An invitation from our (ex) midwife – though one of us may be in need of her again, the odds are hardly stacked in my favour right now – would we like to come along to one of our old antenatal classes? To share, if not the experience itself, then at least our thoughts and impressions thereon. With Leo, of course – here’s one we made earlier… It’s an idea first mooted when Karen and I did dad chat – why not come along and do dad chat in group? Indeed why not give a dad talk, seeing as how as I was the pre-eminent model protodad in almost constant attendance, and seeing as how I’m so relaxed and chilled and such a natural…?
At the time I leapt at the chance, managing simultaneously to somehow not gag on the irony. Ah, the irony… the mother of all paradoxes in this most obstinately unusual of situations – that I am indeed, to all intents and purposes, a model dad, stay-at-home, hands on and all of that, and yet imminently to be supplanted in the family home – model male to be replaced by male model… Perhaps the chance to bask in the warm glow of approval from fellow parents, the acclaim of one’s peers, is too good – or too rare – to miss…
The invite has since been extended to the two of us, and why not? Nobody knows we’re not the two of us, after all. And so to the health centre where I meet Ellie outside the gates. For the next half hour or so it will be the three of us so quick costume change, as it were, and we slip into character one last time for what may be our first and last public appearance as a unit. We’ve been here before, haven’t we? There can be no pretence if no-one’s privy to the unbelievable truth, can there? But as we seat ourselves before the semi-circle of faces pinched in variations of apprehension and mild anxiety, I can’t help but feel this is role play of a sort after all.
For us it’s not so much a step back in time as a step forward. Once part of the circle, now we face it. The couples watching the three of us are peering into their futures; what is yet unknown to them is made manifest to us. A dozen bundles of embryonic promise in diverse stages of gestation lie waiting as a nonplussed Leo faces front. For all the promise of new life there’s a stillness in the air and I feel all the energy of the eager new parent draining from me.
There’s an aura of shell shock – faint but unmistakeable. I know it, I’ve tasted it myself. Nothing quite like your first antenatal session to bring on the sudden and not quite digestible realisation that the life you know is about to end and the life unknown is now upon you. Lives for so long merely imagined or guessed at are now at hand. You can almost hear them. They chatter in the bustling, let’s-get-on-with-it preparation of the midwives, they tinkle in the nerve-jangling tittering around you. Your life will never be the same again.
I find myself wondering just how beneficial our musings might be to this tense turnout. Though of course it’s not our experience that’s in focus, but rather Ellie’s. Despite the fair smattering of fathers-to-be in attendance, and for all their evident cares, it’s the subject of childbirth itself that soon takes centre-stage – and quite naturally, for the prospect of a new milestone in physical pain looms large in the room. Here I take a back seat, though Ellie is quick to point out that I didn’t take a back seat during the birth, and sketches out the importance of having a supportive, loving (though just supportive will do if loving isn’t to hand) partner in attendance – for strategic massage, to fetch drinks, to help with the regular dispensation of Entonox, to find words of reassurance and to be the butt of industrial strength creative language.
Within moments Ellie has described a birth experience that was almost as easy as it was swift, and in truth it was. It took nearly as long for Leo to burst upon the scene as it has to describe it – an exaggeration, of course, but not a huge one. Though I’m sure that recounting a positive experience can prove a valuable counterpoint to antenatal fears, I wonder at times if we appear perhaps blasé to the point of intimidation.
And there’s the nub of it all – childbirth and parenthood, surely the ultimate in before and after experiences. Can anything in life be more clearly defined than by that term? And therefore can anything in life be so hard to convey to those still labouring before when you’re living in the after? As hard as I’d have railed against the notion before, I see more clearly now than ever that while we may not be defined exclusively by whether or not we are parents, we can surely never see life in the same way again once we’ve been joined by our children.
Even Leo’s familiar charm offensive has a limited effect, meeting a somewhat more muted response than he’s become used to at home. So much more than simply a baby to us, to our listeners he remains just that. Doubtless when their own miraculous bundle of shared DNA sits atop their knee as they face antenatal group with the certainty of new and inexplicable knowledge, a baby will seem far more than that…
Whether or not our little talk proves ultimately fruitful is entirely down to the individual, I conclude. Each and every story of childbirth that emerges from this group will be unpredictable, indescribable, unforgettable, and theirs alone. And each one of those stories will carry as much weight as anything proffered by the experts, who, once your child is safely delivered, should remain firmly in italics.