Of my own arrival, although quite fundamentally involved, I remember nothing about having my head squeezed through a narrow tunnel before being yanked out into the cold air. Which leads me to wonder if anyone ever has? To be honest, I hope not - I doubt very much that it's a pleasant sensation and is probably only endurable as a result of a lack of context for the baby (we know that they can feel pain after all) and therefore a lack of fear. I bet it's not very comfortable though!
Being present at both my kids' births was of course, something I wished to do from the moment I discovered that we were expecting in each case. Frankly it astonishes me that fathers were ever successfully excluded from birth events (no doubt there is a history for this based upon religious taboo), or even that a father would NOT want to be present when his daughter or son came into the world - I mean I'd fight and scratch and bite and gouge if anyone had suggested that to me. I mean, if one is there for the conception, why not be there for the main event? For me, it doesn't get any more REAL than the birth of one's child. Life in the modern world seems to so easily remove us from all that's real - from the idea of knowing where our food originates to the prospect and realities of death. Being present at the birth of our children is one of the few real things in modern society which we have an opportunity to at least ostensibly plan for. It seems quite strange to me that anyone would not want to experience such a momentous life event - whether one enjoys it or not. I can't imagine how I would have felt had I not seen my wonderful kids come into the world. Both experiences were the top two of my life, ultimately for the same reasons - they brought wonderful people into my personal world, but also because both were enormously emotional moments - if for slightly differing reasons.
My son is my 'firstborn' - now there's a word laced with unspoken meaning (it immediately calls to my mind an image of a proud father holding his infant child heavenward and a shaft of meaningful light breaking through the clouds as a heavenly choir kicks off with 'Thus Spake Zarathustra'). In reality, however, it simply means that he was the first of my two biological children. Just the two - yes having been raised catholic and with two siblings of both genders, I have rather let the side down by not fathering at least a soccer team. I have a nagging feeling that somewhere in the Vatican, my photograph is pinned to the pope's holy dartboard. I consider myself to have three children, however - I have a son, a daughter and a stepson, whose birth I was not even aware of at the time and who only came into my life a few years ago as a fully formed teenager. That makes him sound like he arrived in a strange alien pod…he didn't. I wasn't present for his birth and so it really can't be my story to tell.
My biological son was originally destined to arrive in the open air on New Year's day, but, not untypically as it has turned out, the decision was made to hang around for a couple of extra weeks in the cosy warmth of his mum's belly. To this day he experiences difficulty getting out of bed on time, so I suppose he started very much as he meant to go on...With the delivery date pretty much fixed (within reason, anyway) around the new year, we had settled down for either a Christmas or New year baby. Arrangements had been made at my place of work, and I was fortunate enough to be in a job whereby it was understood that where possible, I would be allowed to leave for home immediately upon receipt of 'THE call'.
The date for the arrival of our baby (actually January 1st) came and went with a pulled cracker and a flimsy party hat (just as a brief aside; HOW do those things make my head so hot, so quickly?), and there was no sign of him or her being in a hurry to make an appearance. While not exactly biting my nails down to my knuckles, I was becoming a little anxious ten days later, when the doctor started to make noises (OK, speaking English) about inducing the birth. The medical world weren't the only ones with an agenda, however; it's amazing how, whenever babies are involved, everyone I know seems to want to offer opinions, advice, old wives' tales and folksy remedies. Helpful advice on how to 'naturally' induce labour floated in from all angles and varied from jumping up and down on the spot (really?), to cleaning out the kitchen cupboards (that one totally lost me), to taking a very hot bath (that one sort of made sense in a vague kind of way), and - my personal favourite - eating a really hot curry. I therefore enthusiastically tried that one and I very much enjoyed the curry but disappointingly it didn't bring on my wife's labour at all. Perhaps she should have eaten...yep, maybe...
A few days after that suggestion was put to us, I was working a night shift and was coincidentally and fortunately only a very short distance from home when at around midnight a call flooded in to my primitive mobile phone (in those days not quite suitcase - sized but it was a pocket - filler). On the other end was the soon-to-be mum. Unlike in the movies or on TV, there was no panic stricken "COME HOME NOW!" or other urgent plea for help. Instead she was giggling down the line at me. "What are you laughing about?" I asked, genuinely puzzled. "Hee-hee-hee!" she replied. "What? What? What's happening?" I asked, not unreasonably given the circumstances. "My - hahaha - my - hee-hee-hee...my waters have broken!" she managed to squeeze out (pardon the pun).
