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There was a moment in the middle of my wife’s labor — or rather, in the middle of her 4 straight hours of pushing — when I locked eyes with her and said, “You’re doing great. You’re almost there!”
Jenny’s face, already canvassed with pain, went ferocious. “No I’m not!” she said. “Don’t lie to me!”
It’s funny to remember that moment now, one year later, but right then, scrambling for something to say as I dug the flat of my hand into the top of my wife’s butt in an attempt to counteract the pain of our baby’s skull crashing down on her sciatic nerve, I was scared. I was trying hard to act like I wasn’t scared, which I’m pretty sure just made me look either constipated, stupid, or both. A good friend of mine said it best: there’s your wife, there’s the doctor, there’s the nurse, and then there’s you — the most useless person in that delivery room.
Of course, as the member of the partnership who is not in the process of forcing an 8-pound ball of flesh and bone through your genital region, you can’t be entirely useless. You have to be composed, you have to be clear-headed, and you have to be compassionate. Was I though? Was I all of those things for my wife, in the nearly 30 hours between when we entered the hospital and the moment they cut our daughter out of Jenny’s abdomen?
Let me back up a bit and say this: we had wanted to have a natural birth. I mean, who doesn’t? In this day and age, when natural and organic brands are all the rage, why wouldn’t we want our baby to branded in the most sustainable, eco-friendly, and body-friendly way as well? But when we arrived at our 40-week checkup, one of our OB/GYN doctors, after declaring that my wife’s baby door was still shut tighter than Fort Knox, recommended that we induce. “She’s a big baby,” he said. “And she looks great. Your cervix, on the other hand, sucks balls.” I laughed, in the awkward way you have to laugh when another man has a latex-gloved hand inside your wife’s vagina. Twenty-four hours later, we were checked into the hospital, an IV tower between us, watching our hometown Cleveland Cavaliers lose Game 4 of the NBA Finals, waiting for the Pitocin to work its contraction magic in Jenny’s body.
That was Thursday night. Early Friday morning, our other OB/GYN, a small woman who I would have carded if she sat at my bar, put a balloon in the last place in the world I’d ever think to inflate a balloon (call me conservative) in order to speed up Jenny’s dilation. By noon, we were in active labor, slow dancing to Bon Iver. I had upgraded to ad-free internet radio for just such a moment. (Because the last thing you need, when you’re trying to get your unborn child to drop down and open up your wife’s cervix, is having your slow jam interrupted by some loudmouth who wants to sell you car insurance.) I held onto Jenny in her hospital gown, kept her steady as she sat on a yoga ball. I sang and rubbed her back to calm her, just like I hoped to one day do for our baby daughter. We breathed and breathed.
God, how I loved those hours when we were dancing. But my wife’s pain, as expected, got worse. By late afternoon, we were talking to an anesthesiologist who was recommending that we get an epidural. I’ll never forget how his lips kept awkwardly pulling away from his tiny teeth as he talked. He was cold and robotic, and I did not trust him.
Of course, as the member of the partnership who is not in the process of forcing an 8-pound ball of flesh and bone through your genital region, you can’t be entirely useless.
“He’s the best. You’re lucky to have him here,” one of the nurses had said. Was he the best? Were we lucky to have him? We didn’t know. And when it came to understanding the risks and rewards at stake in getting an epidural, we only knew what had been told — by nurses and doctors, but also by friends who had given birth themselves. It’ll ease the pain. It’ll numb you too much. It’s the only way to go. You might harm the baby. Throw in the occasional Google search (because that always helps), and we were overwhelmed with information, swimming back and forth in the stories of others, with no experiential knowledge of our own. Translation: we were first-time parents.
We decided to get the epidural. It didn’t work.
The act of inserting a massive needle into the space next to my wife’s spine did virtually nothing to ease her pain. And as if this wasn’t bad enough, she lost feeling on the left side of her face and most of the left side of her body. If I would have had time then to hate that anesthesiologist, I would have. But I didn’t. I would hate him later, which is to say — and it took me a long time to admit this— I would hate myself for not speaking up in that delivery room, for not saying no, let’s not get this epidural, this doesn’t feel right. Then, in those final 4 hours when we simply had to get our baby out alive, there was only time for holding on, for sweat and screams and images I will not share here.
Emma Josefine Basa Nemec was born via C-section at 12:06 AM on Saturday, June 13, 2015. They held her up and she blinked calmly under the massive or light and I tried not to look at my wife’s exposed organs below her slimy dangling toes. Later, when we asked the anesthesiologist why the epidural didn’t work, he said: “Sometimes your body just doesn’t respond to the medicine.” We weren’t satisfied with that answer, and yet what were we to do? We were so relieved that our daughter was okay — I was so relieved that my wife was okay too — that nothing else mattered. We took one look at that big baby who seems so small to remember now, and the world changed forever, just as everyone had promised it would.
Jason Basa Nemec shares his thoughts on parenting at his website www.sensitivefather.com. He lives in Chicago with his wife and daughter.