Maybe you shouldn't stay near the head when a woman's giving birth after all
I was afraid to watch my partner give birth. While Charlie (who is genderqueer and uses “he” pronouns) spent the last weeks of pregnancy reading books about birth, going for long walks and rolling on an exercise ball to open his hips, I was quietly marinating in low-level terror. I was afraid something would go wrong, that my partner or our baby would be harmed and, most of all, that I would freak out.
My prenatal stress dreams centered on a comprehensive catalogue of ways I might fall short in my role as support person. I have an anxiety disorder, and while I’m generally pretty good at coping with it, high-stress and chaotic situations are not where I shine. I also don’t handle blood well, and even the smoothest, easiest birth involves some blood.
The partners of pregnant people are often cautioned not to look too closely during birth; fathers are advised to stay near the mother’s head, to avoid confronting the visceral reality of a baby entering the world. Conventional wisdom holds that if you watch your partner give birth, you’ll never want to have sex again — that witnessing that trauma to the vagina will destroy your ability to view it as an organ of enjoyment. Some fathers have even been diagnosed with PTSD after witnessing especially difficult births (I can’t find any research into the effects of birth on same-sex co-parents). So I was ready for it to be scary, stressful, even horrific.
I wasn’t ready for it to be the coolest, most magical experience I’ve ever had.
I understand why birth can be distressing for a partner. Watching the person I love in pain — even though Charlie’s birth was totally uncomplicated and I knew the pain was normal, healthy, beneficial — was hard to process. I wanted to help; it was difficult to accept that the only help I could provide was to rub his back through contractions, remind him to breathe and offer food and sips of water.
But once I got through my futile desire to make the pain disappear, I arrived at a place of total wonder. Charlie’s body was accomplishing something phenomenal. I tend to eschew hippie platitudes, but in this case I couldn’t deny that what our midwife had said throughout Charlie’s pregnancy was true: the body has a wisdom of its own. Sometimes, our job is simply to stand aside and let it handle things.
And that’s what Charlie did. It was incredible to watch my intensely logical partner, the one who makes every decision with the help of a spreadsheet, who will do hours of research before committing to a new coffeemaker, allow his intuition to take over. He moved as though listening to instructions I couldn’t hear. It isn’t just the sheer physical effort of childbirth that astonished me, although that was certainly impressive; it was a feat of athleticism that’s too often dismissed as something that happens to people, rather than something they do.
But beyond the strength and strain it takes to move a tiny human body those few crucial inches from inside to outside, childbirth is a triumph of trust, intuition and wisdom. Watching it is the closest I’ve come to a spiritual experience in my adult life. Seeing my partner’s body, naked and totally without self-consciousness, laboring — the word is more apt than I ever knew before — according to an ancient and undeniable instinct, made me feel connected not only to him, but to every person who’s ever given birth, back to my most distant ancestor. Sighing through contractions with Charlie, I felt the vibrations of birth in my own spine. Although I was under the influence of nothing but a lot of hours without sleep when Charlie gave birth, I remember the experience as slightly hazy and sparkling, just a hint psychedelic. It was more amazing and more beautiful than everyday life can justify.
Yes, birth is also scary. Charlie experienced a postpartum hemorrhage that, while not even dramatic enough to necessitate a blood transfusion, left me momentarily convinced he was dying. And we were both fortunate that, blood aside, our daughter’s birth was so uneventful and relatively easy. Still, our cultural narrative of birth as a litany of gore needs to be revised. Birth involves blood and sweat and tears, loud animal noises, bodily contortions and brutal muscular effort. But it’s also the closest thing I can imagine to holy. Seeing my partner go through it made my heart swell with love and awe like I’ve never felt before.
If you’re supporting a lover, a spouse or a friend through birth, you need to know that you’re witnessing the event of a lifetime. Take it all in, and be grateful. If you just stay near the head, you’ll miss the best part.
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