By Rev. Colin Flahive
How did I not know this before? This should be common knowledge among all of us, especially those planning to be mothers and fathers. I’m told it’s from the last meals in the uterus, but is the uterus just a big sack of sticky tar? The black goop is so gummy and dense that you could pave a road with it. It’s called meconium and I question my blind leap into fatherhood never having heard of it before.
Don’t let the title of this piece fool you. This is no guide to fatherhood. I’m only three days into it and far from qualified to do anything of the sort. But so much is fresh on my mind right now, including that first steaming diaper, I feel obliged to unload some observations that might be of some assistance to any other unsuspecting fathers.
We had planned for a natural birth. This was our perfect baby and so we expected a perfect birth. But on the day of our baby’s arrival, doctors told us that our baby would need to enter the world through an incision in my wife’s belly. We were healthy and our baby was healthy so a C-section never really seemed like a real possibility. Now our perfect baby and our perfect day became something altogether different. We had no choice but to nod our heads, sign whatever legal waivers they put in front of us, and hang on for the ride this unborn child wished to take us on.
My role as a father was never really that clear to me. My best understanding was that I was to be a kind of cheerleader for my wife. She was the star player and I was there to support her. The mother bears so many burdens during pregnancy and birth that the father’s job was to do whatever possible to ease her struggle and make everything seem totally normal and totally cool. No matter how much the father-to-be might be freaking out about the fact that he can no longer attend the birth because his child has wrapped his own umbilical cord around his own neck, and the surgical room does not allow bystanders into the operating room.
The need for surgery came swiftly and I suddenly found myself all alone. Very, very alone. Any small part that I had hoped to play in the birthing process was taken away from me. Instead I was left waiting like an old cartoon version of an expectant father, pacing and panicking. I felt sick and I felt scared. I battled with every idea of what might go wrong in the operating room, and I hurriedly scrolled through my cellphone hoping to find anything that could distract me from horrid visions.
Far sooner than expected they called out my wife’s name to get my attention, and the doctors brought out a little tightly-wrapped bundle. There was only a small face exposed for me to see. I looked at his tiny nose and mouth, I watched his nostrils flare with each soft breath, and I was blown away… shell-shocked… paralyzed. I couldn’t breathe. It seemed as if my entire reserve of tears might burst out all at once. I felt intense emotions unlike any I’d had before and it was probably the closest I’d ever come to an out-of-body experience. It was like I was experiencing it all through some additional dimension I never knew existed.
One nurse smiled to me kindly and walked with me to our private hospital room. She placed our little baby boy in a small cot next to our beds. Then the nurse smiled to me again and nodded as if she was preparing to leave the room.
“Wait, wait,” I stuttered. “When will my wife be back?”
She told me it would likely be another two hours and she started to leave again.
“Wait, wait, what am I supposed to do?” I was shocked by my own ignorance. Hadn’t I been preparing for nine months for this?
“Just talk to him,” she said. “Let him know your voice.”
She smiled again before leaving and I was alone with my son.
I looked at him with the eyes of a jeweler following the terrain of his face and body. I inspected him for any imperfections but I couldn’t find any. Not one. He was perfect. I held his hand and watched his little fingers react to my touch.
I wanted to talk to him. I wanted to share everything with him. But I was awestruck and it was difficult to form audible words. One of the few nursery rhymes that I knew came to mind and I started to sing. It flowed easier than any other words could.
“Row, row, row your boat,
Gently down the stream.
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,
Life is but a dream.”
Holy shit! That song is intense. I don’t know how many hundreds of times I’d heard it before, but this was the first time that I really listened. Every word hit me like an anvil laced with bits of bliss and excitement. I’ve been drifting down the stream for nearly four decades now and it would do me well to remember to do so gently and merrily. Our baby had only been aboard for less than an hour and his dream was just beginning.
After that it was easier to speak with him. I introduced myself and did my best to introduce him to the world around him. I told him about his loving mother that he would meet soon and I told him about the family beyond the three of us that eagerly awaited his arrival. But every once in a while I was inclined to sing again.
“Life is but a dream, son.”
When the nurse returned a little later she told me that I should pick him up and hold him. She demonstrated how to do so safely but I couldn’t fend off the thoughts of how many times I had dropped my cellphone over the past month. That thought aside, holding him felt natural and the warmth emanating from his body made any remaining apprehension I’d had about fatherhood melt away.
