One of the pregnancy books in our house has little gray boxes on some pages with the heading “Dad Tips,” and then it goes on to give an insulting token piece of advice, something like If your wife looks tired, perhaps do the dishes for her, or, Once in a while your wife will appreciate when you ask her if she needs some help with the laundry.
In pictures of births we’ve seen in our birthing class, the husband is right there. He’s wearing a grimy white t-shirt and unfashionable shorts and he’s balding, and he looks helpless beside his wife but he’s there nonetheless, holding her hand and rubbing her back and giving her water to drink. He has the perfect look of concern on his face, a face without irony and without any sense of a separate self in that moment — he’s feeling his wife’s pain intimately.
In birthing class one night, the husbands and boyfriends were taught things to say and not say during labor.
Do not say: You look tired / This is taking a long time / I’m tired / My back hurts / Don’t scream so loud / I could really use a drink.
Do say: Your body is beautiful and strong / I love you / You can do this / I’m right here / Can I rub your back / Can I get you some water / I love you / I love you.
But I think it’s difficult to learn this level of empathy, to be the supportive figure nonstop for the entire labor and for any pain during the pregnancy. A nearly complete selflessness. The birthing class teacher, a doula, told the story of walking into a house where the husband was in the kitchen taking work phone calls while his wife was in active labor. Maybe, stereotypically, women are better at putting aside their needs for the moment to serve the greater good of the family.
All through the pregnancy, Steve, who is already compassionate, probably because he was raised a mama’s boy and because he’s done this parenting this for a while, has been growing more so. He makes me popcorn if I ask for it. He brings the laundry downstairs and back up again. He does laundry if there’s nothing in the basket that it looks like he might ruin. He drives the car when we’re both in it. When we’re sitting down and have to stand up and he’s nearby, he reaches over to help me up. He takes the dogs for walks and throws a ball repeatedly until their tongues are drooping out the sides of their mouths.
But also this pain, the pre-labor back pain and the hormones and fatigue, it’s pain that one person endures in the interest of both herself and her partner. And that takes an incredible amount of empathy for the partner to understand. Other times when I’ve been sick, I’m not one to cough louder to make sure that people hear me, and I’m grateful for any small gesture of sympathy but I don’t seek it out and don’t really feel that I need it — at least I hope that’s true. Our relationship is not built on coddling. But in this last trimester of the pregnancy, if Steve’s not right there being understanding and asking if there’s anything he can do when I’m in pain, I feel incredibly, incredibly alone.
So last night when we are waiting for Rosie to get out of her tutoring session, and Steve drove her there and I’m in the passenger seat, and then my stomach starts to cramp and then my back starts to cramp and it’s been an hour sitting still in the car and then he accidentally drives over a huge bump in the road and I bite my tongue and swear, that’s when everything feels wrong. There’s a joke about the swear word where I want there to be sympathy. There’s talk of something small when I want a hand on my back or in my hair. And I’ve said that I’m hurting, but I didn’t say it right or loud enough, and I often don’t know how to say what I need — or, rather, we’ve had this conversation before many times and there’s that fine line that’s sometimes crossed where spelling out what you need makes the action of the giver less genuine, so I can only imply. And men, stereotypically, aren’t known for being attuned to subtlety and so I don’t expect him to hear in my breathing that I’m in pain or to see in how I’m stiff in my seat that I’m hurting, and I don’t want to add drama to this life so I try not to cry. We pull into the driveway and I do cry trying to gather the things from our grocery trip from the car that are too low down to reach and too heavy to lift plus my bag and my laptop, and I feel pathetic while Steve’s far away, he’s dealing with the dogs in the house. It’s a lot to ask of someone who is his own person to constantly be wondering how he can help this person who has up to this point been her own person and is now surprisingly slow, sluggish, and weak — all those adjectives in the name of carrying a blue upside-down person that he helped create.
I get inside and I cry slumped over the counter even though the pain has subsided, and he rubs my back and that’s all I needed, I can barely stand the attention of even this small gesture, but it’s all I needed, to not feel like I’m hurting alone.