condition just the same.
The months and many more visits passed, and I tried consciously to just sit back and give myself permission to feel whatever I felt, “it was all good.” By this time we’d found out that we were having a baby girl, and we’d even decided on a name — “Macy.” Still, I wasn’t getting any real hits of her as a spirit — as the women were, nor was I able to really feel how she was going to affect my (our) life. Interestingly, the growing reality of the situation came not when I was trying the hardest (listening to her little heartbeat, or when one of the women took my hand and laid it on Mia’s swelling belly to feel a particular body part), but quite the opposite, when I was sitting back and simply looking on. I liked seeing the women tending to Mia, and as I saw her becoming even more comfortable with them, I very gradually — and in a way that I never would have predicted — came to revel in those visits and look forward to them rolling around.
A big turning point came for me when I attended one of our birth classes without Mia. Actually, Mia and I had had a major argument, and I’d jumped into my pickup and pealed off for the class somehow attempting to appear dutiful. When Mia didn’t then show up — there I was, stuck. During this particular class we were being given baby dolls to diaper. Having never consistently been around a small child, I had never attempted this. But as the dolls were handed out, I was surprised at how snug my little girl doll felt in the crook of my arm (football position, I was told). This blinking little doll immediately seemed like much more than a toy; I even felt like she needed changing. Even before the intructions were given, I found myself plunging ahead and trying to change her. Hidden in the layers, I came upon the ricotta cheese, and let out a scream. Everybody laughed. But something stronger had begun to take hold in me. I didn’t so much feel foolish, as defiantly eager and very protective. Fifteen minutes later, when all the dolls had been returned to their box, Angel pointed out that I was still cradling mine.
Our due date came and went. Mia and I, for some reason, had stedfastly decided that Macy was going to come early — so by this time we were both very anxious and oddly bored. I got “the beep” from Mia on the evening of March 3rd, as I was returning from the dentist, my face drooping from novacaine. I sped home and leapt into action, pulling the hot tub inside, setting up candles, locating the birth kit, etc. — and in the process, almost forgot about Mia herself. I caught myself, feeling silly. She was siting there on the couch, part matriarch, part worried little girl, unwilling to call our team for fear that they’d have nothing to do.
The contractions didn’t start for real, didn’t begin to bite that is, for another couple of hours. By that time the whole team, including Meleah’s husband/my friend, Jim, had arrived. The hot tub was all ready and Mia had climbed into it — still fully intending to have a water birth. Everyone was monitoring the situation in their own way. At intervals, Mia had begun to wail at the intensifying pain. At one point, staring into my eyes and gripping my forearms over the rim of the tub, it seemed our whole relationship, the deep intimacy that we too often glossed over, came into focus. I felt my eyes welling up. Then she burst into tears. “No, no… too much,” she cautioned. But it was a riveting moment for me. That was the moment I dropped in. At that moment, my bond with Mia — and the fear and courage running through her — were far more real to me than any thoughts of a baby-on-the-way. And, strange as it sounds, it wasn’t until at that moment that I truly felt how vital I was to the whole process; how, even with all the powerful support around us, the strength we needed to carry on through was going to come from each other.
Mia was also getting very demanding, which was entertaining to me, a needed relief. “I want more smoothie… get me more smoothie!” — she yelled upstairs to Jim. “Michael — UP HERE… BY MY SHOULDERS!!!” Usually, Mia is very attentive to the needs of others, but somewhere there had come a shift: now we were there for her. She was very much in charge. Only at certain key moments did Jill step in with a very firm hand, coaching her on how to move through the sudden bursts of pain and panic, without losing all her energy. Mainly, Jill was coaching Mia on how not to push.
Mia’s screams were getting ferocious. It seemed like it was taking forever to eek out those extra micro-centimeters of dilation (even though, in actuality, the birth was progressing very rapidly). I couldn’t gage how much time was passing. We were in round time — seconds which stretched like elastic around the intensity of what was happening. Even though I didn’t show it, the escalation in volume, frenzy, sweat and blood was getting to me a little as I clutched Mia and tried to reassure her through each strengthening contraction. I would feel Angel’s or Meleah’s touch on my shoulder or head, reassuring me that I was doing fine. One of them would mop Mia’s brow with a washrag dipped in lavender-scented water, then they would mop mine too. At times, Mia would climb from the tub and manage to move around the room a little, squatting or collapsing on the floor or futon. According to the clock, it had only been about four-and-a-half hours and we were rapidly approaching the time to bear down.
