Childbirth Empathy

Here’s an excerpt from Sam’s most recent email where he tells about accompanying some friends to an unusual activity, a new trend among the thirty-somethings in Beijing: 

. . . a husband (or anyone else who wants to do it) gets electrodes stuck to his abdomen and is then zapped at different levels to simulate labor pains. The level adjusts from one to ten, where ten is meant to be something approximating actual birth pains. Beth had a great time watching her husband writhe, and Thomas said it was the most painful thing he'd ever experienced. I'm glad Julia isn't interested in such a vindictive way of showing love.

Oh Sam. While I’m sure Julia wouldn’t ordinarily wish unnecessary pain on you, giving birth is hardly an ordinary circumstance. You have no idea what sort of snarling beast a woman in labor can turn into, nor how poorly an otherwise sensible man might comport himself when coming face to face with the primitive creature that is clearly a fraction of the whole. 

Considering Beth’s sadistic pleasure, I’m going to assume that she and Thomas have had a baby in the last year or so. I imagine the whole experience is still fresh in her mind, including the way her husband floundered ineffectually at her bedside as she was wrenched, stretched, and torn. 

How useless he must have felt. But he’s not alone; no man on the planet has a clue. His moon-faced sympathy, befuddled offers of help, and strained encouragement must have all echoed foolishly as they ricocheted off the transcendental barrier formed by her consuming hell.   

When a woman is at her best, her man is at his worst. It’s a balance thing. 

Sam’s tale evokes my own experience and a resulting envy that what is available now was not available when my first son was born. David is the best husband. All he ever wants is for me to be happy. He’s a rock. But at the time it was one mistake after another. 

We all have our stories and I’ll make this brief:

When Curtis was born we were living in Holland. There were no childbirth classes. No one in the hospital, doctors and nurses included, spoke English. David came directly from running a triathlon. He was sweaty, filling the entire room with brackish steam. He’d heard somewhere that breathing was part of the process, so he puffed hot runner’s breath directly into my face for the whole thirty-hour labor. 

It was a weekend and he joked about what a good corporate wife I was. I spent a single night in the hospital and was sent home on Sunday afternoon. By Monday morning I was running a high fever, at which point David began to don his suit and tie, getting ready for work. We actually had a screaming fight about him leaving me, sick and alone with a newborn. He even turned caveman, using the word “hysterics” in the most antiquated chauvinistic sense. What man does that? The best of them, that’s who. David, bewildered and disoriented, suddenly a father, was striving to meet his new responsibility in the only way he knew—by working. 

They say the trauma fades, joining other memories that have been boxed and stored; obviously it’s more a fester than a fade. 

As I said, knowing what I know, if it were possible and if I had it to do over again, I’d hook him up to that labor-simulation contraption so fast that he wouldn’t have time to puff out a single triathlated protest. 

From a woman’s point of view, the advice I’d give a man faced with the upcoming birth of his first child is that if he truly wants to empathize with his wife, and if he wants her to view him as her equal, he should go get those electrodes placed on his abdomen and crank the level up to high. Feel her pain. 

Really, look at the size of that head!

Really, look at the size of that head!