Ever since expectant fathers were admitted into delivery rooms a few decades ago, they have come armed with video cameras and awe. Before I became a father, I often heard men describe seeing the birth of their baby as “transcendental,” the greatest experience in their lives. They would recall how choked up they got, even boast about their tears … it sounded very kitschy, Hke the ultimate sunrise. Being a non-transcendentalist, with suspicions, moreover, about my affective capacities, I was unsure how I would react. I had seen birthing scenes often enough in movies: How much more surprising could the reality be? I wondered, as someone who used to pass out at the sight of my own blood filling syringes, would I prove useless and faint? Or would I rise to the occasion, and be so moved in the bargain that at last I could retire those definitions of myself as a detached skeptic and accept the sweet, decent guy allegedly underneath?
Whatever reactions would befall me, I prepared myself for a minor role. The star of any birth is the mother, her co-star, Baby, her supporting leads, the medics. At nativity, every father feels himself a Joseph.
Sept. 16, 1994, around 4 in the afternoon, I came across my wife, Cheryl, lying on the couch. She said she had “spotted” earlier, and wondered if this teaspoon’s worth of sanguinous discharge could be what the books referred to, more scarletly, as “the bloody show.”
I had already made a date with a friend—poet and fellow Brooklynite Harvey Shapiro—to attend the end ofYom Kippur services at the local temple, after which I was to bring Harvey back to our house to break fast together. Harvey would supply the traditional challah bread and herring, and Cheryl the rest of the meal. I promised her I would return with Harvey no later than 7.
At the Kane Street Synagogue, the rabbi was taking her own sweet time, and I knew Cheryl would be annoyed if her dinner got cold, so I prevailed on Harvey to leave the service early. Just as well. We were sitting around the table, getting ready to enjoy Cheryl’s lamb and baked potatoes, when she pointed mysteriously to her belly.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“I think it’s starting.”
She smiled. If it was indeed starting, she could skip her appointment the following week for an artificial induction. The fetus was at a good weight, and the doctors hadn’t wanted to take the chance of the placenta breaking down, as happened often with overdue deliveries. Cheryl had felt sad at the thought of being artificially induced—missing the suspense of those first contractions—but now the baby seemed to be arriving on her due date, which meant we were in for the whole “natural” experience after all.
First-time parents, we had wondered whether we would really be able to tell when it was time. Would we embarrass ourselves by rushing off to the hospital days early, at the first false quiver? How to be sure whether the sensations Cheryl reported were the contractions? As instructed, we began timing them. Meanwhile, our downstairs neighbor Beth popped in, and stayed to witness potential history.
Harvey, a man in his late 60s and a grizzled veteran of parenthood, distracted us with stories of his boys’ infancies while I kept my eye on the second hand. The contractions seemed to be spaced between five and seven minutes apart. We phoned our obstetricians. The office was closed for the Jewish holiday, but the answering service relayed the message to Dr. Arita, who was on call that night. Dr. Arita told Cheryl not to come into the hospital until contractions began occurring regularly, at five minutes apart, and lasted a full minute.
As soon as we had clocked two one-minute contractions in a row, I was impatient to start for the hospital. I had no wish to deliver a baby on the kitchen floor. Cheryl seemed calmer as she described her condition to Dr. Arita. It was now 10 p.m., and he told her she would probably be corning into the hospital “sometime that night.’’ This phraseology sounded too vague to me. I marveled at my wife’s self-possessed demeanor. Cheryl was manifesting her sweet, lovely, modest, cheerfully plucky side—the side she presented to my friends and to outsiders; it was not a lie, but it gave no hint of her other self, that anxious, morose perfectionist she often produced when we were alone.
At 10:30 the contractions began to arrive five minutes apart, and with more sharpness. Arita, beeped, said to come in. I pulled together a few last items (rubber ball, ice pack) on the checklist of what to take to the delivery room, and, saying goodbye to our guests, had gotten halfway to the door when I noticed Cheryl was, as usual, not quite ready to leave the house. She decided she had to water the mums.
