I had been married once before. It was a long time ago. We got pregnant 18 months later. I don’t goof around.
The hospital where we were scheduled to deliver insisted we take a childbirth class. There were four sessions, one per week. We joined six other couples of the usual variety: some who want you to think they know everything, some who ask relentless questions and don’t listen to answers, and some, like us, who sit silently, saucer-eyed, minds spinning as if they had just been informed their father was David Crosby.
The first class was about feeding and bottles and how to hold a newborn so his head doesn’t fall off. I wondered how babies survived before they invented school. I don’t remember what the second class was about because the Q&A couple wouldn’t shut up long enough for the teacher to get a theme going.
At the top of the third class the teacher announced, “We’re going to watch a film—” Mrs. Q&A started to ask whether it would be presented in video or Super-8, but the teacher pressed on: “—all about Cesearean sections.” That shut Q&A up, her hollow mouth still open.
I froze too. They’re going to train me to go in after the baby? I envisioned myself like Little Jack Horner, only instead of sticking in my thumb, it would be my whole hand. Instead of a pie, it would be a lasagne. Instead of a plum, I would pull out my daughter.
In those days, once you had a C-section you had to deliver that way forevermore. I wondered why they bothered to stitch women back up, only to open them again later. Why not install a zipper? Or a little door? Women like Octo-Mom could harvest babies like eggs from a hen. You could decorate the door with a crafty little wreath, maybe tattoo some daisies around the entrance. You already have a little shrubbery.
They don’t because women wouldn’t leave the door shut. Every woman I know wants me to understand what she’s really like on the inside. If she could just show me, she would.
All these thoughts raced through my head in one second, before the dizzying swirl popped like a soap bubble as the movie started. I learned that once a C-section begins, the father has no job whatsoever. He doesn’t get to say, “Breeeaaathe,” because a machine took over that job. He doesn’t even get to coach, “Push, honey,” because to push at that point is like squeezing a pumpkin seed.
There’s no need to tell you more about the movie. You pretty much know what happens next, if you saw Aliens. I don’t know why they made us watch it except to make regular childbirth, the equivalent of passing a football out your butt, look fun in comparison.
Contractions started three weeks early. I thought they might be false, so we waited a little while. They weren’t. We rushed to the hospital where we were issued matching gowns and a room. Then we waited.
At one point the attending nurse mumbled that she wasn’t hearing the heartbeat very well through the strapped-on monitor, so she picked up a hand-held version and poked around for a better spot. Listenening carefully, she stiffened, froze for a moment, then rushed out of the room without a word.
We exchanged worried glances. The attendant returned with the head nurse in tow, who put on headphones and listened for herself. She looked at the attendant in confirmation, then they both whisked away, avoiding eye contact with us. Please not now, I thought. Please not us.
We hadn’t had much money back then, and no insurance. We had skimped through a lot of the pre-natal testing: no amniosentesis, no ultrasounds, etc., paying as we went for what we could afford and only what seemed crucial. Suddenly that plan felt short-sighted.
Long, quiet minutes passed before the attendant and head nurse returned with the doctor. He listened briefly, then announced flatly, “Congratulations. You’re having twins.” Voila. He left the room.
They didn’t cover this in the class.
My body tipped back into the wall. My wife let out an uncomfortable, high-pitched giggle. I wasn’t unhappy with the news, I just didn’t know what to do next. I hadn’t pictured any of this.
Events came fast after that. Baby Kate burst into this world with a wide-eyed gasp, as one emerges from a deep dive. The doctor passed her over his shoulder to Team One, which whisked her away to a cold, stainless-steel scale upon which she was weighed and wiped clean of the wax and debris.
Although Kate had cleared the way head-first, Molly followed tentively, her right hand outstretched to feel the way. She got stuck, her arm bent over her head. The doctor had to push her back in and rearrange her, causing New Mom to let out a wild-eyed yell fit for a Pittsburgh Steeler. Molly gave it another go and flopped out with comparative ease. She was hustled off to a second steely scale, a heat lamp trained right above her face, and she was abandoned while the staff returned to Kate.
I had been sold on the idea of participating in the delivery, and imagined myself in full hospital uniform standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the doctor, crouched with my catcher’s mitt at the ready. The reality was that I was given a small, taped-off square in which to stand, with firm instructions to stay there. I looked at Molly, alone and squinting under the harsh hot light. Nuts to this, I thought. I’m breaking out. Quiet and unseen, I tiptoed the few steps to Molly and shaded her face with my giant adult hand. Her eyes opened wide and she looked at me as if to say, “Thanks Mister—whoever you are.”
I didn’t know how wide and clear and soulful a baby’s eyes are at birth. It’s only after they squirt in an antibiotic that the eyes swell shut for a week, like a visit from Joe Frazier. I enjoyed a brief moment bathing Kate before they doctored her eyes shut too. So much magical gazing time is lost. If I knew then what I know now, I’d have looked deeper, longer. My eyes would have said, “We’re gonna be fine,” even though I didn’t know.
There was nothing else for me to do. Labor had been long and I had been awake and terrified for nearly a day. I headed out to buy another crib. I was grateful for a task I could comprehend, but it seemed like woefully inadequate preparation for what was coming.
In the elevator I encountered our baby delivery class teacher. Shell-shocked and exhausted, I could barely form sentences. I tried to apologize because, since we had just delivered twins, we wouldn’t be attending her final class covering normal childbirth.
“How big were they?” she asked.
“Fifteen and sixteen pounds.”
She fainted, right there in the elevator.
What are you fainting for? I thought. You’re the one who presents horror films for a living, and I’m the one who just touched two blood-soaked fetuses for the first time.
No, wait, I remember now—the babies were five and six pounds. I didn’t know at the time whether that was good or not. They probably covered that in the final class.