Giving Birth in Berkeley
The father's perspective.
Two had seemed like the right number to both of us until we had two, and even then it seemed sort of like the right number to me. Two was always the plan; five years ago, at fantastic expense, with the view to maximizing our living space while giving each child her own room, we'd torn up a four-bedroom house and made it into a three-bedroom house. Then one day Tabitha began to shoot me long, soulful looks at night and say things like, "I just feel like someone's missing." She thought we should at least discuss the idea of having a third child, but of course all that meant was that she'd already made up her mind. It was up to me to prevent it, which is to say that it was only a matter of time before it happened. And that was that. Tabitha called the architect who had torn out the fourth bedroom, and told him we'd be building an addition.
Beep! Beep! Beep!
To the shriek of an alarm I awaken but don't move. What with the extra pillow and the warm blanket, the delivery room couch had proved surprisingly comfortable.
Beep! Beep! Beep!
Having witnessed childbirth twice before, I have acquired this expertise: I know that alarms on delivery room machines are nothing to fear. Along with smoke detectors and airport security machines, they belong on the long list of devices in American life designed to cry wolf. Apart from that, here is the sum total of what I've learned waiting for my children to be born: 1) arrive sober; 2) do not attempt to be interesting, as it makes the nurses uneasy; 3) never underestimate your own insignificance; and 4) try to get some sleep, as no one else can. Of course, it is important to be present and conscious for the birth of your child. To miss it would be to invite scorn and derision and lead others to speak ill of you behind your back. But up until the moment the child is born, the husband in the delivery room is in an odd predicament. He's been admitted to the scene of the crisis but given no serious purpose. He's the Frenchman after the war resolution has passed.
I had just pressed a second pillow hard over my head to mute the alarm—it sounded as if it might be coming from the painkiller pump—and was very nearly asleep, when I heard a new voice. "You're 10 centimeters," it said.
The last time they'd brought the chains out onto the field, they'd measured her at a mere 4 centimeters. Ten was clearly forward progress, but it had been nearly five years, and I couldn't recall how many centimeters there were in a first down. I rose on the couch, and in the unnaturally bright tone of a man pretending he hasn't just been asleep, asked, "So … how many more centimeters we got to go?" That's when I noticed we had a new doctor. She looked at me strangely. "Ten centimeters means the baby's coming," she said.
She'd been in the room only a couple of minutes, as it turned out. Before that, Tabitha had never seen or heard of her and—as the doctor now mentions—she's about to quit delivering babies and move to Detroit, so this is likely to be the extent of our relationship. "I'm Dr. Vay," she says, and grabs a stool and a mask. It's 4:23 in the morning and the mood in the air, as far as I'm concerned, is giddy exhaustion. "Oy vey!" I holler as Dr. Vay moves into the catching position. Only somehow it comes out "Ai Vay!"
"It's Oy vey, honey," Tabitha says calmly. "Can you get the mirror?"
I find the mirror. In Berkeley, no birth is complete without a mirror. The belief here is that the mother, as she grunts and groans, should have all five senses fully engaged and pumping meaning into the experience. The ideal Berkeley birth has probably never actually happened, but if it has, it happened far from civilization, in the woods, without painkillers or doctors or any intervention whatsoever by modern medicine. Along one side of the birthing mother was a wall of doulas wailing a folk song; along the other, all the people she has ever known; at her feet, a full-length mirror, in which she watched her baby emerging; at her head, a mother wolf, licking and suckling. Incense-filled urns released meaningful, carbon-free odors. The placenta was saved and, if not grilled, recycled.
Tabitha never wanted the full Berkeley. But back when we started, seven years ago, she gave a passing thought to employing a midwife instead of a doctor, and thought that it might make the experience more meaningful if she skipped the painkillers. She picked out music and found scented oils with which to be rubbed. To the immense irritation first of her obstetrician and then of herself, she hired a doula, who was meant to use said oils to massage her feet during the delivery, but instead went out for turkey sandwiches and never came back.
That was seven and a half long years ago. With her slender build and narrow hips and near total intolerance of physical discomfort, my wife was ill-designed for childbirth. The first time around, in this very hospital, she began to hemorrhage. The doctors saved her life, and with so little drama that we didn't realize what they'd done until well after. The second time around, again in this hospital, they saved not only her but our second daughter, who had entered the birth canal at a historically tragic angle. Entering her third pregnancy, my wife's lost interest in doulas and incense. She longs only for painless, antiseptic, impersonal modern medicine. Numb is good. If they ran tubes underground from hospitals to homes so that painkillers could be delivered in advance of labor, she might well have been their first paying customer. Of the original Berkeley Dream, the mirror's all she's got left.
"Can you feel the contractions happening?" the doctor asks.
"Slightly." She's lying, thank God. If she felt a thing she'd be hollering.
Beep! Beep! Beep! The painkiller pump, again. Another nurse appears—another stranger we're almost surely never again to lay eyes upon. "Angie needs a break," she says. Angie's the nurse who still hasn't worked out what's going wrong with the painkiller. Angie exits. Dr. Vay prods and pushes and massages and waits. Behind her on the wall is a small sign, bearing the first words my child will see: We Strive To Give Five Star Service.
"I think you're having one now. Push."
Tabitha pushes, turns beet red, and goes all bug-eyed.
"Maybe you shouldn't hold your breath," I say, helpfully. No one notices. A single 30-minute nap and I've lost what little right I had to be heard.
"Can you feel anything at all?" the doctor asks.
"Imagine you're trying to poop," says the doctor.
Worried that imagining might make it so, I retreat up and away from ground zero, and stroke the tippy-top of my wife's head. But this just further isolates me as the character in search of a role—the carrot in the school play. Out of nothing more than a desire to seem busy, I grab hold of one of Tabitha's legs and pull it backward. Then, like the master on a slave ship counting the strokes, I begin to chant. "One, two, three …" I half-expect the doctor and nurses to fall about laughing and tell me to stop, but they don't. I seem, in fact, to have written myself a speaking part. "One! Two! Three!" "One! Two! Three!" Tabitha pushes harder. Her eyes look as if they are about to pop out of her head and ricochet off the ceiling.
"Here it is."
There comes a moment when I cease to be able to watch the birth of what is presumably my child with anything but horror. This is that moment. It's meant to be a beautiful sight—a thing to be videotaped or at least remembered, and played over and again in the mind—but it feels more like a hideous secret to be kept. But the damn mirror makes it hard to avoid. Ten minutes ago there was no place to hide; now there is no place to look. Boy or girl? We didn't know. But girls were all we'd ever done, and we'd spent a lot less time arguing over boys' names than girls'. She'd gone from Clementine to Penelope to Phoebe to Scout and then back to Penelope. At midnight when the water broke all over the living room floor, we were just starting what I assumed would be a long creep back to Clementine. I liked the sound of Penny Lewis but Clementine made you want to sing.
"That's the best push yet!" says the doctor. "One more time."
"One, two, three …" I feel like Richard Simmons in one of his videos. You can do it!
"One more just like that."
"One! Two! Three!"
Next comes the sound of a hairless dog escaping from quicksand. Sluuuuuuuurrrrppp!
"It's a boy!"
And with that, Walker Jack Lewis came into the world.
Michael Lewis' most recent book is The Blind Side.
Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Photographs by Tabitha Soren.