Precipitous Fatherhood

By Lome A Aseron

 was born to be a mom,” Janine said four months after we met. A dream of pit-patting feet, forgotten like a memory box buried in an over-filled closet, fluttered in my chest.

 

The next thing I knew, I was bawling in front of a minister in Hawaii as Janine, who had the build – but not the rigid posture – of a dancer, tenderly wiped my wet cheeks with the fleshy part of her thumbs. We celebrated her pregnancy three months later, before we’d even opened the last wedding gift.

 

At four o’clock on a tranquil early June morning two days beyond the due date, Janine awoke to use the bathroom. Half an hour later, I found her sitting on the toilet, elbows on thighs, hands cradling her chin. Prior to pregnancy, Janine had been a 13-year vegetarian, but weeks of devouring bacon and hamburgers to satisfy the dancing creature inside had rounded her face.

 

“I’ve been trying to poop…but nothing’s coming out.”

 

She grasped the porcelain sink to stand up and left a drop of bloody wax on the lime-green rug that shielded our feet from the ceramic tile.

 

“Oh, it’s just the bloody show,” said our midwife Gaia over the phone. “Sit tight. It’s gonna be at least 12 to 14 hours. Call me if anything changes.”

 

Within an hour, Janine was making a sound I’d never heard before: a half-growl, half-roar that started in her toes and crescendoed as it made its way up her body, hesitating at her diaphragm before exploding in her throat.

 

“Urrghuuuuuhhh…”

 

It rumbled like a centuries-old oak being ripped from the earth by its roots, a swelling groan that crested in a sob.

 

“Gherrrrrrrgghh…”

 

This is nothing like the gentle humming sung by laboring moms in our birthing class videos.

 

My stomach coiled with each yowl.

 

“Can I get you anything, honey?”

 

“A popsicle…uhhhhhhhhhhk…would be wonderful.”

 

“Any particular flavor?”

 

“Nyooooooooooh.”

 

I ambled down the stairway to the kitchen, as if dawdling would slow the pace of labor. The gallons of blood-red pregnancy tea Janine had consumed during the preceding months to strengthen her uterine muscles were hurling us too rapidly toward childbirth. I wondered when the CD that supposedly taught Janine to hypnotize herself into a relaxing labor would start to kick in.

 

Our refrigerator was stocked with supplies: ice cubes hacked into chips by Janine’s mom Tricia, organic iced-fruit treats, and an enormous watermelon that mimicked Janine’s egg-shaped belly.

 

I fumbled through the cardboard box for a purple wrapper. The air from the freezer tickled my nostrils with each inhalation. Mixed berry popsicle (Janine’s favorite) in hand, I shuffled back up the stairs to our bedroom.

 

I don’t think I can take another ten hours of this, I thought, slumping my six-foot frame on the bed next to her with my chin perched on my right hand. I was beginning to appreciate the days when dads sequestered themselves in waiting rooms, unopened cigar boxes on their laps.

I slipped the unwrapped popsicle into Janine’s fist and tried to shrink away from the whole scene. Flip-flops snuggled with lace-up dress shoes under the antique dresser adjacent to the futon where Janine and I had first made love. In the opposite corner, books on Buddhism intermingled with ethnic studies texts on a beechwood shelf. A philodendron so large it seemed to be from another planet occupied one entire wall.

 

Janine crunched icy bites in the pauses between contractions. A violet vein of melted popsicle snaked down her left wrist, culminating at her elbow in a drop that threatened to plummet onto the sheets as she swayed to the rhythm of labor.

 

“I’ll get that,” I said, wiping a warm washcloth over the length of her arm. I grabbed the bare, gooey stick from her hand and flipped it toward the wicker basket next to the bookshelf, missing.

 

My gaze drifted momentarily to the golden Victorian rosebuds creeping up the wallpaper. I recalled a yellowing photo of my father beaming in hospital scrubs while holding me in the crook of his elbow.

 

He made it through my birth, at least. I could do that much.

 

I sat motionless for nearly an hour, watching Janine’s face flush with each blood-curdling scream as she flung her head violently from side to side. I half-expected a jet of green vomit to gush from her mouth with the next groan.