"OhmygodstaythereI'mcominghomedon'tmove!" I blurted without taking a breath or punctuation - except for apostrophes, which as we all know, are very important. My English teachers would otherwise have been very disappointed, but then if any of them were listening to that conversation I'd have been very surprised if not puzzled..
Only a few minutes later I was in the hallway of our modest and fully prepared home, breathing a little heavily, but buzzing with adrenalin and excitement. I was surprised to realize that I felt no fear, no nervousness, just a very positive excitement and joy. My wife, sporting a broad grin and still giggling at random intervals, was all ready to go. We were going to be parents - I was going to be a father. It was real.
With everything all packed and ready to go in anticipation of the big moment, it took us a very short time to get to and into the car, pausing politely for a contraction on the way, just like in all the worst movies and TV shows. The drive to the hospital on largely empty roads took approximately twenty minutes at a steady pace - no Frank Spencer histrionics or near misses for us on that most important of journeys. Within half an hour of my wife's comedy-style call to me at work, we arrived at the labour ward at our 'local' featureless, characterless and enormous general hospital. With my wife waiting in the reception area while I parked the car, I was briefly enraged by the discovery that I had to PAY to park at the hospital where the great event was to take place - even in the middle of the night. My walk (and it took a good few minutes) back to the labour ward from the acres-long and wide car park was sprinkled with dark thoughts about hospital administrators and car park attendants. I'm grumpy by nature, you see. Apparently.
Muttering curses and ill-will under my breath, I scuttled back to the labour wing and, reunited with my wife, we presented ourselves to the receptionist. Before long (it seemed to be a quiet night for births) we found ourselves being ushered into a delivery suite and standing like school children in the head teacher's office while we were talked at by a rather fierce-looking and very business-like midwife who seemed more intent on telling us the rules than making us comfortable or reassured. Unfortunately, the local community midwife who had steered us quite wonderfully through the pre-natal stages was not available to help us, which was a little disappointing, but we had bigger things on our minds. For my wife, an hour of variously dressing and undressing, getting into chosen 'comfy' clothes, answering questions, being hooked up to startlingly ancient - looking machines, answering the same questions again and then being intimately examined while being asked the same questions yet again, followed. My job, it seemed, was to stand around like a big hairy lemon and keep out of everyone's way. That was OK; I was quite good at that sort of thing - it fitted my carefully developed and honed skill set, and frankly it seemed absolutely right for me to be in the background and simply available should my wife need me. She, after all, was doing the difficult part!
It's fair to say that despite our optimism, our hopes and our dreams, matters did not progress particularly quickly or smoothly - the labour was very slow to develop, but not slow enough to send us back home. Too excited to feel even slightly drowsy despite the hour, we passed the time reading, chatting or watching the TV - which as usual in such institutions, was hung from the ceiling and therefore positioned at exactly the right angle to induce upper spine spasms. With so little happening, at one point the idea of sending us home to wait was floated by a somewhat huffy and clearly disenchanted member of the midwife team, but by the time a decision had been made, the opportunity to do so safely had come and gone. It was a difficult time; spending hours waiting for nature to take its course, yet seemingly totally under the control of the medical staff. Information was not readily forthcoming and for whatever reason or reasons, we were left largely on our own, with strict instructions that my wife not take anything by mouth - not even water! In retrospect of course it seems ridiculous, but I can only plead stupidity for not questioning that particular instruction. It still bothers me.
The hours dragged on, daylight arrived and slowly began to fade as we twiddled our thumbs and fingers and after several hours I was reduced to twiddling my toes. I revisited the car park pay-and-display machine ostensibly to make sure an over zealous twerp did not have an opportunity to slap a ticket on the windscreen. It was at least a chance for something to do, for some fresh air and an opportunity to complain to nobody in particular. Debbie was of course not allowed to leave the building ( you know, recalling it now, I'm starting to develop a conspiracy theory about this) although, depressingly, anyone who smoked - prospective mothers included - seemed to have carte blanche to leave their beds and the ward to go and stand outside the front doors in order to satisfy their poisonous cravings. That didn't seem quite right somehow.
