On Sunday evening, May 20, 2012, I went to bed at the normal hour. It had been a good sabbath. Vanessa was a few days past her due date, but this had given us time to take our membership vows at the church we had been attending since we moved to Marietta a few months before. Most of our fellow churchgoers were surprised to see us there, though. I (half-joking) told Pastor Lester that the baby would probably come that night, since he could be sure now where he’d be baptized.
I was mostly right. Around 3:30 am, May 21, one day before Vanessa’s 31st birthday, she woke me up with, “Michael, wake up. I think I’m in labor.” Miles did this to us too. Though it’s less than convenient for the mother (and father) to deliver a baby when we would usually be sleeping, a middle-of-the-night birth does have some advantages. For one, our other children should be asleep, saving them some emotional distress and us an added difficulty. It’s also dark and quiet, which is good if you aren’t using synthetic sedation (the old “drug ’er up and drag ’im out” method so common to modernity). In our case, Selah, our oldest by thirty minutes, awoke a little after I did. She has always possessed a remarkable empathetic sense, and I think she woke up because, even in her sleep, she sensed that something intense and irregular was afoot. She was excited and bright-eyed when I met her in the living room. Not at all groggy like she often is when she zombie walks to our room in the middle of the night and crawls into our bed.
Having a home birth presents its own set of challenges for the father. It makes sense that these challenges would not be talked about, however, since they amount to very little when compared to actually giving birth. But, being the father in this narrative, I can talk about nothing but what I know, however little that may be. As soon as Vanessa woke me, the first thought that came to me was, “Am I going to be any good at this?”
I’ve done it twice before (once with twins), but it really isn’t something you can practice all that much. It’s like any life-or-death situation. You hope you will respond well, but you really have no way of determining what will happen. If it all goes swimmingly, it probably isn’t to your credit, and if it all goes down in flames, it’s likely not your fault. You just stand in the stream of unstoppable events and hope you don’t get knocked around too badly. A home birth has a way of really driving this home. Forget the pacing father chain-smoking in the waiting room. This is Up front and center, private! Witness and wonder! Recognize you played a small part in bringing this human into the womb, but you’re next to useless when it comes to bringing him into the world. Make yourself of a little use fetching things, try to be sensitive to the situation if you can, and, above all, try to keep the little pearls of birthing wisdom you learned from books to yourself.
My predetermined duties were pretty simple: Call the midwife, my mom, and my oldest sister. Make the bed up with a plastic liner between two fitted sheets. Sterilize the bath tub with Soft Scrub. Await further instructions.
While I was on the phone, I had to make some coffee. I ground the beans and put the water on to boil for the french press. I was giving Vanessa a glass of cold water when the whistle on the kettle screamed from the kitchen. Noises take on a different quality at night. We might as well have had a freight train charging through our house. I heard our upstairs neighbor stir and get out of bed. I’m pretty sure our condo complex is made out of rice paper. You can hear everything.
To make matters worse, our upstairs neighbor is very sensitive to noise. One evening a little after nine, she came to our door in her bathrobe to tell us that our “surround sound” was so loud that she couldn’t sleep. We turned it off. Vanessa told me I should give her my phone number so she wouldn’t have to trouble herself coming all the way to our door. This may have been a mistake. She calls me a couple nights later, “Your bathroom fan is on … Yeah, the one in the master bathroom … Could you turn it off? It’s really loud.” We had a text exchange a few days after that because our “surround sound” was really loud again. It was about 9:15. Sensitive to Becky’s sensitivity, we had the sound so low, we couldn’t hardly decipher the dialogue. She texted:
I hate to call every night about ur tv but there is a noise ordinance here that says quiet after 9 pm. I want to be a good neighbor but the sound is loud!
I wrote back:
Okay. Sorry again. It really doesn’t seem loud down here… We’ll just have to shut everything down at 9.
She wrote back:
Up here it sounds like a motorcycle is running outside my window. Sorry. Let me know if anything up here bothers u pls.
We rarely hear anything but the floor creaking upstairs … We don’t have surround sound or anything. Just two normal speakers. We can’t hardly even discern dialogue at our usual night volume. It must be some strange operation of the acoustics of our building. We’ll just leave it off after nine.
Seems all the units have creaky floors. I hear my upstairs neighbors too. No surround sound… wow… sounds just like the movie theatre.
Needless to say, we were a bit concerned that she might not appreciate loud and regular groans, moans, yelps, and cries in the middle of the night. That’s one of the reasons Vanessa wanted me to give Becky our phone number. That way, she might call us first before she called the police or, much worse, the HOA.
Vanessa also wanted me to inform Becky that we would be having a home birth at the condo. I was sure that was a mistake. I really didn’t want to hear from the officious “little Hitlers” at the HOA that having a home birth “clearly contradicted the home owner’s declaration, namely article three, section five, point 6.66.” I didn’t want to relocate our birth plan this late in the pregnancy. In this case, I decided it would be easier to ask forgiveness than permission. But a slight anxiety concerning our neighbor stuck with me throughout the delivery like an itch.
I called the midwife while Vanessa sat on a huge rubber exercise ball. During the other two pregnancies, I had been there with Vanessa for all the appointments because I had been working from home or going to school. But with this pregnancy, I was working from the office. I hadn’t even met the midwife. My call obviously woke her up, but I figure she must be used to that by now.
“Hi. Is this Debbie?”
“This is Michael, Vanessa Minkoff’s husband. My wife thinks she is in labor. She told me to call you.” She seemed perplexed. I thought it was because I was so unsure of myself. (It turns out that in her sleepiness, she thought I had told her that my wife’s name was “Amy MacDuff.” No one by that name was in her records. She told us this later, and I felt somewhat relieved. Though I did add for Shakespeare’s sake, “I hope this boy fares better than MacDuff’s son did.”)
