I was once a hippie. Okay, I was born a little too late to be an actual hippie. Rather, I went through a hippie phase in my late teens. I had long hair. I had a beard. I drove a 1969 VW bus and I really dug The Grateful Dead. Life was groovy, man.
Now, even though I looked like a hippie, I wasn’t particularly spiritual and I certainly wasn’t new-agey. The closest that I got to karma was that I simply tried to be kind and treat others well because it was the right thing to do and because that was how I wanted to be treated. No energies or auras there, really, just good old cause and effect. Though altruistic, I was more grounded in how I perceived the world and it’s inhabitants. I wasn’t a naive idealist; I was an idealistic realist. That is why the outright hippiness of our son’s birth.. sorry, “birth experience”, caught me so off guard.
To be fair, Bad Mergentheim is a spa town, hence the prefix “Bad” (spa or bath) in the town’s name. In 1826, a shepherd named Franz Gehring discovered his sheep gathered around and frantically lapping at something on the ground. As the story goes, after he literally pulled his flock away, Franz discovered a small spring whose waters were later found to be laden with sodium sulfate. This compound proved to not only be essentially sheep crack, it was also deemed to have healing properties and was peddled as a cure for digestive disorders. Since that fateful day, Mergentheim has become a kind of German Woodstock. It’s all about nature, rejuvenation, and feeling groovy, man. Shops selling energy crystals have sprung up along the cobble-stone streets. Meditation and yoga now rival the popularity of going to church, and rehab centers, both for injured humans and salt-addicted sheep, abound.
This kind of lifestyle and attitude has both its pros and its cons. One good thing about having “Bad” in the town’s name is that we have a lot of visitors in the form of tourists and patients. Lots of visitors means that the town’s natural beauty is preserved so those same people keep returning with their fists full of Euros…which, in turn, fuels the town’s preservation. We would call this a “virtuous circle”. In German, it’s called a “Devil’s Circle”. I can only conclude that this term came from the evil word Kreisverkehr (traffic circle) and is apt as it relates to would-be fathers.
The Kreisverkehr is a modern version of the ancient idea of a self-perpetuating mechanism and has wrought havoc on many confounded drivers, mostly tourists. Like the Cretan labyrinth, once inside, you find that there are several possible exits, though only one will deliver you to your intended destination. Because of other traffic, confusion, jet-lag, and our inherent timidity, most of us that aren’t used to them simply miss our exit and keep driving around and around. I am quite sure that there are several vacationing American fathers-to-be who left long ago to drive their laboring wives to the local hospital whom are still steering their vehicles around the same German traffic circle, only at present with a very large and bearded infants propped next to their now utterly insane wives.
The downside to all of these tourists is two-fold: (1) Those visitors drive even slower than the resident Americans (me) who constantly stop and gawk at anything that looks remotely medieval (everything) and (2), that when your wife goes into labor, she will arrive at her hospital room and find that she is overdressed if she is wearing anything more conservative than Birkenstocks and a tunic. This is basically what happened to us but, to properly illustrate the event’s entire spectrum and gravity, I must tell the full tale of our “birth experience”, beginning with how her labor started.
Eve’s water broke. Well, it didn’t break so much as it starting leaking like a water bed after being jumped on too much. Because of Sam’s excessive kicks and jabs, this is, most likely, precisely what happened.
The term in German for a woman’s water-breaking is Blasensprung (bubble crack). This is quite apt as, in Eve’s case, her bubble (amniotic sac “Ew, gross”) cracked and “sprung” a leak. The leak, naturally, is amniotic fluid. Normally given to concise – if not often harsh – definitions, amniotic fluid in German is “Fruchtwasser”, which translates to “fruit water”. That sounds nice, right? Refreshing even, like you might be serenely sipping a glass while parked in your favorite chair on the veranda. Well, it’s not. It, like the sac it came out of, is also gross and I am almost positive that there is absolutely nothing fruity about it. I don’t know if you knew this or not, but babies pee – and even sometimes poo – in there. Of course, I don’t know for sure just how gross it is because I am very squeamish. I scream like Fay Wray whenever my hand touches some errant floating food debris while I’m washing dishes, so you can imagine my aversion to something as icky as what is essentially in utero baby toilet water.
