Wednesday, September 22, 2010

“Parenthood: The Initial Ascent” or “Adventures of a Labor Sherpa”

The first ascent of a long hike can be brutal. Especially if it’s your first trip. I distinctly recall my first real hike in New Hampshire's White Mountains: my fogged-up glasses, the blood-blistering chafe of my jeans, and the steady percussion of two cans of Spaghetti-Os with Meatballs drumming on the small of my back.

Yes. I was hiking in jeans. With Spaghetti-Os.

So if labor is the initial ascent of parenthood, then I’ve approached it just as I approached hiking: woefully unprepared, shabbily dressed, and with an abundance of Chef Boyardee. One key difference: When I was hiking I actually had to walk. During labor, I basically carried a tote bag and watched my wife do all the work. That made me less like a hiker and more like a poorly-trained sherpa.

No disrespect to the sherpas.

To make things worse, we hired a doula to coach us through the labor. That’s basically like the hiker (wife) bringing a useless sherpa (me), who then turns around and hires an actual sherpa (the doula) with the maps, equipment, and know-how to get us up the mountain. On a three-person team, I was middle management -- in charge of supervision not because I deserved to be, but because I was sleeping with the boss.

Now, after having witnessed the climb through pregnancy and labor, I am increasingly ruffled by the male appropriation of female experience through reckless pronouning, such as “We’re pregnant,” and “We just gave birth to a baby boy.” No.

I believe the term you're looking for is "she."

While my wife endured the most excruciating pain of her life to conjure another human being from her belly, my major role of the evening was to drive 5 miles to the hospital and pack a duffel bag. Given this, I believe many fathers-to-be develop a disproportionate sense of responsibility within the tiny part of the pregnancy world they’re able to control:

The Labor Bag.

In the months leading up to my wife’s delivery, I received an incredible amount of unsolicited advice from other men on this cornerstone of fatherhood:

“Pack this. Don’t pack that. Do you have your bag packed? What do you mean you don’t have your bag? You absolutely NEED to have a bag!”

F*** the bag, okay?

My bag had two mix CDs, a rice sock with jasmine and lavender, little blue vials of aromatherapy, and a cooler full of everything from high-energy jelly-beans to Miso soup. And let me tell you something. Using these little trinkets and charms to ward off labor pain is about as productive as pouring water on a cat to make it rain. All my wife used during labor was ice chips and my hand, both of which she crushed. I shudder to think what else might’ve been crushed had I started waving little vials of blue tonic under her nose or tried coaching her into her animal cave with rain sticks, mood lighting, and Enya.

Armed with only ice and my right hand, my wife did amazing work. Blew me away. Moments after primal groans, ear-rending screams, and a slippery little baby boy escaped her body, she was propped up on her pillow and grinning like a movie star in an unrealistic post-labor scene. I, on the other hand, had hair plastered to my forehead, wobbly knees, and was asked if I needed to lie down.

But that was it, right?

The baby comes out. You rejoice. You call people. Then you’re done -- pop the cork, smoke a cigar!


Labor, as it turns out, is a false summit.

No tape breaks across your chest and there are no coolers of Gatorade to tip over. Instead, you quickly find yourself in a squarish hospital room with a plastic bassinette straight out of Brave New World and a newborn baby who’s never spent the night outside of a human body. I was discouraged to find my mix CDs, aromatherapy, and relaxation exercises were about as good at soothing the baby as they had been at soothing my wife.

So the night wore on. The doula went home. My wife went to sleep.

My head was spinning as I rocked the freshly-quieted baby and tried to keep myself awake by playing Labyrinth on my smartphone and eating anything within reach. And it was then, in the darkest hours of night, that I had my first epiphany as a new father. I woke myself up choking on a half-eaten Triscuit and realized with a sudden, chilling horror that I had no idea what I was doing. I still didn’t know the route. I didn’t know the conditions, what it would look like when we got to the top, or what equipment we would need.

But I had one thing going for me. With my wife asleep beside me, and my newborn son in my arms, I was finally carrying something worthwhile.


Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Trip

You’re going on a trip. It will be the longest trip of your life, and you’ll never be able to come back. You’ve packed a bag. Three bags. You’ll be going with your wife, and a third person you haven’t met yet.

There’s no telling when your plane will leave. You might get it narrowed down to the month, but your travel agent knows that’s just a guess. “Your trip will probably start in September,” she says. Any day now. Your flight could leave in the middle of the night. Or first thing in the morning. There’s just no telling. The message will come out of nowhere – sudden and urgent. Now. Grab your bags. Get to the tarmac.

The flight could last anywhere between several hours and several days. It might be smooth. It might not. Rarely, planes crash. They’ll offer you medicine to help with the travel, but there’s no telling how you’ll react to what they give you. Maybe you’ll want to sleep through the flight and wake up once you’re there. Maybe you want to be there for every bump and drop -- the whole experience. Whatever it is. However long it lasts.

There are maps and guides and books and plenty of stories about the trip you’re taking. The closer you get to the flight, the more you want to know. You think the information will make it easier. Less scary. It doesn’t, but you keep reading and listening, because there’s nothing else to do but wait.

Once you’ve got your ticket, people tell you things you’ve never heard before. Stories of hope and despair and brightness – hidden gems of things in people you’ve known your entire life. Now that you’re going, you’re part of a new community. An exciting , secret society of people you’ve lived among your entire life but who are only now inviting you in. Now that you’re going.

So many have gone on this trip before, yet their stories don’t help much. They’re vague. Inconsistent. Some tell you not to worry about the trip -- just show up. Everything will work itself out. Others tell you preparation is a must. Be vigilant. Pack plenty and don’t travel alone. Watch the food. Be wary of strangers. Hire a guide.

The one thing everyone agrees on is: “Overall, it’s worth it. You should go.”

But sometimes they don’t look you in the eye when they say that. No one wants to regret their trip. It’s expensive. Time consuming. The kind of trip everyone knows about and asks about every time they see you, and so to say it wasn’t worth it isn’t an option. Really, it doesn’t matter what they say. You’ve already got your ticket. There’s no turning back now.

And the whole world is anticipating with you. They’re watching from the other side, and they’re beckoning for you to come. To join them. In that place you won’t understand until your plane touches down. And even then, like every trip, the stories and the pictures and the maps will all dissolve as the real experience rushes around you from all sides and angles, and swallows you up and rolls you over until you can’t remember what it was like to NOT be where you were going. Until the day you can’t remember who you were before you took the trip.

But you haven’t gone yet. Your plane hasn’t left. There are still no dates printed on your three tickets. No destination.

And so they ask “Are you ready?” And they ask “How do you feel?”

And I sit here and I watch the clock and count down the minutes to a journey no one can explain, and that will happen any moment. Now, and for the rest of my life.