The Chances Of Being Born

I can’t believe anybody ever gives birth, or gets born.


Take some heart in being born quite so young
You can learn to talk and learn to walk in your own time.

-We Were Promised Jetpacks

My wife went into labor while hunting for Pokémon at the park.

She had entered the stage of pregnancy where every day brings with it indignation that the baby is still in there. It was a Saturday afternoon, and we didn’t have anything to do. “This is bullshit,” she grumbled, not to me, but to the world in general and the baby in particular.

We were willing to do anything to move into the post-pregnancy era of our lives—spicy foods, essential oils, ordering every item from Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop catalog. We’d throw out our devotion to science, reason, and healthy skepticism by doing some nonsensical home remedies if it could make us feel like we were inducing labor. We would have happily entered a voodoo shop and agreed to deliver a wretched witch baby if it meant speeding things along (We’d deal with the cursed child later.).

So we went to play Pokémon Go at the park, and we were but two of dozens of other people on the walking path behind the baseball fields, all looking for Pokémon. My wife thought she was feeling some contraction action, so when we got back home we read the passages of What To Expect When You’re Expecting on the subject, all about the frequency and durations of contractions. “I don’t know,” she said. “I guess I could be in labor.”

This was my first pregnancy, her second. She’d told me that labor and delivery are not at all how they’re portrayed on TV, that a pregnant woman doesn’t suddenly feel a switch flipped and go into labor. It was frustratingly murky. So we watched three hours of The Office—we needed something familiar and non-challenging to look at and not pay attention to. We re-read What To Expect and decided it couldn’t hurt to call the hospital and ask if they thought she was in labor.

“Oh yeah, you totally could be,” the nurse on the phone said. “But, yeah, maybe not. I don’t know. Check back tomorrow morning?”

One interminably long night later, we decided to just drive to the hospital. If they admitted her, great! And if not, we’d have at least killed a few hours.

We took it as a good sign that the receptionist didn’t immediately turn us away. We’d worried the hospital would laugh at us, would say she’s nowhere near delivery, and tell us to get the hell out of there. My wife was examined by an on-call doctor, who felt in and said, “Yep. I feel the baby’s head right now.” We have a baby, and he has a head! This was the first moment I actually felt like my son existed. I’m a shitty man who will never have to endure what I can only tell from observation is the misery of pregnancy. My wife lived with the reality of our son every day, but until a doctor reached up and touched his brain, I didn’t totally accept that he was real.

We were admitted to the hospital, and we felt like we’d gotten away with something. Just 18 hours ago we’d been hunting for Bulbasaurs and feeling stupid, and now, here we were, laborin’ and deliverin’.

I assumed I would spend Baby Day in a daze, but I felt exactly as I’d felt for much of the previous few weeks—anxious to get this over with, but generally calm. I recorded a video for my son about the world on the day he was born—The number-one song on the Billboard charts is “One Dance” by Drake! There’s been a coup attempt in Turkey! 

Then it was Time. Things happened fast after a long, boring day of watching The Office on a laptop and discussing popsicles and dilation. My wife’s doctor was not available, so the on-call doctor said she would arrive in 30 minutes, and they’d go ahead and get that baby.

Delivery staff poured into the room and transformed what had been a comfortable quasi-hotel suite into a serious medical area. I loved what I was seeing—nurses, assistants, and staffers were laying out instruments and setting up a bed underneath a large lamp (Holy shit, that’s where the baby is going to go!) It was my favorite thing to see: These people knew what they were doing. I was overdosing on their competence. It was like giving birth inside the movie The MartianWe’re gonna get that baby home from Mars if it’s the last thing we do!

We hadn’t met this doctor before, but we were instantly smitten with her. She exuded confidence and skill. Her mere presence calmed us.

The doctor and her team got to work. My role was to hang back and not really do anything, although I was allowed to hold up one of my wife’s legs and count to ten every time she pushed. It occurred to me this was just something to make me feel important, because sometimes I wouldn’t join in the counting, and nobody noticed. Things were moving at a breakneck pace. An… object began emerging from my wife. “That’s your baby!” one of the nurses said to me. It was a fleshy, white orb that looked like a brain you’d buy from a deli. A brain deli.