For months, we had debated which neighborhood car service to call for the hour-long trip from Carroll Gardens to Mount Sinai Hospital, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Cheryl, a superb driver with no faith in my own lesser automotive skills, had even considered taking the wheel herself when the time came. Now suddenly she turned to me and said, “You drive. Just don’t speed.”
I maneuvered the car with caution over the Brooklyn Bridge, then up the FDR Drive, while Cheryl spoke happily of feeling empowered and in control. The contractions, she said, were not that painful: “I like these intense experiences that put you in contact with life and death.” Premature bravado, I thought, but kept this to myself, glad to have her confidently chatting away; it meant she wouldn’t have as much chance to find fault with my driving.
We parked the car in the hospital’s indoor lot. Cheryl began walking very slowly up the ramp, holding her back. “I can’t walk any faster,” she snapped (the first sign of a change in mood?), as if responding to an unspoken criticism she sensed me making about her pace, when in fact, I was stumbling all over myself to support her.
It was close to midnight as we entered the eerily quiet Klingenstein Pavilion. I approached the security guard, busy flirting with a nurse’s aide, for directions. We had pre-registered weeks before to avoid red tape at zero hour. After signing in, we were directed down a long creepy corridor into Birthing Room C. Mount Sinai Hospital has one of the largest maternity wards in the country, which is one reason we chose it; but suddenly its very magnitude made us uneasy. We felt no longer dramatic or special, but merely one more on the assembly line, popping babies up and down the hall.
The expectant couple was deposited in Room C, and left alone. It would be difficult to describe Room C except in regard to absences: It was not cozy, it was not charming, it was not tiny, it was not big, it was not even decrepit, it had nothing for the eye to fasten on. It was what you expected, more or less, of an anonymous hospital room with a quick turnover; but Cheryl, I sensed, had hoped for more—more ambiance, amenities, something for the money. A visual designer by trade, she could, I knew, be preternaturally sensitive to new environments. Like a bride who finds herself in a nondescript wedding chapel, Cheryl may have long nurtured a fantasy of the ideal first-time birthing chamber, and something told me this was not it.
Often I allow myself to be made captive of my wife’s moods, registering in an instant her first signs of discontent, and trying (usu-ally without success) to gentle her out of it. I suspect that this catering to her anxiety—if only by playing the optimist to her pessimist—is really laziness of my part: It saves me the trouble of having to initiate emotions on my own.
Cheryl was given a hospital gown to wear. The moment she put it on, her confidence evaporated. She became an object, a thing to cut open. I cast about for ways to regain the light mood we had had in the car, but it was no use. “Let’s get out of this room. It gives me the willies,” she said.
We went for a walk around the ward, opening doors and peering inside like naughty children. Our best discovery was a conference room, dark and coffee-machined and air-conditioned— freezing, in fact—which suited her just fine. We hid out for 15 minutes in this non-medical haven. But her contractions eventually drove us back to Room C.
Cheryl lay down. She took an instant dislike to her berth, saying, “I don’t like this bed!” and fiddling with the dials to raise and lower it. (An aversion, I thought, to proneness itself, which brought with it the surrender of her last sense of control). I turned on the TV to distract her. The second half of “Working Girl,” with Melanie Griffith, was on; Cheryl said she didn’t want to hear the dialogue, so I was just to keep the sound loud enough to provide a background of “white noise.” This was certainly a temperamental difference between us: If î had been giving birth, whatever the ordeal, î think I would have wanted the dialogue as well as the visuals of the movie on television. But I obliged; besides, we had already seen it.
For some reason, I had imagined our being swamped by medical personnel the moment we entered the hospital. We had not anticipated these quarter-hours of waiting alone, without instructions. We sat about like useless tourists who arrive in an economy hotel after a long trip, too tired to attempt the streets of a foreign city, yet too hemmed-in by the unlovely room to enjoy a siesta.