In the defense of Germans’ perplexity where fruit is concerned, however, I can submit that they are what I like to call “fruit dyslexic”, and are therefore prone to “fruit confusion”. Ananas, which I thought meant “bananas” because, well, it’s the same word without a “b”, actually means “pineapple”. Also, pear (Birne) translates to lightbulb, and there is an air freshener on sale here whose label clearly depicts a lime, but is called “Cool Lemon”. Interestingly enough, Germans put fruit into literally every dessert. I am not kidding. Time and time again I have seen exquisite cheesecakes, puddings, and delightfully-decorated chocolate confections utterly ruined by the discovery of oranges, raspberries, or cherries hidden cleverly inside. This does not sit well with my basic and unhealthy American tastes. I like my desserts without fruit. If I wanted a surprise, I’d eat an American fruitcake which is, essentially, an edible version of the classic arcade claw game. Like the game, the cake is filled with stuff that has virtually no value and that nobody would want if it weren’t gussied up in the form a dessert. Like you would navigate the claw toward something more enticing than a stuffed toy slug, you must also steer the knife around around the cake trying to avoid the useless junk you don’t want (fruit). Once you’ve made your selection and the claw/fork rises, you end up face-to-face with a congealed lump of what is most likely a cherry. Or worse, one of those plush novelty cherries.
Now, I don’t think that Germans are actually trying to subvert our American palettes by adding fruit to every dessert. I think, because of their fruit-dyslexia, that they are merely trying to get as much practice as possible: I can only imagine the disappointment – and pain – of the first bite of the the very first pear-cobbler as the unwary victim bit into glass and filament. Practice makes perfect or, in German, “Übung macht den Meister”. This is probably why they eventually changed Birne to Gluhbirne (glowing pear). A minor, but important, difference.
The Birthing Room
After arriving at the hospital, late due to traffic circles (and having to stop and have a look at a castle or two), we were checked in and made our way up to our room. I’ll take a minute to say that we opted for the “family room”. This means that we had a room to ourselves, with two beds, and that even I had meals – that we could pre-select – delivered to us. This seemingly unnecessary extravagance was anything but. Each night cost us an extra 40 Euros (as of now, about the same in dollars). That is cheaper than a night at a typical US road-side motel where you have to sleep on top of the oddly-stained bedding and pick bugs from the stale Corn Flakes that is your continental breakfast. This, my friends, is German healthcare. The hospitals here are run not as profitable businesses like in the States, but as a way to care for people. Weird, right? The system actually helping people instead of taking everything that they can from them? I gotta say, this notion of goodwill, struck against the flint that was our need, created a spark that began to rekindle my own long forgotten feelings of grooviness, man. Now, before any of you start screaming “SOCIALISM!” (actually social-democracy) and lighting fires, I have to say that doctors here make way less than they do in the States. But how do the doctors pay off their huge student loans and afford six houses? There are no student loans here and most doctors are content to own just one house. College is free in Germany and, because of the lower pay than in the states, doctors here want to become doctors to help people, not as a way to fund their celebrity lifestyles. Those that seek the latter become professional soccer players. Or energy crystal store owners.
Back to the tale, the initial room where Eve was evaluated was a typical German birthing room. This room, however, was anything but typical to a US birthing ward. Like a gynecological circus, there were hooks and ropes hanging from the ceiling. There were also massage balls and scented oils. In retrospect, the room was very much like the secret room portrayed in Fifty Shades of Grey, which is apropos since I’m sure that at least a few of the women there conceived in the same type of at-home setting. Oh, Germany. I love your honesty. And your adherence to the Devil’s Circle. There was also, what I came to find out later, a “Himalayan Salt Crystal Lamp”. This seemingly innocuous piece of illuminated decor supposedly emits negative ions when the salt is heated by the bulb, which in turn is supposed to cultivate a sense of well-being through increased blah, blah, blabbity-blah. All that I know is that it sounded weird to me, like drinking salty spring water in hopes of curing indigestion. Plus, those ions are negative. I, for one, will not sit by while my infant is exposed to any type of negativity. I am a good dad.
One other item that I found in the room was a Cat Stevens CD next to the stereo. Because his soft melodies are supposed to be soothing and are probably not meant to be funny in the least, especially in that setting, I find the thought of someone laboring to “Can’t Keep It In” ironic and therefore hysterical. Even funnier to me at that time, knowing that Eve was going to have a C-Section, was that I could – and did – play “The First Cut Is The Deepest”. Luckily I have a wife that has just as strange a sense of humor as I do. In fact, it may have been her idea.
