I suppose this story ends in me getting my comeuppance. To put it bluntly, I've been blasé about the prospect of becoming a parent. Being the youngest (by some figure) of five children means that I've been around many nieces and nephews. I've changed a few diapers, not many, but a few. I've done some babysitting. Kids, babies ... they're not that hard. You feed them, you love them, you play with them and you teach them everything you know. Easy, right?
After Britta and I attended the first of three birthing classes, it seemed like I had every reason to be this confident. The class was a walk in the park. Easier than a walk in the park, maybe, like if someone fireman-carried you through the park. Our teacher was a friendly and petite labor room nurse named Kathy. I liked her because she reminded me of Kirstie Alley's character from "Drop Dead Gorgeous," clicking along with silly energy and a beautiful Minnesota accent.
"Now, here's how you swaddle 'em, ok?" Kathy said, making a plastic doll burrito. "Yah. It's real easy. Ya just put this one over, this one like that, and there ya go, so. So, you got that? Maybe you shhhh a little. Hold the baby like this, ok? There. That's a tool in your toolbox."
Among Kathy's other teaching? Keep your baby warm. If it's warm, keep your baby cool. Clean them at every diaper changing. Never, ever, ever shake your baby. (Psst. In case you were wondering, you shouldn't shake a baby.) Easy enough.
A week later we went to breastfeeding class, also taught by Kathy. She had asked me if I was coming to it and I seemed a bit taken aback. Why wouldn't I?
"Well, the guys, they don't always come. I guess they figure that it doesn't have anything to do with them, so. But you'll be here? Great. Good for you."
Of course I'll be there, I said. I'm a 21st century man, proud to support my domestic life partner and unafraid of watching a 45-minute video that will completely demystify the breast for the rest of my sexually active life. Plus, I did ok with the swaddling bit. I'm the natural parent, baby. Try to stop me from coming to breastfeeding class.
And, I went. It wasn't so bad. I've been part of the rearing process, but (obviously) I have never had the chance to see breastfeeding first hand. As much as my sisters love me, there are some places that you just don't invite your little brother. Still, the video and Kathy told me that I had a place in the breastfeeding process.
"Guys, you can help too." Kathy said. "They gotta eat at night, so maybe you help by bringing the baby to mom? Maybe you adjust the pillows for her? There's lots you can do even though ya don't got the boobs, ok?" (Uncomfortable, polite laughter.)
My largely ceremonial role in breastfeeding was firmly in place and the stage was set for labor class, the Belmont Stakes of birthing classes. Would A Man Named Kris bring home the Triple Crown?
(Foreshadowing: prior to going to the hospital for the class, Britta and I stopped for a quick dinner at Pita Pit, where I stuffed myself with a falafel veggie bomb. All that soft/crunchy falafel, tzatziki and feta cheese ... just sitting in my tummy...)
Kathy was direct at the beginning. "Anyone here got a weak stomach? I've had to take two people out of here, one guy I even had to call the ER." I do not have a weak stomach. I've sat through surgery videos, other birth videos, even a marathon of "Zack and Cody's Suite Life" when I had pinkeye, and I've stayed stable as a table. As a couple other guys raised their hands, I delighted in the fact that I was about to be completely unfazed by what I was about to see. If it showed an alien autopsy, if labor juice hit the lens, if was in 3-D, I would be able to handle it.
I learned about contractions, Braxson/Hicks, dilation, all the pre-labor stuff. My mind wandered a bit in my cool-as-a-cucumber confidence. I was thinking about what to pack in a bag, thinking about how we could listen to our iPod in the hospital ... what to put on the birth mix ... Sigur Ros, of course, and what did Al and Jen put on theirs...?
I snapped to, looked up, and a purple water balloon fell out of a woman's vagina. The purple water balloon had legs. And arms. And a tube of sausage casing attached to its belly. Another purple water balloon fell out afterward. This was an actual purple water balloon, in a manner of speaking.
I sat quiet for five seconds then thought to myself, "I'm going to be sick. No, no I'm not. I'm fine. Take a breath." Thing is, I couldn't catch my breath. I felt my face go cold and a fight/flight switch turned on. I excused myself. I needed air and walked out into the hallway.
The hallway made things worse somehow. It wouldn't tell me how to get out of itself. It began to shrink and turn white. Stupid hallway. My knees began to weaken. I grabbed a handrail as Kathy appeared out of the white and began to take control of the situation. "I think I need to go outside." Outside was a couple fights of stairs up from where we were.
"Ok. You can't get outside yet so just sit down. Do you have a ringing in your ears or tunnel vision?"
"No ringing," I said, "tunnel vision. Yeah."
She took me into the hospital break room where three custodians were eating dinner and watching the NBA Finals. "Sit down, put your head down, between your knees. There ya go!" She put ice in a paper towel and placed it on the back of my neck, then offered me a sip of water. I took it and began to feel blood come back to my face as Britta came out to check on me.
"Whew! Thought I lost you there for a sec. Yah," Kathy said, "you were pretty pale." She grinned from ear to ear. I sat for a few minutes and started to feel much better. Britta gave me a "jeez!" and held my hand.
I kept my composure throughout the duration of the class even though I was suddenly fatigued. We toured the birth ward and saw one of the rooms where our baby will be born. Kathy led the tour then dropped us off at the elevators. I took one more chance to thank her for her help. She laughed. "Yup! We'll have to birth together for sure after all this!" I told her that we would be honored to have her in the room.
The rest of the evening, I took stock of my confidence in being a father. If I can't handle the first 30 seconds of your life, little Bean, how would I do for the rest of my life? That big gush of purple stuff is not at all attractive. Talk about your first impressions. Do I have the intestinal fortitude to withstand your birth? What about your toddler years, or your first years in school? What about braces, dating and college? The answer came from Kathy, who seemed to consider the episode a natural part of life and life nothing more than a series of episodes like this that you experience, get through, then laugh about. There may never be a point of complete comfort or confidence in being a parent but, as I've heard elsewhere, that's why parenting is becoming accustomed to the fact that you are perpetually terrified.
This was my comeuppance, yet another haymaker from the Great Magnet anointed with classic Socratic irony: the more you know, the more you know you don't know shit. This became a tool in my toolbox, a kernel of truth that most parents must have to face. For that, I am humbled, but I will say this. I didn't throw up. Sure, I almost fainted, maybe almost cracked my head open. But I didn't throw up that delicious pita.
You thought I was going to throw up, didn't you? C'mon. I'm not a complete rookie.