My wife Liz is lying on a hard bed, in a little hospital room. The place has all the charm of a converted shower stall. She is moaning, in this small labor room, with the pain that will culminate in the birth of our baby girl, Aliya Louise.
I'm the "coach." That's what Lamaze childbirth instructors call those of us who go through the classes, learn the breathing techniques and attend the mother through labor.
I know, in an intellectual sense, what Liz is going through. I know there are contractions, and she is preparing to help force out our baby. I know all of this, from six 90-minute childbirth classes, some extra lectures and from a lot of reading.
I can't help but think about the comment I wrote, in jest, as the last class ended. My objective from the course? Not to panic.
Indeed, panic is the last thing on my mind. Ignorance isn't the problem the coach faces as labor progresses.
The problem is frustration; the person you love is in pain and there isn't a damn thing you can do about it. You can try to make her comfortable. Rubbing a tennis ball in the small of her back sometimes helps to relieve the pressure. Frequent refills of ice chips help a little; she isn't allowed to eat during labor.
As the labor goes on and the contractions get worse, you will find yourself fixated on a small black line, no more than a couple centimeters wide. It is the mark made by the pen on the fetal monitor attached to the mother's abdomen. Future coaches will find, as I did, that when the graph starts to climb, so does intensity of pain. You can tell your wife what's coming, and it helps to tell her when the graph is on a downward course, meaning the latest episode is almost over.
There's no way to teach a father how to be a good coach. That's part of the problem. In the Lamaze method and others taught by hospitals and childbirth-education groups, most of the attention is given to the mother--as it should be.
Breathing exercises and relaxation techniques, designed to help the mother deal with labor, are introduced and there is usually some practice in class. Labor physiology and terminology are explained. You know what drugs may need to be administered, what they do and what needles are used.
Some classes devote a lot of time to the coach's role, some very little. Even an otherwise excellent film about childbirth gives short shrift to the husband's presence, other than to imply that being there is the noble--if not liberated--thing to do.
In the final analysis, it is up to the coach to make his own way. As one new father put it, "The class gives you the 'letter' of the experience, it is up to the coach to conjure up the spirit that makes it work."
Ask any new mother about the coach's role, and she will probably tell you the most important contribution isn't any of the breathing techniques, or the rubbing, or the ice chips. It is simply the coach's presence.
Having said all that, future coaches also should know that they won't be much help without the technical background. You have to go to the classes, learn the breathing techniques and practice enough with the mother so you will be on the same rhythm during labor.
That practice comes in handy when the mother seems to be losing it in the midst of a long contraction, and you as coach have to get her back into the pattern. And you should know the cadence at the end, during the pushing stage, so she can propel the little munchkin out into the world.
You are there for her comfort. If she wants ice, you can ring for the nurse to bring some or get it yourself. A coach may bring some food for himself, or see what the hospital has available. But be considerate. One friend's husband had eaten a liverwurst sandwich just before one difficult part of the labor, when he was to coach her breathing. She told him to brush his teeth.
In the end, it comes down to the coach maintaining emotional control over the situation. You have to know, understand and to a degree, reflect, your partner's moods through a sometimes long and trying period.
You have to project confidence when needed, but at the same time not get carried away as a cheerleader so that you miss what's going on.
You have to be a drill sergeant, getting her back into the breathing patterns when the pain gets intense, but at the same time recognize when the soft approach is needed.
And you have to feel love, particularly at the most difficult moments, when the mother tells you to shut up, or to go away.
And if you last, and the child can be delivered normally, you may find yourself where I did:
In a delivery room, dressed in hospital mask and gown, I had one hand around Liz's neck and back, the other around one of her knees. A nurse held the other knee. I was counting the final exercise, of gulp (for air), and then push. A little head began to be visible and, with the help of the doctor's forceps, the rest of our child emerged.
All the hunger, pain and frustration vanished. The adrenalin that had kept me going for about 48 hours, pumped even harder. Exhilaration, fulfillment, accomplishment. We had helped deliver this baby.
How any father can choose to miss that, I will never understand.
If you are a photographer, by the way, bring your camera. The pictures may seem clinical and a bit gory at first, but they are priceless--even cute--as the child is washed off in the delivery room. Mothers who may have missed seeing the delivery will have a chance to see it. One other suggestion: If you have a small tape recorder, slip the strap over your wrist and turn it on during the delivery.
By that time, the birth is in the doctor's hands, and the coach's work is over.