As the evening closed in, it was with genuine shock that we realised more than fifteen hours had passed since we had arrived at the hospital. Nothing seemed to be happening - we had seen two shifts of staff come and go and we (I'm using the 'Royal "We"') were starting to feel like the forgotten patients. It was only after we made some representations about this - i.e. almost physically grabbing a passing midwife (I chose carefully; some of those ladies carried more momentum than others and I didn't fancy being dragged along the corridor into someone else's delivery room) - that we began to get some serious attention. Midwives began to visit us - well, only my wife really - more regularly, and she was examined several times in the following two hours. That in itself seemed to be such an undignified procedure - strangers arriving and without much ceremony inserting their digits into - well, you get the picture. I suppose it's probably necessary...Finally, one of the examining midwives announced that the labour had began to progress, and of course Debbie's pain levels soon began to rise. This was the part that I really was not looking forward to; seeing her in pain. I began to properly worry.
A few minutes later, I was a little surprised when one of the nurses stuck her head around the door and asked, looking at me; "Something for the pain?" "No I'm fine thanks!" I said cheerfully. Debbie giggled and the nurse scowled; "NOT for you!". The contractions were starting to build in frequency and intensity and at her request painkillers were quickly prescribed and administered to Debs - then some more; and finally some REALLY strong stuff which - alarmingly - almost straight away sent Debbie into a parallel - but I must say in its defence; a very happy - universe. Things were not happening very quickly, but after such a long drawn-out waiting period, the sudden burst of medical activity and the building sense of gathering momentum all began to rather overwhelm me.
At approximately 6.30pm - I remember this part with clarity - a foetal heart rate monitor (looking for all the world like something from a 1930s horror film set) was, with a thick rubber belt, attached to my wife's belly for the umpteenth time. The midwife silently checked the trace for a few seconds, and immediately called for a doctor. "SHIT!" I thought. "Fairies and pixies! Pretty Unicorns! Rainbows and jelly beans!" thought my wife, heavily under the influence of the narcotic painkillers - none of which were available for me, dammit - but then as I have mentioned before and really was at the time acutely aware, she WAS doing the difficult bit. A doctor and another midwife entered the room in that 'I'm not really hurrying, just moving my legs quickly for fun' kind of way they seem to have, clustered around the machines at the bedside of my good lady, and began a hushed but very serious discussion. It was eventually explained to us both (well, to me, because Debbie was somewhere else entirely, skipping through fields of candy) that the baby was evidently in some distress and things had to start happening immediately or it could get very, very bad.
"SHIT!" I thought for the second time in a few minutes (I could have come up with a different expletive but I wasn't feeling very creative). A terrifying ten minutes followed, when large, old-fashioned and frankly imposing machines were brought in, extra nurses arrived, and like an extra in a Marx Brothers movie, I was pushed into a smaller and smaller space up against the wall at the head of the delivery bed. Uncomfortable in every way though it was, I'd much rather have been there than have been ushered outside as apparently still happened to fathers in the era of my own birth (those old ideas seem so ridiculous now, don't they?).
While nobody said anything to me, there were enough meaningful and scared glances flitting around the room to have me seriously worried. "Jelly beans, flying turnips, fluffy pixies!" thought my wife, totally out of it through no fault of her own. I was glad that she was spared some of the emotional trauma because finally - pulled away from her side for a second - I was informed that the baby was experiencing some serious problems and if he wasn't born soon, may not survive. After a few seconds during which I struggled to accept what was being said to me, a cold steely horror gripped my heart and the room felt dark and small. Sights and sounds seemed to move away from me, rather like wearing dark glasses and earplugs. I was detached from my surroundings, my mind racing along one theme. "Our baby might die." was all I could think of and all I could imagine. I can still recall that hollow, intensely lonely feeling - I very much wish I couldn't.
My rather heroic wife (after all I can only imagine - and then inadequately - what the experience was like for her) was given yet another drug to immediately induce the last stage of labour and within seconds her womb began to push the baby out without any further encouragement. Although heavily drugged, she was still conscious, and I felt - and still feel - that it was my job to pretend that everything was OK, and going very well. After all, she had more than enough to cope with. I encouraged her to push when she had to (whereupon she would giggle and tell me to shut up), cajoled her into following the doctor's directions when the narcotics interfered with her powers of reason, and grimly held her hand as with the other she dug her nails into, and through my palm and out the back of my hand (well that's what it felt like).
