Lyall

Lyall

A weeklong electronic journal.
Jan. 17 1997 3:30 AM

Lyall

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       The handout they gave my husband at our childbirth class last night included a survey of fathers' attitudes toward labor. Most of the men surveyed said they were thrilled to be there, looked forward to delivering the next one single-handedly at home, wished they could have a baby themselves, etc. But it was the response farther down the page that caught the attention of my particular husband. "Three percent of respondents," he announced, "said that they got sick."
       It cheered him up, knowing there were others like him. His attitude toward prenatal classes has been that of a political prisoner forced at bayonet-point to watch videos of other prisoners being tortured by means of electrodes attached to their genitals. At the first class, he arrived spectacularly late, and--surveying the room of pregnant women slumped against beanbags, upon which their husbands were sitting so that they could rub the women's necks in a supportive and loving manner--came down and sat on the floor beside me, taking up half the beanbag space. Then he fell asleep. The instructor, meanwhile, was using her props (plastic uterus with plastic fetus; sculpture of a human spine on a wire; fake baby with the top of its head sticking out of a large sock) to make various labor-related points. She had a big board, too, filled with informational sheets. It was when she flipped from the page labeled "Pain Relief During Labor" to the page labeled "Parking Near the Hospital" that my husband finally woke up.
       Last night was particularly awful, because they showed us videos of several actual women going through childbirth. Stephanie, the first one, decided to take only nitrous oxide, so she spent a jolly 12 hours moaning and whimpering and occasionally laughing at nothing, the way we did when we got high in college. "She looks like she's gone insane," my husband said. All around the room, the men were riveted to the video, their jaws dropping as they watched scenes of heaving and panting, unbearable pain and carnage. The placenta--truly unspeakable, bigger and meatier than any piece of liver you will ever see--seemed particularly to engross them. "I found this kind of upsetting," I said to our nuts-and-berries-ish instructor afterward, "particularly the woman without the painkillers." She looked at me with narrowed eyes, as if I had a can of pesticides and was proposing to spray it throughout the room. "That," she said, "was the most real. THAT IS THE WAY IT IS." (My husband, meanwhile, had discovered the plate of sandwiches laid out to allay the hunger of the pregnant women. He ate five.)
       So touchy-feely was the whole thing that when we went across the street to look at the hospital, I fully expected to see labor rooms planted with little mini-fields, complete with crops that you could harvest right after you gave birth. I wondered why we had to spend so much time learning about a process that takes, at most, 48 hours, when what we really need is instruction on the next 48 years. How about a class on what to do when the kid comes home with pierced nipples, a collection of hubcaps culled from neighborhood vehicles, and a baggie filled with what he describes as "talcum powder"?
       My husband? He's trying. And he is comforted by the fact that, as lame as he is, he isn't as lame as another man I heard about, who arrived at his childbirth class and proceeded to sit stiffly in the only chair in the room (his wife was slouching helplessly against her beanbag somewhere else). He looked increasingly unhappy. The instructor noticed this and thought she could help him confront his repressed, but obviously intense, emotions. "What are you thinking?" she asked him gently. "I was just thinking," he said, "that I'd like to go skiing."

Sarah Lyall reports for the New York Times from London.