Moving on, the next steps before Eve could be carted off to the operating room was that she had a catheter inserted and her anesthesia administered. I was there for the catheter which was bad enough. Had I been present for the spinal, I think that I may well have added to the patient count (I mentioned that I’m squeamish, right?). Luckily for all, Eve was whisked away for that procedure and I was given a stylish set of scrubs, a pair of well-used Crocs (probably worn that very morning by one of the commune members while they weeded the community garden), and a face mask to don so that I wouldn’t contaminate the operating room.
After I had dressed in the requisite attire, I waited outside, impatiently and full of nervous energy, to be allowed inside. This took not the several hours that I expected, but only around fifteen minutes and, since I was wearing the face mask, my hyperventilation was nicely averted as I was breathing in my own CO2. I suspect that the face masks given to expectant fathers aren’t really to keep the OR sterile, but to prevent us from overdosing on oxygen and, like not being allowed to witness the spinal, passing out.
Once inside, I found Eve lying on the operating table, smiling, with an enormous blue-green tarp erected above her mid-section. This barrier is intended to prevent the patient (and, most importantly, weak-stomached partners) from viewing the carnage that is being wreaked beneath it. What I didn’t know was that the doctors had made the incision before I arrived. Around three seconds after I gave Eve a kiss and asked how she was, her lower body began writhing around as the effort to remove the baby got under way. Because her torso was being thrashed about by unseen forces, and since that serenely sea-tinted surface was undulating chaotically, I thought that it was almost how my lovely wife would surely look like if she were floating in the Caribbean while being attacked from below by sharks. In fact, due to the blood that I knew was there, but that I couldn’t see, it was exactly like that. Sorry, Eve; no tropical vacations for us. Ever. You are hereby relegated to kiddie pools for life. And only then if they have shark nets.
I was still day-dreaming or, due to my concern, “day-nightmaring”, when a baby’s cry arose without warning over the doctors’ hurried voices. This sound… Well, this sound is almost indescribable in how it makes one feel. By hearing it, you are transported instantly from a father-to-be – a beautiful yet inarticulate idea – to an actual father. You have a child. Like the moon’s gravity tugging at the ocean before a storm, the emotions swell quickly. As you see the nurse emerge from the edge of the tarp, holding your baby, that gathering swell crests into a wave of overpowering joy that crashes from your eyes and cascades down your face.
You have a child. We named ours Samuel.
Once the water flowing from my eyes had ebbed enough for me to see again, I was asked to follow the nurses into an adjoining room where I was asked to cut the cord. This I did with great pride and without hesitation. Releasing your child into the world by way of this ceremony of mock liberation is as important as it is arbitrary. Caring mothers set limitations out of concern for their baby’s well-being. Caring fathers remove limitations, whether it be the umbilical cord at birth or the insecurity of jumping into a pool when they’re four, for those very same reasons.
Once Sam’s cord was clamped, he was swung over to a counter where he was weighed and measured like a trout at a fishing derby. Since he was just pulled from the waters of his mom’s womb and was now gasping for air, I suppose that he was rather like a fish. Our prize fish, since he was the only one in that particular pond and grew specifically for us. Having a baby is kind of like catch-and-release fishing except that you are also a fish and so, instead of just tossing the wriggling little guy back into the water after you’ve snapped a photo, you swim alongside him for life, helping him navigate the seas of existence.
As Eve was whisked away to her recovery room, the nurses led Sam and I back to the same birthing room that Eve and I were in before the C-Section. I didn’t know it then, but Eve had told the nurses that since she would be out-of-sorts, that it should be me with whom Sam should nestle. Newborn babies in Germany are often placed on the bare chest of one of their parents as the skin-to-skin contact, combined with them hearing the heartbeat that they have grown so accustomed to, is evidently soothing to them. They call it “parent-baby-bonding”. This would have seemed unnecessary – if not downright silly – to me only thirty minutes prior. But at that moment, with Sam nestled on my chest and sighing deeply, I began to think differently. In fact, it thought that it was perfect. How could anyone not want to do this? I sat there with a contented smile on my face – a look of slight confusion on Sam’s – thinking of how I could thank Eve for her thoughtfulness. I even considered calling the nurse so she could play the Cat Stevens CD. “Father and Son” would have been nice…
…and then Sam found a nipple.