All the time I watched the team of medics assemble out of her line of sight, hushed comments passing between them (for example: "He looks like a big hairy lemon, doesn't he?"). Presently I was told that the baby needed help to come out - after all, thanks to (what I now know to be) a poor standard of care from the midwife team, my wife's body was simply exhausted after seventeen hours of labour - and no fluids (yes, it seems obvious to me now that I should have done something about that). They were, I was told, due to the urgency of the situation going to have to use suction - or a 'ventouse' to basically pull the baby out as the contractions occurred. The possibility of the use of a ventouse had been explained to us in the months before the birth, and so with some little understanding of what was going on I was feeling quite calm (even then) - until the biggest guy I ever saw in my life walked into the room.
His size was somehow accentuated by the undeniable fact that he was probably the most black skinned person I'd ever seen ( admittedly having grown up and living in an area with relatively few representatives of any ethnic minority within the community). While not ridiculously tall - he must have been about six feet six inches tall - he made up for it by virtue of the fact that he had the same measurement in every direction, - he dominated the room immediately. With a somewhat improbable pile of hair rising vertically up from his crown (I wasn't going to point out how silly it looked), a vast white doctor's coat on (where the hell had he found one to fit?) and a stethoscope dangling from his pocket like a child's toy, he simply commanded attention. Now; I'm quite big, but this fellah was BIG. He bestrode the delivery room like a colossus - in fact the word 'intimidating' wouldn't quite cover the effect of his presence.
Once he had got the bestriding out of his system (after all there's only so long one can bestride without it becoming a little farcical), in a heavily accented baritone voice he briskly described to us both what he was about to do. In doing so he unfortunately managed to scare the crap out of me with his emphasis upon the danger of the situation to the baby. It seemed that the team were concerned that for whatever reason the baby was not getting enough oxygen, the heart rate was falling and the need for speed was becoming urgent. The room became even more charged with anxiety (for me at least), when, sitting himself before my prone wife's exposed private parts and hooking up the ventouse equipment, he suddenly asked if a paediatrician had been called. The answer was no. "Well we must have one, now!" he exclaimed loudly in apparent alarm. The temperature went up a notch and my head began to swim.
Almost immediately he began to bark orders at my wife. "Push now!" and "STOP pushing!". I'm not too sure if she complied but thanks to the drugs in her system, she was having a pleasant time, giggling away to herself between contractions, and thankfully very little pain. Instinct is an amazing thing; when required and despite her physical exhaustion, she was pushing like crazy, and when not required, she was able to relax within the enfolding arms of the medication. Within a minute or two Debs had amazingly managed to push the crown of our baby's head into view. The human body is a wonderful machine. The doctor brandished the ventouse - which closely resembled a very cheap chrome flashlight with half a tennis ball stuck on the end - or if you wish, the business end of a Dalek's sucker/sink plunger thingy, only not quite so funny... Compared to the human body, it was a crappy machine. He switched the vacuum pump on and all verbal communication became pointless as the room instantly filled with a cacophony which would have done a construction site compressor proud. Debbie, sweating and out of breath, shot me a momentary look of alarm, and then as the narcotics did their thing again, silently giggled. I could tell because her belly vibrated.
I then watched with a mixture of alarm and horror as the huge man, with the suction cup finally attached to my baby's head, began to wrestle mightily - on the face of it - with my wife's crotch. I had expected gentle, steady traction to ease my child's emergence into the world, but no; sweating profusely, this enormous fellow tugged, yanked, wiggled and heaved (doing everything except bracing himself against Debbie with one foot) rather as if he was fighting to pull a sofa through a keyhole, until finally he exclaimed, loud enough to be heard above the compressor; "Head out!". As he did so, a smocked and masked woman rushed in; the paediatrician had arrived, looking very flustered behind the green cotton. She 'gloved up' and stood behind the delivering doctor, whispering (OK, shouting) to him and never taking her eyes off the baby. I could just see the baby's head if, with one hand tightly and painfully clamped (most understandably, it must be said) in my wife's grasp, I stretched out onto one foot and peered over her thigh. It reminded me of trying to get a signal for the TV with the old 'rabbit ears' aerial. Back to the real world; there was our child. My first sight of our child. I'll be honest; it didn't look good - a swollen, waxy, little immobile face the purple-grey colour of something not alive. I looked away as the doctor's eyes both caught mine. I could see that they were both concerned. Very. I felt a fear, a dread, a terror that I have not felt since.
