The first trimester is about reading, retching, and vague notions; the second trimester is about the novelty of those notions becoming concrete in the form of a wriggling, swelling parasite. This third trimester has been mainly about waiting.
As we drew into the home-stretch of pregnancy my wife's uterus had inflated to the size of a decent watermelon, housing an energetic infant, half a pound of placental goo and a thick umbilical cord over two feet long. Her breasts had grown heavier, and frequently leaked nutritious and delicious colostrum. When sitting naked on the bed she was embarrassed to discover that she was leaving behind little puddles of leukorrhea from her nethers. She was an absent-minded, waddling, perpetually hungry baby-oven with leaks of all kinds, being tenderised from the inside out by her fierce and feisty tenant.
We found ourselves with a profusion of options available in the realm of prenatal classes, but very little to choose from in the way of birthing classes. While the former category deals largely with lifestyle and education issues (how to avoid inadvertantly wounding your child, and so on), the latter category deals exclusively with methods for coping with the birthing process itself. The classes are specific to each method.
Two of the most popular methods for managing natural childbirth (or psychoprophylaxis) are Lamaze and Bradley. The well-known namesake of French obstetrician Dr Ferdinand Lamaze hinges on using patterned breathing techniques and point-focus autohypnosis to manage the pain of the uterine contractions. The Lamaze method does not rule out the use of drugs. The method of Dr Robert A. Bradley, in contrast, is predicated on a total lack of anaesthetic medication. It emphasises gaining control of natural breathing rather than introducing unfamiliar breathing techniques. Proponents of the method would argue that the Bradley emphasis on inward focus and concentration on the events taking place is vastly more useful compared to what they would characterise as the Lamaze tendency to "distract" through outward focus. Lastly, where Lamaze is very open-ended with regard to the presence or absence of coaches, the Bradley method requires a consistent and intimate coach (I say "intimate" because Lamaze coaches are not necessarily obliged to massage their partner's perineum, which is indeed one of my happy duties).
While Lamaze classes were fairly plentiful, my wife was determined to go the rarer Bradley route. Since the next session of Bradley classes was not scheduled to begin until a week or two before our baby was due to be born, we opted to borrow a Bradley book from the midwives' free library instead. And since it seemed that most of the material featured in the more general prenatal classes was either painfully obvious or already thoroughlly covered in the books we had bought, we ended up taking absolutely no classes at all.
How much stuff do you need for a newborn baby? Not much, really. The real expenses don't kick in until later on, I'm told by reliable elder sources. A fresh baby needs a reasonable changing table, a crib, some wet-wipes, and a bunch of jumpers, sleepers and diapers. Notwithstanding the Thoreau-like simplicity of a newborn's life, our friends and relations have seen fit to launch at us volley after volley of innovative "vital" gifts.
Of course, we're not looking gift horses in the mouth. Just because we wouldn't have thought something was worth buying for ourselves doesn't mean the stuff we've ended up with isn't cool. For instance, we now have a diaper-pail that twists closed in such a way as to trap the stink inside. A marvel!
Beyond that, we have been inundated with all sorts of polymorphable plastic contraptions covered in industrial-orange and black striped stickers warning dire consequences for the unwary user in both official languages. We have been generously gifted a play-pen that folds down with a flick of a wrist into something the size of a hefty Rubik's Cube. We have truckloads of mobiles featuring licenced likenesses of all sorts of cute copyrighted critters, which spin and tinkle quiet tunes. Someone thoughtfully bought us a folding stroller with cup-holders and better suspension than my car.
For the birth event itself we have prepared receiving blankets for swaddling the recently de-wombed, bright flashlights for peering into my wife's cavities, clear plastic tarps to protect the hardwood floors from excessive wetness, plastic sheets to protect our bed from looking like a murder scene, olive oil for perineal message, weaveless maxipads and adult incontinence diapers for postpartum bleeding, rags and towels for sopping up offal, and two large bowls: one for catching vomit and one for catching afterbirth.
The birthing pool itself we managed to inflate with help from my father-in-law's leaf-blower. It fit easily into the nursery...once we took out most of the other furniture.
