I don't like to brag -- but back in my college days I was in a movie, and my costar was Oscar award-winning actress Jodie Foster. When my wife was in labor with our first daughter, Isabelle, I thought a lot about the time I nabbed a part in the 1991 comedy-drama Little Man Tate. Not that you'll remember my character -- a Midwestern college frat boy with a dark secret. My role was what's known in the business as, well, a movie extra. I'm on the screen for maybe two seconds.
But I reflected on those seconds a great deal because being an extra is excellent preparation for dads in the delivery room. The two roles are virtually identical: They add to the general atmosphere but ultimately aren't crucial to complete the scene. In fact, I am practically an extra in our baby's first home movies, as we had a large cast of characters in the delivery room. My wife, Susan, invited not only her mother to watch the birth but my mom as well. The video camera was operated by my brother's girlfriend, Rachel. And then there were the medical personnel: our midwife, a doctor, and two nurses (or three, if you include one of our friends who worked at the hospital and came in on her day off). We also had a physician drop by with three interns, eager to observe the delivery. "Do you mind if we watch?" she asked. "Oh, no," I said. "The more the merrier."
At that point, I meant it, but I hadn't always been so game. In the weeks before Isabelle arrived, I was incredibly anxious about my role in the birth: What sort of coach would I be? Could I live up to Susan's expectations? Would I accidentally elbow the midwife at a critical moment and knock her unconscious? And knowing that I'd be watched by my mom, my mother-in-law, and my brother's girlfriend didn't make me any less squeamish. Susan pointed out that they were all going to be seeing her in her most unflattering position and wondered what in the heck I was worried about.
I couldn't argue with that. Still, the only thing we dads really know about delivering babies is what we've seen on TV and in the movies, and the stereotype of the bungling, anxiety-ridden father doesn't inspire confidence. We're told that our wives depend on us to coach them through labor, but if my childbirth classes were typical, we don't learn much: The most we got to do was diaper a doll, which is about as useful as a jet pilot pointing out the restrooms and calling it a flight lesson.
Other dads were of little help. Whenever I asked about their delivery experience, they got a faraway, pained look, as if recalling that in a past life, they had been a passenger on the Titanic -- in steerage class.
I decided I could use my fear to our comedic advantage, and reminded Susan how funny it was when Kevin Bacon left for the hospital without his wife in She's Having a Baby. "Maybe I'll do something goofy and we'll laugh about -- " I started to chuckle, but stopped. Susan sharply warned me that she was relying on me to help her. I mumbled that it was just a joke, and of course she could depend on me. Then I left the room and threw up.
When the time actually came, my wife was already at the hospital, where doctors were monitoring her preeclampsia. "The baby will arrive any second," a nurse told me over the phone.
As I was home alone and free to express all of my emotions without causing my spouse stress, I did a lot of shouting -- at the dogs as I tripped over them getting out the door, at the keys as I struggled to open the car door, at the cop who I was sure was going to pull me over. Once at the hospital, I unloaded all our stuff: a suitcase, a back massage device, a boom box, and CDs featuring ambient, soothing music. I also had framed photos of our dogs and cats, to give Susan objects to focus on. These were items our class had recommended, and I recommend them, too, if you enjoy carrying things from a car into a building. Somehow, I hauled it all down the halls while running, and when I darted into Susan's room, sweaty and about to suffer a heart attack, everything was peaceful. The room was dark. Susan was asleep, still pregnant. A nurse came in, offering a detailed medical explanation for why my wife was no longer in labor that translated into "My bad."
In fact, by the time Susan was in the final moments of delivering our baby, she had been in the hospital for 36 hours, due to complications. It was, to say the least, a difficult labor. I had to eat cafeteria food, our TV screen was small, and don't get me started on the pull-out bed. Oh yeah: Susan didn't much care for it either. She'd gone into the hospital a disciple of natural childbirth, but after her second epidural, she said something about naming our daughter after the anesthesiologist. "But his name is Hank," I protested.
As for my coaching skills, I'd report that I did a stellar job, but we have witnesses. My mother and mother-in-law saw the nurse ask if I needed a chair because she thought I was going to faint. And they heard Susan bark at me to shut up when I encouraged her to look at the photos of our dogs and cats.
But our mothers weren't savvy pros, either. At one point, my mother backed into a sink and shrieked when the faucet automatically came on, squirting out water. My mother-in-law briefly left the room in tears because she couldn't stand to see Susan in so much pain. And later, the scent of sandwiches drifted through the room; I looked back and saw our moms, food in one hand and drink in the other, grinning and shouting out cheerful comments to Susan. They looked like they were at a soccer game.
I finally decided to say little and just hold Susan's hand and offer her ice chips. That seemed to work -- until someone thrust Isabelle and her umbilical cord at me. I had said I wanted to cut the cord, but I expected an instruction manual or a run-through first. In our home video of the event, I look like I'm afraid that if I snip the wrong wire, the whole hospital might blow up.
Aside from that momentary cord-cutting spotlight, I think the husband's significance during labor is inflated to help support our egos. Who wants to be told that your knowledge is about as handy in the birthing process as having a roll of mints on you when changing a tire? We're really there because it's important to bond with the baby from the moment of birth, and to provide morale to the mom. For me, that's enough -- and way more satisfying than working with Jodie Foster.