A Birth Primer

A Birth Primer

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Gary Fincke’s latest collection of essays, The Darkness Call, won the Robert C. Jones Prize (Pleaides Press, 2018). Earlier nonfiction books are published by Michigan State: The Canals of Mars (memoir); Amp’d (literary journalism), and published by Stephen F. Austin is Vanishings (personal essays). His essay “After the Three-Moon Era” was selected to appear in Best American Essays 2020.


A Birth Primer

From WTP Vol. X #1

The Spiritualists

The year my wife and I were about to stop birth control and “let things happen,” I watched a television documentary about recent incidents of premature birth that featured an astonishment of medical marvels tempered by the inclusion of problems that often follow—crippling side effects, babies precarious with pneumonia, and even one acknowledgement, despite progress, of death. I recognized the symptoms at once. A college friend and his wife, only a few weeks earlier, had suffered through a similar scenario.

When my wife and I visited that couple a month later, my friend showed slides, each of them taken only minutes apart, sequenced to memorialize the first day of their son’s forty-hour life. He spoke for himself and his silent wife, explaining the complications and symptoms, including how the doctor had warned them of the inevitability of loss.

The last of those pictures, a head shot, stayed on the screen while he referenced his sense of heaven, how families would be reunited. My wife and I disguised our skepticism about the likelihood of eternal life. For sure, I didn’t mention how I’d read about a woman who painted the face of an infant on her breast, sat in a cabinet in the dark, and waited for grieving parents to accept the possibility of contact with their dead child.  

She claimed to speak to the departed. She bared what she claimed was the beautiful face of the dead child and thrust it through the shadowed, sized opening into the dim light for viewing. She asked joyful parents to extend their hands to brush the soft face of their baby, repeating the name of the resurrected, what I couldn’t do that night, staring at the lost, cyanotic child, thinking of reassurances and roll calls for the briefly living.


The Dark Car

One late evening, a few months later, as I began to enter freeway traffic from a narrow side street, my wife, using a tone set exactly upon obey, said “Stop” just before a car without headlights flashed by so close to us it trembled our tiny, economical German car.

We caught up to the dark car, still without headlights, as it sat at the first stoplight in one of many industrial towns along the Ohio River. A woman, we could tell, was driving. She was alone, turned left, and for a block we followed until she turned again, still dark, leaving us to cross a bridge to a second factory town before entering, with caution, the highway to our home.

By now it was late January, my wife early in pregnancy that seemed to have happened from our first unprotected sex. We’d laughed that we were like those teenage couples in the cautionary sex-ed high school films we’d once been forced to watch. 

But that night, when we speculated, when several miles of silence was about to end at our apartment, what I wondered was the nature of my wife’s voice that made me not question her warning. Not volume, not a pitch up to panic, just precise connotation among a thousand variations of command.


Lesson One: The Evolution of Eyes

Some things we began to notice: In the discount store, the oversized eyes of babies on velvet; in the mall, a woman who drew infants with chalk; in the newspaper, a report on the craze for Big Eyes paintings; in a magazine, a discussion of the cartoon evolution of Mickey Mouse, who had rounded from rodent to child’s toy, his face adorable now that it featured the sentimental safeguard of the newborn, the sugared look shared by puppies and kittens and lambs.


Maternity Ward, Visiting Hours

The last summer I had lived at home, after I sometimes borrowed my sister’s car, I was responsible for picking her up where she worked as a nurse in obstetrics at a hospital named for the patron saint for a sprawling spectrum of the down and out—the falsely accused, the homeless, the orphaned, the mentally ill, and every penitent, single mother. Sometimes, when I was early, I would wait near the window where men and women stood to search incubators as if shopping for reassurance while folklore and superstition followed every doctor down the halls like spies. My sister, when I mentioned she’d chosen the best area of medicine, said, “Not always, and when it’s not, it’s the worst.”



Years before, my mother had told the story about a friend who had one kidney, two babies, and a doctor who said, with the next one, she would murder herself or lapse into dependency upon dialysis to drag her up from toxicity’s depth. And yet, my mother had said, that woman sat there pregnant again because her church had said you can’t slip anything between yourself and the next soul waiting in line to enter its earthly body. 