How glad we were to see Dr. Arita walk in! A silver mustached, suavely Latin, aristocratic type, he was one of Cheryl’s favorites on the team. (She had been instructed to “establish a rapport” with all four obstetricians, since you never knew who was going to be on call during the actual delivery.) Cheryl had once admitted to me she thought Arita handsome, which made me a little jealous of him. He wore the standard green cotton scrubs with “Property of Mt. Sinai Hospital” printed on the material (still wrinkled, pulled straight from the dryer, no doubt: In former times, they would have been crisply ironed, to maintain authority and morale) and, improbably, had on a shower cap, which suggested he had come straight from surgery; this fashion accessory, I was happy to see, reduced somewhat his matinee-idol appeal.
It was Dr. Arita who had, months before, performed the amnio-centesis, which ascertained among other things that our baby was to be a girl. Dr. Arita had a clinical terseness, never taking five words to say what four could accomplish. He asked Cheryl if she wanted Demerol to cut the pain and help her sleep.
Cheryl had her speech all ready. “No, I don’t want Demerol. Demerol will make me groggy. It’ll turn my brain to mush, and I hate that sensation.”
“All right. If you change your mind, let me know.” With those succinct words, he exited.
From time to time a nurse would see how Cheryl was getting along. Or the resident on the floor would pop in and say, “You’re doing great, you’re doing great!” Increasingly, Cheryl wasn’t. Her contractions had become much more intense, and she began making a gesture with her hands of climbing the wall of pain, reaching her arms toward the ceiling. Finally she cried out: “Painkiller. Painkiller. DEMEROL.”
I ran to fetch the resident.
“I’d give it to my wife,” he said, which seemed to soothe Cheryl somewhat. Exhausted by her pain, she had entered a cone of self-absorption, and only a doctor’s or nurse s words seemed able to reach her. She had tuned me out, I thought, except as a potential irritant— a lowly servant who was not doing his job. “More ice,” she said, rattling the cup as though scornful of the lousy service in this joint.
During prenatal Lamaze pep talks, the husband was always being built up as an essential partner in the birthing process. This propaganda about the husband’s importance, the misapplied fallout of equal sharing of domestic responsibilites in modern marriage, struck me as bunk, since the husband’s parturient chores appeared menial at best. One of my spousal duties was to replenish the ice that Cheryl sucked on or rubbed across her forehead. Throughout the night I made a dozen of these ice runs, dashing into the kitchenette and filling the cup with chips. Back in the room, Cheryl would cry out uIce,” then “ice, ice!” with mounting urgency, as though the seconds between her request and my compliance were an eternity marking my bottomless clumsiness. I was rushing as fast as I could (though I must confess that when someone yells at me to fetch something or perform any manual action, it releases a slight physical hesitation on my part, perhaps no longer than 1.5 seconds, but this 1.5-second delay was enough to drive Cheryl wild. It is, you might say, the 1.5 second factor that makes conjugal life so continuously absorbing). Also, if I gave her a piece she deemed too small or too large, she would berate me in tones of “How could you be so stupid?” This went on for hours.
Her underlying reproach seemed to be that I was not hooked into her brain—was not able to anticipate her needs through ESP or heightened sensitivity—and she would have to waste precious breath articulating them. I would occasionally try to ease the tension by giving her a neck rub or caressing her hand, all recommended consolations by the Lamaze instructor. She shook me off like a cockroach. We husbands had been instructed as well to make “eye contact” with our wives: But whenever I tried this, Cheryl acquired the look of a runaway horse made acutely distressed by an unwanted obstacle in her path.
Sadly, 1 was not sufficiently generous to rise above feelings of being unfairly attacked. Days later, it surprised me to hear Cheryl telling people I had been wonderful during labor: “like a rock.” Why, if this was so, I asked her, had she been so mean to me at the time? She explained rather reasonably that she was just taking her pain and putting it on me as fast as possible.
Sometimes, during contractions, she would literally transfer her pain to me by gouging my leg. Mistakenly thinking she was attached to my foot, I offered it to her, only to have it pushed away. “No, not the foot, ï don’t want the foot, I want the hand!” she screamed. (Being abnormally sensitive to smells all during pregnancy, she had picked up an unpleasant odor from my socks.)
