I’m a throwback. I admit it. Back to the days when men were men as the saying goes, male through and through — in thought, word and deed. I have, however, learnt to temper the word and deed parts, a necessity if I want to safely navigate the minefield of modern sentiment.
The trend to unisex is everywhere these days but there are times when a distinct gender difference exists. No better example of this is having a newborn infant thrust upon the scene. Males do not handle this well — at any age.
I distinctly remember my first encounter, forced upon me by my mother when she brought baby sister home from the hospital. I was six years old.
‘You can hold her.’
She said this with such an air of loving pride that even at that young age I knew I’d better show some enthusiasm. My father, of course, was a lost cause in this regard. Babies were women’s work.
It was awful. Hardly any hair, red face, puffy eyes, a mouth that kept making guppy movements … and a very bad smell. I handed her back as quickly as I could.
Fast forward to the first year of my married life. The subject of children crept insidiously into our conversations, usually after a glass or two of wine. I grew up with two brothers and, along with my sister, we competed for our parents’ attention. Frequently, this got ugly and so family did not have the same warm, fuzzy feeling for me that it obviously did for my wife — she, an only child.
The screw got turned, ever so slowly. It began with an appeal to my maleness — a strapping son who would play golf and go hunting with me. Sounded good, although I’m in a regular foursome and I’ve hunted with the same bunch of guys for years. ‘You could teach him,’ she said. Good move. I like teaching and there certainly were no opportunities to do so in either my golf or hunting groups — hard-nosed egotists, the lot of them.
Her friends were having babies, which, for reasons only a woman would understand, necessitated frequent viewings. ‘Ooh, she/he is soooo cute.’
Not so from my point of view. Still red faced and so forth, just like when I was six, and if anything, they smelled worse. Holding them, however, appeared to thrill the women. The rapturous look in my wife’s eyes when she did so worried me. Fortunately, no one, even her, expected me to hold the precious things, especially after I let go one of those male bad deed things: an overt grimace of distaste. I was, however, careful not to risk making any descriptive comments. I didn’t have to: the women gushed out more than enough of those on their own.
My interest focused on the fathers. Males can read males, I kid you not. To a man, they were embarrassed. I could feel it. Not one ‘ooh’ from any of them. The closest to any reaction that I could see was the occasional chest puffed out (a successful stud I am, I am).
And the women — merciless. ‘When are you two going to start? It will change your lives.’
Change my life? I was quite happy with my life as it was and I didn’t appreciate being pushed. Bad deed signs again, which embarrassed my wife. I would pay for those later, but it was worth it.
I stalled as long as I could, but eventually she wore me down. ‘We’ got pregnant. This instantly gained me acceptance in the when-are-you-going-to-start group. The husbands, however, seemed reserved at the news — unnervingly so.
It didn’t take long for me to discover why they reacted that way. Pregnancy is nine months of escalating hell — for both of us. Six weeks of cheery, cheery, happy, happy and then — morning sickness. Three weeks of barfing. Ever tried to sleep in when your dearest is heaving into the toilet, loudly, with the door open?
It got worse. Near the end she was exhausted. No wonder. Trying to move with a basketball in her belly and lug around a 30-pound gain in weight? Would have exhausted me, too. But it was the change in attitude that got me down — a mix of ‘I want it all over’ and ‘damn it, you did this to me’. Not fair.
The last hours were the worst — waves of panic and tons of pain. Fortunately, my presence at the actual birth was a no-go. I told her that, without one iota of doubt, I would pass out and be an unnecessary burden to the medical staff, to say nothing of the indignity of my having to be carried out.
I gave her hand a squeeze when they put her on the stretcher and wheeled her to wherever the last of the suffering takes place. Best I could do.
And then I retired to the waiting room where I sat alone with my thoughts, the major one being, why the hell does any sane pair of human beings voluntarily put themselves through all this? Pregnancy should be an accidental thing, a ‘no choice’ event — like fire or a flood or any other natural disaster that must be faced should it actually occur.
Her parents joined me near the end of my wait; she bubbling over with joy, he, a man of few words likely wishing he was home watching a hockey game.
Our obstetrician finally appeared, still wearing his greens, mask pulled down. Big smile.
‘Your wife’s just fine and you are the father of a healthy baby boy. Congratulations. Nurse will bring him around to the viewing window in just a few minutes.’
And there he was — red face, puffy eyes … indistinguishable from his nursery mates nearby. But was he? I thought I could see a bit of his mother in those eyes and that frown surely came from my side of the family. He looked smarter, too, than all the rest, his fleeting gaze taking in the world around him. And just once, I swear he focused on me, wiggling my fingers at him through the glass, his father, smitten and overwhelmed by this little life that would change his — forever.
And to my utter astonishment, I wanted to hold him.
This is an extract from The Turning Point, Gareth St John Thomas (ed.) (Exisle Publishing 2021).