The Pregnant Father
I was recently flamed on a Facebook page for objecting to the notion that fathers have nothing to do with pregnancy and that the experience of being pregnant was something that I as a father, could never understand nor appreciate, no matter how much I might try. In addition, I also objected to the sentiment that men have no right to even try to have a stake in that experience, and that when we do try, we manage to do nothing but get in the way or piss off our wives or act like general buffoons. My response was this:
“You’re right. We’ll never get to experience the actual joy and the actual pain of a labor or delivery. But what we can do is try to be an active partner to the person we love most in the world doing something we will never fully understand no matter how hard we try. And we do try. We may never actually push the baby out, but we will stand next to you and hurt for you, and worry about you and the tiny person we’ve been hoping to meet for nine plus months, and sometimes the whole thing is so emotionally overwhelming and scary that sometimes we faint, and sometimes we cry, but we are still as much a part of that experience as we can be and as you will allow us to be.”
While many of the commenting mothers seemed to appreciate the perspective, some did not. The above comment was called, by one mother, “douche-baggie” and “smug-ass” and I was generally screamed at for participating in a conversation that was “clearly not for me.” Not for me, I assume, because I am not a “mother.” Or, more accurately, because I am not a woman-parent. Or something. Either way, I was excluded from the conversation and bitched at for even trying to engage or provide some perspective. Which, sadly, kind of reinforced the exact point that I was trying to make. Where pregnancy and childbirth is concerned, there seems to be a pretty big sign on the door that says “No Boys Allowed.”
Because here is the thing: I believe that in healthy families, parenting is a shared experience. I admit to being one of those fathers who used phrases like “we are pregnant” and “we are going to have a baby,” because the experience of pregnancy and the coming labor impacted every aspect our shared life. I am also fully aware that my wife did 99.9% of the work and endured 100% of the physical pain and bodily stress of which biology prevents me from fully comprehending, but to say that the experience of pregnancy and delivery is something that a father does not and can not experience is a falsehood and a hurtful one at that.
My wife and I decided, together, to have a baby. It took both of us to make that baby, which we made on purpose. It was a surprisingly difficult and sometimes painful journey to get to the pregnancy, but it was a journey on which we embarked together. We planned together, we prepared together. We turned our lives upside down in anticipation, together. We were in awe of and in love with the entire thing, together.
I will, however, never fully understand nor experience the biology of the process. Nothing grew inside of me. My body did not change from “my body” into a remarkable biological cradle. I will never understand how that felt, I admit. I will never understand what it feels like to have a tide break inside my body to signal the rushing of an incoming life. I will never fully understand what it feels like to have my body squeeze and stretch itself in order to usher a new human being onto the beach of this world. I will never understand that on any level.
What mothers may never fully understand is how helpless and terrified fathers feel as they stand in the halogen glow next to that table and realize how much they have to lose if something goes amiss, and the seismic fear that comes along with watching your partner and unborn child navigate the dangerous cosmic dance of coming into being and to not be able to do anything other than hold a hand or wipe a brow and whisper silent pleas to the universe for grace and mercy.
This is not the pain of labor, but it is a pain and a hard one and it comes from a very deep place.
It is a pain is of helplessness, both procedurally and spiritually, and for those many hours of labor, even the most prepared and active fathers are suddenly alienated by biology and are required to lean on whatever internal fortress they have constructed inside themselves as they watch the entirety of their present lives play out in a process of pain and mystery they are suddenly cut off from. It is pain that comes from the overwhelming experience of watching the woman you love becoming a suffering fountain of blood and fluid and having to convince yourself over and over again that this is how it is supposed to be, that the screams and the agony and the suffering that comes along with the exhilaration are not things to be fixed, they are necessary things to be floated through or sailed upon until its over.
And it is a pain of absolutely crushing joy and marvel as this process to which you are an observer parts itself enough to reveal a tiny brow and a curling hairline and eventually the head and perfectly formed body of a tiny human creature that was not there only a second ago but now suddenly is. It is the crushing, suffocating pain of the kind of love which you have never before experienced and will never experience again, love that changes your world completely and forever, a beautiful pain that flashes along the inside edges of your unarmed heart and explodes into your veins like light into a darkened room.
And despite this pain, despite the fear, and despite being completely disintegrated by the influx of love at the end of the process, a father is there. He may be only holding a hand, he may be wiping a brow. He may be going peaked and passing out. But he is there, hopeful and terrified and suffering in the way that only fathers can, experiencing pregnancy and birth in the only way the universe will allow him to, but he is there and that part of the experience is his.
Birth is a tale not of one, but of three people, united by three sides of the same narrative, filling out the edges of the same emerging story, striving for the same joy and the same renewal at the end of it.