Then came the first sign of complication. The blood being blotted up by the towels down below was becoming thicker. Also, Macy’s heartbeats were sounding very erratic, and sometimes, for long moments, were hard to pick up at all. They would be faint one second, then coming over racingly. My own heart seemed to be beating in my throat as I struggled with how much suddenly seemed to hang in the balance. It crossed my mind that I could lose them both! Jill told Mia to stay where she was on the futon and to breathe deep and relax. Meanwhile, I was applying absolutelly all of my street skills to try and read Jill’s poker-face. I couldn’t.
Jill told Angel to go upstairs and grab the phone. I knew it was a drastic sign. I didn’t know what to do with all my adrenaline coarsing through my body. I wanted to slay some foe… but I hadn’t a clue where or what it was. (Only later did I learn that there had been a partial abruption). We all hung on and waited. For what seemed like an eternity, but was probably only a few minutes, Macy’s heartbeats carried on unpredictably.
…Then the bleeding came under control, and, as we all listened in, Macy’s little heartbeats evened out and held their strength.
Suddenly, we were pushing. Mia had a deathgrip on my forearms as I held her from behind. She was bearing down with all her might as we rooted her on. Angel grabbed an old antique handmirror and, from below, tried to angle it up at me so I could see where the gleaming white head was appearing and disappearing. At one point, I shifted my gaze to Jim, who was standing by and looking on, his wide-open stare teetering between awe and horror. My face exactly!
It all came on so quickly.
Macy became real to me, as Macy, at exactly the moment she slithered out, came up Mia’s stomach, and — still very much attached by a wildly pulsating umbilical cord — let out a kind of coo. There she was… glisteningly alive and so startingly beautiful. There we were, pawwing at her slick little body and doing our best to nestle her, looking on as her tiny eyes struggled open and her fingers, small as broken toothpicks, reached out to clasp one of my own.
I still have no idea what to do with that moment — it was like all my circuit-breakers flipped. And yet, in another way, I was very much so present. (In response to some of those warnings from male friends, I’d prepared myself for the stark look of birth — the clammy coating, the rashes and forehead hair, the lopsided head, the looking-dead — and I’d even saved, and more or less memorized, the handout I’d been given listing all of these possibilities; but there had been no need for any of that). It had all come on like a huge, beautiful gift, and one that we somehow seemed to deserve. Mia and Macy and I fell asleep, all of us exhausted, on the birth couch as rain began pattering off the roof. Jill and Angel and Meleah stayed for hours, talking and cleaning up, and were there again when we woke up.
Like I said, even days later, I still didn’t know what to do with that heightened moment — so when the photos arrived, I opened them eagerly to make some sense of what exactly had happened. I couldn’t believe my eyes… there, coming out, Macy’s skin was a shade of deep blue, her face smeared with blood — her expression tortured! I was truly shocked. I didn’t know how to account for it. How had I remembered her entry into the world as being so smooth and clean, especially given my hidden apprehensions and those anxious warnings from male friends?
I realized that it could only be that, with the three women huddled down below, receiving Macy into this world with their calm wisdom, I had been subtly convinced to see things from their view; not from a place of fear, but for the full, hands on, eternal beauty at hand. Everything was fine — this is how it’s always looked. And isn’t this the stuff of myth — that we remember things based on how we feel about them? Well, then it was the myth that informed my memory. Because everything was fine, despite what the more medical-looking pictures seemed to show.
Quite frankly, I don’t think I would have originally been one of those men able to see beyond what the pictures showed. If it had been a hospital birth — if I hadn’t been handheld from the earliest months all the way through to the end by these midwives; given a chance to locate for myself that deep inner knowing — I think, for sure, I would have seen everything only through the more literal eye of the camera. And there would have laid my myth, as well.