Birth is obviously an enormously painful, emotional experience for mums – but it’s also pretty monumental for dad too.
While women are (quite rightly) being offered all of the care, attention and pain relief they need, men have to take a backseat, and watch their partner go through one of life’s biggest transformations with little-to-no ability to help.
Here, writer Adam Bethlehem remembers how he felt the day his wife Milly went into labour, and what he was REALLY thinking as she brought their son into the world…
When it comes to planning for the arrival of our son, my wife does her birthing plan and my only task, as far as I can tell, is to check the bag she’d be taking to the hospital.
The waiting is nerve-wracking and with nothing else to contribute I start worrying that I forget something or get it wrong. Every day I check religiously but that little suitcase never changes. Same clothes, pyjamas, toiletries, and of course stuff for our newborn son. I discover that the best solution is for me to have my own bag packed and ready for when we set off.
My wife deals with most of the essentials so I get together a selection of treats. We’ve never done this before and it’s not clear what might be appropriate. After all, it won’t be like going on holiday…
I end up with chocolates and a jar of the special foot cream. Really it’s not much but what else is there for a man to do?
The day finally arrives and Milly is up early that morning, says she couldn’t sleep. When I open my eyes, she looks tired and worried so of course I get worried too. It’s still dark outside but I put the kettle on, run a bath for her which turned out to be a good idea. And there she is, looking a little more relaxed.
I bring a chair into the bathroom so we can chat, sipping my tea when I see… what is that? Her stomach has changed shape, sort of bulging and rippling.
She’s not saying anything but I already know. In the movies the husband always times the period between contractions. Is that what I’m supposed to do?
‘We have to go,’ she tells me, the contraction has gone and she can speak. We live about five minutes from the hospital. When we talked about this, even before the birthing plan, we decided it would be best for us to walk.
‘Think I’m going to need a taxi.’
Another contraction? Already?
We’re lucky, the cab arrives within minutes and it’s not long before we reach the Maternity Department. Don’t worry I’ve got the bag. And I’m timing contractions with the clock on my phone – a role I’m playing from those movies because I can’t remember a single thing from birthing classes.
Arriving in the delivery room is a little like dropping your partner on the launch pad and then being banished to a seat at the back of mission control. I’m not complaining, safety is all important and I’d rather the midwives are keeping my wife alive than holding my hand and offering tea. But that doesn’t make it any less stressful.
I tried to tell them about the timings but they didn’t think it was important anymore. There are machines recording everything about mother and baby and hospital workers popping in and out. Milly seems okay though, smiling at me as she squeezes my hand. What am I thinking as I sit in the labour ward? Honestly, I don’t know. Love? Desperate worry? I seem to have lost the power of coherent thought.
I might be wondering where my mind has gone but Milly doesn’t have time to think about such nonsense
I’m starting to realise that birthing classes were a guide in the same way that reading a brochure about the Olympics counts as preparation for running a marathon. Actually, childbirth seems more like weightlifting or wrestling. She’s pretty tiny, my dear wife, and I didn’t realise labour would be so much work. I feel quite useless with my glass of ice cubes and my little wet towel to mop her brow.
In between contractions I’ve started thinking about how long it might take. There were stories circulating at the classes about somebody’s three-day labour. Is that actually possible? And why is there so much pain?
Then there’s a sound from one of the monitors, gentle pinging, like a message on a mobile phone. A second midwife walks into the room. They look at the machine and check Milly’s blood pressure with one of those old fashioned cuffs. One minute ago we were all full of anticipation and Milly seemed fine. Now, when I look down, she’s pale, not talking. The nurse reaches across me to push a bell and it takes about 10 seconds for two more to arrive. And someone pushing a trolley, like in Casualty or ER.
It’s frightening watching things happen you’ve only seen before on TV. The one thing I know is that I want to hold Milly’s hand. Our baby isn’t born yet so he hasn’t got his name. Yesterday we decided he’s going to be Sam…
I can’t even stand near Milly because there are doctors everywhere now. Drips in both arms and an anaesthetist is holding an oxygen mask over her face. She’s not looking at me as they wheel her bed out of the room for an emergency caesarean.
And then they’re gone.
The room is so empty and quiet and I guess that’s a bit like I feel inside
Probably it’s only a minute before a nurse comes to get me, then we’re running for the operating theatre so I can get myself changed. There’s so much to take in when I step through the door. Milly is unconscious, blood transfusion going into one arm. I’m still not thinking straight and all I can hear is crying, desperate crying, like the way I feel inside.
‘Congratulations,’ the nurse says. ‘Come and meet your baby. Do you want to hold him?’
Oh my God!
I look across to Milly. She’s still asleep but the anaesthetist is smiling. The surgeon gives a thumbs up, Sam’s yelling.
There’s no need for them to speak.
Adam’s latest novel, The Universal Theory of Immigration, will be available from 1st June.