“Lance Armstrong, how does it feel to win the Tour de France?”
How do you answer that? I’ve never been satisfied with the answers athletes give, and so I found myself stumped when friends began calling to ask, “How does it feel to be a father?” I answered like a professional athlete (“Great!”), but I couldn’t help but be disappointed in myself. For someone who values language, the answer didn’t measure up. How should one express the feelings of fatherhood in a telephone sound bite suitable for the 21st century? Perhaps the greater problem was that I didn’t yet really know how I felt. Some distance was required. It had to soak in before hitting home.
But Lance Armstrong, upon winning the Tour de France and asked about his emotions, is not permitted to shrug his shoulders and answer, “I dunno.” And so I too had to come up with a better answer.
At first, all the screaming is charming: a hospital floor packed with women in labor. I’d seen a birthing video, and so I knew the women had been trained to make these sounds. It’s like the mother is pronouncing the letter “U,” and breathing out at the same time, and it comes together in a way which might resemble an orgasm but is far more similar to a pack of coyotes howling around the rim of the Grand Canyon, a pleasant sound I’d used to put myself to sleep on several occasions. But the howling doesn’t last forever, and sooner or later, each woman on the floor begins to scream. It’s then that pleasant comparisons come to an end and you start to think of Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo.
After 22 hours spent in the birthing ward, the screaming ceased to haunt me. It became rather business as usual, or white noise, the background hum of the world in which you dwell. In my case, I entertained Walter Mitty fantasies of what a fine medicin sans frontieres I’d make, the type of man who calmly saves lives amidst the chaos of battle or, in my case, wards of hysterical women.
Physically speaking, giving birth for the first time is difficult. I think those who forgo the laughing gas or epidurals are the Sir Edmund Hillarys of the birthing world. Although aware of the rigors of natural birth, I knew I was up to it. Liina was committed, too, as much as she could be, not knowing what circumstances would dictate. My job, according to the natural birthing video, was to support her in every way possible. To encourage. To enable. To, as politicians say, share her pain.
But, as Liina will attest, I am not the most patient man. I am also slightly competitive, and so nearing the twentieth hour of labor it began to irk me that the howling and screaming were so regularly followed by the crying of someone else’s newborn. As if by clockwork, every hour saw the birth of a child not ours, and each time I felt like someone who had been seated out of order in a popular restaurant: Hey, we got here before they did!
Although Liina and I are bit older than the average couple who gives birth in Estonia, this was our first child, and I tried to remind myself that first births are the most difficult. I had anticipated a birth like in the videos: ten minutes of coyote howls, two minutes of murderous screaming, and then a slimy infant in the arms of a weeping mother. Even though I’m aware there is editing involved in those videos, 22 hours is longer than anyone deserves. And that’s speaking only for myself. I can’t imagine Liina’s pain.
But all birthing videos are accurate in one respect: the child will eventually be born. True to the video’s promise, Liina’s pain ended miraculously and immediately, and mine along with it. There was palpable relief that the child would not attend university inside the womb.
As someone whose office is the kitchen table, bringing an infant home means that all work ceases. Life immediately revolves around the infant, and any pre-pregnancy pledges about a disciplined feeding routine are thrown out the window with the child’s first scream. Stopping the hollering becomes the focus of everyone’s life, and the father soon discovers that neither the pacifier, contorting your face, or threatening the child in a mock German accent will have any affect. A child will scream. It’s what they do.
I soon found it helpful to see my relationship with the child much the way the west views Hamid Karzai. Recognize you have to give him aid, but know that he’s almost always out to manipulate you. Remain flexible and in good humor. And constantly seek intelligence about his motives.
I placed my son on my lap as he screamed, and I logged on to Perekool.ee to seek advice from veteran mothers. Despite far more information available in English, I sought comfort from the experience of Estonian mothers, as if my son’s genetic code or their geographic proximity might make their advice more effective. I mummy-wrapped him in towels in the Soviet fashion, rubbed olive oil on his belly to relieve gas, and finally settled on the most cynical e-mother’s advice: I turned on my iPod and set it to maximum volume.
Given Liina’s birthing ordeal and her need to rest, I helped out where I could with our son’s care. I took over the shopping duties and found myself shoulder to shoulder with mothers in the aisles of Selver. An infant in my arms somehow gave me the right to join their lamentation about the poor quality of Fazer pirukad (no filling), the absurdities of sterilized eye swabs (sold only three to a pack), or where to put the oil on the stroller wheel so it will drive straight (I’ve given up).
Occasionally, I would encounter another man engaged in solo care of his infant, and we would naturally bond, sitting on a sunny bench outside the store where we made lists of pithy observations to give our wives who sent us shopping (Don’t put fruit and apples on the same list: the latter are the former, so we buy one and cross them both off. Lehttaigen and filotaigen are similar enough to be interchangeable. And don’t ask us to buy Estonian chocolate when Finnish chocolate is cheaper.)
In my forays with my son I was even given instruction in the Estonian language by fellow parents. For example, one should not ask if a newborn is an isane (male) or emane (female). Poiss or tüdruk (girl or boy) will do just fine. Passing Russian babushkas were so full of advice that I never even once had to ask for it. Store clerks became more patient. With an infant in your arms, it’s as if the whole world is finally on your side.
I finally made my peace with the answer “Great!” when someone asked how it felt to be a father. The real answer was simply too time consuming, and I was raised stoically enough to not give it over the telephone or share it with those I didn’t know well. But in the case of someone calling who really did want to know, I answered this way: When your child is born, you understand the phrase “I love you” is much more than three trite words on a Hallmark greeting card. You understand that it is shorthand for “I would throw myself under a train for you.”
And I also learned that at that moment when a child is born, everyone cries for different reasons. The child cries to fill his lungs; the mother cries because that’s what mothers do; and the father cries because, perhaps, he’s finally done something in his life that truly matters.
“Hey, Lance Armstrong, how does it feel to win the Tour de France?”
“Honestly speaking, I feel a lot of love.”
No, I can’t imagine it, either.
Read it in Estonian in Postimees.
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