That friend had heard the same marriage instructions my wife and I had; she’d absorbed the commandments for married life from a designated priest. And maybe someone had stood and said, “Bless us, Father,” like the man next to me at our last session, minutes before we could leave and try to forget our four hours over hell. Everyone stood. We received a blessing that inferred a curse on me, starting with soiling myself and soiling others, including the woman beside me who was going to curse herself with coils and pills to keep some souls in limbo jostling for a while.

For nearly three months we stayed secretive with our news, adhering to our own superstitions about premature public exuberance. Already we had abandoned one doctor who decorated his office with posters of Bible passages with praying hands and promised to choose our child rather than my wife if an emergency arose. My sister, by now, had an advanced degree in nursing. The teaching position she had taken was at a Catholic university.


Lesson Two: The History of Lactaria

Lactaria means places of milk, the Roman columns, once, where babies were brought by mothers, sometimes for the milk of a wet nurse, though more often, perhaps, to be abandoned, the mothers trusting pity’s power to save their children, what was offered by a local church after a newborn, discovered in a park, had not, despite the sweet kitsch of infancy, survived one night’s exposure to a late March freeze.


What Charmed Us

In Turkey, mothers, right after giving birth, drink lohusa serbeti (“postpartum sherbet”) made with water, sugar, cloves, cinnamon and red food coloring.

In Latin America, new mothers observe la cuarentena (“quarantine”), forty days of recuperating by abstaining from sex, physical activity and spicy foods.


What We Disagreed On

Male names

Female names


My Sister Explains her Research

Anencephalic, she said, during the last days before we announced, naming the subject of her study of ethics. I listened and said nothing and kept my expression set at neutral because she spoke as if reading from the report she’d submitted for government funding. I could see her Roman Numerals and their subject headings within the cloud of her early April breath, but what I wanted to know was how an expectant mother felt, knowing the child she was carrying could not possibly survive, yet could be kept alive for hours or days in order to be harvested of its organs as long as that mother consented to carry it to term, a personal charity for the otherwise doomed. How she could accept the smiles of strangers as she swelled, the congratulations of relatives and friends unless she chose to terminate or tell she was transporting a set of parts for the needy.


What We Disagreed On

Whether I researched too much like my sister, discovering ways that made normal seem unusual.     


The Stone Child

In a book about anomalies, I discovered the stone child, who remained curled twenty-eight years unborn within its mother’s belly. How it was lifted into the light when she died because neighbors feared she had been taken by Satan’s lust. How a sixteenth century autopsy found her split uterus unknowable as bacteria, that woman hauling the dead for decades like a small, untranslatable headstone.


What Charmed Us

In Germany, names that are objects (like Apple or Tree) or surnames are never allowed, and the baby’s gender must be revealed by his or her first name.

In Japan, new mothers rest in bed for twenty-one days to recuperate and bond with the baby, while family members of every age do all the household chores. 


After We Announced: What my Sister Stopped Saying She Had Witnessed

Down syndrome 

Cerebral palsy

Cleft palate 

Spina bifada


Defects of the eyes and heart


After We Announced: What My Mother Gave Me

A stack of folded, white-going-to-gray cloth.


What My Mother Said

“Diapers. You’ll be glad I saved them. They’ll come in handy. You don’t want to be buying new over and over, and don’t you worry about them holding up after all these years. They worked just fine on you once upon a time.”


The Dark Car 2

Because the side road we were traveling the night of our near catastrophe led to and from the campus where I was in my second year as an English instructor, I pulled out onto that freeway nearly every day. Except for the occasional trips for evening events, all of those entrances were made in daylight, but for weeks I looked to my left a second time and sometimes a third, imagining I missed the approach of a speeding car.

