I’ve taken two birthing classes in my life, which is a tremendous number. Most people only take a birthing class when they’re expecting their first child, but because each of my children was the first child of the woman doing the actual birthing, I went twice. This makes me an expert on birthing classes, in much the same way that writing a profanity-filled fake children’s book called Go the Fuck to Sleep makes me a parenting expert. I also happen to be a doula, in the sense that I live in Berkeley, and merely moving to Berkeley makes you a doula.
The first was in 2008. It was for people who wanted to give birth at home, which is a great option if you don’t enjoy spending time in hospitals, have qualms about the over-medicalization of birth, or are simply too lazy to go out. We met in an overheated, underlit, bald-carpeted room off the 580 freeway in not-scenic downtown San Anselmo, Calif., between a sports injury doctor’s office and an organic candle store.
Five minutes before the first class even started, you could tell which couples were going to be friends: None. The women aimed hopeful close-lipped smiles at one another, and the men exchanged nods of mutually confirmed virility, but that was as far as it went. We were all on the lookout for the makings of a charming story about how our kids had met before they were even born, developed a synchronized swimming routine right here in this Dijon-mustard-colored safehouse. But nobody connected right away. That was obvious to all of us, except the teacher.
Her name was Selene. The only other Selene I’d known had been impregnated by a substitute gym teacher and dropped out of our high school, so I associated the name with fertility. This one was in her early 60s, with a sadness about her that almost passed for tranquility. By way of introduction, Selene told us that deep within their bodies, babies remembered how they came into the world, which was why we’d made the only moral choice in electing to have home births. She used the term “birth trauma” a bunch of times, just to make sure that particular anxiety dislodged the other 27,000 ones jostling for position inside us.
It worked. Half the class’ babies ended up being born in hospitals, including my own, and if Selene hadn’t gone to such pains to convince me that my daughter was totally fucked, I’d probably believe to this day that she was just fine.
There were four couples in the class, and one woman attending alone. The single woman, Raven, was British and wore a lot of black eye makeup. The rest of us were basically like, holy shit. The only thing scarier than having a baby was having one alone. Raven maintained an aura of dark mystery until the final class, when her mom showed up from London. She was going to attend the birth, and the teacher asked her to introduce herself. In a subdued voice and a posh British accent, she said, “I’m just here to support my Jennifer.”
Raven turned to her and said, “Mom!” in the exact tone of voice favored by indignant 14-year-olds everywhere, and her mom said, “Sorry, sorry, I mean Raven.” If you squinted a little, you could actually see Raven’s aura evaporate.
That’s pretty much everything I remember from the first birthing class.
I took the second birthing class this past winter. Because I was the cagey veteran, the guy who’d been through it all before, the teacher often asked me to weigh in. This usually caught me off guard, because I spent most of my time studying the body language of this one couple, Miranda and Baby Beard, who clearly despised each other.
Baby Beard wasn’t actually his name. My partner Jamie and I just called him that, because he looked like a baby with a beard, and because we are horrible people. Most couples in this class maintained some kind of contact: hand-holding, backrubs, smiles. Miranda and Baby Beard treated each other like strangers forced to sit together on a cross-country bus. Occasionally, Miranda would shoot a look at the side of Baby Beard’s head with openly murderous intention. He never once noticed.
The retired midwife who ran the class employed a pedagogical structure I’d characterize as “Introduce a terrifying thing than can happen during pregnancy, then reassure everyone that it’s very rare and not even worth thinking about, then tell a 15-minute story about the one time she saw it happen and BOY WAS IT GRUESOME.”
The highlight of the class was when she tricked the women into drawing pictures like a bunch of third-graders as a pretext to lure the men out into the hallway and ask us how we were “really doing,” away from all the macho posturing that can go on in a room covered in advertisements for in-home breastfeeding assistance.
The answer was: Not well. One dude, who always showed up to the class in full biking regalia like he was fitting this in between stages of the Tour de France, said he was afraid his wife would die in childbirth. Not to be outdone, this other dude who was a professional ultimate Frisbee coach said he couldn’t stop imagining the doctor coming into the waiting room and telling him that either his wife or his son was going to die and he had to pick which one.
Obviously, these guys were completely unhinged. I mean, come on — waiting room? There’s no waiting room anymore.
The midwife looked to me, expertise failing in the face of such fear, such pathos, such bozos.
I did the only thing I could think to. I told this motley crew of fathers-to-be that we were going to a bar the following night. Which we did. Except for Baby Beard, who it turned out was having an affair with his best friend’s sister and had gotten caught and who is probably dead now.
We met at a newly opened Berkeley beer garden. I’m fairly sure I allayed all their fears with some timeless wisdom about the beauty of birth and the joys of fatherhood, but I also inadvertently drank two fancy local cage-free carbon-neutral beers which contained the alcoholic equivalent of 19 regular beers, and according to Jamie I came home drunk, holding the biggest burrito she had ever seen in her life.
And that’s pretty much everything I remember from the second birthing class.