I was worried that watching my wife give birth would change the way I saw her. It did – but in the best way possible.
I’d always assumed Australian men of previous generations had everything better. They were masters of their domains, shoutily sexist and self-assuredly superior. If they didn’t want to talk to their kids, or even spend time with them, they didn’t have to.
In fact, they were so self-confident that they spent their summers wearing shorts so brief their unwaxed, fiercely hairy scrotums were prone to peeping out.
Best of all, though, they were never, ever expected to watch their wives give birth, an experience I looked forward to with all the relish prompted by terms like “prostate exam”, “prison shower”, “vasectomy” or “anaesthetic-free dentistry”.
Buddy, you don’t know what you’re missing
What I now know, having been through it twice, is that those stubbie-wearing, tinnie-crushing men of yore missed out. Watching your partner bring a new life, particularly one you’re at least partly responsible for, into the world is one of the best and worst experiences you’ll ever have. No one should miss it.
There were moments, of course, when my wife – possessed of a physical strength that made me think she may have been secretly working out with Arnie – attempted to turn all the bones in my hands into chalk. At some point she expressed a desire to remove my arms from their sockets, to presumably beat me with the soggy ends.
I must admit though, she was the one doing the suffering, and that’s what made the experience excruciating. So much so that after the birth of our first, I fiercely swore we could never, ever have another one because I could not go through seeing someone I loved in so much high-pitched grunting agony again.
Prepare for audience participation…
My wife, not a woman I’d ever thought of as physically robust before, somehow went through that first labour with no assistance from drugs whatsoever. I tried to get her on the gas, and even demonstrated how helpful it could be by banging down quite a bit myself, and giggling.
I remember machines beeping, doctors freaking, midwives bitching about doctors, and noises coming out of my tiny and suddenly fierce little woman that would scare a bear.
She sweated, she huffed, she pushed, and she did, occasionally, look at me like I was a useless, cowering excuse for a jelly of a man. Which was fair enough, because I was.
I had plans – jesty, jovial plans I’d told everyone beforehand – to stay far away from the business end of the procedure, because some things, once seen, cannot be unseen and, perhaps illogically and selfishly, I thought watching a baby come out of her might scar me somehow.
But when the midwife told me I needed to get down there and stand fast while my wife braced her foot against my chest I didn’t see much room for argument.
As it happened, that was how I was the first to see my son’s mop of black hair make its first, tentative appearance in the world, and suddenly I couldn’t breathe for the excitement of it all.
There was a lot more pushing and shoving and shouting before he was out and through the whole thing I could only marvel at his mother’s strength, endurance, and determination.
This was a person, a wife of mine, I’d never met before. And truly, I was in awe.
Quite literally, it’s a whole new world
Suddenly, magically, howlingly, he was there, and something broke inside me. I remember weeping, uncontrollably, the way you do when someone close to you dies, but with completely the opposite emotion.
This was a joy utterly unlike anything I’d ever known, inspired by a blood-spattered, goo-covered proto-human and by a moment that felt like a miracle. People say the bond of love you feel for you child can take time to kick in, particularly for fathers, but mine was instant.
In those same moments I just kept looking at my wife and inwardly shaking my head. How could she do that, how could she have survived that (and then gone on to survive the further unpleasantness of pushing out the afterbirth and being stitched up – can you imagine any man surviving that)?
I felt small compared to her, like I’d done so little to make this magic happen, and at the same time just so overwhelmingly relieved that it was over.
I’m sure if you’d asked her then and there, a second child would have been as welcome a suggestion as a bath in boiling acid, but somehow we forgot all that and did it again.
Take two, strictly no repeat
The second experience was weirdly and wonderfully different, taking place in a birthing centre rather than a cold and sterile suite surrounded by machines. My main memory is of a midwife using a Dolphin torch to check how dilated my wife was, before I was told, repeatedly, to shut up and let the midwife get on with her job.
Rather than lying down and using me as stirrups, this time she gave birth bent over a couch. I didn’t have a front-row view, but I can tell you that the birth of my daughter was no less a seismic, shatteringly wonderful event.
That second labour took longer, six hours or so, late in the night, when my wife had had no sleep and was drawing on reserves of strength I simply don’t think I have in me at all.
It does seem, in retrospect, cruel that the human head has grown so big – thanks to the size of our clever brains – that childbirth seems like it’s going to damn near kill the mother.
Life lessons from the labour ward
As much as I love my children, I am deeply grateful that I’ll never have to go through it again, in some ways.
But I can tell you this – those previous generations of blokes who went to the pub or the beach or the golf course, or sat in the waiting room with a whiskey while their wives were in labour missed out on discovering an essential truth.
We might think, deep down, that we’re tougher and stronger than the fairer sex, but I don’t think there’s a man alive who could go through the physical battery, the being turned inside out, that my wife did, and do so with such powerful, staggering stoicism… and then be willing to do it again.
I know that a lot of people have a very different experience of birth, but I just have to say, my wife might not have testicles (a fact I’m very glad about) but she’s sure got balls.