And so: we had settled on a course of study, prepared the essential materials for the birth, inflated the pool and finally decided on names. There remained nothing more but a steadily growing buzz of anticipation...
One afternoon we were lazing John & Yoko style in our bed, plucking idly at our PowerBooks and indulging in elaborate fantasies about our lifetime to come with Baby. We capped it off with a bit of hot sex. I was roused from my post-coital napping by my wife's enthusiastic announcement from the washroom: "My mucus-plug came out!"
The mucus-plug is stopper of snot that seals the mouth of the uterus for the duration of pregnancy. While its expulsion does not in and of itself signal the onset of labour, it is an indicator that the cervix -- the opening of the uterus -- has begun to prepare itself to move aside in order to permit the passage some fat freight. My wife's mucus-plug was streaked with blood, which suggested that the process of effacement had begun, heralded by the breaking of cervical capillaries. If it was indeed evidence of effacement that we were seeing, labour could be counted on to start within fifty hours.
Contractions started fifteen minutes later.
My wife's meatsack had been farting around with Braxton Hicks contractions for months, squishing itself experimentally when stimulated by walking or orgasm. These new contractions that she began to feel after her mucus-plug came out, however, did not peter out after a few minutes. Instead they continued to knock gently at her innards throughout dinner and into the night. "Maybe they're not contractions," my wife said while we watched some crappy movie on TV. "Maybe Baby is just kicking a lot."
"This movie isn't funny," I said, glancing up briefly from the Internet on my lap.
Somewhere in there I fell asleep, and woke up alone in bed five or six hours later. I padded out into the livingroom and saw my wife sitting on the couch surrounded by our pets, watching cartoons and surfing the web for first person accounts of giving birth. "The baby is coming today," she said simply.
We took the dog for a romp through the snow. My wife was experiencing mild contractions every 7 - 10 minutes, with a more intense contraction occuring irregularly in the mix, causing us to pause on the sidewalk and hunker against the wind quietly for a moment while she let it pass. When we got home we decided to tidy up a bit. She announced the start of her contractions from the laundry room while I loaded the dishwasher with a stopwatch in my hand, charting the duration, spacing and reported intensity. On paper the pattern was very clear: the time between contractions was compressing quickly, and the more intense contractions were coming more frequently and with greater regularity.
"Should we page our crack team of ace widwives now?" I asked.
"Nah, not yet," said my wife with confidence...
Her next contraction, beginning at 11:32:15, was different enough in character that it was immediately apparent even to me that something new was happening. She leaned over and held herself in a strange, semi-oblique pose against the table for almost forty seconds. "That one was stronger," she said as it began to fade. "I felt it in my back."
We retired to the bedroom for a back massage. With her next contraction at 11:35:16 she made a little involuntary groan. "I think my water just broke," she said. We shambled over to the washroom to investigate, and found her underwear soaked through with clear liquid. "Now I'm paging the midwives," I declared.
I paged the midwives at 11:39:20, then I drew my wife a warm bath in the washroom and helped her into it. Next I called all of the friends and relations who had asked to be notified when real labour began. Many of them jumped into cars and raced to our house immediately.
When I had not heard from the midwives a quarter hour later I paged again, leaving a more detailed message about my wife's condition. The contractions were coming less than a minute apart now, and lasting almost as long. The intensity was slowly mounting. I massaged her just below the small of her back, where the ligaments that anchor the rear of the uterus attach, doing what I could to soothe the mounting ache. "They feel different than I thought," she said; "It's a duller, more generalised pain than I had imagined it would be. Not at all like the sharp pain of a menstrual cramp."
At noon the apprentice midwife called. She told me that I no longer had to keep track of contractions, and that they would be arriving presently. Outside of the washroom the friends and relations had flown into action. My wife's parents arrived first, and immediately set to filling up the birthing pool with warm water from our laundry sink. When the hot water tank was empty they commanded a small squadron of hangers-on to action, boiling pots of water and relaying them into the nursery.