Every time cars shot by, I regretted not thinking to memorize a license plate or even the make and model of that nearly invisible car. Like a small child, all I could remember was that the car was dark and going fast. When I mentioned this to my wife, she said, “We have better things to do than dwell on that. It’s over. We were lucky. Move on.” By now, my friend’s wife was pregnant again. She told us the news as soon as she knew for sure.



My wife bought a book and began to read. She asked me to read it, too.

Let labor begin on its own

Walk, move around and change positions throughout labor

Bring a loved one, friend or doula for continuous support

Avoid interventions that are not medically necessary

Avoid giving birth on your back and follow your body’s urges to push

What Charmed Us

In the Dominican Republic, a spoon, knife and fork are placed under three different chairs, and the mother-to-be chooses one to sit on. The spoon means girl, the knife boy, the fork undetermined. 

In Bali, the baby’s feet can’t touch the ground for 210 days. Because they are divine and sent from heaven, because the days have been measured until they can cross over to this earthly realm.  


What Failed to Charm Us

Women feared for the features of their soon-to-be-born because, they’d too often seen sheep or snakes, or worse, carelessly touched them. Change, they believed, could enter children through fingers and eyes. Sometimes, infants slid into breath with the facial hair of wolves or the snouts of pigs, midwives cursing the quirks of God, and once, a woman woke to a monkey perched so high on her inner thigh, she birthed the world’s tiniest child, renaming her The Sicilian Fairy and displaying that girl until, at nine years-old, she died.


What My Wife Did

My wife didn’t smoke and gave up alcohol. She moved dangerous household products to high shelves and padded the corners of furniture. 


What My Wife Said

“Proactive is for the commonplace. Anxiety is for the rare.”


The Stone Child 2  

Early that summer, a woman who worked with my wife told her that someone she knew had learned that the child she carried would die shortly after birth. A doctor had listed the critical missing pieces in her unborn’s body as if, our small suburb mostly bare of animals, absence was the thing capable of harm. Although surprise was obsolete, she had chosen to carry hopelessness to term, her beliefs gathered to dust for the faint fingerprints of choice, that brief, good thing, her son’s impossible cry sung through her, pitched so high it sounded like breathing.


What Charmed Us

In Nigeria, babies are given water (to have no enemies), palm oil (for a smooth, stress-free life), kola nut (for a long and healthy one), and salt and pepper (to keep things exciting and spicy). 

In Pennsylvania, in that year before sonograms were commonplace, one doctor predicted a girl, born late, while one, laughing, said his colleague had graduated from the school of old wives’ tales.


Lesson Three: What’s been Asked of Wives

In the South American cultures where a multiple birth means the woman has cheated on her husband, what’s needed is a private, discreet disposal to save a marriage.

What’s good is getting to a private place before they’re born, letting each of them slide secretly into their birthdays, giving the chosen some comfort like heaven’s guide.

What’s best is “the death without pain at all,” pressing their chests before they draw a breath. Keep them from cold and claws. Use kindnesses so instinctive they rush to help like faith.

Above all, do not dwell on their faces. As much as possible, do not touch them.

Go home with the baby you fiercely love. If all goes well, you will be forgiven.


LaMaze 2

In a room set aside in a neighboring town’s community center, my wife and I attended a demonstration class. Six couples followed a woman’s directions about how to control pain through a loved one’s support and the mother-to-be’s practiced panting each time the pain of a contraction reoccurred. 


Lesson Four: Why SIDS is More Likely

From sleeping on the stomach or side. 

From sleeping on a soft surface. 

From lying face down on a fluffy comforter, a soft mattress or a waterbed.

From sharing a bed with parents, siblings, or pets.

From being too warm while sleeping.

From being premature. 


Revisiting the Legends 

In the stories retold for centuries, a child is raised by wolves; others are nurtured by baboons or a miscellany of friendly forest creatures. Yet once, at the college my wife and I had attended, a student, without the subsidy of folklore or religion, gave birth in the privacy of her spring break dorm room, then wrapped and disposed of that child inside a week’s worth of clean sheets and towels. For years, the story was passed down to every dorm resident. After decades passed, it became something like a legend.


