You have to see how your child is born. Cancel trips. Move meetings. Walk over bridges. Get on a ship. Travel by night. Stay sober. You just have to see it. They are only born once. It lasts about a minute, and then the moment passes forever. Gone, baby. Gone.
You have to stick around for the labour. It’s not pretty. It’s nothing like you see in the movies, where a woman screams for a few moments and then pushes out a baby the size of Inspector Mwala. A happy baby, all smiles, complete with toenails and a tattoo. Labour is the hardest part of staying around. It’s loud, gritty, loud, anguishing and draining. But you stay because she has been carrying that load for 9 months, doing the heavy lifting and so the least you can do is be there. Besides, really, where are you going to be on this auspicious (I’ve always wanted to use that word) occasion?
And so you join other men who are standing at the brink of fatherhood. Guys who aren’t sure what happens when they cross this threshold.
I’ve been here before. I know the drill. But still I’m apprehensive. You have to feel some level of anxiety. A sneaking fear. Outside it’s drizzling and it’s dark. But you can’t tell because the delivery room has no windows. There is a washroom, a clock on the wall, trays laden with surgical equipment and machines. Even though the delivery room is the first place a new life checks in, it lacks warmth, it’s expunged from anything celebratory because things go horribly wrong in the delivery room. Women bleed to death. Women slip into commas and never wake up. Babies die. The delivery room is like sitting on a stool by an open graveside. Literally.
Nothing in the world ever prepares you for labour. Not even Lamaze, because when labour starts everything changes. Everything. The peace is punctured. Sanity is splintered. Labour is the open season of pain. I’m no authority on labour. I’m ill equipped to capture the sheer depth of pain a woman can take during labour. I’m inadequate. But I can make a feeble attempt. Have you ever knocked your elbow hard on a sharp surface? Have you ever had a hernia? Have you ever had a root canal done with no anaesthesia? What about an earache that threatens to split your head in two? What about heartbreak, when you feel like your heart is bleeding pain? Now take all these and multiply them by 200. That is only 1% of what labour is like.
Only women can handle labour. We are too weak for that shit. We are whiners. Big babies, we are. You should see me with a small flu, huddled in bed, seeking attention, sulking if I don’t get it. A fucking flu! Women are stoic. They take it. And the Missus takes it on the chin. OK, she made me promise that if I’m ever to write about this I will mention that she bore it bravely. Well she didn’t, she was bent out of shape. Cried like a toddler. Nobody retains their composure in the face of labour. At least, I don’t think so.
With Tamms she laboured for 8 hours. She screamed. She cussed at the doctors. She threatened to sue them. She threatened to sue me. She cried real tears (why do people say that, “real tears”?). And at the final stretch she just wanted the “damned baby” out in “whatever way.” Through all of this, I was sleepy (she laboured through the night) and tired and had just about had it with her cusses. And why the hell don’t they put comfortable seats in labour wards?
Midwives are generally nonchalant about labour. They see it every day. They come into the room, all smiley and chirpy, check the monitors and say, “Just take deep breaths, OK? Just take deep breaths,” and I’m thinking to myself, “I am, damn it! I am!”
An hour later the midwife is urging her on. Her legs are apart. She is pushing. I’m standing next to this heater thing where they will place the baby after it’s born. You want to be at her head at this moment. Never look at the baby coming out. It’s like staring directly at the sun. It will change you forever.
Then she’s crowning. At least that’s what the midwife says, I can’t see. The baby is coming. Her best friend Carol is on the other side of the bed. I’m dizzy like hell, scared, but trying to be a warrior. I want my mommy.
Then he’s out. My little man. Bloodied. Small. Fragile. The next heir to the Zulu dynasty. “Why isn’t he crying?” someone asks with a wheezy voice. That’s me. “He will,” the midwife says. And he does soon after. There are many sounds that stay with you; the sound of a single malt whisky pouring into a glass of ice cubes; the dong of a church bell assuring us that ultimately God makes everything all right; your mother’s voice at a time when you are troubled.
Then there is the sound of hearing your son cry.
Childbirth is something that doesn’t leave you the same, no matter how many times you experience it. When Tamms was born she was handed to me before the Missus held her. But not my son. He lay there in his mother’s arms, and I stood immobile at the corner, far away. And I couldn’t move. I was scared shitless. And happy. And relieved that nothing went wrong. And I remember trying not to cry. I’m no crier but I remember trying not to cry, not in front of Carol. So I stood at that heater place and felt helpless and inadequate and so damned conflicted.
Eventually I would hold him. Wrapped in white sheets. The size of a rugby ball. His hair matted against his scalp with all that stuff they are born with. His face swollen like he just lost his first brawl. My little man. He looked like a girl. Delicate. Pink like a hamster. Small mouth. Tiny holes for nostrils. Perfect eyebrows. I might have a forehead the size of calamity, but God gave me decent eyebrows. You can’t take that away from me. And this little man, my little man, has those eyebrows. And that forehead. That will have to be his curse.
I wanted another girl. But when you see your son, you realise that you don’t want another girl. There is something about boys, even small ones who can’t see. You know they will challenge you. You know they will look up to you for direction. You know you can’t show weakness before them, or indecisiveness or too much emotion like you might with your daughter. Daughters will forgive you easily, but I get the feeling that boys will hold back that forgiveness longer. It’s a bit unnerving.
My pal Chinkororo was drinking in Westlands when he showed up at the hospital that night. Slightly faded. A bottle of water in his hand and a large smile on his face. He has a girl and, recently, a boy. He knows the feeling. So he holds the back of my head. “If this guy thinks he’s Don Corleone and is planning to give me a peck, I will drive my knees into his groin,” I think to myself. But instead he says, “Babies aren’t all babies. Girls aren’t boys. And boys can’t be girls. This is different, man. Having a son is so much different, you will see.” Then he hugs me.
His name is Kim.
[Photo credit: Chris Briscoe]