Steve Edwards recalls in postcard-sized vignettes the strangeness, humor, and grace leading up to the birth of his son
Let’s just say that Barack Obama’s “Yes, We Can” slogan worked equally well for my wife, who campaigned on the platform that, damn it, we should have a baby. I was a year away from completing my doctorate. My memoir had just been accepted for publication. So, sure, things were looking up for us. But I still worried about money and getting a job after graduation, and I wasn’t sure about the kind of father I would turn out to be. “Can we do this?” I said to my wife. She said, “Yes, we can.”
If I Have To Be There…
“I don’t want to be anywhere near the delivery room,” I told her, imagining doctors in blue masks and gloves, imagining IV bags, beeping heart monitors, my wife’s panicked screams, my baby’s panicked screams. My wife said, “If I have to be there, YOU have to be there.”
After a home pregnancy test confirmed our suspicions, we scheduled an appointment with Doctor #1 for further confirmation. Dr. #1’s office was just down the street from our house, and he got good reviews online.
But two sketchy details about Doctor #1:
1). On the wall of his office was a huge painting—I mean, it literally took up the whole wall—of a fetus snuggled in its amniotic sac and cradled by a giant Caucasian hand (presumably God’s); and 2). When we told him we had taken a home pregnancy test and it had come out positive, he glanced at our hands for wedding rings. We had been married over a year, but my wife had not changed her last name. Nor did we wear rings. But I saw him do it: quickly, and lizard-like, he glanced at our hands.
There were paintings on the walls of Doctor #2’s office, too—only these were paintings of beautiful California poppies, my wife’s favorite flower. If this weren’t sign enough that we were in the right place now, consider what we had been calling our unborn child: Poppy. Because he was the size of a poppy seed, and because we were convinced he was a girl. When we saw poppies, we had a good feeling.
Doctor #2 had a shiny bald head and a big smile, and he had delivered hundreds of babies in Lincoln, Nebraska. “Do you cut episiotomies?” my wife wanted to know. She wanted as natural a childbirth as possible.
Doctor #2 laughed uncomfortably and said, “I don’t even think they teach those in med school anymore.” Then changed the subject.
Four-five-six months into the pregnancy (the sleeplessness of parenthood has distorted my sense time and memory), we went to a birthing class—a Lamaze class. It was pretty much as Bill Cosby described it in his famous stand-up bit: panting, deep breathing, hand squeezing. We sat on yoga mats and listened to gentle music and hissed together: hiss-hiss-hiss. A young woman showed up late the first night and looked around, confused. She said, “Why’s everybody hissing?”
One night the instructor gave us each a cherry Lifesaver and instructed us to hold it on our tongues and suck on it. After a few minutes she said, “You see how it’s sort of melted away? That’s the cervix during effacement.”
The one good thing that came from the birthing class—the instructor gave us the name of a great doula: Mary Anderson.
Mary Anderson: Punk Rock Doula
Mary was forty or almost forty and had short, spiky blonde hair, and played drums in a punk band in Lincoln. She was calm, informed, incredibly helpful, and competent. We loved her. We had Mary and her doula-in-training, Mandy, over to our house for pastries one afternoon to talk about our birth plan.
“Oh, you see Doctor #2?” Mary asked. “He delivered my son.”
“Does he cut episiotomies?” my wife asked.
“He said he doesn’t,” I said.
“These doctors always say they won’t do an episiotomy unless YOU want one,” Mary explained. “Then you get there and they do it anyway.”
So we dumped Doctor #2 and Mary hooked us up with a group of wonderful midwives. My wife was going to get the natural childbirth she wanted. There were even birthing suites at our local hospital with hot tubs for water births.
The memoir of mine that had been accepted for publication—like most nonfiction books, it was sold on the basis of a detailed outline. So during the last months of the pregnancy, I was busily tapping out the final chapters. It’s the story of seven months I spent in the Oregon backcountry, in 2001, living in a cabin, in solitude, and taking care of a 95-acre homestead along the Rogue National Wild and Scenic River. At heart, it’s a story about how those months alone in a beautiful, wild place transformed me from a deeply fearful human being into someone deeply at home in the world.
But anyway, one night after we had spent some time talking about whichever chapter it was I was then writing, I expressed to my wife my fears about midwives and doulas and things that could go wrong. She held up a hand and stopped me: “You’re writing about Nature. You want Nature? This is it.”
The Night of His Birth
Our birthing suite at St. Elizabeth’s hospital was perfect: spacious, quiet, clean and well-lit, and private. Through a bank of high windows we had an expansive view of prairie sky and an almost-full moon. Though later a thunderstorm would rage through and knock out power to half the town, everything was still for our son’s arrival. And some of that stillness of moon and sky worked its way into me.
When the moment came—when my wife entered labor and began to feel her way through the experience of giving birth—I wasn’t scared at all. For either of us. In fact, I was calm. Ready. My sense of awe for what she was about to do, and was doing, and eventually did without so much as an aspirin crossing her lips—that awe encouraged me, really, to rise to the occasion, to stay present with my wife, to get her what she needed, to do whatever anyone needed, to be strong, supportive, real. To be a witness to the courage and love it took for her to bring our son into this world, and to in some small manner have been a part of all that, was for me an incredible privilege.
Even now, some four and a half years later—and despite the health challenges we have had with our son—the night stays with me. Every person I see walking down the sidewalk or sitting at desks in the classes I teach: every one of them, regardless the circumstance, was born. Just as I was born. Helpless creatures, all of us, dependent upon love in what can be a hostile, deeply troubled world. It’s such a humbling thought, and it scares me sometimes. But I have the night my son was born, and I have found that the memory of that night, its power, offers me courage when I need it most.
You can read more about Steve Edwards’ evolution into a father in “Not Failure But Courage: Parenting a Special Child” and “The Day I Found My Voice: Becoming the Father My Family Needed.”
Credit: Photo—Boston Public Library/Flickr