Written by Jeff Sabo
Finding out that you’re going to be a father is a very crystallizing and defining moment in a man’s life. Some men run from it, others embrace it, and still more are frankly puzzled by it – and some fears and uncertainties, once believed to have been overcome, can come flooding out again:
- Will I be a good father?
- Will my children love me?
- Can I escape my own upbringing, and do better?
- Can I parent with my heart, more than with my head?
- Will my partner still love me if I was not a good father? Will she even tell me if I was doing poorly?
- Will I ever learn enough, know enough, and contribute enough to our parenting relationship?
- How will I respond if the kids get sick? How will I respond if one of them dies?
- How can I keep them safe, provide for them, provide for my partner, and stay happy at the same time?
There is an immediacy to being a new parent which requires us to handle stressful situations in a calm, thoughtful manner. But if we have not been willing or able to reconcile our fears and uncertainties, "calm" and "thoughtfulness" are states of being that are difficult to attain, and even more difficult to maintain. I think that, under stress, we are prone to default to our most basic personalities, to use whatever familiar coping mechanisms we happen to have used in the past. Sometimes, the only way to really work through this effectively is to latch on to something familiar that helps ground us a bit so we can deal effectively with the swirling emotions and seismic shifts in . . . well, just about everything, that come with being a new parent.
For me, in order to grasp my new life I had to rely on my old paradigms of what a parent “should” be for guidance. In my head, I had mapped out exactly what it takes to raise a child, be a husband, have a productive household, and be an accepted member of society. For me, it was pretty simple, really. Dad works, mom works; breakfast as a family with a healthy meal; lunches and book bags all packed the night before; kids on the bus and doing well at school; work being hard but rewarding; home by 6:00, kids all there, dinner together then chores; some time to play, then homework; then time to brush your teeth and put on your PJs, and off to bed by 9:30 or so. Of course, the kids would play sports, and I'd be a member of the Jaycees, mom would be on the Chamber of Commerce, etc, etc, etc. We might even go to church on Sundays and sing in the choir. It's important to note that these "expectations" of what my life would be like were not some mere abstract, or some societal norm that I simply bought into. These were things I wanted; they were what mattered; they were the way it was done. If we did it this way, everyone would be happy, no one would get hurt, and we would raise our kids to be responsible members of society. And as a Dad, my role was critical - I had to be the driver to ensure all of this happened on schedule.
But as a soon-to-be Father, all of that was overwhelming. I had to focus on finding ways to control things as early as possible, to make the wonder of pregnancy easier for me to process and deal with, despite the flurry of changes. I had to establish some sort of comforting paradigm for how my children would spend their time in utero, and how they would come into the world. So for our first child, I approached the birth process in ways that were familiar and made sense to me. In fairness, I should mention that both my wife and I were raised in traditional ways, and although we knew that we wanted to be more connected to our children that our parents were to us, we still agreed that the birth would be in a hospital, and that the pregnancy and delivery would be with the help of an OB-GYN.
Our first son (Kai) was born in the hospital, in a fairly traditional way. Overall, it was . . . okay. In retrospect, the word that comes to mind is “satisfactory.” We did attend a birthing class for several weeks that was sponsored by the hospital, which provided us with fantastic insight and guidance into several paradigm shifts – no circumcision, vaccination choices, cloth vs, disposable diapers, etc. We prepared by reading books like “The Hip Mama’s Guide to Pregnancy”, and spent hours trying to learn all we could to have as authentic and non-invasive a pregnancy as possible. I loved the time when Ginger was pregnant; the way she glowed, all of the changes, the laughter and joy we felt, even the newness of the uncertainty – it was all part of a joyous process as we got ready for our first son. On the morning her water broke, we called the hospital to let them know we were on our way (why do people do that?), and then sat down and watched an old episode of “Colombo” and ate granola before we went in. There was no fear, no concern, just uncertainty and a bit of tingling nervousness as we readied ourselves to meet this little dude that we had been talking to all these months. When we got to the hospital, the experience became . . . clinical. The nurses were nice enough, I suppose, and they did their best to accommodate our wishes. They did induce with Pitocin a bit earlier than I would have liked, and the labor was very long. I felt so helpless . . . the woman I loved, my soul mate, my best friend, and the person who changed my outlook on life was in obvious pain and there was nothing I could do. As the minutes passed to hours with little progress (as though birth could be measured in milestones of good or bad), I felt like I was getting smaller, as though the swirl of machines and nurses and doctors somehow made me less visible – and less needed. But toward the end, when we knew we were getting close, all of that gave way to a laser focus. Ginger and I looked at each other through each contraction as though we could see into each other’s bodies, with a love and understanding that made me feel in perfect sync with her. And when we got to hold that little boy, some nine months and 17 hours after we started that journey, I was simply stunned. I was stunned at Ginger and how amazing she had been on that difficult day; I was stunned by the little precious body I was holding in my arms; and I was stunned by the overwhelming sense of love and protection I felt, so much stronger than I expected. It was a different kind of love than I had felt before – deeper, more thorough, away from my heart and my mind and into my bones, my cells, every part of me. It was a love for life, for all things, always and in all ways. And it took over my life in ways beautiful and unexpected, like it has each day since.
As the years went by and we learned more about raising a child – which was much easier now that we actually had one – we began to think of things we might do differently if we were ever blessed enough to have another. For example, Kai received some vaccinations, but we knew that we would not vaccinate our other children. We also knew that we would carry our next child in the sling more, and cuddle more. So when Ginger came to work one afternoon and blew me away with her “positive” pee stick, I just knew that it would all be okay the second time around.
