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.