What she liked best, it turned out, was to grip my trousers belt and yank hard. Eventually we worked out a routine: As soon as she started climbing a contraction, I would jump out of my chair, which was on her left side, run over to her right side and stand beside her as she pulled and thrashed at my belt for the duration of the spasm. All the while I would be counting off every five seconds of the contraction. I was not entirely sure what purpose I served by counting aloud in this fashion; they had told us husbands to do so in Lamaze class, in connection with certain breathing exercises, but since we had thrown those exercises out the window soon after corning to the hospital, why, I wondered, was it necessary to keep up a count?
I should explain that we had never been ideal Lamaze students. Too preoccupied with our lives to practice the breathing regularly at home, or perhaps unable to overcome the feeling that it was a bit silly, when the actual labor came, it was so unremitting that we could not be bothered trying to execute these elegant respiratory tempi. It would be like asking a drowning woman to waltz. Cheryl continued to breathe, willy nilly; that seemed enough for both of us. (1 can hear the Lamaze people saying: Yes, but if only you had followed our instructions, it would have gone so much easier . . .) In any event, I would call out bogus numbers to please Cheryl, sensing that the real point of this exercise was for her to have the reassurance of my voice, measuring points on the arc of her pain, as proof that I was equally focused with her on the same experience.
In spite of, or because of, this excruciating workout, we were both getting very sleepy. The wee hours of the morning, from 2 to 6 a.m., saw the surreal mixture of agony merging with drowsiness. Cheryl would be contorted with pain, and I could barely stop from yawning in her face. She too would doze off, between contractions: Waking suddenly as though finding herself on a steeply ascending roller coaster, she would yowl Ooowwwww! I’d snap awake, stare at my watch, call out a number, rush to the other side of the bed and present my belt for yanking. When it was over I would go back to my chair and nod off again, to the sound of some ancient TV rerun. I recall Erik Estrada hopping on a motorcycle in “CHIPS,” and “Hawaii Five-O s” lead-in music; and early morning catnap dreams punctuated by a long spate of CNN, discussing the imminent invasion of Haiti; then CBS News, Dan Rather’s interview with the imperturbable dictator, Raoul Cedras, and “Ice, ice!”
During this long night, Cheryl put her head against my shoulder and I stroked her hair for a long while. This tenderness was as much a part of the experience as the irritation, though I seem to recall it less. It went without saying that we loved each other, were tied together; and perhaps the true meaning of intimacy was not to have to put on a mask of courtesy in situations like these.
Demerol had failed to kill the pain: Cheryl began screaming “PAINKILLER, PAINKILLER, HELP,” in that telegraphic style dictated by her contractions. I tracked down the resident, and got him to give her a second dose of Demerol. But less than an hour after, her pain had reached a knuckle-biting pitch beyond Demerol’s ministrations. At 6 in the morning, I begged the doctors to administer an epidural, which would numb Cheryl from the waist down. “Epidural”—the open sesame we had committed to memory in the unlikely event of unbearable pain—was guaranteed to be effective, but the doctors tried to defer this as long as possible, because the numbness in her legs would make it harder to push the baby out during the active phase. (My mind was too fatigued to grasp ironies, but it perked up at this word “active,” which implied that all the harsh turmoil Cheryl and I had undergone for what seemed like forever, was merely the latent, “passive” phase of labor.)
The problem, the reason the labor was taking so long, was that while Cheryl had entered the hospital with a membrane 80 percent “effaced,” her cervix was still very tight, dilated only one centimeter. From midnight to about 5 in the morning, the area had expanded from one to only two centimeters; she needed to get to 10 centimeters before delivery could occur. To speed the process, she was now given an inducement drug, Proactin—a very small amount, since this medication is powerful enough to cause seizures. The anesthesiologist also hooked Cheryl up to an IV for her epidural, which was to be administered by drops, not all at once, so that it would last longer.
Blessedly, it did its job.
