Sometimes I realize how little I know my wife. Sure, we can be connected on an almost-scary telepathic level and finish each other’s sentences, but that’s the “us.” I know us. She knows us. Us together is its own thing, an unbeatable force — unless we’re playing co-op Mario Bros on the Wii — then we’re just teetering on divorce.
The wife also has a new-agey hippy-dippy side — a side that likes yoga and meditation — and is open to trying to new things and new ideas. This is the side I know nothing about — because despite her trying to get me to “come to yoga” with her for the last seven years of our relationship, I’m much happier being close minded and stiff in my lower back.
So when she signed us up for something called a “comfort measures in birthing” class, I assumed it was just another standard birthing class through the hospital. That class had been an eight-hour marathon in which the fairy tale band-aid of where babies come from was ripped off — ripped directly off my eyeballs.
I didn’t know what a comfort measures class meant, except that the wife described it as a way to learn some all natural pain-coping mechanisms for birth. I assumed it was another band-aid to rip off, perhaps in gentler, all-natural way.
I also assumed the class was at the hospital, perhaps taught by the same burly war-storied nurse who had taught the last class, a woman who had described in great detail her experiences of pushing out three ten-pound babies. She didn’t just rip the band-aid off; she tightened the tourniquet, handed you a stick to bite down on, pulled out the amputation knife, and took off the whole limb. That’s a metaphorical way of saying that I learned the baby isn’t the only thing that comes out during birth.
Still, I like this methodology. I prefer this. Give me the amputation knife, plunge it directly into my chest. Give it to me. I can take it. The wife, on the other hand, prefers something called “comfort measures.” Those words again — and whatever they meant, were not taking place at the hospital or coming from the 1800s-era surgical nurse.
“Oh, the class is at somebody’s house,” the wife said, casually dropping this detail during breakfast, not realizing she had just spoken the most terrifying sentence in the course of humanity, even more so than “we’re going to a potluck dinner.”
“Whose house?” I asked cautiously.
“Oh you know, the doula’s house,” she said.
The wife had hired a doula to assist her during childbirth. It’s a non-medical professional woman who sort of plays a personal coaching role, providing comforting energy and experience. Basically it’s the opposite of me, who will be providing nervous pacing, nonsensical murmurings to self, and glasses of ice water, as needed.
So there we were a few hours later, sitting in a “share circle,” cross-legged in somebody’s house, with three other couples, birth balls, aromatherapy candles, and the doula — a small-framed, kindly-voiced woman whom you might mistake for a kindergarten teacher, if not for arm-sleeve tattoo and glint in the eye. It’s a glint that you’ll go over and over again in your mind, trying to figure out what it says, but whatever it says, you instinctively know not to cross it.
As for the other couples: there were the doctor-distrusting, home-birthing hardcore-ists. There were the neurotic hand-wringy couple who were overdressed — maybe they just got off work — but you get the sense they always dressed like that. Then there were the bubbly couple who looked like you might have run into them at the tiki-themed country bar in your old hometown. They were the ringers. That’s the only way I can explain them.
So what exactly are “comfort measures?” Well, I can tell you they are measures that would not comfort me. We learned techniques in little workshops, like holding a comb in one’s hands at certain pressure points, running a tasseled scarf along the body, or breathing in lavender oils. If I’m ever in pain, I can tell you holding a comb in my hand is not going to do shit. But the wife is open to all ideas, so she laid on the floor and I ran the tasseled scarf along her body, and the doula came over to correct my motion to a “massaging ocean-like” motion, and I listened because I wasn’t about to cross her.
In one of the workshops, there was a bowl of ice-water. The trick was to keep your hand submerged in the ice water and endure the pain a full minute — the length of a contraction — while your partner read affirming sentences to you. I submerged my hand in the water a full minute, no affirmations needed. Proving what exactly? I’m not the one having the baby. But see? Give it to me. I can take it.
Now it was the wife’s turn.
“You are a strong and capable woman,” I read monotonously off the card.
“Your body is a wide open space for the baby to descend…”
I stopped. The wife had lasted ten seconds in the ice water.
At that moment I realized I totally know my wife. And it wasn’t this. She’s a younger sibling. She responds to antagonizing. She’s defiant. Tell her she can do something, and she questions you. Tell her she can’t do something, and she pushes you out of the way to prove you wrong.
I raised my voice. “Just put your hand back in that stupid ice water and keep it in there. I did it. It was the easiest thing in this stupid world,” I said.
She did. At the ten second point, she began to flush and wince in pain.
“Quit being dramatic, you got just a little more to go,” I said.
At the thirty second mark, she threatened to quit. “I can’t do this anymore,” she said.
“You drag me to this ridiculous crap for two and a half hours, I think you can do another thirty seconds,” I said.
By now the whole room was looking at us, with my “anger proclamations” cutting through the lavender-scented birthing affirmations.
“Now everyone’s looking at us, so you gotta get this. You’re at 45 seconds. My hand wasn’t even hurting yet at this point,” I said.
She hung on, to prove us all wrong. 60 seconds. She made it. The room clapped, and we moved onto the next workshop, which involved me inexplicably rolling tennis balls on the wife’s back.
24 days to go.