And then she told me that she wanted midwives instead of doctors. And wanted to give birth at home. In water. And I freaked.
- Would our insurance cover a home birth with midwives?
- Did midwives have enough training to do this?
- What if something went wrong? Wouldn’t we want to be at a hospital?
- I had such a good rapport with our male OB-GYN; would that change with a female midwife?
But the last problem was huge for me. With our first child, I felt truly connected with our OB-GYN. He knew so much, and more critically for me he understood a father’s perspective – what we worry about, what we hope for, and how we express it or choose not to. In all of our visits, he responded to my nervous questions with humor and candor, and I felt like we had a “guy thing” going on that made this traditionally “feminine experience” accessible to me. In short, he helped me see that it was okay to be a man and yet be fully engaged in every aspect of the pregnancy and birth, concerned and emotional along the way. For me, the joys and overall positive experience of the Ginger’s first pregnancy and Kai’s birth were enabled by his understanding and demeanor.
And now I had to deal with women. I have no problem at all with women; in fact, I like women a heck of a lot more than I like men. But I now had to take this intensely personal experience, one in which my wife and I connected on a whole other level beyond what I knew to be possible, and share it with someone who had already been there and done that.
I was sad . . . I was nervous . . . . and more than anything, I was jealous. I’m not talking “I just saw my girlfriend with another man” jealous, I’m talking about a jealousy that was all-consuming and actually depressing in its depth.
The jealousy sprang, in the main, from my concern that injecting a woman into the process, a woman with so much knowledge of the emotions, physical changes, and subtleties that women go through during pregnancy and birth, would serve to do only one thing – replace me. With our first birth, I felt like a translator of sorts; I could listen to what the doctor said and then reframe it later in ways that made sense so Ginger and I could discuss it and learn together. I was the one who asked the questions when things seemed strange, the one who could take our OB-GYN’s sometimes clinical attitude and add the emotional undercurrents that made it more palatable for my beautiful mom-to-be. This role helped me feel important, needed, and a critical part of the birthing process. But with that role gone, I felt just the opposite – peripheral, unneeded, an appendage to the process and to my wife’s birth experience. Our midwives and Ginger seemed speak the same language and share similar spiritual and emotional beliefs. I saw this amazing connection between the three of them and Ginger’s body, and I simply wondered how I could ever fit in and be an important part of the birth process.
If you know me at all, you know that hurt like hell.
I am compelled to say that our midwives, Tosi and Claudia, did nothing to make me feel this way; it was all me and my own insecurities and uncertainties. It was clear, eventually, that they loved Ginger deeply and connected with her. I just never felt the blessing of the same connection with them. Ginger, of course, was wonderful; she went out of her way to make me feel loved and valued, despite the fact that our second pregnancy was far more challenging than the first. With her help, and with continued work on my part, I was able to work through all of this shortly before the birth, thank God. To my surprise – and joy – it all clicked perfectly the day of Kade’s birth. During the birth itself the midwives were extremely respectful of the fact that Ginger and I needed to be absolutely connected partners throughout. They were extraordinarily non-intrusive, and fostered a feeling that they were there to assist, not control. Personally and professionally, we could not have asked for two people better suited and more loving and capable. They were amazing.
Any reservations I had about having a home birth were erased almost from the first contraction. Having our own vibe – the sounds, smells, sights, and feelings of our own things and our own home – made a huge difference in our level of connection and relaxation. There were no machines, no beeping noises, no nurses bustling in and out, no charts or rules. There was just relaxation, and comfort, and connectivity, and listening, and laughter, and tears, and love – with all four (soon to be five) of us, working together in perfect harmony to bring a new child into the world.
Poor Kade did have some difficulties getting his shoulders in the right place to come out, so we all got in the pool together to help. Because of the challenging delivery, he wasn’t too sure that he was ready to breathe and join our family; as Ginger and I knelt in the pool of afterbirth after hours of intensity, we held him, and talked to him, and rubbed him gently, until he finally took his first breath and let out the most glorious sound in the world – a baby’s first cry.
From that point, I knew that if we were ever lucky enough to have another child, we would definitely have it at home. Instead of the presence of the midwives damaging my connection with Ginger, it did exactly the opposite; their calm, soothing presence allowed us to connect deeply in our own space and in our own time. Their ability, their presence, their understanding, and their love for Ginger – their love for all of us - shone through in all they did, for the pre-natal, birth, and post-natal visits. A similar birth experience in a hospital would have seen Ginger rushed into surgery, with forceps and needles and tubes and a cast of tens of doctors. But at home, it was all us; we were responsible for bringing this kid into the world and bringing him to life. Without that experience, and without the privilege of experiencing it with people I knew and trusted, my life would be less complete.
Home births, or any non-traditional birth, can be challenging for men because it violates our status quo, pushes us out of our comfort zones, and leaves us feeling out of control. But if we can trust and be open to the fact that billions of women have given healthy, wonderful births in ways we view as “non-traditional” – even though such ways are actually traditional and natural – then we can benefit from one of the most rewarding experiences of all. We can experience a pregnancy and birth the way it was intended to be - connected, beautiful, peaceful, and in perfect harmony with nature.
Jeff Sabo is a dad and partner who lives with his family and friends in Corvallis, OR. When he's not following his various passions or hanging out with his kids, he writes a blog about parenting, partnering, and unschooling at Just A Bald Man.