"I'll be forever grateful for watching her go through it"
I never miss a chance to flaunt my pain threshold around the house. Should I nick my finger chopping onions, it may take me a minute or so to break the news, but my wife, Lizzie, will definitely hear about it. I crave her attention like a drug, and Lizzie is a world-class sympathiser. If I casually dangle a bloodied finger in front of her she'll gasp, drop what she's doing, and wrap me in her arms as if I've just come home from war. "Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God! Aww, you poor thing!"
"Bah," I'll shrug, loving the ritual. "It's nothin'. Probably won't even put a band-aid on it."
I fell over attempting to rollerblade a few years back – before we were married – and hurt my arm. Lizzie almost cried and her concern bordered on grief. "Argh! Baby! I've got to take you to hospital!"
"Bah. It's nothin'."
I ended up in emergency the next day because my arm had swollen stiff. I was honestly thrilled when the X-ray revealed a fractured elbow. How tough is he who can handle a broken arm for 16 hours? Best of all, my damaged wing guaranteed weeks of extra hugs and smooches from lovely Lizzie.
By contrast, I'd always considered her a sook when it came to pain. She'd shriek if she nearly nicked her finger chopping onions, and yelp if her toe grazed the leg of the coffee table. I'd comfort her and stroke her cheek after these near misses, but add that maybe she'd overreacted; that she really was a bit wussy.
That was before she woke me at 4am last October 19. She'd been up all night, quietly pacing the house amid a gathering cyclone of pain as our daughter inched along the birth canal. "It's time to go," Lizzie murmured between rapid, shallow breaths. In the car, the weird breathing was laced with heartbreaking little moans. I get agitated when Lizzie's sad, let alone in pain, and I reckon that's why I got lost on the way to the hospital.
When we arrived, I ran to open her door, but Lizzie just sat there, eyes squeezed shut and her knuckles whitening as she clenched the plastic interior skirting down the side of the windscreen. The contraction ebbed away and I helped her to her feet. In the process, she tore the plastic skirting clean off the car, as if searing pain had welded it to her hand.
In the labour ward waiting room, Lizzie resumed her pitiful, shuffling dance.
Me: "Darling? Yeah? OK? Darling? Huh?"
Lizzie (softly): "It hurts, babe."
I didn't know what to say or do. I couldn't help her. "I'll fix it" was my usual husbandly refrain. But here I had nothing, and suddenly I felt like a kid. Then my poor love was mightily sick. At least it brought the cavalry a runnin'.
As the midwife and nurses clicked into gear, it became clearer that I was virtually useless. I had no medical degree, no experience, no words that would make any difference – and no concept whatsoever of the physical torture my beautiful friend was enduring. I was a glorified spectator. But then, there was much to watch...
Lizzie and I had been through it all over the past 10 years. We'd been colleagues, then friends, then lovers. When we split up for a couple of years, we knew what it was like to be each other's heartbroken ex. Then, five years ago, friends again, then soul mates, then engaged, then husband and wife. I thought I knew Lizzie in every way a man could know a woman.
But as she sat, knelt and lay in a giant bath, I was introduced to the most pure, fundamental, deepest Lizzie; the primal, animal-woman – crimson-faced, guttural and in spasms creating life itself. "Hmm-hmm-hmm-hmm" was now, "Gnnrrr. Gnnnnnrrrr! GNNNRRRR!" I was in awe. Mesmerised by this glorious creature.
When baby Katie finally arrived, this primitive presence instantly departed. The Lizzie I'd known all these years and in all those ways was now breathing evenly; her pain replaced by shock, exhaustion, bliss and wonder as our daughter curled onto her chest. At an antenatal class months earlier, we dads were warned that the ancient alchemy of labour can cause our partners to scream abuse, hurl vulgarities and even make serious threats. Not Lizzie: through it all she was all "please" and "thank you", and she even apologised if she cried out "too loud".
Nowadays, I'm delighting in yet another side of Lizzie: the cooing, tender, hilariously baby-obsessed new mum. I'm glad the tempest of labour is now a distant memory for her, but I'll be forever grateful for watching her go through it. I got to meet that Lizzie; the sweet-mannered warrior goddess who knows more about pain than I ever will.