Around 7 in the morning Cheryl was much calmer, thanks to the epidural. She sent me out to get some breakfast. I never would have forgiven myself if I had missed the baby’s birth while dallying over coffee, but Cheryl’s small dilation encouraged me to take the chance. Around the corner from the hospital was a Greek coffee shop, Peter’s, where I repaired and ate a cheese omelette and read the morning Times. I can’t remember if I did the crossword puzzle: Knowing me, I probably did, relishing these quiet 40 minutes away from the hospital, and counting on them to refresh me for whatever exertions lay ahead.
Back on the floor, I ran into Dr. Raymond Sandier, Cheryl’s favorite obstetrician on the team.Youthfully gray-haired, with a melodious South African accent and kind brown eyes, he said the same things the other doctors did, but they came out sounding warmer. Now, munching on some food, he said, “She looks good!” Dr. Sandier thought the baby would come out by noon. If so, delivery would occur during his shift. I rushed off to tell Cheryl the good news.
Momentarily not in pain, she smiled weakly as I held her hand. Our attention drifted to the morning talk shows. (Cheryl had long ago permitted me to turn up the volume.) Redheaded Marilu Henner was asking three gorgeous soap opera actresses how they kept the zip in their marriage. What were their secret ways of turn-ins; on their husbands? One had the honesty to admit that, ever since the arrival of their baby, sex had taken a backseat to exhaustion and nursing. I liked her for saying that, wondering at the same time what sacrifices were in store for Cheryl and me. Marilu (1 had never watched her show before, but now I felt like a regular) moved on to the question, what first attracted each woman to her husband. “His tight buns.” The audience loved it. I glanced over at Cheryl, to see how she was taking this: She was leaning to one side with a concentrated expression of oncoming nausea, her normally beautiful face looking drawn, hatchet-thin. She seemed to defy the laws of perspective: a Giacometti face floating above a Botero stomach.
We were less like lovers at that moment than like two soldiers who had marched all night and fallen out, panting, by the side of the road. The titillations of the TV show could have come from another planet, so far removed did it feel from from us; that eros had gotten us here in the first place seemed a rumor at best.
Stubbornly, in this antiseptic, torture-witnessing cubicle, I tried to recover the memory of sexual feeling. I thought about how often we’d made love in order to conceive this baby—every other night, just to be on the safe side, during the key weeks of the month. At first we were frisky, reveling in it like newlyweds. Later, it became another chore to perform, like moving the car for alternate-side-of-the-street parking, but with the added fear that all our efforts might be in vain. Cheryl was 38, I was 50. We knew many other couples around our age who were trying, often futilely, to conceive—a whole generation, it sometimes seemed, of careerists who had put off childbearing for years, and now wanted more than anything a child of their own, and were deep into sperm motility tests, in vitro fertilizations and the lot. After seven months of using the traditional method, and suffering one miscarriage in the process, we were just about to turn ourselves over like lab rats to the fertility experts when Cheryl got pregnant. This time it took. Whatever torment labor brought, we could never forget for a moment how privileged we were to be here.
“You’ve got to decide about her middle name!” Cheryl said with groggy insistence, breaking the silence.
“OK. Just relax, we will.”
“Elena? Francesca? Come on, Phillip, we’ve got to get this taken care of or we’ll be screwed.”
“We won’t be ‘screwed.’ If worse comes to worse, I’ll put both names down.”
“But we have to make up our minds. We can’t just—”
“Well, which name do you prefer?”
“I can’t think straight now.”
A new nurse came on the day shift: a strong, skillful West Indian woman named Jackie, who looked only about 40 but who told us later that she was a grandmother. As it turned out, she would stay with us to the end, and we would become abjectly dependent on her—this stranger who had meant nothing to us a day before, and whom we would never see again.
At nine centimeters’ dilation, and with Jackie’s help, Cheryl started to push. “Pretend you are going to the toilet,” Jackie told Cheryl, who obeyed, evacuating a foul-smelling liquid.