I’m not sure how he did it since the hair on my chest is as thick as a Costa Rican rainforest, but he did. This was clearly not well thought out. Why would anyone place a hungry newborn directly next to a nonfunctioning nipple? In the split second that it took me to react to the unnatural scene unfolding beneath my nose, Sam realized that these particular nipples were broken. It would be akin to giving an empty water bottle to someone who had just crossed the Sahara. As he released his cry of frustration, I let out out my own cry of horror. Though I’m certain that this wasn’t the experience that the nurses had in mind, I’m still pretty sure that Sam and I bonded, as men do, by learning a lesson. Heck, I’m confident that that is 90% of what fatherhood is anyway. As smaller children are essentially impulsive gremlins who will injure themselves while destroying everything, and since older children will often forget to lock their doors, I’m certain that there will plenty of moments to come where we’ll both be standing there and staring at each other; father and son screaming in unison about their separate yet horribly intertwined traumas. Our first joint lesson: Dad’s nipples are off-limits.
Eve arrived at the room a few hours later and the reunion was as perfect as it could be, at least for a while. Not that it became unpleasant or uncomfortable in any way, mind you. Well, at least not for me. Being a new mom, Eve was naturally ecstatic to see her son. She also seemed happy to see me, at least for a while. That was, until I began with the jokes.
You see, Eve was in not a small amount of pain from her C-Section and I was nervous from being in a new, albeit exquisite, situation. When I get nervous, I make jokes. Bad jokes. Normally, jokes make people laugh and when you laugh, the belly muscles get involved. Bad jokes usually leave people staring at you, shifting uncomfortably. Unfortunately for Eve, she actually laughs harder at my bad jokes. Since Eve just had her belly sliced open and then sutured, laughter was painful. This was not a good combination. Remember the Devil’s Circle? Laughter with Eve and I is another self-perpetuating mechanism. I crack a bad joke, she laughs. Since I like making her laugh, I continue:
Me: “I wish you had an A-Section”.
Eve: “Huh. Why”?
Me: Because a “C” isn’t very good. An “A” is the best. Was that doctor even qualified? Maybe he got a “C” in Section class. We should have asked for an “A” doctor”.
Eve: “Haha. Stop”.
Me: “And why is it a “section” anyway? Section means “partial”. I think that procedure should be done fully. Do you think they left part of Sam in there”?
Eve: “HAHAHAHA! Ow! Leave”.
Most men are asked to exit the room when they need to pass gas or, if they have the nasty habit, smoke. I was demanded to leave the room not for creating foul odors, but because I couldn’t stop cracking foul jokes.
The remaining time in the hospital was spent taking cat-naps, changing diapers, and administering bottles. Eve’s family came in to see Sam for the first time and to check on her well-being. We got used to the idea of having a child. To making the switch from being only husband and wife to being a family. Since newborns sleep around 20 hours a day, we had time to talk about our plans for the future. What preschool Sam would go to. How to finish decorating his room. How to change a diaper at 1:00 AM with only one eye open. It was, truly, a blissful time.
As the last night settled upon us, our bags packed for tomorrow’s first trip home with Sam, we took time to take stock of how lucky we were. Sam was healthy. Eve had recovered well. During those final moments, we couldn’t help but begin to at least see part of the wisdom of the hospitals hippie, okay, natural, approach to giving birth. Eve ordered a pair of Birkenstocks (they are deceptively comfortable, if not stylish). We decided that the aromatherapy that was in our room wasn’t there so much for the “good vibes” as it was to mask the smell of newborn baby poo: Since chemicals like those found in air-fresheners are detrimental to a newborns’s ultra-sensitive skin, and due to the sheer volume of ultra-smelly waste that a baby produces, the addition of Lemon oil to the room was a stroke of genius. Even the salt-crystal lamp began to win me over. I don’t know if it actually works, but its light is rather nice. I’m not sure if it was the ions or if I was just half-stoned from lack of sleep but, as I sat there in the wee hours of the morning with Sam sleeping in my arms and thinking how angelic he looked in its soft orange light, I have to say,…
I was feeling pretty groovy, man.