I helped Carol climb onto the bed. She was on all fours. In this position she could reach the gas mask. It was nitrous oxide, laughing gas. It didn’t stop the pain.
“For the gas to work,” Rosie, the midwife, said, “Carol has to anticipate her contractions and breathe in gas before it arrives.”
Rosie showed me how to feel the contraction coming with my hand but the contractions were not regular. Sometimes we anticipated them and sometimes not. When I didn’t get it right, Carol screamed. Her eyes bulged and she dug her nails into the mattress. I looked on helplessly. She had her face close to the mattress. My face was close to hers. I could see her eyes wild and red as the pain wracked her.
Rosie came and went. She pressed Carol’s stomach and announced that the baby’s head was in the proper position and had begun its decent. She had to see how wide the cervix was. She announced it was four centimetres. Then it was six. It had to get to nine centimetres before there would be enough room for the baby to be born. That Carol could endure much more pain was unthinkable.
“She needs help,” I cried.
“The obstetrician is on his way,” Rosie said. “He’s caught in traffic. She’s nine centimetres. Everything is cool and dandy, your baby is about to be born. But the process will take some time,” she said. “Given that this is your first pregnancy, labour will be slow.”
With that Rosie left the birthing room. I spread my fingers over Carol’s taut, enormously round stomach. I wondered where the baby’s hands and feet were at present. It’s strange, I thought, the baby will be born in a place most people enter to suffer or to die. In a heady mix of elation and fear we kissed.
“It’s happening,” Carol insisted, her face flushed and damp. Her fingers gripped the chilly rails of the bed.
“Should I call her?”
“Stay with me.” She pressed the gasmask against her red face.
The door opened. “Cool and dandy,” Rosie said and came in a rush as she snapped latex gloves around her wrists and talcum powder sprayed out. “No need to worry,” she chirped. “Everything is looking perfectly normal.”
Nothing felt normal. There was another contraction, more violent than the last. The entire experience; the queasy mornings, the sleepless nights, the growing discomfort Carol had to endure, the pain, the consequence of fatherhood; terrified me. Although it was Carol who carried the child, I too, felt heavy, with the thought of life, of my life and about the life about to come from it. How could such a small creature have made such an impact already?
“Squeeze my hand,” I said. “Squeeze as tight as you like.”
“Quiet,” Carol’s face was serious. She stood and squatted.
“Breathe with me.” We breathed deeply like deep sea divers. “Whooo, hahhh, whooo, hahhh.”
Long, slow breaths. Every breath, every squeeze, every ounce of energy Carol had, she focused utterly on the baby. Breathing helped ease the fear. Her hair was damp.
“Get down on your knees,” she said and I did. Blood dribbled down the inside of her thigh. She put a reassuring hand on my head. She pushed me away. In between Carol’s legs, I saw something.
“There it is, I can see your baby,” Rosie said.
The head of my child was red and blue and it looked like something out of this world. It looked like sunrise in a new country, a new world, a new planet, a star seen for the first time. She pushed.
“Get ready, it’s coming,” Carol cried. The baby came gushing out and I caught her. The baby was not breathing.
“Why is it not breathing?!” I cried.
Before the chord was clipped, the baby was coated with a thick white paste that smelled of love making, and streaks of blood, Carol’s blood, on its feet, shoulders and head. Rosie took it and she opened the baby’s mouth and cleared its airway. She then gently patted the baby on the back and it began to cry. The baby’s cry was not like anything I expected.
“This is wonderful,” Rosie said. “Cool and dandy. You’re marvellous,” she said to Carol. Turning to me, Rosie said: “Take your shirt off and hold your daughter.” I did as I was told.
Carol lay on the bed exhausted. Eventually, like waking from a dream, she asked for the baby.
“Let me look at her,” Carol said. “My little baby girl, my goodness, it’s a girl!” she cried. We began crying with joy just for the fact that the baby was there.
The lights were soothingly dim and the room was quiet and almost dark like a mother’s womb. Just as we wanted it. Not full of lights, noise and chattering. Rosie asked to wrap the baby up but I wanted the baby against me.
I counted ten fingers and ten toes. I inspected the child’s exquisitely perfect fingernails. The baby was fully formed, strong and healthy. Her head rested in the crook of my arm and she stared into my eyes. I walked around the room cradling her and she felt so soft and gentle. This was a living creature like all other living creatures, yet I felt so much love. I felt intensely protective, determined to be a good father but secretly terrified of failure.
From the window I looked down onto the city and saw treetops and a park. I could hear the roar of traffic and the buzzing of a leaf-clearing machine. Over the park out onto the high rises I could see how the city had grown, and so had I. The sun was sparkling over the buildings and outside a church bell was ringing. I felt as if I was floating in a happy cloud over the city.
“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*
I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves – thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.
* Gloria Steinem