“She made a bowel movement, that’s good,” Dr. Sandier commented in his reassuring way Jackie wiped it up with a towelette, and we waited for the next contraction. Jackie would say with her island accent, “Push, push in the bottom,” calling to my mind that disco song, “Push, Push in the Bush.” Cheryl would make a supreme effort. But now a new worry arose: The fetal monitor was reporting a slower heartbeat after each contraction, which suggested a decrease in the baby’s oxygen. You could hear the baby’s heartbeat amplified in the room, like rain on a tin roof, and every time the sound slowed down, you panicked.
Dr. Sandier ordered a blood sample taken from the infant’s scalp, to see if she was properly aerated (i.e., getting enough oxygen). In addition, a second fetal monitor was attached to the fetus’s scalp (don’t ask me how). My poor baby, for whom it was not enough to undergo the birth trauma, was having to endure the added insult of getting bled while still in the womb.
The results of the blood test were positive: “Not to worry” Dr. Sandier said. But just in case, he ordered Cheryl to wear an oxygen mask for the remainder of the labor. This oxygen mask frightened us, with its bomb shelter associations.
“How wül the baby be delivered?” Cheryl asked, as the apparatus was placed over her face. “Wul they have to use forceps?”
“That will depend on your pushing,” answered Dr. Sandier, and then he left. I did not like the self-righteous sound of this answer, implying it was ours to screw up or get right. We had entrusted ourselves to the medical profession precisely so that they could take care of everything for us!
Often, after a push, the towelette underneath Cheryl was spattered with blood. Jackie would swoop it up, throw it on the floor, kick it out of the way, raise Cheryl’s lower half from the bed and place a fresh towelette underneath. The floor began to smell like a battleground, with blood and shit underfoot.
“Push harder, push harder, harder, harder, harder,’’Jackie chanted in her Barbados accent.Then: “Keep going, keep going, keep going!” Cheryl’s legs were floppy from the epidural; she reported a feeling of detachment from her body. In order for her to have a counter-pressure to push against, I was instructed to lift her left leg and double it against the crook of my arm. This maneuver, more difficult than it sounds, had to be sustained for several hours; a few times I felt that my arm was going to snap and I might end up hospitalized as well. It was probably the hardest physical work I’ve ever done—though nothing compared, of course, to what Cheryl was going through. I feared she would burst a blood vessel.
Around ll,Jackie went on her lunch break, replaced by a nurse who seemed much less willing to get involved. A tense conversation ensued between Dr. Sandier and the new nurse:
“This patient is fully effaced,” he said.
“My other patient is fully, too.”
He sighed, she shrugged, and the next minute, they were both out the door. Left alone with a wife buckling in pain, I felt terrified and enraged: How dare Jackie take a food break now? Couldn’t we page her in the cafeteria and tell her to get her ass back? It was no use, I had to guide Cheryl through her contractions as if I knew what I was doing. This meant watching the fetal monitor printout for the start of each contraction (signaled by an elevating line), then lodging her leg against my arm, and chanting her through the three requisite pushes per contraction, without any firm idea exactly when each was supposed to occur. The first time I did this I got so engrossed pressing her leg hard against me that I forgot the cheerleading. I have a tendency to fall silent during crises, conserving energy for stock-taking and observation. This time I was brought up short by Cheryl yelling at me: “How am I supposed to know how long to push?” I wanted to answer: I’m not a trained medic, I have no idea myself.The next time, however, I bluffed, “Push, push in the bottom!” doing my best Jackie imitation until Jackie herself came back.
Sometime near noon, Dr. Sandier made an appearance with his colleague, Dr. Schiller, and began explaining the case to her. Cheryl had never felt as confident about Laura Schiller as she had about Dr. Sandier and Dr. Arita, either because Dr. Schiller was the only woman on the team (not that Cheryl would have agreed with this explanation), or because Dr. SchiUer had a skinny, birdlike, tightly wound manner that did not immediately inspire tranquility, or because the two women had simply not had the opportunity to “develop a rapport.’’With a sinking sensation, we began to perceive that Dr. Sandier was abandoning us. Actually, he probably would have been happy to deliver Lüy, if only she had arrived when he had predicted, before noon. Now he had to be somewhere else, so he turned the job over to his capable colleague.
