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A Partner's Role in Childbirth

***Full disclosure, this post contains some real talk about the emotional, physical, and mental turmoil of birthing... read at your own risk.***

This blog to me has become a wild mix of the elements of my life that take up the majority of my time and energy: mothering, relationships (with humans and non-humans), therapy, and spiritual care. Towards that end, I am aware it can feel a little scattered, like there isn't much rhyme or reason to it. That's a valid assessment, because my life is scattered. There isn't much rhyme or reason to it most of the time either. It's a constant ebb and flow of different experiences, emotions, thoughts, and intentions.

And so, today, almost seventeen months after giving birth, I find myself thinking about how much preparation I had for birthing and how little preparation my husband had. And hence, I present some reflections for those who may be in want of them.

In the weeks leading up to the birth of our daughter, I remember a few of my husband’s friends on different occasions attempting to prepare him for delivery. They would say things such as, “You’re going to be glad you have a doula” or “You might not know what to do”. He would brush them off, either directly in the moment or to me later on. He was insistent that he wasn’t worried about labor and delivery. He was surely worried about a whole host of other things, like whether or not he would connect with the baby or if our marriage relationship would be the same. Regarding his role in the actual birthing process, however, he was fairly confident.

In retrospect, I think my husband probably thought these well meaning friends, already fathers themselves, were trying to prepare him for the messiness of labor… for the sights and smells, the blood and other unsightly bodily fluids. Towards that end, to be fair, my husband has a pretty high tolerance. Growing up with his mother as a nurse and his step-father a physician, he was accustomed to the injuries of his siblings and himself (mostly him) being most often handled at home: a few stitches here, a splint or a staple there, and you’re good to go. By ten, he was used to changing his younger brothers’ diapers and in his late adolescence became accustomed to taking care of the horses and occasional goat or lama at the camp where we met. All that to say, his stomach for tasks and smells that others might shy away from is pretty strong. Towards this end, he was right to have little concern.

What he wasn’t prepared for, however, was the physical pain of labor. More specifically, he wasn’t prepared to watch me, his beloved wife, writhe and moan in a pain that he was helpless to abate.. or fix.. or control. Unfortunately, I too had not named much fear about this aspect of birthing. It wasn’t that I was ignoring it or that I am particularly adept at handling physical pain. I simply thought this was an arena where my mind and will would overcome my body. In preparing for birth, my doula had helped me visualize it similar to my experience of climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro in which by keeping my focus on a mantra, I was able to push through exhaustion and achiness, and keep walking, step by step. In reality, at least physically, it turns out that climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro and giving birth are two very, very different experiences. While my labor mantra, “open, open, trust, trust” proved helpful in keeping me calm and grounded, it did very little to change my physical experience.

I had approached giving birth as a female in a series of millions of women and female animals throughout time, in trust that my body was born to do this and knew how to do it. Because of this, I was almost excited to labor.. I was excited to experience such power and capability myself. As it turns out, while my body may well have known how to give birth, my psyche was not at all accustomed to the sort of physical sensations that birthing inspires. I'm trying to be kind and gentle and as a good student of mindfulness "non-judgmental" as I describe these sensations, let's be honest though. I am talking about pain. Severe, indescribable pain.

All that to say, if I myself was not prepared for the fullness of labor, it’s no surprise that neither was my husband. I’m not entirely sure at which stage he realized how extreme my sensations were getting. To be honest, it’s all a bit of a blur. I know, however, that somewhere between the superhuman strength with which I began using his arms for leverage with each surge, the animalistic noises that I hardly recognized as coming from my own person, and my shameless announcement “I still care!” after a few inhalations of the laughing gas that my sweet nurse assured me some women report makes them “care less”, he recognized that I was in an agony previously not anticipated. Through it all, he remained strong, calm, patient, and loving. I never once read his fear but rather felt his emotional and physical accompaniment completely, throughout the entire ordeal. For all of that, I am eternally grateful.

In time, and, as it turns out, in pretty good time all things considered, I delivered a perfect and healthy baby girl of only six pounds, fifteen ounces. I still have a hard time imagining the prospect of birthing anything bigger than she. As she lay on my chest, skin to skin, all the anticipated endorphins rushed in, the adrenaline wore off, and the experience of pain was all but replaced with intense gratitude and love. My husband remained present, but quiet. He was no doubt pretty exhausted himself, having stayed up all night amidst offering his limbs for a human tug of war.

It wasn’t until over an hour later that our doctor, nurses, and doula, finally left us to ourselves as a family of three for the first time. It was then that he knelt by my side and voiced softly but resolutely, “We can’t have any more children. I can never watch you go through that again”. His sweet tears came as he admitted how traumatic and emotionally painful it was for him to witness me going through such an ordeal. In the hours that followed, without the natural endorphins that have undoubtedly helped the female being recover from the birthing experience quickly in order to promote procreation, he slowly recovered himself. As he grew in confidence that I was actually okay, more than okay, he settled into his role as a new father. By the end of the day he was expressing more love for her than he had ever dreamed possible, by the next, he was nonchalantly discussing our next child.

Whose to say what he or we would have done differently had he understood what an effect watching me suffer in such a way was going to have on him prior to it actually happening. Before our daughter was born, some of my female, spiritual warriors surrounded me in a Blessing Way; they lit candles, shared prayers, made a necklace. The candles, prayers, and necklace, all made it to our labor and delivery room and kept me company our entire stay.

Perhaps before our next child, we’ll offer a Blessing Way for my husband. Perhaps we’ll surround him with the gifts of light and love needed to partner someone into bringing a being into the world.

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