LaMaze 3

Sometimes, in the car, when a radio song began, I would choke my wife’s thigh just above her knee, and she would startle, then pant until I relaxed, watching the highway with one hand on the wheel, gripping her again near the end of the radio’s song, that interval a sign of urgency, that contraction insistent with imminence, and she would close her eyes for the darkness of realism, riding tensed and blind in the passenger seat, poised for the claw that demanded her practiced, rapid breathing.  


What We Disagreed On

Whether she should be driving when I clutched her thigh. 

Whether my refusal meant I was cautious or controlling.


The Impossible

A local woman gave birth in her bathtub, then allowed her newborn daughter to drown. She told her boyfriend to carry the baby outside and stuff it deep and fully covered in their garbage can, “Now I lay me down to sleep,” the boyfriend testified he had prayed over the baby’s body when he had wrapped it in plastic and buried it under leaves rather than plunging it in garbage. To show his concern for the child, he said. To show he wasn’t heartless, not like his girlfriend who’d also stuffed toilet paper down the baby’s throat. “Blue,” he said. “The toilet paper was light blue,” as if he needed, just then, to colorize death.    


The Possible

“None of those stories have anything to do with us,” my wife said. “Worry about the possible if you have to worry.” My wife’s mother, when she visited, lapsed into the story of a relative who had brought home her healthy baby, nursed it nine days, and then dropped it. “Nine days,” she said, like it was the title of a book we should read. “The baby died.” 



When a gate across the airport service road was left open, we entered like extras early in disaster movies, the couple who carelessly confront the overloaded, late-rising cargo plane, and I paused on the upslope, cautious and choosing blindly where a runway ended just above, planes taking off at seven-minute intervals like early contractions, both of us holding our breath after we’d timed a takeoff past six, expectant, proximity to size and power calling up a mix of thrill and terror. “Let’s go,” my wife said after the third plane. “This is awful.” I kept us there for five.


The Day After Planes


My wife keeps her scheduled doctor’s appointment. The younger doctor at the office predicts a girl and late, relying on the way she is carrying the fetus. He tells her he is opposed to my being in the delivery room. “There’s a reason it’s never happened before in our hospital. Things can go wrong, and if he can’t handle it, he’s a problem nobody needs.”


My wife says she is having contractions. “They’re pretty far apart,” she says. “It’s probably false labor. The doctor just said the baby will be late. Go play tennis like you planned. I’ll just relax and then start dinner in an hour or so.”

Early evening:

I leave the courts early. The contractions, when I get home, have become more intense. They arrive more frequently. Dinner is postponed. “It’s going to be a month early,” my wife says. “It’s like those airplanes started something.”

Late Evening:

The practice’s older doctor is on call. He welcomes my intention to be in the delivery room and predicts nothing except the expectation of a successful birth. “This is late-term premature,” he says. “The best kind.” I tell him about his colleague’s prediction. “Dr. Nostradamus,” he says and laughs. “He gets his share of coin flips.” In the delivery room, my wife pants. The nurses inspect and then ignore me. When the doctor says, “You have time to get something to eat,” I follow him out.


“I know where you ate dinner,” my wife says. “Chili dogs with onions are unmistakable.” Then she pants.


Lesson Five: Early Morning

First, notice the doctor’s car radio glowing below the hospital window, the lot, after midnight, nearly empty, announcing there is time, yet, to listen for a baseball game’s outcome formed by extra innings.

Second, wait in a dressing room as if you have an appointment.


At last, pay attention when the doctor returns and offers scrubs, saying, “The Pirates won, put these on.”  Now slowly dress, becoming who you have asked to be, the first father permitted in that hospital’s delivery room.


Feel how the nurses, one young and one old, wish you were elsewhere while you encourage and your wife pants. Suspect that the doctor is sparing you by never once mentioning problems made more likely by early delivery. 


Listen to the nurses’ voices say “push,” sounding like old friends. Hear blessing in the doctor’s matter-of-fact assurance even as the nurses shift to a unison “boy” just before everybody’s speech is paused by the first long expletive of presence, despite, regardless, and notwithstanding.

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