 

“You said to call when things change,” I said to Gaia over the phone.

 

“Maybe you should get your doula involved,” she said before hanging up.

 

“Daphne, Daphne, Daphne,” I mumbled, urging our doula’s phone number to appear as I scrolled through the contacts on my cell phone.

 

“I’ll throw some stuff together and be over in about an hour,” Daphne yawned.

 

Throw some stuff together?! Be over in about an hour?! Doesn’t she know what’s going on?!

 

“Uh, uh, okay,” I said before hanging up. Janine crawled off the futon toward the bathroom.

 

“This is easier than walking, actually,” she muttered.

 

I jammed a red checkered vinyl picnic table cover under the sheets, a flimsy defense to the approaching tide of liquids. Janine toddled back into the room and slithered gingerly onto the futon. The maple bed frame she’d purchased before her freshman year in college creaked beneath her weight.

 

“Should we try the beach visualization we practiced in the birthing class?” I suggested.

 

 

We’d hired Daphne, our doula, to assuage Janine’s hospital phobia. A descendent of a long line of the notably squeamish, Janine had gone pale when confronted by the metal wires, tubes, and mysterious electronic apparatus skulking in every corner of the birthing center covered by our health insurance.

 

At our third appointment, Daphne, Janine, and I sprawled on a blanket laid carefully on the floor of the room Janine and I rented in her mom’s house.

 

“What’s your vision for an ideal birth?” Daphne asked, tucking a dark brown ringlet behind her ear with an elegance that belied her tenacity.

 

“I’d have the baby right here, in this room, on that bed, with just me and Lome,” Janine said. Her moistening eyes flitted from the futon to the tray of diced honeydew melon on the floor between us. “But I’m afraid it’s too expensive, because I know our insurance won’t pay for a midwife.”

 

We did end up deciding to hire a licensed midwife – a California requirement – bringing the total cost of home delivery to more than our monthly income. After consultations with two serviceable yet uninspiring practitioners, we met Gaia, who practically lifted us off our feet in a double-armed bear-hug before we’d said hello.

 

“It’s so nice to meet you both!”

 

Gaia, striding with the confident cadence of a woman who’d birthed seven children and delivered thousands more, walked us to a sun-filled room lined with inspiring quotes and artwork depicting radiant, pregnant women. Her eyes twinkled across an entry on some paperwork we’d filled out.

 

“Amazing,” she said. “My schedule was packed, but then an expectant mom with your exact due date moved out of town all of a sudden.”

 

Janine and I nearly pinched each other. After convening for less than ten seconds on the steps outside Gaia’s building, we marched back to her office and informed her we were done thinking about it, and yes, we wanted her as our midwife.

 

 

“What was that?” Janine asked, frowning.

 

“I said would you like to try the beach visualization we practiced in class?”

 

“Those damn exercises didn’t work for me in class, I don’t think they’re going to do any good now.”

 

I swallowed a chuckle; other than “shoot,” “damn” was the closest thing to a profanity I’d ever heard Janine use.

 

“Okay,” I said, as a far-away rooster cackled.

 

I lay down facing her. We clasped each other’s hands with wrists crossed like apprehensive co-workers performing a trust fall. Opposite Janine’s naked body, I felt over-dressed in the black “I    East Palo Alto” t-shirt and blue-and-orange New York Knicks basketball shorts I’d fallen asleep in the night before. The scent of evaporating dew floated through our half-cracked windows.

 

Her eyes widened as she clenched my fingers.

 

“I think my water just broke.”

 

Warm fluid soaked my shorts and seeped onto my left thigh. The snake in my abdomen wound up my chest to my throat as Janine writhed free from our embrace and gripped the sheets, crinkling the picnic table cover underneath.

 

“Uhhhhhhgggggg…” she screamed.

 

Janine’s mother’s house, built in 1917, was located in a sleepy neighborhood originally populated with summer cottages for well-to-do San Franciscans. Behind the row of Mediterranean-style homes across the street ran a creek boasting an array of fowl with impressive-sounding names: European starlings, rock doves, black phoebes, and Wilson’s warblers. In the evenings, the singing of crickets obscured the occasional passing car.

