Her side "You're doing great!" Keith says, with the gung ho enthusiasm of a football coach. I'm on the delivery table, and he's counting out loud to ten while I push through the contractions, which are coming as fast and furious as freight trains.
"No, I'm not!" I feel like screaming, but I'm too frightened. Not because I'm giving birth for the first time or because of the pain that's searing its way through the epidural. I'm scared because of something that my husband doesn't see -- the sudden look of distress on the doctor's face.
"The baby's heart rate is dropping," the doctor tells the nurse. "We're going to need to use the forceps. Melina, you've got one more chance to really push -- we've got to get this baby out now."
The doctor inserts the large silver forceps and with a shiny pair of scissors snips an episiotomy. She's working quickly and deliberately, but over Keith's shoulder I watch the creases of concern ripple across her forehead above her mask.
I'm sweating. As Keith counts down to push time, I pray to God to help me just this once.
"Okay, sweetheart, push," he says calmly.
Praying, praying, praying, I bear down with all of my might. Please God, please God, please.
"We've got a head!" announces the nurse.
I burst into tears. I've done it.
"One more big push, we need to get the shoulders out!" she continues. "Really big push this time."
What? I've just used up my prayer, and now they want a big push?
Keith looks ecstatic, but I'm overwhelmed. And distracted by the doctor, who, even more agitated, is barking orders at the nurse.
"The umbilical cord is wrapped around the neck," she mutters. "And, oh no, the hand is caught behind the baby's shoulder."
"Keith, there's something wrong," I sob, panic overtaking me.
"No, there's not," he says serenely. "You're almost there."
He counts me down, I push my luck and ask God for yet another favor, and we finally learn the answer to the question we've been asking for the past 40 weeks.
"It's a boy!" the doctor announces.
A boy? I could have sworn I was having a girl!
"That was scary, right?" I say as they whisk the baby away for the usual battery of tests.
"Looked to me like everything was under control," he says, shrugging, and then he beams. "We have a son!"
From the moment Chase came into the world, Keith and I have had different versions of reality. Whether it's because he's already the father of a 17-year-old son or because men are from Mars, I'll never know.
"Melina was a rock star -- only pushed for forty minutes!" I hear him boasting on the phone to the onslaught of well-wishers who call the hospital to hear the news. "She and the baby are both doing amazingly well."
Surely he can't be talking about me. The day after I deliver Chase, I wake up to a major case of Buyer's Remorse. The tears refuse to quit, as if there are faucets beneath my eyelids.
"Baby blues," says the nurse, patting my arm gently. "Honey, every lady on this floor is crying. It's the hormones."
I'm sure she's right, but I'm still terrified that in two days I will be discharged as primary caretaker of this infant. I'm wondering if they could possibly let me stay for a month or so until I get the hang of things.
Sitting across the room, Keith looks almost as miserable as I do. "What's wrong?" I ask, anxious to commiserate.
"I'm bored," he says, yawning. "Can't wait to get this baby home."
The depression subsides after a few days. But it's quickly replaced by the frustrating challenge of breastfeeding, which for me turns out to be more painful than labor.
"You're a natural," says Keith, watching as our little Chase voraciously latches on like a tiny mako shark.
"No, he's a natural," I say. "I'm starving our baby."
When my milk fails to come in after the fifth day, I consult my ob-gyn, Chase's pediatrician, and even a lactation consultant. I follow the advice of keeping to a rigorous daily schedule of ten feedings, followed by expressing with the breast pump.
Still no luck, so we head back to the lactation consultant. At our meeting she asks a battery of questions, examines me, and watches our son feed. The she shakes her head and says gently, "I'm sorry, but breastfeeding isn't going to work for you. My advice is enjoy your baby."
Melina Gerosa Bellows is the editor-in-chief of National Geographic Kids. Keith Bellows is the editor-in-chief of National Geographic Traveler.
Mom's Side: A Learning Process
I burst into tears right in front of her. How can I "enjoy my baby" when I can't even feed him? I'm a total failure of a mother, and it's only been a week!
Keith tries to pep-talk me, but I am in no mood. Ignoring him, I decide to try even harder. I nurse and pump around the clock and start taking an herbal supplement to stimulate milk production. By the tenth day, when Keith hears me groan as I haul out the pump, he says, "Stop."
"Anything is better than nothing. Maybe I could get an ounce today," I protest, pushing the pump's lever to max. It's a painful, humiliating process, one that only a mother would consider doing in front of another human being. But the Type A in me urges me on.
"Come here," he says, turning off the pump and giving me a big hug. "Let this go. You're still going to be the best mother in the world. Come look and see what you've done already."
Together we lie down on the bed and look at Chase, a perfect angel, swaddled in his blue blanket, sleeping soundly. I can't believe that this tiny person lived inside me for 40 weeks, and I stare at him in wonder. Other than having my husband's nose and feet, our son looks like a stranger to me. It's the best blind date of my life, a true love-at-first-sight experience.