The big guy continued his apparent closely-matched tug of war with my wife's birth canal and finally, after perhaps another minute - one of the longest of my life - of surprisingly tough struggle, my son allowed himself to arrive. Obviously I was transfixed - here was our firstborn - MY firstborn. My body was flooded with a mix of emotions - I wanted to be filled with elation and joy and yet - and yet here was this little mite, a dark purple and totally limp little form as the doctor held him up in one massive hand. His arms and legs hung, lifeless. I was not offered the chance to cut the cord - it was instead done peremptorily and he was whisked away immediately to a corner of the room where the paediatrician and two nurses began to work on him. I knew enough to tell that they were doing chest compressions (with two fingers) and blowing air into him. One thought alone filled my mind with a silent scream - he was dead. Our little baby - my son - was dead. As a Tsunami of emotion began to build within me, Debbie, in a moment of clarity, asked me in an exhausted voice; "Boy or girl?". I turned to her and with a huge effort which drained me emotionally even as I managed it, smiled reassuringly at her. "Little Anthony is here." I said, using the message we had agreed on in advance - Anthony for a boy, Claire for a girl. I squeezed her hand, hugged her, and turned away before the tears began to fall. How could I possibly tell her what I was thinking? Our longed-for child; our son hadn't made it and would soon be pronounced dead ...this really was happening to us. My world was quietly crumbling away and there was nothing - absolutely nothing - that I could do about it.
The activity in the corner continued unabated, while the delivering doctor continued with his task of delivering the placenta and caring for Debbie's needs. All I could do in my quiet corner, surrounded as I was by a cloud of misery, was watch, listen and pray for me to be wrong. For what seemed like an age I stood and watched while activity continued around me. I felt horribly isolated and distinctly separate from everyone and everything; my exhausted wife, the medical team, my surroundings. In that dark, cold, empty room in which I suddenly found myself, I thought "So is this what it feels like to lose a baby?", and great big, round tears of grief began to roll down my face. I couldn't stop it, and I had no reason to try - this joyous occasion was after all suddenly turning into the worst moment of my life. In a few moments I would have to break the awful news to this poor drained woman lying utterly exhausted next to me.
The black sadness began to envelop me like a cold tide until, incredibly, as I watched with a deepening gloom, Anthony's foot, which was sticking out under her arm and to one side of the paediatrician's body, seemed to twitch and move. It really moved! And then, as if to confirm my sudden hope, within a second or two a small, shrill cry drifted across the hubbub to me. Momentarily overwhelmed and with the tears flowed faster, and I let out a loud, convulsive sob. The nursing staff, busy with various small jobs, tried not to catch my eye, but by that point I didn't care. He was with us after all. We had a baby.
My body seemed to deflate as the relief finally hit me - my legs trembled and a faint but distinct ringing in my ears heralded the potential for the onset of a fainting episode. This wouldn't do at all! I staggered a little and reached out for something to hold me upright. Debbie instinctively squeezed my hand as if to bring me back down to earth, the energy seemed to flow back into me and I smiled down at her. "He's fine" I said hopefully, "Listen to him. He wants his mum.". At least she didn't know the real reason why I was openly crying like a baby myself.
Within a few moments our little wrapped bundle was brought over to us and handed to the exhausted lady who had just successfully, against the odds, brought him into the world. I'm not remotely embarrassed to admit that the tears fell freely as I watched. And then, even sooner than I had hoped, it was my turn to hold my wonderful son for the first of uncounted times. He was placed into my arms, and as a wave of charged emotion ran over and through me, I held him like I would hold a ball of feathers - softly, lightly; ever, ever so carefully. In silence I willed my own life energy into him, desperate to keep him warm, and safe, but most of all, alive. "Wow, you've done this before" said the midwife to me. "Yes" I said, looking down within a maelstrom of emotions at my beloved son; "I have a lot of nephews and nieces", but the truth was I had never done this before - never held my firstborn, never held MY son, OUR child, had never before almost lost a child...what was I to say?
I gazed down at the little face for what seemed like an age, when all of a sudden, his tiny, shiny dark eyes opened for the very first time and looked at an embroidered badge on the chest of the colourful rugby jersey I was wearing. Just a few seconds passed while Anthony took in the colours - his first colours - and then, clearly wearied by the effort, he closed his eyelids once more. Of course, many years later, that shirt is still with me - never worn now and protected as if it were spun from gold - and one day it shall be his.