Dr. Schiller brought in a younger woman—a resident or intern—and they discussed whether the baby was presenting OA or OR (whatever that meant). Now they turned to the expectant mother and got serious. Dr. Schiller proved to be a much tougher coach than Jackie. “Come on, Cheryl, you can try harder than that,9’ she would say. Cheryls face clouded over with intense effort, her veins stood out, and half the time her push was judged effective, the other half, not. I could never fathom the criteria used to separate the successes from the failures; all I knew was that my wife is no shirker, and I resented anyone implying she was. If some of Cheryl’s pushes lacked vigor, it was because the epidural had robbed her of sensation below, and because the long night of pain, wasted on a scarcely increased dilation, had sapped her strength.
Over the next hour, doctor’s and patient’s rhythms synchronized, until something like complete trust developed between them.
Dr. Schiller cajoled; Cheryl responded. We were down to basics; the procedure of birth had never seemed so primitive. I couldn’t believe that here we were in the post-industrial era, and the mother still had to push the fetus by monstrously demanding effort, fractions of an inch down the vaginal canal. It was amazing that the human race survived, given such a ponderous childbearing method. With all of science’s advances, delivering a baby still came down to three time-worn approaches: push, forceps or Caesarean.
This particular baby, it seemed, did not want to cross the perineum. “If the baby’s no closer after three more pushes,” Dr. Schiller declared, “we’re going to have to go to forceps.”
Forceps would necessitate an episiotomy—a straight surgical cut of the pubic region to keep it from fraying and tearing further. An episiotomy also would leave Cheryl sore and unable to sit for weeks. Knowing that I would probably be accused of male insensitivity, and sensing my vote counted marginally at best, I nevertheless expressed a word in favor of forceps. Anything to shorten the ordeal and get the damn baby out. Cheryl had suffered painful contractions for 18 hours, she was exhausted, I was spent—and I was dying with curiosity to see my little one! I couldn’t take the suspense any longer— obviously not a legitimate reason. Cheryl worried that the forceps might dent or misshape the baby’s skull. Dr. Schiller explained that the chances of that occurring were very slight, given the improved design of modern instruments.
Cheryl pushed as hard as she could, three times, with a most desperate look in her eyes. No use.
“I always try to give a woman two hours at best to push the baby out. But if it doesn’t work—then I go to forceps,” Dr. Schiller said authoritatively. Cheryl looked defeated. “Okay, we’ll try one more time. But now you really have to push. Give me the push of the day.”
The Push of the Day must have felt like a tsunami to Lily, but she clung to the side of her underwater cave.
They readied the scalpel for an episiotomy. I turned away: Some things you can’t bear to watch done to a loved one. Dr. Schiller, kneeling, looked inside Cheryl and cried out, “She’s got tons of black hair!” Standing over her, I could make out nothing inside; the fact that someone had already peeked into the entranceway and seen my baby’s locks made me restless to glimpse this fabled, dark-haired creature.
The last stage was surprisingly brief and anti-climactic. The doctors manipulated the forceps inside Cheryl, who pushed with all her might. Then I saw the black head come out, followed by a ruddy squirming body. Baby howled, angry and shocked to find herself airborne in such a place. It was such a relief I began to cry. Then I shook with laughter. All that anguish and grief and triumph just to extract a writhing jumbo shrimp—it was comic.
The doctor passed the newborn to her mother for inspection. She was (1 may say objectively) very pretty: looked like a little Eskimo or Mexican babe, with her mop of black hair and squinting eyes. Something definitely Third World about her. An overgrown head on a scrawny trunk, she reversed her mother’s disproportions. A kiss from Cheryl, then she was taken off to the side of the room and laid on a weighing table (7 pounds, 4 ounces) and given an Apgar inspection by Jackie, under a heat lamp. Lily Elena Francesca Lopate had all her fingers and toes, all her limbs, and obviously sound vocal chords. She sobbed like a whippoorwill, then brayed in and out like an affronted donkey.
