Watching my wife deliver—this time, sober.

Notes on fatherhood.
April 15 2002 1:19 PM

The Final Push

What a father does in the delivery room.

Dixie
Dixie

My main ambition when my wife went into labor was to be sober. Three years ago, when our first child was born, I'd been rushing to finish a book. I'd suspected, rightly, that it would be impossible to reconcile book production with new fatherhood. To finish the manuscript before the baby arrived I'd taken to drinking several cups of coffee after dinner and working right through the night. I'd quit around 4 in the morning, then knock myself out with cheap wine. When Tabitha's water broke I'd just thrown back a third glass of unsentimental Chardonnay. I'd wound up driving her to the hospital at 5 miles per hour and then, somewhat dramatically, passing out on her delivery room bed. I'd woken up just in time to witness the birth of my first child (Quinn Tallulah Lewis) but had made, I fear, a poor impression. For the past two years and 11 months I have been on the wrong end of a story called "How My Husband Was Loaded When My Baby Was Born." I promised myself I'd do better this time. It was my last chance.

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Last Monday evening, just before cocktail hour, Tabitha said she felt funny. An hour later we were in triage; an hour after that we were walking up and down the hospital halls to accelerate her labor to the point where it generated the respect of the women who doled out delivery rooms. I knew this hospital, from hazy experience. I recalled dimly the secret kitchen stocked with grape juice and the crushed ice and the strawberry popsicles. I remembered vaguely how to finagle a private recovery room. I was the college graduate who had partied his way through school and was now returning on alumni day, hoping his classmates had forgotten what he'd been like. The one thing I knew for sure was that when they asked you if you wanted to get back in your car and endure labor in the intimacy of your own home, or take the hospital room now, you took the hospital room now. Having done this, I settled into the chair beside Tabitha's bed and watched nurses string nine separate tubes and wires from her body to various machines: narcotics drip, penicillin drip, thermometers, blood pressure gauges, gas masks to deliver pure oxygen, heart monitors for baby and mother, and God knows what else.

And then … nothing. For the next 10 hours we sat around with expectant looks, like extras in a World War II-movie battle scene waiting for the Japanese finally to come charging through the jungle. From the point of view of the woman "labor" is well named; from the point of view of the man it really should be called "waiting." Your wife goes into labor; you go into waiting.

A woman in labor needs to believe, however much evidence she has to the contrary, that the man in waiting beside her bed is directing every ounce of his concern toward her. This is of course impossible; and so the trick for the man in waiting is to disguise his private interests. He learns to camouflage trips to the john as grape juice fetching missions. When he is hungry he waits until his wife dozes off, then nips furtively down to the hospital vending machine for his supper of Ring Dings and Nacho Cheese Doritos. At some point in his private ordeal one of the hospital staff will turn to him and ask, sweetly, "And how is Dad doing?" He must understand that no one actually cares how Dad is doing. His fatigue, his worries, his tedium, his disappointment at the contents of hospital vending machines—these are better unmentioned. Above all, he must know that if his mask of perfect selflessness slips for even a moment he will be nabbed.

"Would a little food taste good to you right now?"

"I don't think so." (Muffled, through oxygen mask.)

"Because they have these Ring Dings in the vending machine. The kind with the vanilla icing."

The fixed accusing stare. "You're incredible." Pause. A weary tone. "If you want something to eat, just go get something to eat."

At great and tedious length, 14 hours after labor began, the baby made its dash for the exit. Then it stopped. The doctor on call poked and prodded a bit, then took off her gloves and stared.

Then another doctor appeared, Tabitha's doctor, conveniently just back from vacation. Tabitha's doctor is maybe the least likely obstetrician in Berkeley, Calif. He doesn't believe, for example, in the sanctity of his patients' whims. He has no time for superstition; he is unapologetic about his belief in the power of modern science; he believes that the best way to endure childbirth is not out in the woods surrounded by hooting midwives but in a hospital bed, numb from the waist down. He is, in short, my kind of guy. Maybe my favorite thing about him is the way he dismisses ignorant fears with such contempt that they simply vanish. When he is around Tabitha feels, rightly, that she is in more capable hands than her own. This, for her, counts as an unusual experience.

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