The little mite was, up close, quite a surprise. Firstly, and most obviously, he had a half tennis ball stuck to the back of his head. Not literally of course, but the ventouse had created a startling swelling of exactly those proportions on his scalp, something we were assured would subside quite quickly (and, thankfully, it did by the next day). Running a close second in terms of obviousness, however, was the fact that even at only a few minutes old, he quite remarkably resembled me. We had so often wondered what our baby would look like and here was the answer: there was no mistaking it; his face was very distinctively of my genes. There were other remarkable features to my son which I had not expected. Despite being a 'late' baby, he was covered with lanugo or hair - fine hair yes, but hair nonetheless. Also, his tiny fingernails had grown quite long, and within minutes of his birth the little bugger had managed to scratch himself on the face. He was of course gorgeous and quite, quite perfect to us.
I wouldn't have missed his birth - as desperate as some of it turned out to be - for the world.I have loved my son deeply, instinctively and ferociously from his first moments of life, and shall do so until my dying breath leaves my body. Even if I wanted it, I don't have a choice in the matter - he's my firstborn child, that baby which, if only in my mind, I held to the heavens and gave thanks for - the son I almost never had.
My lovely daughter, I should mention up front , approximately eighteen months later thankfully experienced no such traumatic birth - or at least not from her perspective. Her birth was quite different - a relatively quiet early labour which once again didn't progress very quickly - until that is, my wife was given a medical nudge, at which point things began to happen VERY quickly. My perspective on the whole matter is today somewhat shrouded by the fact (realised at the time but nevertheless unstoppable) that I went into mild shock. Sounds a bit pathetic really, doesn't it?
I shall explain;
Essentially the scenario was that the labour was once again not progressing very quickly at all. Given the history of our son's delivery, the medical staff thought it best to hurry things along a little after a few hours. So an injection of 'Thiswillmakeyouscream' was administered to Debbie's buttock, along with an assurance that things would start happening in about thirty minutes from that point (pardon the pun). We settled back to wait for the contractions to gently increase in frequency. Approximately ten minutes later Debs held her belly and said with feeling; "Wow, that was much stronger. That hurt." I pressed the call button for the midwife's attention. Five minutes later I was still pressing the call button when my wife let loose a blood curdling scream which rattled the windows. I ran to the door and into the corridor "Can we get someone in here PLEASE?" I shouted down the empty corridor. No doubt I would have sounded like an over-anxious father-to-be had Debbie not shaken the window frames a second time. There was the unmistakable sound of running feet.
Two or three minutes afterward, a midwife examining Debbie using that "I'm not going to catch your eye while have my hand inserted in your vagina" middle distance gaze out of the window, somewhat less than professionally exclaimed "Shit! She's gone from three to ten centimetres in ten minutes!" Turning to me she said "She's going to need you. We can't give her anything for the pain right now, the baby's coming, and quickly." Trembling and with all the fear from Anthony's birth returning to cruelly tap me on the shoulder, I stood at my wife's side as she let loose yet another ear-splitting shriek of agony. She was scared now, and so was I. Bloody hell. The ringing in my ears was back...I felt faint.
Outside a thunder storm rumbled, occasional flashes of lightning electrifying the windows and as before, several more people entered the room over the next few minutes but it was immediately apparent that there was no thought of the baby being in peril - it was just going to be a tough delivery for the mum. Before long the contractions were very close to one another, and Debs was throwing her head back and absolutely bellowing with the pain - much to the apparent disapproval of the midwives. I didn't know what to think - here was my wife in apparent agony, here were the experienced midwives clearly thinking that she was making a meal of it, but I was sure I'd have been making an awful lot more noise if it was me trying to do what Debbie was doing. Nevertheless, try as I might to be a strong, resourceful and calm presence, her agonized, instinctive and deafening screaming was starting to affect me. I could feel myself going into shock and while never leaving her side, withdrawing ever so slightly from the room. I can remember that quite clearly, but as a result many details of the birth now escape me, replaced instead by Debbie's terrified (and terrifying) screams - at times quite literally in my ear.
