In the Delivery Room

Everything they don't teach you about the delivery room.

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My daughter Maggie is an only child, so I have an only experience in the delivery room. It was, however, a doozy — one that makes me a genuine expert on the subject of a father's decorum.

Maggie declined to be born on time, so on the 10th overdue day, the obstetrician gave my wife, Fran, Pitocin to induce labor. When her cervix was dilated 1 centimeter (out of 10), Fran, who'd taken Lamaze classes and resolved to experience natural childbirth, decided not to tough out the strong contractions and requested an epidural.

Thirty-six hours later — during which time I fetched ice chips and the like, counted while Fran pushed and occasionally felt like fainting — the obstetrician performed a fourth-degree episiotomy, cutting Fran from sea to shining sea, and Maggie dropped out as if on a water slide. I counted her fingers and toes, then heard the frightening sound of the alarm gauging Fran's vital signs: Her blood pressure had dropped dangerously low.

In the end, everything turned out fine — Maggie was beautiful and healthy and we were happy (though Fran walked with her knees together for four months). And I'm now in a position to prepare you for what will be, I hope, a much less eventful but just as memorable adventure. These days, childbirth-education classes are pretty much the norm for fathers, but many men have fears and fantasies they're afraid to bring up in front of others.

So for insider tips on handling some potentially tricky delivery room situations, I went to two experts — Thousand Oaks, Calif., obstetrician-gynecologist Raymond Poliakin, M.D., author of What You Didn't Think to Ask Your Obstetrician (Contemporary Books, 1994); and Westlake Village, Calif., certified childbirth instructor Robin Gruver. Here's their advice from the trenches.

Scenario: You decide you really don't want to be in the delivery room after all. Assuming your wife wants you there (not all women do, by the way), you should at the very least give it a fair shot. But you also need to know your limitations — like a weak stomach or a tendency to faint — going in. "If you're unable or reluctant to do what needs to be done, arrange to have someone else back you up," Poliakin says. "If you can only do one thing for your wife, just be there and pay attention to her." The delivery-room experience isn't for everyone, Gruver agrees. "It's unfair to insist all men be there," she says. "But many men are glad afterward that their wife urged them to stay."

Scenario: Your wife starts demanding pain medication even though you'd both agreed on a drug-free birth.Here you need to balance your role as coach/cheerleader with the fact that it's your wife, not you, who's in pain. The final decision has to be hers, and knowing what's most important about the experience can help you keep a proper perspective. "The process isn't really about giving birth; it's about becoming a parent," Gruver explains.

To even the most militant advocates of drug-free childbirth, Poliakin counsels common sense. "Nobody goes to have a root canal and tells the dentist, 'No Novocain,'" he says. "Go into the delivery room with an open mind and never say 'never.'" While Gruver encourages women to think about alternatives to drugs, she doesn't think giving birth should require heroics. And it isn't a competition: "Nobody keeps score of whether or not you had pain medication."

Scenario: Your wife starts screaming at you to get out. "Assuming you have a stable marriage, she doesn't really mean it," Poliakin says. "When it's all over, she'll be glad you stayed. And besides, you have the right to be there — it's your child, too." Gruver also advises sticking it out. "Even if you only hold your wife's hand and tell her you love her, you're a worthwhile presence," she says. "Just take a big swallow and hang in there."

Scenario: Your wife needs something she's not getting from the hospital staff. Whether she's asking for pain-killing medication or another pillow, start off being pleasant and tactful to the nurse, anesthesiologist or other doctor. If that doesn't work, find the unresponsive staff member's superiors. "A spoonful of sugar will usually get you what you want," Poliakin says. But if you feel you're being shunned by the staff, tell them you'd like to page your doctor: "The nurses don't want the doctor to come down on them. They'll hop to."

Scenario: There's a whole entourage in the delivery room, and either you or your wife wants them out. Neither of you should feel guilty. "The laboring woman does not need to worry about nurturing excess family and friends' feelings," Gruver says. You don't have to be the bad guy, though. "Quietly ask the nurses to request them to leave," Poliakin offers. "They're only too happy to oblige."

Scenario: Your child decides to arrive during the seventh game of the World Series/NBA Finals/Stanley Cup, etc. Assuming your wife is OK with it, you can catch the game and participate in the birth at the same time. Poliakin watched the deciding game of the 1988 World Series (Dodgers vs. Athletics) with a father in the delivery room. "It was cool because the wife was a Dodger fan, too," he says, adding that, between contractions, he himself will often glance at whatever game dad has on the tube. Then there's always the VCR. "Most of my birthing classes meet on Sunday evenings, which means that once a year the Super Bowl is on," Gruver says. "But virtually no men miss class. Your child's birth may be a once-in-a-lifetime experience — you don't miss it for a sporting event."

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