I was exhilarated. The mood in the room was terrific and cheerful, the staff was noticeably excited at how smoothly this was all going, all very by the book. “One more push and he’s out!” the doctor exclaimed.

Then everything changed. I didn’t know what had happened but it was glaringly obvious that something had gone wrong. The doctor became very serious, a nurse jumped on top of my wife’s bed and began pushing on her stomach. Nurses already in the room began moving much faster, more nurses poured into the room, and one nurse yelled out, “Call N.I.!” which I knew was what the hospital’s Natal Intensive Care Unit was called. Some blood spurted out of my wife. The doctor ordered her: “Push! Push!”

I was in a fog, not really processing anything in front of me, but recognizing a detached truth that we could just never meet this baby, that after all this time the baby wasn’t actually going to happen after all. Or that my wife could die. Either outcome seemed shockingly real to me, and both had been instantaneously conjured, seemingly out of nothing, but then, that is how it happens.

I’m not sure how long all of this lasted. Probably less than five minutes, which I mostly spent crying and violently pulling at my hair, in between holding my wife’s hand tightly. My wife was largely unaware of what was going on, a result of the anesthesia she’d been given for the surprising amount of pain she’d endured.

I watched the doctor jerk the baby out. It’s difficult to explain what I saw… what I had been looking at, the thing coming out of my wife, was actually the back of the baby’s head, and the doctor in one move whipped him out and around in a sort of alligator roll. He had been coming out very slowly, but all of a sudden all of him was out, and when he was flipped around I could see an entire baby. It’s so hard to comprehend that a whole, intact human being is able to squeeze out of there like that.

They rushed our baby to the table to be worked on, a dozen or so nurses surrounding him. The mood was tense and silent. I still had not been told what had happened, what had gone wrong. But one thing was terrifyingly apparent: The baby had not made any noise.

I went back to holding my wife’s hand as the doctor worked on her and helped her deliver the placenta. Then all three of us heard a noise, an unmistakably baby noise. It was sort of a cry, sort of a yelp, sort of a scream. He was alive.

“Everything is fine,” the doctor told us, but I didn’t take this in. “Everything is fine. Everything is fine. Your baby is fine.”

This was not sinking in with me. What does that mean, fine? Fine as in, he’s going to live for a few more days and we’ll just make him comfortable while he’s here? Fine as in he’s brain dead? Or fine as in fine?

“Here is what happened,” the doctor said. “When he was coming out, his shoulder got caught underneath Mom’s pelvis. For an obstetrician, that is literally the worst thing that can happen. His head was already out, so there was nothing we could have done if we hadn’t been able to push him loose. But we did, and he is fine. It’s over, and he is fine.”

What happened during my son’s birth was shoulder dystocia, which, according to Wikipedia:

“…is a specific case of obstructed labour whereby after the delivery of the head, the anterior shoulder of the infant cannot pass below, or requires significant manipulation to pass below, the pubic symphysis. It is diagnosed when the shoulders fail to deliver shortly after the fetal head. Fetal demise can occur if the infant is not delivered, due to compression of the umbilical cord within the birth canal. It occurs in approximately 0.3-1% of vaginal births.”

I didn’t know what to say, other than, “Promise?”

I was crying, and my wife was starting to come around to understanding what had just happened. As she was getting sewn up, I went over to look at the baby. The nurses congratulated me. They were cleaning him, taking his vitals, and preparing to cut his cord.

“You want to cut the cord, Dad?” they asked me. In the labor-delivery unit, the expectant mother is always called “Mom,” and the expectant father, “Dad.” I would learn soon that the baby is always called, “Baby.” Not, “the baby,” but, “Baby,” as in, “If Baby isn’t nursing right away, you need to keep trying.”

I wanted to cut the cord, and I hadn’t yet taken in my baby. I was still upset and hadn’t fully accepted that my wife and son were okay. But a nurse offered to take pictures with my phone, and so I got to snipping. This was not a happy day. It was a grim day, a scary day that still haunts me. Joy would come, in the weeks ahead, surrounded by larger amounts of exhaustion and stress.

They wrapped the baby up and brought him over to my wife, who drowsily said, “Hi, baby.” They looked at each other.

Getting her faculties back but still sleep deprived, exhausted, drained, and starving, she said to me, “It’s like that song by We Were Promised Jetpacks… ‘The chances of being born are so slim.'”