Of course it's harder on mum, but childbirth can be a baffling ordeal for dad too, as Ben Pobjie found out (just in time).
Remember the opening scene of Monty Python’s Meaning of Life, when the doctors are showing off their expensive equipment as the expectant mother goes into labor, and they notice a man in the delivery room who shouldn’t be there?
“Who are you?” they ask. He replies, “I’m the father.” “I’m sorry,” says one doctor, “only people who are involved are allowed in here.”
I don’t know if this has echoes of familiarity for most fathers, but it does for me, because the day my first child was born, I definitely felt that I was surplus to requirements.
In a way I guess that’s as it should be. The day of birth is, I think it’s fair to say, not really about Dad.
Mother and child are going through an incredibly intense experience together, and the role of father is very much a support one. If you, as a dad, feel like you’re the star of the show, something is wrong.
But it’s still a special day for you, and it should feel special. It should be exhilarating and terrifying and wonderful and stressful all at once. The beginning of a new life. The dawn of a new generation.
The moment at which your legacy is made flesh and the continuation of your bloodline secured.
Plus, you know, it’s a baby, which is nice. It’s so significant a day that you feel it should have an epic quality, with every moment rich in meaning.
I suppose what I’m saying is, the day your first child is born shouldn’t involve repeated trips to the carpark to buy parking tickets.
That was my experience. My son took his time arriving — my wife was due to be induced at eight in the morning and it was after eight at night by the time he actually emerged.
Due to the kind of thoughtful, compassionate planning for which local councils are so justly renowned, the hospital carpark only allowed parking in two-hour increments.
This meant that my attempts to provide loving support to my life partner throughout her ordeal were regularly interrupted by my racing to the lift, going down four floors, running out of the building, feeding coins into the ticket machine, and placing the new ticket on the dashboard.
And it was coins, too. The carpark had not yet advanced so far as to include card technology, so the odyssey sometimes wasn’t just a matter of getting to the machine: I had to go to the ATM in the hospital lobby and then buy something from the gift shop to get change.
This was less than epic. Of course, there were more meaningful moments between the ticket-buying expeditions. There was hand-holding, and reassuring, and offering to go and get a drink, and wondering aloud where the bloody hell the doctor was, and apologising because I didn’t have the authority, by myself, to administer painkilling drugs.
So a big part of my birthday experience — I mean, not my birthday experience, but my experience of this day on which an important birth happened — was an overwhelming feeling of helplessness.
I have always harboured dreams of actually being useful to my wife. These dreams have frequently been dashed, but perhaps never more devastatingly than on the occasion of my son’s birth, when I discovered the painful truth: I was a dead loss.
The fact is, as an expectant father, you can’t actually do anything to make the baby come out any faster, and you can’t do anything to make it hurt less, and you can’t provide any helpful information.
All you can really do is buy parking tickets and occasionally wander the corridor looking for someone to ask to come tell Mum something comforting.
Of course you can tell her something comforting yourself, but there’s something about childbirth that makes a woman acutely aware of how unreliable anything you say is.
But eventually, of course, the big moment arrived. My wife was taken to theatre for the last big push — the delivery was taking so long that a C-section was considered, but happily in the end not required.
As she was prepped, I was whisked away by a nurse to put on a gown and booties and a silly hat so as to be sufficiently sterile and ridiculous-looking for the occasion.
“As an expectant father, you can’t actually do anything to make the baby come out any faster, and you can’t do anything to make it hurt less.”
And what an occasion it was. There can be no more dramatic and crucial event in a father’s life than to be by his partner’s side when his child enters the world.
I almost didn’t make it. I wasn’t late arriving. I didn’t get lost or pass out. What happened was, a staff member took me to a secluded corner in some nondescript hospital sector, told me to sit down and they’d call me when it was time.
So I sat. And waited. And waited. And waited.
It seemed to be dragging on a bit, but who was I to question anything? I had no idea how these things worked, and I had my instructions.
It was only when I heard sounds of activity drifting from somewhere in the distance that I started to get a little tense. It was only when I heard the words, “Where’s the father?” that I became positively alarmed.
I would’ve jumped up and rushed into the delivery room at that point, if not for two facts: 1. I didn’t know the way; and 2. I was still operating under the orders, “Sit here and wait till we come and get you”.
And then they did come and get me. A frantic-looking nurse rushed into my little corner, said, “quick!” and hurried me along to the theatre, where my son made his presence known just a few seconds after I stumbled in. Had the medicos waited any longer before noticing my absence, I would’ve missed it altogether.
But I didn’t. I was there — just. And I saw the little man, and I heard the little man, and he was beautiful, and I was in love.
Even better, I didn’t see him actually coming out, something I had vowed never to witness. Take it from me: being there when baby arrives is all the more wonderful when you stay up the same end as mother’s head.
It had been a fretful, tiring day, one which I had spent being first useless, and then overlooked. But that’s fine: all you can do when you’re about to become a dad is follow orders, do what you can, stay out of the way, and thank your lucky stars.
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