My sense of humor returns and I stop taking the "Got Milk?" ads personally. As the weeks pass, my confidence increases. But Keith's been-there-done-that nonchalance and the continual comparisons to his first son, Adam, get tiring -- especially when I've been under house arrest all day with the baby. And if learning how to take care of Chase is not enough, the gadgets, like the strappy Baby Björn, are just beyond me.
So what if Keith's the one with the experience? As the mom, I'm the one with the instincts. It's just wrong to feed a baby in the horizontal position, a fact my husband refuses to accept until an entire bottle is projectile-vomited onto him. Despite my best intentions, an "I told you so" slips out. Mother Knows Best, I think smugly to myself.
Just as I'm getting the hang of things, I experience the big uh-oh moment every parent dreads. While we're away for the weekend and I am busy deliberating over which outfit to put on Chase, I hear a thud that makes my heart sink like an anchor down to the soles of my feet. I turn around to discover that he's wiggled himself right off the bed and dropped two feet to the floor, where he's landed smack on his head. Keith warned me this would happen eventually, but I never thought it would happen at 5 weeks and certainly not on my watch.
I stare down at my baby in disbelief. What should I do? Is it like a car accident, where you're not supposed to move the victim? My instincts take over, and I snatch Chase up and comfort him with soothing shushing sounds. Miraculously he stops crying after a few minutes. I call Keith and tell him to come home immediately. When he does, he demands, "How did this happen?"
"I don't know," I say, deciding that he wouldn't exactly appreciate the fashion-dilemma excuse.
As we rush Chase to a doctor we use in the area, Keith continues with the third degree. Luckily, the doctor assures us that he's fine and gives us signs to watch for, including vomiting and sleeping through his feedings.
Of course, Chase sleeps the entire afternoon as Keith, who is still angry and upset, and I, feeling like The Worst Mother in the World, sit quietly near him. I pump Keith for details about the time his son Adam rolled off the changing table at 11 months.
"A changing table is even higher than a bed, and he was okay, right?" I say, looking for reassurance.
"Babies are resilient," he says, softening. He slips his hand in mine.
We wait and wait, and finally it comes.
"Did you hear that?" I say to him.
"What?" he says, cocking an ear.
"Waa-waa-waa-waa-WAAAHHH!" interrupts Chase, in his trademark feed-me rooster cry.
Giddy with relief, we look at each other and simultaneously blurt, "I'm sorry."
I forgive Keith for overreacting, and he forgives me for making a mistake. I'm sure our roles will be reversed before the week is out.
"Parenting is humbling," he says to me as we rush to our son.
That, we both can agree on.
As I feed Chase, Keith wraps his arms around the two of us. I'm overcome with tears once again. But for the first time, the tears are not sad. I'm simply overwhelmed at the miracle of how intensely I love this little man who has so much to teach my husband and me about each other, and ourselves.
His side We're at the hospital the night before Melina, a week late, is to be induced. She thinks she's in labor, and she's terrified that our baby will decide to come on Doogie Howser's watch. "Doogie" is the name she has granted the fresh-face right out of medical school -- the young pup Melina is convinced couldn't deliver a newspaper without trauma. I think she's overreacting. Doogie must know her stuff, I reason, or she wouldn't be working at the pediatrics clinic.
Doogie breezes in from a room down the hall. "You're not in labor," she says curtly. I wince. Great bedside manner.
"How are your other patients doing?" Melina asks politely.
"The patient down the hall is in such pain," Doogie answers. "I just don't know what to do."
I stare in disbelief. Don't know what to do?
Our nurse shifts uneasily and immediately changes the subject. "So how was the meal?" she asks Melina. It's clear she wants to get Doogie out of the room. As quickly as possible.
Finally the doctor leaves, and Melina tells me to go home and get some sleep.
When I arrive back at the hospital at 6:30 the next morning, Melina is in pain. They've just induced her with Pitocin, and she looks stricken. "I was in labor last night," she says, sleeplessness giving an edge to her voice. "Doogie was wrong."
A more seasoned doctor is now on duty. At 11:30 a.m. Melina is fully dilated. Showtime. She hunkers down. I grab her legs and coach her through the contractions. The doctor and nurse shout encouragement. The head breaches. Melina looks worried. I wonder why.
I think things are going swimmingly. But Melina is my rock, so I'm concerned to see her unmoored. I check out the medical team. Everyone seems fine. No Code Red. But Melina still seems panicked. I remind myself this is normal. But is there, I wonder, really something wrong?
The doctor says that the baby's heart rate is dropping. My heart skips. Oh, no. My worst nightmare. But everything is going so fast that I decide not to overreact. I'm certain nothing is wrong. And the last thing I want to do is further alarm Melina.
