Meeting the Little Man

The Ides of March notwithstanding, Paracelsus has some happy news to share. For the tax year 1999, he gets to claim a dependent, along with the corresponding deduction.

Meeting the Little Man

My son was born at 11:33 PM on March 3, 1999, and I had a front row seat. He emerged, after two and a half hours of painful pushing, spindly and blue and remarkably quiet. Not quiet enough to worry any of the medical professionals in the room, but quiet enough for me to say, “Come on, let’s hear you cry, little boy! Make some noise! Let’s hear you cry!” And he did cry, small surprised yelps between what seemed to me long silences.

Some hours before, while my wife was in the middle of her labor, we had heard the sudden sound of a baby crying loudly coming down the corridor from another delivery room. That child’s powerful anguished crying stirred my emotions as I anticipated the imminent birth of our baby. It also served as a benchmark for the noise I expected my child to make. But when his time came, he didn’t make much noise. I was certainly amazed by the event of birth, but when I looked at his face, he seemed even more so. Who can blame him?

Here’s something that was on my mind a lot in the weeks leading up to the birth: I had no idea how I was going to handle labor and delivery. I’m pretty squeamish when it comes to blood and I’m somewhat inclined to get vertigo. I go completely pale and limp when I give blood. I was, therefore, visited by embarrassing visions of me passing out right as my wife needed me to support her leg or encourage her or massage her back or cut the baby’s umbilical cord. This is the canonical image of father as comic relief. Sitcom dad.

As the labor progressed, I could see that I was doing okay, which was an enormous relief. (Note to other expecting dads with similar concerns: don’t let your blood sugar drop. A strategically consumed PowerBar works wonders). I had expected everything about the labor experience to be utterly surreal, as though the air were going to be a different color and the people were going to move in slow motion. But for the most part, it was a long boring day. Cinematographers spoil us by having us believe dramatic moments are necessarily accompanied by music and lighting effects. In truth, everything looked normal—the sky was blue, the Cambridge traffic surged steadily by—except when I looked at my wife flat on her back trying to push a baby through her pelvis. That part didn’t look normal.

At the moment of birth, my attention moved rapidly from the baby to my wife to the doctor and around again. It was hard for me to focus on anything very clearly. I was prepared for, in fact I was expecting to feel, an overwhelming rush of love for the infant to engulf me, since I had so often heard this to be a part of other parents’ birth experience. But that’s not what happened to me. The experience of watching my wife go through so much pain, the detachment that came with watching the agony and the bloody viscous messiness of birth, and my watching the nurses and doctors for cues about things kept me preoccupied. I was still acutely aware of my own performance; was I a good father? Was I upholding my part of the deal in the delivery room? Would the nurses think of me as a goofy sitcom dad? I was glad I hadn’t keeled over, but I was still monitoring myself to see if I was asking the right questions, observing the things that needed to be observed: episiotomy, vacuum-assisted extraction, placenta, umbilical cord, stitches, intravenous Pitocin drip. Fascinating stuff, really.

It took a long time to come down from the heightened tension. It took a while for me to realize, in a direct visceral sense, that this was indeed my own child.


He landed in my arms first, immediately after being weighed—his grip reflex was strong enough for them to have a hard time prying him off the scale. Even with the baby in my arms, he didn’t feel like mine yet. He felt like a strange little visitor, an alien who, having stopped by, seemed just as likely to go back where he came from. He was bigger than I expected, long-limbed, and his startle reflex was an awkward unhappy buglike dance. How could he possibly have fit inside my wife’s belly?

And suddenly there he was, swaddled and laid up in my arms. To look at him, I could see that he didn’t mean to be the cause of so much drama and pain. He looked dislocated, surprised to be pulled from his comfortable lodging. He must have had a throbbing headache. His left eye was swelled shut like a prizefighter’s. With his right eye he gave me an unfocused questioning look: what did I mean to do with him? He squealed and snuffled softly.

A vivid image came to my mind, an image of a lonely railway station late at night. I was meeting, in the shadow of an empty departing train, this scared disoriented little man. He clutches a spent one-way ticket in his tiny fingers. He has absolutely nothing else. He can’t go back where he came from. He doesn’t speak my language, he is shivering with the cold, and he needs so much help. This is when the tension and detachment finally begin to melt away. This is when the tears come pouring. Come with me, little man. I can help you.