“Is this really what it feels like?” I asked.
I was seated next to my wife on the floor during our childbirth class. A clothespin was clamped tightly to my earlobe. We were three minutes into a five-minute exercise designed to teach all the husbands what it feels like to experience labor pains. A red-hot piercing sensation was shooting up my ear, into my brain, and out my left nostril.
The nurse answered me.
“Not quite. To accurately simulate the pain, you would need about a thousand more clothespins. And they would be attached to a different part of your anatomy.”
I heard one guy whimper. Meanwhile, I was breathing like a trucker with thirty miles to the next rest stop after some bad sushi.
Hoo hoo. Hee hee.
It wasn’t helping.
I glanced at my wife and instantly took pity on her. In a few months she would be delivering our first child. A boy. A direct descendant of yours truly, the guy with the giant melon. If a rubber mallet and a Tootsie roll pop had a baby, it would look like me.
I vowed to be there for my wife when the time came. Supportive and unflappabale.
Fast-forward to the delivery room.
My wife was writhing on the bed. She was going for a “natural” delivery, but nothing seemed natural about it. There were lots of wires and needles and smells and sounds. Doctors and nurses were coming and going. The entire room was a buzz of activity. And me?
How do you say…
Guys are problem solvers. We fix things. It’s what we do. But in that moment my wife was in excruciating pain and I was completely powerless. I wanted to help, but my idea of bringing a pickup truck into the delivery room, attaching a come-along to the front bumper, then tying the other end to the baby’s shoulders was quickly shot down. Something about HIPPA laws, I guess.
Gabby motioned me to come to the side of the bed.
“Give me your hand,” she said.
My wife needed me, and this is how I could help. I held out my hand, ready to share a tender moment. To soothe and comfort her during a difficult experience. To whisper in her ear and stroke her hair and tell her it would be all right.
To be there for her.
So Gabby took my hand.
Let go of my pinkie.
And with my remaining fingers nestled in her palm, she squeezed my knuckles like she was cracking three walnuts. If my fingers had been made of charcoal briquettes, every contraction would have produced a pile of diamonds.
My body tensed. My eyes rolled into my head. I nearly lost control of my bowels. I retracted my ring finger from the bunch to try and save the others, but she just said, “No!” through gritted teeth and brought it back in again, the wedding ring digging into the other knuckles and grinding the joints.
I pulled the finger loose once again, and she angrily said,
“What are you doing!?”
I looked her in the eye and said,
“Honey. It really hurts my knuckles when you squeeze them together like that.”
The entire room fell silent. Machines stopped. Like in the movies when you hear the sound of a record scratching. I looked up and saw all of the nurses staring at me. They were all wearing surgical masks, but their eyes bore an expression of surprise mixed with outrage.
Then I looked toward Gabby. She said nothing. She didn’t have to. Every muscle of her face was contorted into a look which said, “I’ll let go of your fingers just as soon as I see you pass a fully-formed watermelon out your butthole.”
So I gave her the finger.
The ring finger.
Looking back, I can see that I learned many life lessons in that one simple moment, and not just the fact that I am an idiot with the pain threshold of a six-year-old. While I cannot claim to follow these truisms on a daily basis, I share them here as a refresher course for all of us, husbands and wives, who strive for a better marriage.
- Never underestimate the power of empathy: Sometimes life throws you problems you can’t solve and pain that won’t go away. Unless your spouse asks for your advice, don’t give it. Instead, just hold her hand and ask her to tell you more about what she’s feeling. You would be surprised the miracles that can emerge from simply saying “that sucks” and offering a hug.
- Compromise is not a dirty word: I once believed that a perfect marriage was one filled with win-win outcomes where no one had to sacrifice anything. I now realize that was a complete myth, like gluten-free pastries that actually taste good. But that doesn’t mean that marriage is a contest of wins and losses where husbands and wives count victories in hopes that it all balances out in the end. Quite the contrary. Marriage is husband and wife fighting tooth-and-nail against human nature, battling selfishness, pettiness and complacency. Sacrificing self to discover the joy born of a generous spirit.
- Embrace the pain: Since the day our first child was born, we have endured many trials in our marriage. Inconsolable babies. Sleepless nights. Solo parenting. Business travel. Lost income. Loss of loved ones. Dreams on hold. Dwindling quality time. The invisibility of motherhood. The anxiety of fatherhood. Miscommunication and misunderstanding. For all of this, our bond is stronger than before.
How do I know?
That day in the delivery room, my wife squeezed my hand as if life depended on it. Because life did depend on it. A child was born from her pain.
But something else happened, too.
My knuckle swelled up to the size of a pomegranate. Hurt like the devil. To this day, eight years later, I still can’t get that ring off my finger, no matter how hard I try. It’s stuck. Always there for me. A constant reminder that sacrificial love changes us all for the better.
If we let it.