Thursday, June 6, 2013

Hut, hut, hike! A birth story

For the next couple weeks I'm thinking particularly hard about being a father. Ironically, my wife and daughter will be out of town until after Father's Day. Which leaves me a lot of time to muse about stuff and try to articulate some things that bounce around in my head.

Three years, three months, and 21 days ago, Addison was born.

It's not often that I've been able to mark a point in my life where everything changes. I know, I'm only thirty (thirty?! shoot, I barely remember turning 21); I know there will be other moments that rock my world, for the better and for the worse. But in my young life, my daughter's birth marked a transition point that was remarkable both for its long-term impact and for the visceral contrast where one moment she was not here yet, and the next we were graced with a squalling, powerful announcement of arrival. And then feedings, and diaper changes, and rocking, and cradling, and staring, awestruck, at this creature we made. Sometimes it seems as though only disasters produce the kind of sudden change I'm talking about. But the birth of a child, that's a notable exception.

I didn't see my daughter's birth. I was in the room, just a foot or two away. When my wife made that final push, I was holding her hand, my head close to hers. When I think of it now, it reminds me of a moment we'd had together years before, before we were married. We were sideways in her car, held in place by our seat-belts, cocooned in crumpled metal, bleeding. Emergency responders scrambled about, spreading an opening here, cutting a piece of metal there. A helicopter settled nearby, its rhythmically thumping blades like a manic heartbeat.

I know that there are parents, both men and women, who find the birthing experience exhilarating. But during Lindsay's labor I was as anxious as I had been so many years ago when I looked over at my girlfriend in that mangled vehicle, and saw how the roof of her RAV4 was caved in, pressing down on her head. She'd ask if I was okay, get confused, and thirty seconds later ask again if I was okay. Over and over. When the paramedics tried to test her responsiveness, she only answered when I leaned in close, gripped her hand, and repeated the question. Four years after that roll-over accident, and here I was squeezing her hand again, my face inches from hers, asking her to focus, telling her she was doing a good job, praying that it would all end well. Inside, I was tied in knots.

Lindsay was in labor for nearly 24 hours. From the early morning all the way through to the evening, Lindsay and I worked through a series of coping techniques that we'd practiced ahead of time, because she wanted to labor at home for as long as possible. In a lot of ways, those techniques were for me as much (more?) as for her. We were nervous and excited; mostly I was nervous and she was excited. But as the sun started going down, things started going south. She'd had pain all day, and managed it. But as we entered the evening hours, our coping efforts just weren't doing the trick. It turns out she was having back labor because the baby was turned the wrong way, though all she knew was that things were getting really freaking hard. The nurses later expressed frustration that Lindsay never mentioned she was having back though a first-time mom should know what that is. Lindsay thought maybe she could last a little longer; we debated it. Finally, we got in the car, and met our doula at the hospital.

The next five or six hours were rough. Lindsay had so much pain. She was trying to avoid unecessary interventions (pitosin, epidural, etc.), but near the end she had lost control. Sometime after midnight, when she agreed to the epidural, she couldn't lay still enough on the bed, and the anesthesiologist almost gave up. I'd hoped that I wouldn't have to bear the sole burden of guiding my wife through these tough moments; that's why we got a doula. But in the end, I was the one she looked to. I swallowed hard and stepped up to the plate. With our eyes locked, our fingers entwined hard enough to hurt, and me desperately trying to maintain a calm, confident tone, we made it through the epidural, and ultimately, through a successful birth.

When they asked me if I wanted to cut the cord, I was done. No thanks. I just wanted to slump next to my wife, and stroke her hair, and hold her hand -- gently, this time. Lindsay was okay. Our baby was okay. When they brought Addison over and put her on Lindsay's chest, it was like a ray of light burning away a sky of storm clouds. It was a miracle. It was the end of a race, that moment crossing the finish line where your muscles don't just relax, but become quivering mush. We cried. Our little girl cried. Everyone cried, breaking the dam of so many hours of frustration and pain and anxiety and determination.

When I was talking with my wife about the experience, she said jokingly, "Man, I forgot about all that. I was a superhero." I can't deny it; my wife was freaking amazing. And no less of a superhero was my little girl, who squeezed through the proverbial eye of a needle. And then stuck her tongue out at us, as though to say, "Get ready for some sass!"

When I go back and read my wife's account of her labor experience, my heart starts beating fast, just like the thumping rotors of that helicopter. My breath gets shallow, my hands a little sweaty. Why, I wonder, can't people just drop a seed in the ground and wait for a kid to sprout out of it? Why's it gotta be so hard?

It says a lot about the worth of a kid that we go through so much to get them here. I'm gonna say "we" here because even though what my wife did was much harder, what I did is still probably the hardest thing I've done in my life. Hardest and best. That kind of trial is like a purifying fire; it's a scorching baptism that, should you make it through to the other side, clears away all the chaff and leaves only the things that matter. It gives you a chance to start over, to plot a direction with the incredible momentum of a birth to spur you on your way. Of course, the distractions of life come sneaking back soon enough; but that's why I like to take a moment to look back and remember that moment I became a father. Putting words to this stuff helps me see the path I perceived then, and the path I'm on now, and try to nudge them a little closer together.