The nurses then walked me though some other simple tasks like how to change his clothes and how to wrap him snuggly so that he wouldn’t startle himself awake with his own wild hand gestures. It was when they showed me how to change his diaper that I was introduced the feces from another species. The pooh made of black goo. The sludge of dark fudge. Uterine meconium doesn’t rhyme very well but I’ll just say that it is some really nasty shit. Even fresh it was difficult to peel away the diaper. It took warm water a handful of wipes to get his bottom back to pristine condition.
After that first change, I found a rhythm. And even though only an hour had passed since his arrival I felt like caring for my son had already kind of become routine. The next diaper change certainly wouldn’t catch me off guard so much.
It took just under two hours for my wife to come back from surgery. She was exhausted but happy. And other than the fact that she was still sluggish from the anesthesia and unable to even sit up in bed, our first moments together with our baby were just perfect.
The nurses stressed how important it was to get our son to latch on for breastfeeding as soon as possible. Getting a baby to latch on to the mother’s breast can be a challenge, and that first latch is key. Because my wife’s recovery meant that she could barely move in her bed and couldn’t take any pressure on her abdomen it required an awkward position and an extra set of hands to bring the baby to her breast. The nurse made sure everything went well and within moments our baby was eating his first meal.
I had never heard that breastfeeding could be painful. But even with the anesthesia, my wife’s face contorted in horror.
“It’s like needles being jammed into my heart,” she said through tears.
I thought that maybe this was an issue with my wife’s health or that the baby had latched incorrectly, but the nurses assured us that this pain was normal for many new mothers. What the hell? I thought that this was supposed to be some sort of beautiful bonding experience between mother and child. I don’t remember anyone ever talking about heart needles. But over the next two days the pain eased off a bit with each feeding.
I have left out the part of this story that reveals that our baby was born in a hospital in southwest China. I didn’t leave it out to add this sudden twist, but more because the fact was surprisingly irrelevant. The doctors and nurses were so kind and efficient that I can’t really say it would have been all that different anywhere else in the world.
There were at least forty other newborns on our floor and all were managed by the same five nurses. I was amazed by their endurance and proficiency in dealing with both newborns and new parents. At every time of day or night they were pestered with inane questions they’d been asked hundreds of times before.
“Why is my baby doing this?”
“Why isn’t my baby doing this?”
Nine out of ten times the answer is, “it’s totally normal and there’s no need to worry.” But they address every concerned parent with such grace and candor that their level of patience surpassed any other profession I’ve ever dealt with. Doctors and nurses around the world who handle this job with a smile on their face should be thought of as heroes, and each time I think of the nurses who worked with us I still get a bit teary-eyed.
In those first few days, I don’t know if it was their patience rubbing off on me, if it was just some kind of human instinctive quality bearing fruit or if it was this new dimension I’d discovered, but I was in some sort of Zen-like state where nothing could shake me. For three days my wife was more or less bedridden. This meant that I had to change every diaper, hold the baby for every feeding, empty my wife’s urine pouch and prepare all of our meals. I’d gotten very little sleep and my back was seizing from all the strain of lifting the little one up out of the cot over and over again. I should have been tired and I should have been cranky. But I wasn’t. I was energetic. I was elated. I achieved a level of patience that I couldn’t have acquired any other way. Patience flowed through me like a stoned Jedi.
I hated when friends used to tell me things like, “you should have a baby because there’s nothing like parenthood.” I still cringe at the idea of ever saying it to others. But three days into my new role as a father I can at least grasp where these friends were coming from. Having a baby is a wild experience. The experience is unquestionably transformative. And during these three days I can say with a bit of certainty that I am better off for it.
Maybe this was the definition of fatherhood that I’d never really grasped. Maybe being a father means being patient no matter what shit gets thrown my direction. Maybe it means finding new energy when the world around me feels heavy. Maybe it means getting wet in the rain as long as I’m able to hold the umbrella over my wife and child. Maybe it means getting pooh on my hands every once in a while and just not giving a shit. I’m sure the laughter and all the fun will come along too, but for now I just hear Yoda’s voice telling me, “The stoned Jedi, you must be.”
I can’t say that I’ll be able to take my new skills beyond the hospital, but if I can I’ll certainly be a more content person. And I think I’d probably a better person. But I’ve only just started this new adventure and I’ll just have to wait and see if it takes me gently down the stream.