There are thankfully few - if any - occasions in life when any of us hear genuine screams of terror or pain. Soldiers hear them, paramedics hear them, police officers, firefighters and some doctors hear them, etc. etc., but in everyday life such events are very rare. This was the first time I had experienced it in such blood curdling close-up, and it also happened to be in and very, very personal circumstances. There's no getting away from it; such an experience is shocking - if it didn't affect a person, I would be at a loss to explain it. As Debbie's body took control, her mind reacted in terror to the pain, and it was a truly horrible thing to watch. Far from being the tower of strength I wanted to be, I fear that no matter what facade i was trying to project to the rest of the world, inside I became something of a dribbling, wobbly wimp as the emotional shock took hold. Outside the windows the timely summer thunder and lightning storm continued, heralding the arrival of another new life, and inside the birth progressed - in comparison to Anthony's arrival, alarmingly quickly - to the accompaniment of Deb's screams.
As the rain lashed against the glass and the lightning flickered white and yellow against the dark grey clouds, our beautiful little girl made the transition into the world of air-breathers. Claire made quite the entrance with no outside help, almost shooting out and hitting the opposite wall (I may be slightly exaggerating, but this is compared to her brother's painfully slow arrival) and crying most indignantly within seconds - and without any encouragement whatsoever. "I'm pissed off and hungry!" she seemed to be saying. The change in the room was instant - I barely had time to tell my wife that our little girl was a little girl before Anna's cries joyfully announced her to the world. I cried again. The world was a wonderful place to be.
What a contrast! Despite her ordeal, Debbie was this time able to share in the joy of holding her gorgeous baby immediately. It was, in itself, a joy to watch - mother and baby bonding, skin to skin - as it has been for countless millennia, and just as it should remain. I watched as they became increasingly aware of one another, forming a bond that may only be broken by the finality of death. Soon, hopping from foot to foot like an impatient toddler needing the toilet, it was my turn to hold my daughter for the first time. She was a little smaller than her older brother, and for some reason that seemed appropriate. By now a practised and confident baby-cuddler, I folded myself around our little bundle in as big (and gentle) a hug as I could manage - I felt the unstoppable, primeval urge to show her my love. Again, following my instincts, I took a few moments to 'be' with her as completely as I could, looking over every millimetre of her little face and reaching out with my feelings; cradling her with my emotions as well as my arms. She felt tiny and precious. Now she is a beautiful teenager, fast approaching womanhood, but in my selfish heart she is still that helpless baby I wanted to protect from the world.
Becoming a father awakened something within me (and I don't mean the previous night's curry). I know that I changed a little with each of my children's births. At a very fundamental level their births were hugely affective - there was in both cases an emotional trauma of sorts, but much, much more than that was a sense of direction, of fulfillment and of purpose. In statistical terms their births would be considered unremarkable and 'average' by anyone reading the numbers - just as, I suppose, would my entire life. We are however, all so much more than mere figures on a page or merely entries in the register of births and deaths.
How many times each day do these scenes play out? How many children fight their way into the world, innocent and ignorant of what awaits them? How many mothers push their bodies to the limit and beyond as they instinctively answer the primeval urge to give birth? What of the fathers; waiting, watching and on rare occasions in the developed world, (as my father did when my brother was born) physically helping with the birth of their babies? How many of them share my experiences of excitement, anticipation, fear and joy?
I can't say that I know. Most of my male friends have children, but my experience of their sharing of the experience is very limited. Perhaps it's a male trait - or perhaps people choose not to share these things just with me, although in the latter case I would still expect to have heard about it anecdotally in casual conversation. It just doesn't seem to happen very much among us guys. What a shame - in a world where the male role is changing, the emotional side of such an important part of our lives is something that I believe is very important. In many societies, men - rightly or wrongly - feel a pressure to be emotionally strong and withhold their true feelings. Unfortunately, in my opinion at least, this is a very, very silly misunderstanding of the principle of living a life. Wherever this perceived expectation comes from, it is of course an external 'should' - it is someone else's idea being absorbed and applied to another's life.
Like the vast majority of men; I feel. I enjoy (which seems to be more of an allowed expressed emotion), I grieve, I feel sad, I feel hurt. At times I am emotionally vulnerable. And there is nothing - to my mind - remotely un-masculine about any of that; feeling is part of living - an integral part; in fact for me, feeling is THE essential part of living. Feeling can never be wrong in principle (because it simply happens without conscious intention) - and neither can displaying or being honest about our emotions. Being overtaken by emotions in a situation where action is necessary could, of course, be problematic, but feeling and showing our feelings is essential in the long term for our personal health. I wonder how much more happy many men could be if their emotions were not effectively under lock and key?