The soon-to-be mother of your child is in pain. She's sweating, moaning, squeezing your hand harder than you can believe possible. You're doing your best -- telling her that she's doing great, that you're proud of her -- but it's not working. She's still miserable. And to make matters worse, she's not being very nice to you. No "please"s, no "thank you"s. At times it almost seems like she's mad at you. For what? You're trying!
If there's one road not to go down while helping your partner through labor, the sensitive, insecure one would be it. For 12 hours (or however long it takes), it will be all about her. You will feel unwanted. You need to be there but you don't matter. She pushes; you suck it up. That's how it goes. That's probably the clearest it gets for a dad trying to find his role in the birthing of his child. And that evolutionarily advantageous ability a mom has to forget the pain of childbirth so she'll do it again? You don't get that. For better and for worse, you will remember every little peak and valley in vivid detail (and you will try your very best to forget some of the "peaks.")
Fortunately, George Mussalli, M.D., of Village Obstetrics in New York City, has been around the block a few hundred times (four times with his own children) and I've been through it three times myself. Much like your sweating lover in stirrups, we won't mince words. Here, in the order of events as they will unfold, are the issues most likely to beguile the expectant dad.
The first contraction is exciting. Two through 10 and you're thinking, "This is really happening" and it's fun (or possibly nerve-rattling, depending on your level of preparedness). Contractions 20 through, say, 50 are...less so. It can feel pretty anticlimactic. You find yourself just waiting. And waiting. And you're mostly unsure of what you should be doing. Should you rub her feet? Should you eat that giant sandwich in front of her? Shouldn't you go to the hospital? By the time I had my third child, I more or less knew the drill. She wanted her own space, wanted me focused but not offering empty encouragements like "You can do this!" And she would tell me we needed to go to the hospital. I noted the contraction times, kept my focus on her, and tried to keep the mood light with a few jokes here and there. It may not seem like your partner is paying much attention but your confidence and excitement will set the tone in a way she'll later appreciate.
At the hospital, the waiting can get brutal. Our first kid took 23 hours to come out. We walked the hospital halls, stopped to let my wife puke, and walked some more. It was where I needed to be though and, tedious as it was, there was no other place I wanted to be.
Verdict: This is your time to shine as a husband; when she needs you to be your most selfless, strong, and supportive. In other words, don't tell her you're really, really bored and could she please pass you that sandwich.
It's probably the cause of most delivery room battles. My wife made it clear she wanted to go au naturel. I gently tried to talk her out of it. I didn't want to see her in terrible pain, particularly if it was unnecessary. She felt it necessary, though, so I abided (as you must do). Then, 20 hours in, she says she wants an epidural and I'm telling her "No, no, you can do this!" At which point I saw a murderous look in her eyes and decided to go with it.
"Often," Dr. Mussalli says, "he's trying to be an advocate for her and saying 'no, no, honey, remember you didn't want to have this, or you wanted to have that. And she's changed. And he's trying his best but he's not going through the same thing. Sometimes [the husbands/partners] are much more rigid than the wives are and it can create some conflict between them."
Verdict: Be flexible. Don't stick to your guns. You have no guns here.
It gets gory down there to be sure, Dr. Mussalli says. But after hours and hours of waiting, you'll probably want to see that baby come out. Should you worry about those visuals sticking around in your head, popping back up later, say, in bed? Dr. Mussalli says no. "When they do watch, it's almost always an incredibly positive experience for them. What we're seeing more and more is the wives not wanting their husbands down there. [They wonder] what will change for him if he sees her like that." Probably not much, it turns out. Dr. Mussalli says he just doesn't ever see it negatively affecting a guy's desires afterwards. And they think we're shallow.
For me, I got up close and personal the first time and felt afterward like I'd seen more than I wanted to see. I vowed to stay up top with my wife for the second and third times around. But both times I found myself down there watching. And both times, afterward, I said to myself "Damn, I did it again." It's pretty compelling stuff.
Verdict: Give it a try; take a peek. If it's feeling more like a horror movie than the miracle of life, stay up top with her.
This is your big moment, the moment they hand you the scissors and say, "Hey, let's pretend you're helpful for a second." Assuming the delivery goes well, you'll probably get the honor of severing the nurturing bond between your child and his or her mother. Great. Thanks. And it's gross, possibly the worst thing you'll ever cut with a pair of scissors. Imagine thick, crunching gristle. But you'll probably do it because it's the one thing you actually can do. But, as Dr. Mussalli points out, "a lot of guys find it pretty anticlimactic after having already seen the head come out."
Verdict: You'll spend the next 10 or so years coming between your child and the person he or she would rather be with. Why not start now with an emphatic snip?
Chances are you'll do to your son what was done to you. And in most cases that's going for the snip. Intactivists (as they call themselves) refer to this as "passing on the wound." The American Academy of Pediatrics calls it a good first step in reducing the risk of HIV infection. I chose to leave my boys' wieners alone.
It broke the family tradition but I just didn't see enough reason to break that Hippocratic oath of "Do no harm." My decision has made for lively discussions with my own brothers over the years, one who was "for skin," the other against. The one opting to snip cited medical studies showing increased STD transmission and the "locker room" argument, as it's known (will other boys make fun of him?). The other brother poked holes in the studies and said there would likely be a tipping point when the current trend in nonsnipping will catch up to the snippers and render the locker room argument moot.
Verdict: It's one of the toughest calls you'll make as a dad. If it helps, Dr. Mussalli says he didn't want to circumcise his sons. "But my wife felt very strongly that we should." You can probably guess what they did. So, maybe it's not so tough sometimes.