Giving birth is a heavyweight title fight, and you’re the cornerman

It's a privilege to be "ringside" as your child is born but, as Chris Ryan found out, there's only so much you can do.

Birth2

No one tells you the truth about childbirth. Or at least, no one told me.

My expectations came from two very different sources. There was the Hollywood version, where a woman with perfect hair and glowing skin lay with her legs in stirrups, swore comically at her husband – “You did this to me, you bastard!” – and was handed a surprisingly spotless baby a few minutes later.

Complete bullshit.

Then there was the version my wife and I heard about at a natural childbirth course. We were told giving birth was a beautiful empowering experience. There was no talk of painful contractions, just intense sensations.

Gentle metaphors were used to convey the wonder of the process. It was all flower petals opening, fresh shoots springing forth, and waves lapping on a shore.

That turned out to be bullshit, too.

Spending hours by my wife’s side as she delivered our baby, a very different metaphor came to mind: giving birth is a heavyweight title fight – a heavyweight title fight from the bare-knuckle days, when rounds kept going until one man went down, and the fight only ended when one man couldn’t get back up.

My wife’s labour had to be induced when our baby was two weeks past his due date. At nine in the morning, in the delivery ward at Randwick’s Royal Hospital for Women, a midwife broke her waters.

When that didn’t get things started, they put her on a drip with synthetic oxytocin to bring on contractions.

Within an hour my wife was in established labour, breathing deeply through contractions.

I don’t know if she was visualising waves lapping against the white sands of a remote tropical island, like was suggested in the natural childbirth course. And I wasn’t about to ask – she wasn’t in the mood for conversation.

As she dropped onto a stool between contractions with a grimace, then stood, squatted or buried her face in a mattress to endure the next round, I was reminded of being ringside at a tough boxing match.

Years ago I boxed with the Blue Cattle Dog Gym in St Marys, in Sydney’s west. One tournament our coach couldn’t make the fights and I was called on to work the corner. I was an average boxer but I was a terrible cornerman.

It was a rough experience, sitting ringside to watch a friend get belted in the face, while feeling partly responsible.

At the end of each round I’d wash out his mouthguard, then give him water and obvious tips like, “Keep your hands up,” which would be ignored once he left the corner.

I felt much the same trying to offer my wife words of comfort, but this time she was taking hits I couldn’t even see.

Between rounds I would tell her she was doing great and give her water. I massaged her shoulders and assured her we were almost there (not knowing where “there” was), before she went in for another round of nausea-inducing agony.

Every contraction, her pain ratcheted up a notch. By two o’clock she was in deep water. The midwives kept saying she was doing great. I tried to read their faces and see what they were really thinking. You’ll tell a boxer he’s doing really well when he’s about to get knocked out, if you think it’ll get him through the fight.

“I was trying to offer my wife words of comfort, but this time she was taking hits I couldn’t even see.”

“I can’t do this,” my wife moaned between contractions. She scrunched her eyes up and clenched her jaw as another wave hit. She asked for the gas – a mix of nitrous oxide and oxygen – and for a time it gave some relief.

The midwives asked if she could climb on a bed so they could check how dilated she was. It wasn’t happening. Trailing the drip and clutching the gas made moving about awkward; every time she went to climb up she was bent in two by another contraction.

The midwives brought out a crash mat and my wife dropped onto it. While she crushed my hand in hers, they looked between her legs. They wouldn’t need to check her dilation: the baby was almost here.

While I gave vague, uninformed advice and moral support, the midwives were consummate pros, with just the right pointers at the perfect time: “Push…hold, you’re almost there…we need you to breathe…one big push.” They were like top trainers – a Cus D’Amato or Teddy Atlas – getting the best out of their fighters.

The final minutes warped time. The baby’s heartbeat was lost from the monitor. Watching the blank screen, a second dragged for an hour. Then the midwives announced the head was out and time sped up. The midwives called for one big push.

I blinked back tears as my wife cried in pain, calling on all her strength to bring our child into the world. It was more moving than when Rocky hauled himself up off the canvas in the fifteenth round against Apollo Creed – and we didn’t even have the emotional soundtrack.

A midwife laid our perfectly formed child on my wife’s chest and handed me a pair of scissors for cutting the umbilical chord. I offered them to my wife so she could do the job – it was her victory. She waved them away, her work done. I cut through the calamari-like tubing, a cornerman cutting off a boxer’s blood-soaked bandages at the end of a fight.

As my wife cradled our newborn baby, I was awash with love and pride. There had been more courage on show than I’d ever seen inside the ropes, and it was an honour to have a ringside seat.

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