Childbirth Is A Precious Rite Of Passage, If You Enjoy Agony, Terror, And Flying Jets Of Blood

When it comes to the Birthing Experience, I'd like to focus on the end, the summing up of everything, when the doctor in the delivery room turned to me and held up the gore-smeared, still-pulsing umbilical cord and asked if I would like to cut it.

I'm afraid I looked at the doctor as if he had asked the stupidest question I had ever heard. It was the stupidest question I'd ever heard, even though I knew it was a normal question, a question people want to be asked.

This was my second session in a labor-and-delivery room. My wife and I had taken two rounds of childbirth-education classes. Added together, our two children, four years apart, now accounted for something like 48 hours of labor. Yet for all of that, I still, obviously, had failed to properly appreciate the process.

Cutting the cord was supposed to be some sort of joyful and fulfilling moment, the culmination of a series of empowering decisions we'd made. That's what childbirth is, you know—a meaningful experience in its own right, shaped by the parents' wishes and preferences. People make home movies of it, I'm given to understand. They watch them afterward.

I couldn't imagine. Can't imagine. I'd sooner watch a replay of the last car crash that had me in it. Possibly I had the wrong attitude because of the first time around, when labor came nine weeks early and the principal goal was to put off the delivery for as many hours as possible. Nobody on the scene then really had cared to ask us what kind of path toward parenthood we had been imagining. Whatever, it ended up fine, emergency caesarean, a month in the NICU, the kid totally healthy. People have worse stories to tell.

We didn't hear much about those stories in birthing class, though. Birthing instruction is an odd curriculum, in which you are given plenty of facts and details—numbers, diagrams, flow charts, anecdotes—but are tacitly discouraged from drawing the larger conclusions about how those facts might add up. Labor comes in different stages: a startled but cheerful cartoon face, a more startled and slightly frowning cartoon face, and a ravaged and crumpled cartoon face. That last one is the part where the mother-to-be may say she gives up, and tries to refuse to keep pushing. That's perfectly normal. It's all very perfectly normal. Birth is a journey, to be greeted with anticipation. Go through the steps, in the birthing environment of your choosing, with your doula or midwife or anesthesiologist, whatever you value.

There were videos that were meant to show us this. One sequence, the one that made the deepest impression, was intended to show a pleasant home birth, with the whole family participating. Like a Thanksgiving dinner, really, maybe. There were only two details that got in the way. One was the moment when the family's older child, who had been gently massaging the mother's back through the mild early contractions, was briskly and abruptly steered out of the room, as if a frightening TV news bulletin had suddenly broken during the 8 p.m. sitcoms.

The other detail was when they spread newspapers on the floor.

The evasion never ends. It kept on going, right on through the point in our delivery room where the doctor told us, in a very mild and unexcited way, that the child was getting a little tired and that it would be better if he came sooner rather than later. "Tired" was a good one. Like the kid was yawning. But I'd already been through one of these before, so I heard what he meant rather than what he said. The only communication the doctor was having with the baby was through the heart-rate monitor, which doesn't measure anyone's mood. It measures how well your heart is beating. And the monitor said: not well enough.

So they brought in the suction cup. The birthing instructor had passed one of those around in class, and I'd thoughtlessly clamped it onto the palm of my hand, the way you'd fidget with any irrelevant mechanical doodad you found yourself holding. Like the suction cup on the wire basket in the shower. Only this one clamped onto a thick chunk of my hand-flesh and held it unpleasantly tight, the suction force tugging all the way to the bone.

Now they were using this thing, and they were yanking, and other things happened. "Push! PUSH!" they called out, and "Push! PUSH!" and then abruptly "NO DON'T PUSH DON'T PUSH DON'T PUSH"—because the baby's whole head was clear now, pale and coated with blood and white soft baby-wax, and we could see that the reason the baby was tired was that he had the umbilical cord wrapped right around his neck, tight under the chin.

But doctors handle more dangerous problems than that, all the time. This was routine. They unlooped the cord, the PUSH!-ing and pulling resumed, and in moments the baby came free. A few more moments and he was pink-faced and crying loudly, his limbs alive and ruddy. Big hands and feet. Good muscle tone.

This was when the doctor offered me the cord to cut. Why? There was a real, live new baby in the room, pink and rugged-looking and loud, with a stretched-out cranium and a scalp wound oozing blood where the suction cup had been. Why would I want to bond with a piece of medical waste—a piece of medical waste that had tried to strangle the baby, at that?

I waved off the opportunity. The professionals could handle it. The doctor shrugged and made the cut.

It erupted. Blood hit the wall. We were down at the foot of the bed, and the blood hit the wall above the headboard, like the kill shot in a Korean movie. Six, seven feet, easily, clearing my wife where she lay. The blood was trickling down the wall beyond her head; stray streaks of blood trailed up the bedsheets. A nice ceremonial memory of the occasion.

Then the doctors had the placenta in a pan and were poking at it, making sure they hadn't missed any. Out on the far end of Experiential Birth, you can get the placenta wrapped up and take it home and cook it and eat it. Honestly, I can sympathize with that, if only for the sake of recycling some of the energy and nutrition that went into it. But who has time to cook? I left the placenta, the cord, and the rest of the trappings of the miracle behind. The baby was being wheeled out the door toward the nursery, and I followed. It was time to help wash the baby.

Top image by Jim Cooke; photo via MONKEY BUSINESS IMAGES/Shutterstock.