Home birth is not for everybody, but it was for us from the get-go. Here’s the story of our first one – our oldest, our high school graduate, our Ben.
I wasn’t a nurse yet, so when Nancy suggested we have our baby at home, I wasn’t sure what to think. It seemed a bit nuts – a little too granola for me, and that’s coming from someone who came of age in Boulder, Colorado, granola-central – but what did I know? I was still getting used to being married, after all, let alone becoming a father, and it was Nancy who was going to be doing the work. If she wanted to have a hippie birth, that was fine by me.
Besides, all of our friends were doing home birth back then. It’s probably de rigueur there now, but back then it was all part of a particular “hom-ish” brand of Catholicism that we aspired to as newlyweds: Home birth for the babies, and then homeschool once they got old enough. After my stint as a hospice nurse years later, our homish loyalties came full circle, and we decided to embrace home death when that time came eventually. Birth, death, schooling in between – a home trifecta, womb to tomb!
But I digress. We’re still at the birth end of things, the first of what we hoped would be dozens. Please keep in mind that I was a rookie husband from a small family (one older brother and one younger sister) with very little experience in the world of babies. As a Catholic convert, I had taken to heart the idea that marriage meant generously welcoming new lives as God sent them, so I was all on board for family as an expected corollary of the wedding day syllogism. Yet, aside from the basics of biology, and what the midwife had explained to us, I had no idea what to expect as far as the birthing process itself. And, to tell the truth, I didn’t even really pay attention to what the midwife said. Pretty much I was flying blind.
So that night, 19 years ago now, when Nancy told me it was time, I wasn’t quite sure what I was supposed to do. “Must call midwife,” I mumbled to myself. Or maybe it was Nancy mumbling it to me. Or rather suggesting strongly. Insisting.
Anyway, I did call her, and she hit the road. We were on the eastern edge of Ohio; Freida, our midwife, was in the middle of Amish country, about 90 minutes away. “I’ll be there as fast as I can,” she said. Right.
In the interim, I made one mistake after another – doing the wrong thing, then not doing the right thing, saying something stupid, and then not saying something when something was required. I either didn’t get the manual, or I just plumb forgot to read it. Everything was happening all at once, it seemed, or at a crawl. We were in a state of suspended animation, waiting on the midwife. Home birth is empowering to women, no doubt, but for your first one? You want the expert on hand.
Freida got there, and expertly, efficiently took matters in hand, gave me orders, and began attending to Nancy. In between contractions, Freida read Psalms aloud and prayed. During contractions, she comforted and encouraged. I was silent and in awe, afraid a little, but mainly bewildered. This was so tremendous, so immediate and tactile, so real. Is this something I was experiencing in the moment? Wasn’t I just watching it, like a documentary? Was I an observer or a participant?
Then Nancy’s * SQUEEZE * on my hand, and I shook my head awake. I didn’t much to do at that point, but drifting off into philosophical roundabouts was not an option.
The night and the labor unfolded together, and just at daybreak, our son was born. As if on cue, birds gathered on the tree branches just outside our second-story alley apartment and started to sing. I kid you not. Right at the moment Nancy delivered her first baby into the world, the world reacted with a glorious homegrown anthem. “Alleluia,” the birds declared that May morning. “God’s image, yet again, and still a new one, a new one, a new one!”
Yes, a son – our son! Nancy had been a mother for nine months, culminating in that mysterious conflation of anguish and elation that seems to be childbirth – and she managed to carry it off as if she’d been doing it her whole life, with grace and courage and calm determination. However, my role as a father was somehow theoretical and undefined until that moment when I met my son face to face. It was the dividing line, the watershed, the visceral marker of paternal transformation.
Suddenly, it was glaring: I had work to do.
But what work? We had a home, and there was food in the fridge. Nancy was recovering quickly, and our boy seemed to be perfectly fine. I felt like I ought to be doing something; I required a task, a mission. Like the film version of Jane Austen’s Colonel Brandon, I needed “an occupation,” or I feared I’d “run mad.”
In a day or two, I got one: Ben’s complexion yellowed like a lemon. “Sounds like infant jaundice,” Freida told us when we called, and she gave me my task. “Take your baby outside and hold him up to the sun.”
“That’s all there is to it?” I asked.
“Yup,” she replied. “That should do the trick.”
So, while Nancy rested, I took Ben outside into the bright sunshine, and lifted him up. I felt like Rafiki elevating the infant Simba before the assembled crowd at Pride Rock, and, sure enough, within a minute or two, the neighbors gathered around to take in the sight and lend some credence to my imagined metaphor.
“Your baby?” someone asked.
“Yes,” I confirmed. “My son.”
“Congratulations,” came the reply. “When was he born?”
“Yesterday? And you’re home already?”
“We never left home.”
That took some explaining. Meanwhile, Ben soaked up the sun, and the bilirubin burned away. I did nothing, really – it was God’s sun, after all – but I still felt like I’d accomplished something very dad-like that day: Taking counsel on behalf of someone in my care, and then acting accordingly.
It was my first significant lesson as a papa, and we were on our way.
And now, 19 years gone by, and my boy is a man. I wish I’d recorded those birds. It’d be a good time to revisit their celebratory anthem.