The day a man becomes a father is a life-changing occasion. Father and writer, Kevin Klein, shares his touching, personal account of his first child’s birth.
Between every couple are meaningless disagreements about What Actually Happened or Who Really Said What. Last week, my wife Leah and I added one to our thankfully short list: Who Suggested Alexis’s Name. We’ve been through journal entries, handwritten name lists, and emails, but there’s no evidence more conclusive than our own memories. I can visualize the exact moment the name first came to me: we were driving home, Leah in the passenger seat and the baby in the back. Just after we passed the stretch of road where you can see the ocean, I turned to Leah and said, “Alexis is a nice name.”
Leah remembers it exactly the same way, except that just before I said what I did, she apparently asked, “How about Alexis?”
And so, to prevent future disputes about the particulars of Alexis’s birth, we’ve agreed on the following as our official version of the story.
Saturday, August 28, 2004
Nine days overdue, Leah calls me at 11:32 in the morning on her cell from the Whitfords City Shopping Center.
“I think my waters just broke!” In Australia—where we live—they use the plural “waters,” as if it were a biblical event.
“Okay!” I said. “We go to the hospital now, right?”
“Well, let’s call first and see. I don’t have the number on me—do you mind ringing them and asking?”
Flustered by the excitement, I soon found myself trying to answer questions about someone else’s body from several miles away. I called Leah back and gave her the hospital number. She talked with them, then rang me to say that they wanted her in as soon as possible.
I was waiting in the driveway with Gail, Leah’s mom, when Leah made it back. I loaded in the hospital bag while she hoisted herself out of the car, then I took her place in the driver’s seat. Gail videotaped us waving as we headed off on that one-way journey to Parentville.
One of my irrational fears has always been that journey—the actual drive to the hospital. I’ve never been able to think of it without imagining myself making wrong turns in heavy traffic and bad weather while my wife is screaming and the baby suddenly begins to poke out. Only as we pulled into the hospital parking lot did I remember that anxiety, and I had to smile. It was a sunny Saturday afternoon, the roads had been quiet, and Leah was grinning like a lottery ticket winner on her way to claim the prize.
Half an hour later she was in a gown, lying on the table of an exam room in the delivery ward, holding my hand. I brought in a chair to sit next to her, and after a while the doctor, a nice Iranian lady, came in to do the exam. Speculum is such a terribly perfect-sounding word for the tool they use.
“Well, your waters are intact,” the doctor said.
“Oh, really?” Leah said through her teeth. Her grip on my hand tightened.
“Yes,” she said, probing, “and you’re not dilated at all.”
While the drive to the hospital had been blissfully uneventful, the drive home was disappointingly so. As if the exam hadn’t been painful enough, and having cried wolf sufficiently embarrassing, Leah also had to integrate into the experience the fact that she’d wet her pants and asked a doctor to examine it. We managed to laugh about it on the way home. Once there, she got changed and we left again to eat lunch at a local Thai place. Spicy food supposedly helps bring on labor.
Sunday/Monday, August 29-30
The Thai food didn’t work, but Leah had been instructed to check into the hospital the next day no matter what. Sunday brought questions, speculations, speculums, and a midwife with prostin gel to “ripen the cervix,” as they say. Leah actually began to have contractions later that night, but they didn’t make her dilate. When I came to visit around noon the next day, we snuck out of the hospital and took an hour-long walk, even stopping to ride the swingset in a little park. But despite the physical and gravitational exertion, nothing happened birth-wise. That evening they gave her another round of prostin gel, again without results. The midwives murmured empathetically; the doctor planned to induce Leah at 9 the next morning.
I got home from the hospital that night and lay for a moment in bed, listening ceremoniously to a quiet I knew I could never fully anticipate again until our kids moved out.
Tuesday, August 31, 2004
The next morning the delivery team started a Pitocin drip and broke Leah’s water. Two epidurals (the first one didn’t work) and three hours later, Leah was still at only four centimeters. To measure the baby’s fatigue, they decided to draw a blood sample by scratching her scalp. When the midwife reached in and tickled the top of my daughter’s head, the fetal heart monitorshowed her pulse rise. It made me laugh out loud, that little chuckle of thrill and wonder, to see her respond to human touch.
But the results showed the baby in the middle range of distress, and Leah’s uteruswasn’t budging. Theresa, our doctor, suggested a Cesarean section.
That put me on guard. Leah and I had read a book about how hospitals prefer C-sections because they’re quicker and cause less liability. It also portrayed women who grappled with feelings of maternal failure after Cesareans. I began mentally gathering what few facts I could remember into a cross-examination. Leah just said, “If it’s best for the baby, let’s do it.” It made so much more sense than anything I could have said, and besides, it just felt right.
So they threw me some scrubs to put on and whisked Leah away. In half an hour I was holding her hand as they cut her open. The anesthesiologist sat across from me, a pleasant, almost chatty woman who gave Leah some gas when she felt them tugging her insides.
I would have liked to see the operation, but Leah wanted me to stay and talk her through it. I stroked her face and told her she was doing fine, doing fine. Soon the talk from across the curtain elevated to chatter, then it stopped, and we heard the cry. Our baby appeared above the curtain, eclipsing in the brilliant surgery lamp.
Probably because of the glare, the first thing I noticed was her toes—they were long, with the second toe longer than the big toe, exactly like mine. I’d never even come close to questioning her paternity, but still it felt totally reassuring to see that immediate, unmistakable resemblance.
They toweled her off, put her in a little half-incubator, and suctioned out her nose. I cut the cord with those blunt notched scissors, and they clamped it and wrapped her in a white blanket. Then I carried the baby over to Leah’s head and torso, and a nurse took some awkwardly poised shots of the three of us.
As I held our baby in the maternity ward, I stared at her indigo newborn eyes, their whites a pale china-blue. She whimpered once or twice, but when I rocked her and murmured, she stopped. I’d read in a few different natural/homebirth sources about the necessity of making the baby’s entry into the world as trauma-free as possible: dim lights, soft music, no forceps or suction. But my entry into fatherhood was equally—if not more—important for our baby’s well-being, and she handled it beautifully. Whatever part instinct played in those first actions of hers, they were just what a dad needs: the feelings of belonging and competence. I could tell looking at not just her feet but her eyebrows, nose, and philtrum (that little groove from the septum down to the upper lip) that she was mine. And of course, I belonged to her. I’d just made her stop crying.
Speaking of belonging, it took us five days to find the name Alexis and only one to agree it was hers. The fact that we can’t decide who first thought of her name just means we chose the right one.