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After a long hug and a series of giddy pictures holding the pregnancy test stick (later deleted because we agreed the association with pee was “kinda gross”), Emily gave me pause by saying that she wanted to give birth at home. She had mentioned this before, but I had only smiled and nodded in response, as if she had said something in a different language. Which, in a way, she had. Homebirth? Doula?
“But we don’t own our home,” I said, avoiding the point. “It’d be a rented-house-birth.”
“What’s with ‘owning a home’ these days?” Emily said. It’s true that it had been on my mind. We had just gotten married, and especially now with a child on the way, wasn’t a man supposed to provide? “It’s like some male version of the biological clock,” she said.
Touché. But a homebirth sounded like it would have a significant role for me, and no man was supposed to deliver no baby. Or—some of them were, but they’re called doctors. In hospitals. Where babies are born. Plus, what would we tell our landlady?
I didn’t really have an objection in principle —just in ignorance—and much of my resistance came from the fact that, for those like me who consider themselves to be open-minded and forward-thinking, it’s always disconcerting to discover your limit. The idea that births should happen in hospitals, however, was elemental even to my progressivism. My childhood bookshelf included Peter Mayle’s Where Did I Come From?, the illustrated, “no-nonsense” explanation of sex, pregnancy and birth, published in 1977, a year after I was born. The section titled “The Birth Day” says, “nature starts things moving in the right direction”—and this direction, when you turn the page, is to the hospital.
Emily and I found a compromise: the university hospital had a midwifery clinic. Emily had volunteered at a birth center much like it years ago, which is where she learned about all of the options, from stirrups to birth tubs. The midwifery clinic’s philosophy was that “[a] natural birth in a comfortable environment is best for both mama and baby,” which suited Emily—but across the hall was the universe of modern medicine, which suited me. I didn’t know anything about birth, but I feared all that I had heard could go wrong, and I didn’t want anywhere near that kind of responsibility.
Soon we sat in a white exam room flipping through pamphlets when in marched a midwife wearing a T-shirt that said, “U.S. Navy: We Specialize in World Service!” We stood up. She walked right past me, introduced herself to Emily, and sat at the table in front of us. “Have a seat,” she said.
“Hi, I’m Brian,” I said, still standing, holding out my hand.
“Hi, Brian,” she said, shaking it limply.
I deflated into my chair. This is “mid-wifery,” I tried to tell myself, meaning “with woman.” It’s not about me. Yet I couldn’t help flashing forward to the delivery day, when I’d want to be alongside Emily as something more than an out-of-place piece of furniture. And why the Navy T-shirt, Admiral? Hup-two-push?
I don’t mean to be catty. I just didn’t want a bad first impression of the person who might be delivering my baby. That’s right: my baby. As she yammered on (to Emily) about all the tests she should get, I thought to myself, Wait a minute. I’m no bystander here. I’m the father. I want a role.
Weeks later, Kathy, a homebirth midwife, sat on the other side of a steeping teapot in our living room. She wore a finely patterned cardigan, leather boots, and a nose piercing, which, as I poured us tea, I got close enough to see was a tiny silver flower.
Kathy opened the discussion. “So, what questions do you have about homebirth?”
Emily and she both looked at me.
I unloaded my fears. What if she got in a car accident on the way here? (The doula would call one of the other midwives in the area, she said.) What if Emily goes into labor and she’s delivering a baby somewhere else? (It has never happened, because she plans for only two due dates per month, but if it were to happen, again, there is a network of midwives that can be called on.) What if—God forbid—something was going wrong with the birth? (This has happened, Kathy said candidly, though only a couple times in more than ten years of practice. We’d all get in the ambulance and go to the hospital, twenty minutes away.) Oh—is this legal? (Yes. Certified Nurse Midwives like her are permitted to deliver at home.) What if Emily is screaming and a neighbor calls the cops? (Kathy answers the doorbell, and the police don’t have a reason to get further involved.)