Twenty minutes later I noticed that the shape of my wife's pelvis was changing, ballooning out in front above her mons veneris. "Jeez, it almost looks like Baby's head is right there in your cooch," I said like an idiot. It slowly dawned on me that was exactly what was going on. While I felt around for the telephone I reminded my wife to try to keep her breathing slow and deep as she recovered from her latest contraction, leaning against the side of the tub, fighting to control her breath and keep her muscles relaxed. I paged the midwives a third time, letting more urgency leak into my voice. "It seems like we're progressing very quickly here," I said to the pager. During the next contraction bloody mucus squirted out into the bath water.
"I don't feel like I'm holding up very well," my wife said in a small voice between strong contractions. It broke my heart. In truth she was holding up like a champion, managing to control her muscles and reign in her breathing with calm determination. "You're my hero," I said.
When the midwives arrived they plopped down on the washroom floor beside me and deftly inserted a brace of fingers into my wife. "Your baby has a nice head of hair," reported the apprentice. The cervix had dilated to over eight centimeters. "We'd bitta move her now or we're going to heff thes beby right here," pronounced the senior midwife with melodious South African inflection.
When the latest contraction subsided I helped haul my wife up out of the tub, and we formed a little shuffling choo-choo train into the nursery as she held on to my shoulders. It was quarter past two in the afternoon, or a little less than three hours after labour had begun in earnest. Once she was lying down in the massive, steaming birthing tub the apprentice midwife examined her yoni again. "We're fully dilated," she said. The senior midwife asked, "Do you feel pressure on your bum? Like you heff to go to the toilet?"
Grimacing, my wife nodded yes emphatically.
And suddenly the all-clear was given: no longer was she to keep her muscles as relaxed as possible, but should instead begin to push with each contraction. The baby was coming -- right now. I hastily pulled my cellular telephone and fob-watch out of my pockets and jumped into the pool, making myself a human chair for my wife to lean into from behind. The contractions were coming one on top of another now, and within seconds she was pushing with everything she was worth, crushing my hands in hers spasmodically.
A line of intimates had accumulated at the door of the nursery: our mothers, my sister, the dog... I could see from the expression on their faces that there was suddenly something to see, though I could not myself see beyond my wife's twitching belly. "I can see your baby's head!" my wife's best friend cried. Already? Could we really be so near the end?
The next push sent out more streams of bloody mucus, curling and swooping lazily through the hot water. My wife cried out loudly, clenching my hands painfully in her grip. I felt the need to pee.
As she started her next push I saw clouds of runny blood blooming out from beneath her, diffusing into the water in a series of spurts. Stringy yellow fluid followed in slippery loop-de-loops as my wife let out a soul-blanching scream, simultaneously rocketing her head back and slamming my skull against the wall behind me. Through the dancing silver pinprick stars in my vision I saw the eyes of the attendees widen.
The apprentice midwife smiled. "The head is born!"
The final push was easier than the one before. In a single graceful motion the midwife scooped up a tiny creature with indigo skin and lay it on my wife's breast, squirming and clean, fresh from the water. A powerful urge overcame me, startling in its instinctive force, compelling me to take rapid but careful tally of the baby: ten fingers, ten toes, minimal skull deformation from passing through the birth canal, skin changing rapidly from purple to pink...
"You did it," I told my wife softly. "We have a little girl."
The rest is anticlimax. While my wife passed the placenta through her largely numbed loins I showed off my daughter to the friends and relations. My parents cried. Someone handed me a cigar and a glass of bubbly wine. The dog licked the newborn and wagged his tail. Baby took it all in with wide-eyed aplomb, quietly looking at whoever was talking, twisting her little earlobe with her tiny, perfect fingers. "Buh," she said, experimentally. "Bah," she added after a moment of reflection.
Before we committed the placenta to the freezer for future burial we took a tour of the organ as a family, with the midwives peeling through the various layers and lobes of red, shiny gore with rubber gloves. More wine was poured. "Ooo-meck," commented Baby as she was put to the breast and introduced to oral feeding.
"She's suckling," my wife confirmed, falling in love.
Yesterday night the sun set on me for the first time as a father. Things are different now. I am somebody's daddy. From this day forward, I live first for someone else.