Then the doctor brandishes some scissors and snips. Ouch! Melina winces. Out come the forceps. The doctor tugs. At 11:34, Chase McPherson Bellows slides into the world with all 21 digits intact. It's been 34 minutes since Melina went into full-blown labor. The doctor pronounces the delivery routine. That was easy street, I think. My 17-year-old son Adam from a previous marriage took 24 hours from early labor flutters to delivery -- I remember spending the night on the linoleum floor.
For two days, the Bellows family endures living in a hospital that tries (but fails) to be a hotel. There are trays of compromised food. Trips to the vending machines. Bad TV. Endless phone calls to tell everybody that Chase has arrived. In the end, I have nothing to do but rearrange the flowers. I am sooooo bored.
At least Melina has the rhythms of breastfeeding to distract her, but whenever Chase latches on, Melina flinches.
She presses on, but her milk just won't come in. I'm upset -- this is one aspect of child rearing I took for granted. I know how much Melina wants to nurse Chase. And I was prepared for all its inconveniences, which would largely fall to her.
We are soon hosting a legion of nurses who gently try to guide Chase to mother's milk.
"Hold the nipple this way," says one nurse.
"Try the football hold," says another.
"Pull his chin forward," says still another.
In the middle of all this we check out, pay bills, and wheelchair down to the car. We are back in the real world, with a newborn, alone. I've been here before, but I'm plenty scared. How long, I think, until I screw up?
At home, the breastfeeding continues to be troublesome. Even with a lactation specialist, Melina barely ekes out a meal for young Chase. She pumps. And pumps. And pumps. She becomes ever more frustrated.
Chase just can't get enough.
Melina has had enough.
Dad's Side: Spousal Support
Give it a rest, I tell her. I know that she takes this as some kind of failure. But to me, Melina is a natural mother with or without a direct mammary pipeline to our son.
Throughout Melina's pregnancy, I have bitten my tongue down to a nub, so ready am I to advise her on the ABCs of child rearing. Not only have I been through this before, but I was founding editor of BabyCenter.com, an online resource for new and expectant parents. So I understand the nuts and bolts, the shoulds, must-dos, and watch-outs. But I'm back in it, and frankly, the brash security I had assumed was a right of experience is fast disappearing.
My unease forces me into know-it-all mode. But many things I think I know have faded with time, and I begin to second-guess myself. I realize, uncomfortably, that like a hockey player too long away from his skates, I'm just plain rusty at babying. Melina's instincts trump my experience; what feels right to her is right.
She ignores most of my advice, but about breastfeeding she relents. We buy a bottle sterilizer. I summon up more sage advice, reminding Melina what I had told her when we were dating -- that kids eventually roll off the bed and hit the floor. Nothing to fear, I assure her now. Just be prepared, and expect that somehow, sometime, it will happen.
Melina shakes her head. "Not on my watch," she says.
We enter the true slipstream of parenting, when even the crappy stuff seems exalted and wonderful, and all the problems and trials pale next to the pure babyness of little Chase.
Staggering around in the dark following a trail of nightlights. The spray of pee that greets me when I change his diapers at 3 a.m. Hovering over him at some ridiculous deep-dark hour and wishing, minutes after I finally get him to sleep, that he would actually wake up so we can play.
Finally we think our lives are almost back to normal. I should know better.
We are out of town and I leave to exercise. As I hoist weights, I feel good, on top of things, in the full swing of my paternity leave.
I'm driving back from the gym when my cell phone rings. "Keith, um, we have a problem. Chase rolled off the bed."
"What!" I bark, bringing my foot down on the accelerator. "Is he okay?"
"I think so. He cried a lot, but he seems fine. Except for the bump and the rug burn."
I groan. "How could this happen? He's so young." When Adam, my eldest, first hit the floor, he was 11 months old. Of course I want Chase to be precocious, but not like this. I get home and Chase looks as if he's been in a rumble. Melina is near tears. I am not the calm dad I imagined I would be. I conjure up fears of brain damage, that his skull won't knit properly, that he has cracked vertebrae.
We race to the pediatrician's office, then wait in uncomfortable silence. Chase wiggles away, unperturbed. But what if? My BabyCenter braggadocio seems a long way off. This is real. I'm spooked and upset. I want to be supportive, but I knew this would happen, and Melina had refused to accept this inevitability of parenting.
My anger subsides, and we see the doctor. I almost cry at his gentle, solicitous manner. He tells us to go on a 24-hour watch for signs of bleeding, erratic behavior, inconsolable crying.
Chase, it turns out, is fine.
In the scant months since he was born, I find myself remarking on how things seem so different with him than with Adam. Not better or worse -- just different. There is so much more information out there, and the world is more complicated, more dangerous. Sure, I raised a son, but I'm clueless about this one.
And I know that it's not just Chase that's different. I'm different. I'm older, certainly, and maybe a little wiser. Because I realize that I really don't know anything about raising babies. But I can be an equal with my wife in watching Chase change our lives forever.