Abandoned. For, while Cheryl was being stitched up by Dr. Schiller (who suddenly seemed to us the best doctor in the world), Lily, the jewel, the prize, the cause of all this tumult, lay on the table, crying alone. I was too intimidated by hospital procedure to go over there and comfort her, and Cheryl obviously couldn’t move, and Jackie had momentarily left the room. So Lily learned right away how fickle is the world’s attention.
Dr. Schiller told Cheryl she would probably have hemmorhoids for awhile, as a result of the episiotomy. Cheryl seemed glad enough that she had not died on the table. She had done her job, delivered up safely the nugget inside her. I admired her courage beyond anything I had ever seen.
Happy, relieved, physically wrung out: These were the initial reactions. For hours (1 realized after the fact) I had been completely caught up in the struggle of labor, with no space left over for self-division. But that may have had more to do with the physically demanding nature of assisting a birth than with any “transcendental” wonderment about it. In fact it was less spiritually uplifting than something like boot camp. I felt as if I had gone through combat.
That night, home from the hospital, I noted in my diary all I could recall. Consulting that entry for this account, I see how blurred my understanding was—remains—by the minutiae of medical narrative. What does it all “mean,” exactly? On the one hand, an experience so shocking and strange; on the other hand, so typical, so stupifyingly ordinary.
When people say that mothers don’t “remember” the pain of labor, ï think they mean that of course they remember, but the fact of the pain recedes next to the blessing of the child’s presence on earth.
Odd: What I remember most clearly from that long night and day is the agitated pas de deux between Cheryl and me, holding ourselves up like marathon dancers, she cross at me for not getting her ice fast enough, me vexed at her for not appreciating that I was doing my best. Do I hold on to that memory because I can’t take in the enormity of seeing a newborn burst onto the plane of existence, and so cut it down to the more mundane pattern of a couple’s argument? Or is it because the tension between Cheryl and me that night pointed to a larger truth: that a woman giving birth finds herself inconsolably isolated? Close as we normally were, she had entered an experience into which I could not follow her; the promise of marriage—that we would both remain psychically connected—was of necessity broken.
I remember Cheryl sitting up, half an hour after Lily was born, still trembling and shaking.
“That’s natural, for the trembling to last awhile,” said Dr. Schiller.
Weeks afterward, smiling and accepting congratulations, I continued to tremble from the violence of the baby’s birth. In a way, I am still trembling from it. The only comparison that comes to mind, strangely enough, is when I was mugged in the street, and I felt a tremor looking over my shoulder, for months afterward. That time my back was violated by a knife; this time I watched Cheryl’s body ripped apart by natural forces, and it was almost as if it was happening to me. 1 am inclined to say I envied her and wanted it to be happening to me—to feel that intense an agony, for once—but that would be a lie, because at the time, not for one second did I wish 1 were in Cheryl’s place. Orthodox Jews are taken to task for their daily prayer, “Thank God I am not a woman.” And they should be criticized, since it is a crude, chauvinistic thought; but it is also an understandable one in certain situations, and I found myself viscerally “praying” something like that, while trying to assist Cheryl in her pushes.
Thank God I am not someone else. Thank God I am only who I am. These are the thoughts that simultaneously create and imprison the self. If ego is a poisonous disease (and it is), it is one I unfortunately trust more than its cure. I began as a detached skeptic and was shoved by the long night into an unwilling empathy, which saw Cheryl as a part of me, or me of her, for maybe a hundred seconds in all, before returning to a more self-protective distance. Detachment stands midway between two poles: at one end, solipsism; at the other end, wisdom. Those of us who are only halfway to wisdom know how close we still lean toward the chillness of solipsism. It is too early to speak of Lily. This charming young lady, willful, passionate and insisting on engagement on her terms, who has already taught me more about unguarded love and the dread meaning of responsibility than I ever hoped to learn, may finally convince me there are other human beings as real as myself.