This piece was originally published in Slate on April 15, 2002.
My main ambition when my wife went into labor was to be sober. Three years ago, when our first child was born, I’d been rushing to finish a book. I’d suspected, rightly, that it would be impossible to reconcile book production with new fatherhood. To finish the manuscript before the baby arrived I’d taken to drinking several cups of coffee after dinner and working right through the night. I’d quit around 4 in the morning, then knock myself out with cheap wine.
When Tabitha’s water broke I’d just thrown back a third glass of unsentimental Chardonnay. I’d wound up driving her to the hospital at 5 miles per hour and then, somewhat dramatically, passing out on her delivery room bed. I’d woken up just in time to witness the birth of my first child (Quinn Tallulah Lewis) but had made, I fear, a poor impression. For the past two years and 11 months I have been on the wrong end of a story called “How My Husband Was Loaded When My Baby Was Born.” I promised myself I’d do better this time. It was my last chance.
Last Monday evening, just before cocktail hour, Tabitha said she felt funny. An hour later we were in triage; an hour after that we were walking up and down the hospital halls to accelerate her labor to the point where it generated the respect of the women who doled out delivery rooms. I knew this hospital, from hazy experience. I recalled dimly the secret kitchen stocked with grape juice and the crushed ice and the strawberry popsicles. I remembered vaguely how to finagle a private recovery room. I was the college graduate who had partied his way through school and was now returning on alumni day, hoping his classmates had forgotten what he’d been like. The one thing I knew for sure was that when they asked you if you wanted to get back in your car and endure labor in the intimacy of your own home, or take the hospital room now, you took the hospital room now. Having done this, I settled into the chair beside Tabitha’s bed and watched nurses string nine separate tubes and wires from her body to various machines: narcotics drip, penicillin drip, thermometers, blood pressure gauges, gas masks to deliver pure oxygen, heart monitors for baby and mother, and God knows what else.
And then … nothing. For the next 10 hours we sat around with expectant looks, like extras in a World War II-movie battle scene waiting for the Japanese finally to come charging through the jungle. From the point of view of the woman “labor” is well named; from the point of view of the man it really should be called “waiting.” Your wife goes into labor; you go into waiting.
A woman in labor needs to believe, however much evidence she has to the contrary, that the man in waiting beside her bed is directing every ounce of his concern toward her. This is of course impossible; and so the trick for the man in waiting is to disguise his private interests.
He learns to camouflage trips to the john as grape juice fetching missions. When he is hungry he waits until his wife dozes off, then nips furtively down to the hospital vending machine for his supper of Ring Dings and Nacho Cheese Doritos. At some point in his private ordeal one of the hospital staff will turn to him and ask, sweetly, “And how is Dad doing?” He must understand that no one actually cares how Dad is doing. His fatigue, his worries, his tedium, his disappointment at the contents of hospital vending machines—these are better unmentioned. Above all, he must know that if his mask of perfect selflessness slips for even a moment he will be nabbed.
“Would a little food taste good to you right now?”
“I don’t think so.” (Muffled, through oxygen mask.)
“Because they have these Ring Dings in the vending machine. The kind with the vanilla icing.”
The fixed accusing stare. “You’re incredible.” Pause. A weary tone. “If you want something to eat, just go get something to eat.”
At great and tedious length, 14 hours after labor began, the baby made its dash for the exit. Then it stopped. The doctor on call poked and prodded a bit, then took off her gloves and stared.
Then another doctor appeared, Tabitha’s doctor, conveniently just back from vacation. Tabitha’s doctor is maybe the least likely obstetrician in Berkeley, California. He doesn’t believe, for example, in the sanctity of his patients’ whims. He has no time for superstition; he is unapologetic about his belief in the power of modern science; he believes that the best way to endure childbirth is not out in the woods surrounded by hooting midwives but in a hospital bed, numb from the waist down. He is, in short, my kind of guy. Maybe my favorite thing about him is the way he dismisses ignorant fears with such contempt that they simply vanish. When he is around Tabitha feels, rightly, that she is in more capable hands than her own. This, for her, counts as an unusual experience.
Tabitha’s doctor collected information from the doctor on call, in the way doctors do. They spoke for maybe two minutes, in English as intelligible as their handwriting. At some point I remembered that it was my job to know what was going on.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“The baby wants to come out face first,” said the doctor on call.
“And that’s not good?”
“It won’t fit,” said Tabitha’s doctor. He let that unpleasant thought hang in the air.
“We can’t get a grip on it to turn it around,” said the doctor on call.
Without ever uttering the phrase “C-section” the two doctors conveyed the idea of it well enough. As Tabitha’s doctor leaned in to see what he could do, I leaned over Tabitha and, drawing upon my years of selling bonds for Salomon Brothers, tried to persuade her of all the advantages to having her stomach cut open. She pretended to nod and agree but tears welled in her eyes. The doctors, to their credit, noticed her distress; and, to their even greater credit, they responded to it. Before I knew how it happened Tabitha’s doctor brandished a large pair of suction cups, one over each hand.
“I’m going to try to pull this baby out,” he said, in a different tone. He was no longer a doctor. He was a deep sea fisherman. One of those guys who sat on the back of big motor boats hauling in schools of giant tuna with one hand while drinking beer with the other.
Tabitha’s head popped off the pillow. “If it puts the baby at any risk I’d rather have the C-section,” she said.
“Tabitha, no shit.” The doctor shook his head and pretended to say to me what he wanted to say to himself. “I love the way her mind works. Just what I want to do, put the baby at risk.”
Ten minutes later, by some miracle I still do not understand, he was hauling a baby girl into the world. I knew from experience that the little involuntary sob of joy I made as my eyes met Tabitha’s was a fleeting sensation. I also knew that other, less understandable emotions would soon follow.