 

I hope our neighbors don’t call the cops.

 

“I think I’ll get on my hands and knees,” she said.

 

I stroked the black panther tattoo on her left hip, my fingers taut with adrenaline, too engrossed in soothing her to notice the shrinking intervals between contractions.

 

“That felt different. Would you mind checking to see if anything looks funny?” Janine said with an unnerving casualness.

 

Am I the only one freaking out?

 

It was 7:15, just three hours since the onset of labor. Amniotic fluid drenched the sheets and formed puddles on the recently-refinished hardwood floor. Janine crouched on all fours, convulsing with every scream and arching her back like a cat confronted by a dog.

 

I cocked my head to her rear. Her knees were splayed so far apart that the curve of her belly nearly touched the sheets. I dropped my head lower, resting it on the futon between her thighs, and peeked upward.

 

“Nothing looks out of the ordinary,” I said. “You’re doing great.” My voice sounded strange, as if I were hearing it played back to me on a cassette. The room felt suddenly cramped and ominously empty at the same time.

 

What am I supposed to say, “Slow down” or “Take a break until someone with some expertise shows up”?

I didn’t want Janine to hold back. We’d shelled out thousands of dollars for professionals to oversee the logistics of childbirth so that I could hold her hand, stroke her hair, and coo encouraging phrases in her ear. Surely, Gaia or Daphne would burst through the door at any moment, demand something archaic like boiled water, and take over.

 

Lessening labor’s tempo seemed outside the realm of possibility. The pregnancy literature we’d read recommended a plethora of unconventional techniques to induce labor (eat spicy food, walk, bounce gently on a yoga ball, stimulate mom’s nipples), but absolutely none to restrain it. I exhaled in forced relief. Thankfully, we had another eight or nine hours to go, according to Gaia.

 

Only two howls later, Janine flopped onto her back and divulged the sign of imminent parenthood: an almond-shaped patch of fuzz protruded from her vagina like the pit of a halved peach. She was about to give birth, and I was the only other person in the room.

I momentarily considered recruiting Janine’s mother, before realizing there was no time. Maybe Janine herself could help? I recalled tales of women, trapped in outrageously solitary circumstances, catching their own children. The eerie distance in her eyes and spread-legged position of vulnerability provided all the answer I needed. It was happening. Now. Exactly as Janine had described it to Daphne: just me, her, and the futon.

 

I snatched the contact sheet that Gaia had given us to use during labor from the top of the dresser. Pager Code 911 = I can see the head! read the instructions. It was meant to be a joke, but I wasn’t laughing as I frantically punched the numbers on my cell phone keypad.

 

I hung up and stroked the day-old bristles covering my scalp, waiting for Gaia to call back. Dawn streamed red onto the futon where Janine hunched with her knees pointed toward the ceiling in an awkward “M.” The birthing tub she’d used to alleviate the weight of pregnancy stood empty in her sister’s unoccupied bedroom across the hallway, while movie tickets for that evening lay tucked in the top drawer of her lacquer jewelry box.

 

“I can see the head!” I screamed at Gaia, my cell phone sandwiched between my right ear and shoulder so I could have both hands free.

 

“I got your 911 page 30 seconds ago,” Gaia replied over a crackling cell phone connection, “I figured there was something going on.”

 

I cupped my hands beneath the expanding black sphere emerging from Janine. The baby’s head fell into my palms, the rest of the body still inside her.

 

“The head is out!”

 

“Tell Janine to give one more push to get the shoulders out,” Gaia replied calmly.

Sure, it’s easy to be relaxed when you’re 15 miles away and probably still in bed, I thought.

 

As if overhearing Gaia’s directions, Janine grunted and a slippery collection of limbs and torso tumbled into my arms. The clock read 7:28 AM, less than four hours since the onset of labor.

 

I stared at the tiny meditating Buddha, elbows held tightly to flanks, fists pressing on jowls, eyelids shut to beat back the light of the rising sun. I knew the knotty roping connecting baby with mother was still providing oxygen. Ten seconds. Finally a breath, followed by a declaratory scream.

