men at work

How a childbirth class taught one expectant dad what to do on '“D Day.'”

When my wife, Kelly, was expecting our first child, she mentioned one day that we ought to sign up for a Lamaze class. I associated Lamaze with the ’60s and natural childbirth—a concept that sounded great as long as you were a man and presumably didn’t have to be the one doing the screaming. Still, I assumed that childbirth was going to involve a lot of blood (men are capable of fainting, are they not?), and I wanted to be prepared.

In our very first “Start Smart” class at the local hospital in Los Angeles, it became clear that these days Dr. Lamaze is being honored more in spirit than to the letter of his theories, which center on avoiding pain through breathing techniques and mental imagery. Most of the women there, including Kelly (we were seven couples in all), planned to call on some form of drug assistance when labor got intense. Rochelle, our instructor, was studiously neutral on the subject. “Don’t worry, you’ll get what you need,” she told us, and thinking of the Rolling Stones lyrics, I was reassured.

It’s pretty common to find men accompanying their partners in childbirth education classes these days. The men in my class included a restaurant chef, movie producer, record industry publicist and computer salesman. Disparate in occupations, we all shared the same preoccupation. It was oddly comforting just to come together once a week and be with this particular group of strangers in those last two months of great expectation and fear of the unknown. Grouped there at a way station on life’s highway, we came to care about each other, however briefly.

Rochelle herself was a calming presence. Sweet-natured and funny, she helps deliver babies every day and made the process seem all very commonplace. She tried to get the men to feel as much empathy as possible for their pregnant wives. To demonstrate the breathing techniques intended to distract mothers-to-be from the pains of labor, she had us all sit on the floor (the women got pillows) with the men coaching their wives. Skeptical about its usefulness, and a bit afraid of making a fool of myself, I nevertheless went along with this exercise, thinking, “OK, let’s see where this is going.” We were all instructed, “Take a deep cleansing breath: Now exhale, inhale, exhale, inhale.” Were we really going to be able to do this when the time came? I wasn’t at all sure.

I did realize, though, that the class reinforced the idea that Kelly and I owed it to each other to complete this nine-month marathon hand in hand. In spite of our busy schedules, once a week we were forced to focus on this amazing event that lay ahead. Something we had started together, we were going to finish together.

Rochelle’s lessons also helped me understand what Kelly was going through. Although my academic study of biology ended in high school, by the third or fourth session I could talk obstetrics with anybody. I had picked up the lingo that would be in force come “D Day”: words and terms like effacement, back labor, crowning, centimeters dilation, mucous plug, bloody show, bag of waters and episiotomy.

As the big day approached, we expected to have at least a few hours after the first signs of labor to pack our hospital bags and time Kelly’s contractions until their frequency dictated transfer to the maternity ward (every five minutes, as I’d learned in class). Among the tasks I never completed was to procure an ice-cold bottle of Kelly’s favorite beer, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, which she planned to consume immediately after delivery.

So much for planning. Kelly’s bag of waters broke early one Sunday morning (I was sleeping—she had to tell me twice before the reality registered).

It was two days before her due date, yet we had to go right to the hospital. All day Sunday we waited, and still no labor. Two things we knew: First, we had no objection to using drugs of any kind. In fact, when I heard blood-curdling screams in the hospital halls, I assumed they were coming from women not using drugs and I was all the more reassured that drugs were just fine. Second, we wanted to avoid a cesarean section if possible. So by Sunday night, when the labor-inducing drug Pitocin had still not produced sufficient progress, doctors suggested an additional drug, a new vaginal gel, and Kelly readily agreed. Yet we weren’t prepared for the violent reaction. Almost immediately Kelly went into hard, painful contractions—mocking the notion that they could be countered with special breathing.

Then came the epidural, or spine-administered pain relief. When at last, early Tuesday morning, Kelly’s cervix was sufficiently dilated (effacement achieved!), the doctor backed off the epidural so that she could push with feeling. We were both relieved and happy not to need a cesarean.

Once in the delivery room, an older nurse somehow superseded me as head coach because, well, she could yell louder than I could. “OK, honey, push!” she shouted. “You can do it! You can do it!” I had no choice but to join in. After each full-out, red-faced push from Kelly, I shouted, “That was good! That was good!” I wiped Kelly’s brow, fed her ice chips and listened to her curse. We’d run 10k races together, so I’d seen her physically exhausted, but this was different. I’d never seen her in so much pain. Yet, because Rochelle had prepared me for this stage of the process, I wasn’t afraid.

I did see a lot of blood, but I must have been in some heightened state by this time because it didn’t bother me, even after going for 42 hours without sleep. I attribute this to the once-in-a-lifetime, unforgettable sight of our son, Devin, bald and squawking, as he slipped from Kelly’s womb out into the world. I wasn’t going to miss that, but class probably helped. More than anything, it made us think of ourselves as a team that would have to perform under pressure when the time came. And when the time and the pressure came, we did.