The other day I was looking through the art work of an acquaintance. Rick Weston is a somewhat twisted guy who manages to create disturbing yet humorous pieces of art. When I saw his piece that I dubbed Prolapse the Clown, memories of the birth of my first daughter washed over me. I understand that you may not expect adjectives like “twisted” or “disturbing” to be appropriate for the miracle of childbirth but that would be because society has not confronted the reality of the birthing experience from the male viewpoint.
There are numerous books and websites available for prospective mothers or parents. I’m quite certain that my wife bought all of them and gave me instructions to pay particular attention to the dog-eared pages. I read some of the book. (Ok, I skimmed through the books until I got to the sections about sex during pregnancy.) I have to admit, I had trouble reading the sections talking about the minute growth of the cells, the development of eyelids, which vegetables were best for stimulating intellectual growth. It was boring and I wanted something exciting.
You see, none of the books really talk about how horrific and disgusting the scene is in real life. We had gone to a childbirth and parenting class. We watch through half shut eyes as they played a movie of a birth. I don’t know how many takes they used to sanitize it the way they did but it certainly wasn’t anything like the reality I was facing. Even the “must have” pregnancy book, What To Expect When You’re Expecting, didn’t discuss the horror other than a very short comment about how “the blood, sweat and tears” would be offset by an “amnesia [that] sets in pretty quickly once that little baby finally arrives.” What isn’t in the book, and should be, is a paternal disclaimer. Attention Would-Be Fathers: you will not get amnesia and will remember every twisted and disturbing detail.
Listen, I understand that mothers do have the difficult task. They carry all of the risk. The weeks and months leading up to the delivery were a never ending series of heart stopping information sessions. Was this going to be in the 2% of pregnancies that was ectopic? Would my wife be in the 18 percent of women that develop gestational diabetes? Would she be one of the 5.5 in 100,000 women that died during childbirth? Would she be one of the 6% of women that suffered Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of birth trauma? Would she kill me and become part of the 5% of women arrested during pregnancy?
When I wasn’t worrying about my wife, I worried about my unborn child. The threats that loomed before our unborn child were equally frightening. I began worrying about the fetal heart rate more than I did my own heart rate. I would hold my hand on my wife’s stomach to feel for movement. She thought it was a loving bonding gesture, it wasn’t. I wanted to make sure that all was well, I wasn’t imparting loving thoughts, I was assuaging my own fears. Were fingers and toes, heart and lungs, eyes and ears all developing as they should? Was there some infection attacking even as we slept? Were the pickles and cheese slices giving her heartburn? After getting past the threat of these issues in utero, the poor kid then had to face actually coming into the world. According to medscape.com, 2% of stillbirths are caused by the trauma and 8 in a thousand babies suffered injuries during childbirth. Bruises, broken bones, hematomas, and burst blood vessels also threatened to interfere with a happy entrance.
All of those numbers, illnesses, and issues vanished with the moment of birth upon us. I had heard stories about the beauty of childbirth, about how I would cry when I first beheld the new life that I had helped create. My mom had called me just this morning and told me how she still remembered my birth and I could hear her voice catch as she related the tale.
I remember looking down at my loving wife – she on the cusp of delivering our child – and feeling emotion well up in my throat. No. Not emotion, bile. Definitely bile. I was going to be sick. Her body was transforming into something alien. In fact, her body was becoming something from the movie Alien. If you haven’t seen childbirth, you can experience the disgust like this: download Aliens with Sigourney Weaver, watch the scene where the alien explodes from the guy’s chest. Add realistic screams. Make the guy the woman that you love. And THEN make the alien come out of her vagina.
A million thoughts raced through my mind. None of them were appropriate to my role as the strong, supportive “birth partner.” I wanted to call my mom and ask her what sort of drugs she had been on during and since my delivery to remember it with anything other than horror and revulsion. With the number of stories I had heard about the beauty of the moment, the sight of my child being pushed into the world had me wondering if I had fallen asleep and was merely having a nightmare. I wanted to look away, to preserve the image of my wife that I had carried so fondly until now.
My wife’s body was…wrong; completely, totally wrong. And, horror of horrors, what was wrong about my wife’s body was wrong in exactly my favorite place. It was stretching out. (By the way, this was the image that Rick’s art had reminded me of.) The body part that I loved precisely because it was an innie was becoming an outie. And it was a huge outie. How could I ever fool myself into thinking that I could re-enter her and have a hope of pleasing her? Have a hope of her even noticing me in her.
At this point I think I need to make one thing clear…I love my wife. Dearly. Completely. Totally. But if I had to pick a favorite body part of hers, I would not choose her gut. And, yes, I realize that there is more to her than a vagina but right at that moment, it is all I can think of. As I write this, it’s still all I can think of. I wanted to look away, to preserve the image of my wife that I had carried so fondly until now.
I went back to the pregnancy books to see if there was any information about the trauma I was feeling. There wasn’t anything to be found. Apparently, the anguish of the father is not just secondary to the mother and child but it is so insignificant that it isn’t even mentioned.
An internet search for help only found one source of information. An article published in The Journal of Men’s Studies showed that men do suffer trauma when present during childbirth but they went on to say that the trauma was generally the result of a lack of preparation. This information was useless to me now.
The thing I found that was helpful were accounts of police officers and soldiers who keep reliving the trauma of battle and are unable to shake the images that they lived through. These brave men and women are often diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). According to the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation, people suffering from PTSD are said to have flashbacks, nightmares, and anxiety or frightening thoughts about the event. Check. The information indicated that those suffering from PTSD often engage in avoidance behavior so as to not experience the traumatic memories. Check.
The question at the end of this is this: What do I do? I can’t raise this issue with anyone in person. That might result in physical, rather than emotional, trauma. I don’t want to go to a psychologist and detail my affliction, that just doesn’t sound comforting. The other dad’s in the play groups don’t say anything, but I know they are suffering too. Whenever the talk turns to the birth, they get a distant look in their eye and nod at the right times, say the right words but they aren’t fooling me. I know they are suffering exactly as I am; quietly, shamefully.
Personally, I will continue my silence. I saw what my wife went through, I know how strong she is. There is no way I’m going to chance upsetting a woman that could go through that.
In order to ensure planned pregnancies still occur I should let you fathers-to-be know something: there is nothing more magical than the power of the vagina to regain it’s shape after childbirth. I have no idea why millions of dollars are being spent to develop anti-aging compounds. The vagina holds the secret. I’m positive that ground vaginal tissue mixed into a cream would eliminate wrinkles after only a few applications. In fact, my respect for the regenerative powers of the vagina goes so far that I’m looking into technology that would allow me to have the front end of my car wrapped in vaginal tissue. I’m positive that this would allow me to cut down on repair bills after my frequent car accidents.