 

Gaia said something through the cell phone as it slid from my shoulder and plunked onto the mattress. I tried to place the baby on Janine’s chest, but the umbilical cord barely stretched long enough, so I settled for her belly.

 

“Maybe…you should…go get…my mom.”

 

I strove to conjure a phrase, something poetic to convey what had just happened.

“Tricia!” I bellowed.

 

Before I inhaled, the door swung open and in glided Daphne, escorted by Janine’s mom, who’d heard the baby’s cry at almost the same moment that our doula had rung the doorbell.

Daphne grabbed my cell phone and started spewing answers to Gaia.

 

“I just got here…the baby is a little blue but pinking up nicely…the placenta is coming…here it is.”

 

Janine grunted again. A translucent membrane filled with maroon-colored flesh slid from between her thighs. Daphne unfolded the placenta and contemplated it like a psychic reading tarot cards.

 

“This is a healthy placenta,” she said to herself. Then into the phone: “Everything seems to be in place. See you soon.”

 

Gaia’s apprentice Melissa arrived wearing a medical scrub top printed with pink begonias. She sauntered into the room and knelt on the floor next to the bed.

 

“Only got a few hours of sleep,” she said, giggling as she rummaged through a Rubbermaid storage container, one hand resting reassuringly on Janine’s elbow. “Up ‘til four with another birth.” She snapped a pair of blue latex gloves over her wrists.

 

“Let’s take another look,” said Melissa as she unwrapped the placenta and tilted it toward Janine, who was nuzzling with the baby on her chest. “It’s the Tree of Life. See how the umbilical cord is the trunk?” she said, running the pinky of her left hand along the swollen, twisted cable still attached to the baby’s belly button.

 

Gaia appeared abruptly at the doorway, her curly chestnut hair pulled back by a muted brown and green striped scarf. She paused, a queen surveying her dominion, then strode over to the bed, dropping a black duffle bag from her shoulder with a thud.

 

“Let’s get momma cleaned up,” she said as she gently wiped blood from Janine’s left inner thigh. “Over three thousand births, and maybe only three or four have been this quick.”

 

The next few hours were a blur of blood pressure readings, attempts to nurse, and an anticlimactic cutting of the umbilical cord. Gaia, Melissa, and Daphne stuffed three garbage bags full with towels soaked in birth fluids. Thick, black meconium poured from the baby’s rectum like play-doh and stuck to everything like tar. Shocked by the meteoric arrival, we didn’t check his gender until more than an hour and a half after the delivery.

 

I reclined on a comforter crumpled on the floor while the midwives gave Janine a much-needed massage, slid my pinky into my baby’s mouth, and chanted a mantra recommended by a Tibetan monk in his ear. Om Tare Tuttare Ture Svaha. His body loosened as he sucked.

 

“I’ve never seen a newborn baby this beautiful!” said Gaia.

 

I nearly drew blood biting my lip to keep from asking for a refund.

 

“Every homebirth I’ve ever attended has been like this,” Daphne added.

 

It would’ve been nice to know that in advance, I countered silently, thinking “attended” was an overstatement.

 

Baby and new momma’s health confirmed, eventually Janine and I were alone, everything exactly the same as it was before, as if the previous eight hours had never occurred. Well, almost the same.

 

“Did that really just happen?” I asked.

 

My wife and I shot sidelong glances at each other as we scrutinized the salmon, beanie-covered head peeking out of the tightly-swaddled blanket, feeling like parent monkeys looking for fleas. Yes, we agreed, it had. I’d caught my own son; two were now three.

It was my father’s 64th birthday.

 

 

——————–

Lome is a father of two amazing sons and husband to a magnificent wife. In addition to catching his oldest son, he has survived a month of celibate silence while on a Buddhist retreat and a small plane flight during which the pilot asked for volunteers to hold the back door closed (he declined). Lome tries, hopefully with some success, to capture the beauty and joy of being a dad. You can follow him as he navigates the spiritual journey of fatherhood at NewDadforLife.com.


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