“You also wondered what you’d wear in the birth tub,” Emily chimed in from the couch, barely suppressing her smirk.
“Up to you,” Kathy said flatly.
I told Kathy I wanted an active role in the birth, but— I had to say it—I didn’t want to deliver no baby. Kathy nodded her head and spelled it out: As the midwife, she is completely responsible for the baby and the mother. As Emily’s partner, my job is to support Emily, to do everything she says. The doula, whom Emily and I also choose, is there to support us all—including me.
Someone to help me? It was all I needed to hear. I was in.
The only time Kathy caught me off guard was when she said that childbirth was “beautiful.” I had never thought of it that way, and it made me think of how I had been imagining this moment, this genesis of my own family. Yes, there was beauty in the idea of Emily and I having a child, but I had only been terrified of the event that would bring it. Kathy offered a different perspective, one that was instantly transformational. She was the first person to make Emily feel confident and excited about her labor, and, though some of my fears and reservations still lingered (who exactly are all these “other midwives”?), I started to look forward to the beautiful birth myself.
Before long I got a gift in the mail from Emily’s friend Ellen: grey swim shorts to wear in the birth tub with a multi-colored, sparkly-sequined “GO TEAM GOEDDE” embroidered on the butt.
Other friends and family members were less amused. One of my oldest friends called to tell me about a birth he had recently heard about, in which, as he put it, “If they hadn’t been in the hospital, both the mom and the baby could have died.” He knew nothing else about the birth—breech, ruptured placenta, umbilical cord prolapse?— beyond this comment, which was “I think from the doctor.” How could I possibly respond? I couldn’t say it wouldn’t happen to us—whatever “it” was. Being on the defensive is awful when you’re not even sure what you’re defending yourself against. The only position I could take was to say we’re proceeding as planned in the face of this clear and obvious danger.
My mother was diplomatic in her objection: “They make birth rooms [in hospitals] really nice now, you know.” I described for her our visit to the midwifery clinic, but she was unmoved. She then described for me the birth of my younger sister, where there was “poop in the birth canal,” and once they discovered this, a c-section “got her right out.” Again, we were facing clear and obvious danger, and I didn’t know how to respond. “I just don’t want to worry,” my mom said, always her bottom line.
A coworker of mine, herself a mother of two, was less diplomatic: “Emily’s crazy if she wants to do it without drugs.” Again, I had no response.
On this note, my dad asked, “What’s the greatest amount of pain she’s ever had?”
“Well, she broke her arm when she was a kid,” I said, “but that’s a different kind of pain.”
I was ready for this one. Emily and I had been going to a birth class that supported homebirth; the instructor, Monica, an unflaggingly calm and cheerful Ph.D. student in women’s studies, had become our doula. I described for my dad the pain management exercise we did in class: gripping ice cubes at the rate and length of time of contractions. The purpose was to prepare for the experience, I told him, to strategize how to trust yourself to cope with the intensity when it comes.
Childbirth may not be like breaking your arm, but I also felt silly comparing it to making my hand really, really cold. “Look, this is something Emily wants to do,” I said, hoping to establish our bottom line.
It could be hard to hold our ground, especially because sometimes I didn’t know where our ground even was. One night we went to the public library for a screening of The Business of Being Born, a documentary that excoriates standard hospital practices and applauds the “homebirth movement.” In rows of stackable plastic chairs, over the din of kids crawling on their parents, we watched one startling fact, figure and testimony after another, both of successful homebirths and of hospital births that began well but quickly went down the slippery slope of drugs and other interventions, ending in caesarian-section deliveries.
It was gratifying to feel our homebirth plan so supported, but I also found myself beginning to resist my allies. In the discussion that followed the movie, one mother said she gave birth in a mountain lake and an admiring “oooh” rose from the crowd. I thought, Hold on. Was this some kind of competition? Who among us has had the most natural birth? Why don’t we ask who among us has the most natural, most pure baby? And do we really have to vilify c-sections as some kind of failure or injustice?