“What’s her due date?” she asked.
“It was May 15th.”
“And how far apart are the contractions?” Duh. I should have already had this information.
“I’ll find out and call you right back.” I hung up the phone, feeling a little sheepish.
“How do you time it, babe?” I asked Vanessa. “When one contraction starts to the next? Or the time between one ending and another starting?” She wasn’t really in a place where she wanted to concentrate on these questions.
“I can’t remember.” Which was code for, Would you please figure it out? Little preoccupied here. Her words and breathing were already more tense. I decided to use the “lap” feature on the stopwatch, that way I could punctuate every event for which I might need data. I called the midwife back a few minutes later.
“Hi, Debbie. It’s Michael again.” Then I asked Vanessa, who was holding the data-replete stopwatch, “How far apart are the contractions, babe?”
“I don’t know. How did you set this thing up?” she said.
I looked at the data. It is a typical error to think that an abundance of data produces greater access to the truth. I couldn’t tell whether it had recorded the start-stop times or the duration of the lap. Vanessa said, “I messed up the last one.” Which one’s the last one? I thought. This is your brain without coffee. I imagined the midwife writing in her mental ledger: Husband—Not an asset.
I did not like this. You want to be the father that has it all together. The one that midwives talk about later. “Did you see that guy? He really had it together. It’s so rare to see a husband so involved. So sensitive. So competent.” Yeah. Not happening. The midwife interrupted my mental train of self-degradation:
“We’re on our way. How’s that?”
“Babe, they’re on their way. Is that cool?” She didn’t hear me. “Babe? They’re going to come now? Is that okay?”
“Yeah,” she said quickly from the exercise ball.
“Okay,” I said. “See you in a few minutes.”
I hung up the phone. Vanessa was soaking in the bath tub by the time I was pouring my coffee a little before four. Selah came into the kitchen, “Mommy would feel better if she had some tea. Is this one for her?” She pointed to the extra cup of coffee I had poured for my eldest sister Christa who had offered to manage the kids during the delivery. I figured Vanessa had told Selah to ask me for some tea, so I went into the bathroom to ask what kind she wanted.
“I didn’t ask for any tea,” she said.
Sweet thoughtful Selah. You can take whatever credit you want for your children’s faults, but their graces are from God.
Christa arrived and helped me make up the bed. Around 4:20, Vanessa’s water broke, a pearly cloud in the bathwater. One of the midwives’ aids appeared behind me.
“How’s it going?” she said.
“Her water just broke.”
“Whitney. Good to meet you.”
The primary midwife, Debbie, came in. She was a silver-haired woman, hardy, and a little over middle-aged, I thought. I liked her immediately. You could see in her eyes the confidence and unassuming joviality that only experience can give. Matronly competence differs greatly from male prowess. She wasn’t cocky at all. She didn’t throw her weight around. She facilitated the process with warm efficiency.
My mother showed up just in time to see the baby born. Waiting in the living room with Christa, Selah was very concerned about her mother. As her grandmother passed, she said, “Mommy is borning the baby!” It had all gone so quickly. Vanessa thought it couldn’t possibly be time to push. But there it was, the top of the baby’s head, dark hair matted with vernix, one raised wrinkle transversing the skull like a spine.
She pushed only a few more times and her labor was done. It is hard to describe a baby being born. Once the head comes fully out, it is almost as if the baby gushes into the world, like it is pulled out of the womb in the end rather than pushed. Our fourth child slid out face down and we knew for the first time that Vanessa had been carrying a baby boy.
“It’s a boy!” I said. “Ephrem Wyatt.”
After that, things started to blur together. I made another batch of coffee for the midwives, Debbie and Kay, and their aid, Whitney (had to try something to return to “asset” status). Amity woke up. I gave her and Selah some cereal. Ephrem nursed a bit. They weighed him and took down his stats: 8 pounds, 14 ounces; 20 inches long. Healthy. Happy. Textbook. God is gracious.
I reflected on the morning’s events. I was the only man in the midst of this peculiarly female undertaking. And, I must say, feminists have it so very wrong. They think running a company is something? Any skilled man can do that. But no man has ever given birth. And it’s not just biology that hinders us, either. The mystery of childbirth is only augmented by the nonchalance with which experienced women can approach it, and home births emphasize all of the most dumbfounding contours of this—and all—female grace. Of the diaconal inclination women naturally have toward the earth and all the various stuff that organizes it. Of the life-suspending sacrifices they can make without resentment and without fanfare … every day. Of the dark, peaceful quiet they can store in reserve in those tributaries of spirit so totally foreign to the exposed and unitary nerve of men. No medication. No intrusion of machines and dials. No white lab coats. No constraining time-tables. All of these things have served to masculinize the American experience of childbirth.
In this quiet bedroom, in the still of night, where the eyes must adjust to the light, I alone represented men as a witness of raw womanly power. My wife did not achieve this power through fighting and conquering, toppling a city, ruling all in her domain with an iron fist. No. “Violent men attain riches, and a woman of grace attains honor.” She bowed her head to the pain. She did not grapple with the convulsions. She let herself release and relax during and after contractions. How very much effort she invested in submitting to the hand of God in this. This womanly paradox—that great effort can be the means of faithful surrender—is one among many that emerges during childbirth—death so close to life, victory in sacrifice. What a picture of Christ I saw this morning.
I wrote this on May 21, 2012, later in the day Ephrem was born. I figured Mother’s Day was as good a day as any to publish it here. Happy Mother’s Day, Vanessa!