There I was, in the company of pregnant women -- seven baby-bellied ladies -- and their toe-tapping, knuckle-cracking, head-swiveling partners. We sat in a basement classroom, each expectant parent wearing a look-I'm-a-dork name tag, all of us struggling to appear as casual as possible. I sensed a slightly nauseating freshman-orientation vibe in the air. Was this a pre-fatherhood anxiety dream? Some super-fertile AA meeting? Neither, actually: My wife Lisa and I were starting a seven-week natural childbirth class offered by Newton-Wellesley Hospital in Massachusetts.
Randi, our instructor, at last ended the quiet by introducing herself and asking us to go around the room and say a little something. Panic rose in me like acid reflux; I didn't know we'd have to speak. I couldn't remember why I was there or what I did for a living.
As I tried to compose a non-stupid greeting, I started to think about CVS and the night in early fall when Lisa and I stood at one of the pharmacy's cash registers and slid an expensive ovulation test across the counter. We'd been in the baby-making biz for a few months but, for all our bedroom R&D, hadn't yet managed to crank out any product. We were out late because we were trying to keep a low profile. The Procreation Project, y'see, was a private venture: I was under strict orders not to leak any information, and Lisa didn't tell anyone either -- except her mother, a few of her best friends, the woman who does her hair, and the girl at the coffeehouse. But here we were taking it public.
Sort of. The only witness was a sullen kid slumping behind the counter. He dropped our stuff into a bag without looking at us, embarrassed by us old people and our scientific approach to breeding. And who could blame him? Here I was, 32 years old, living in a comfy suburb, trying to knock my wife up and transform us from Man and Wife into Mom and Dad. It was the sort of thing I would've sneered at a decade ago.
When I discovered our technique worked and Lisa was actually pregnant, I had a vertiginous mixture of reactions. It was like being pummeled by one feeling after another: joy -- bam! fear -- bop! pride -- smack! Lisa was radiant with biological well-being; me, I had to climb out of the ring to keep from being worked over by emotion.
But now I no longer had time to fuss with my feelings. Before you knew it, I'd be neck-deep in breast pumps and sippy cups and plush Teletubbies. The question was: Would we still have romantic evenings for two? Would there be Life after Birth?
I was clueless, as was everyone else in the room. But seven weeks later, I'd mastered the vocabulary of pregnancy. I could talk about the bag of waters, the thinning of the cervix, and the beloved mucous plug with the best of them. And I was considerably less freaked out. Randi showed us videos of real couples having babies, with fathers offering soft, nervous-sounding support in the background. While the tapes made me wonder if natural childbirth would knock the smarts out of Lisa (one video-mom's post-birth comment: "The intensity of it was intense, emotion-wise"), the blood-, sweat-, and tear-stained film gave me confidence. Watching each husband bleat a tentative "That's great, Honey" made me think, "Hey, I can do better than that."
But there was one thing that took some getting used to: the relaxation exercises. They were so weird. Randi would dim the lights and then ask the moms to get on the floor as their partners sat beside or behind them. She'd flip on some tinkly New Age music and tell the women to breathe: out their toes, their shins, their knees, even their "bottoms."
My initial reaction was "I can't believe this nonsense." But after a while I actually started to relax and groove with the patchouli-scented music. I thought, "I've been hypnotized!" and didn't even care.
But back to that first day of class: When my turn to speak came, I cleared my throat and mumbled, "Um, hi, my name is Ken and this is my wife Lisa, and, um, we live in Newton." Lisa turned to the class and added the most important part of the introduction, why we were really there: "I'm hoping to be able to give birth without any drugs." When she said this, I was flooded with a sense of admiration (Lisa wanted to go through an excruciatingly painful process without medication) and fear (Was she crazy? This was going to hurt!).
These mixed emotions continued, even after the class ended. I understood a bit more about pregnancy and learned a few techniques for dealing with pain, but I worried about Lisa's labor. Would she be ready for a drug-free birth? Only time, and one outward-bound baby, would tell.
Ken Gordon thinks new fathers don't get enough playing time in the parenthood game. So he's going to spend the next year reporting on his first season as a dad. He writes for Boston Magazine, Salon, and other publications.
Copyright © 2002. Reprinted with permission of the November 2002 issue of Child magazine.