My wife, Casey, and I teamed up for this article. Her parts are italicised. Enjoy!
Many rightly speak of the miracle of life in response to the birth of a child. However, when it comes to the role of the father in the delivery room our anecdotes are full of jokes and awkward, nervous laughter. My experience at the birth of my first child was somewhat different. My daughter’s delivery taught me about marriage and spoke to, not just the miracle of life, but the miracle of love.
This is our own experience and, while I hope to share the wisdom I received, I acknowledge others have different and more difficult pregnancies than us. I pray those women and couples get the best medical care and find peace and beauty amidst the anxiety and pain.
“I can do this, right?”
Casey and I were married in Chicago on August 12, 2016, a rainy summer day. Our wedding was beautiful! After years and years of dating and discerning God had given us our vocation, to build a family that would follow Him and share His Good News. And we didn’t waste any time.
Though we weren’t “planning” on conceiving a child in our first month of marriage we knew there was a good chance and we weren’t wrong. After a handful of weeks we knew it was time to check. As soon as we read the word on the little 2 inch long display, “Pregnant” we began scouring the directions of the pregnancy test as if it would tell us what to do next (turns out they just tell you to call a doctor). While our reactions varied at first, we talked with each other about our worries and ultimately shared in the excitement of welcoming a new member to our little family.
Soon began the doctor’s visits, the ultrasounds, the classes, and reading. Casey met with a veteran mom and friend who talked about her labor experience and shared a book on natural labor practices.
Both my friend and the book she shared focused on removing fear from labor. As a pregnant woman I would ask other mothers about labor and they usually responded with a pained facial expression, a groan, a horror story, a joke about yelling at my husband through the pain, and finally advice to take the epidural upon arrival. The book described how detrimental this outlook is and how childbirth is a completely natural, normal, and healthy process. There is pain involved, but it is “pain with a purpose” and there is nothing to be afraid of. My friend was thrilled to tell me about her labor experiences and had a huge grin on her face the whole time she talked about it. In the end she did say, “It’s the most beautiful thing you’ll ever do. It’s horrible, but it’s beautiful.” That was her only acknowledgement of the difficulty, and that was an uplifting way to hear about it.
I had only been introduced to this book, and open to the thought of a medication-free labor, about a month before the baby was due. Though I was inspired by what I read, I was still unsure of how my own experience would be, and whether my husband and I could do this on our own. The book was written by a midwife and highlighted how essential the advocacy of a midwife is in a hospital environment. My mantra to Anthony became, “I can do this, right?” and he would respond “Yes, of course, you can do this…” followed by a litany of the facts, encouragement, and reassurance that reinforced this idea.
As Casey read, she shared with me things that stood out to her, that she wanted to be a part of our labor experience. We talked about the natural ways to help relax her, deal with the contractions, and move labor along. We collected meaningful items for a “focal point,” a little sacred space with a crucifix and candles that Casey could focus on during difficult moments during delivery. We made relaxing playlists of music, bought an exercise ball and asked the delivery nurses questions about allowing Casey to be walking around as much as she could.
No matter how much you prepare, delivering a baby is daunting. Part of our mental preparation was allowing room for our plans to change. I was also worried about the side effects of pain medication but assured Casey that if it was needed it was ok, we trust our doctors and if something needs to change then that’s because it is the best thing to do.
Another way we dealt with the anxiety was to pray each night for a healthy delivery and trust in the Lord’s timing as we began to get impatient!
“...We pray Lord that You would undertake for a safe delivery at the right time… Grow and protect both mother and child as the day for delivery draws ever closer …. In Jesus name, amen.”
Of One Goal
Well the ‘day for delivery’ finally arrived, three days after the due date, on May 11, at three in the morning.
After a few contractions (to make sure this was really happening) I woke Anthony. He was up immediately and said, “I need to load the car, now!” I was so amused as I knew we would be waiting until the contractions were stronger and more frequent before going anywhere. But he packed the car. Then I made him go back and get some things I would still need during the hours I would labor at home.
At about 8:30am, we headed to the hospital where Casey got to announce her condition, “I’m in labor” and I set up the delivery room with our sacred space, snacks and other resources. But soon concern over snacks and music faded as Casey experienced stronger and stronger contractions. I was right there every time. Applying pressure to her lower back, holding her hand, resting my head against hers as we breathed in unison. Her mother, who stayed with us though delivery, called it our “labor dance.” And we really did feel in lockstep. I would offer her water or suggest an activity, she would tell me what helped and what hurt, stopping to hold each other and breathe when the pain came on.
Once the contractions became intense enough she didn’t want to get up anymore. The nurse would come and encourage her to move into different positions to help labor along. Her mom and I sat on opposite sides of the bed, holding her hands, wiping the sweat from her face, and helping her through each contraction, one at a time.
“Your body is made for this.”
“Remember all the people you’re praying for.”
“You can do this.”
“Let it wash over you. Let it melt over you.”
“Blow it away, blow the pain away”
I stared into Anthony’s eyes, breathing with him intensely, as if it was the only thing I could do to hold onto consciousness. I squeezed my mom’s hand and his as I focused on him, and my mind was filled with the images that would help me to continue this marathon: imagining our new baby swaddled up and laying on my chest; seeing his complete and total confidence in me and the absolute certainty that I could (and did) get through this. I never experienced a deeper unity with my spouse than in those moments. Our desires were one; our determination was one; our endurance was pressing toward the same goal. The love in our hearts was expanding to include the child that was about to be born. We were in an attitude of prayer.
“This pain is temporary.”
“We’re going to meet our baby soon.”
And she would close her eyes and rest for the minutes and then moments between contractions.
A Vocation to Love
It was hard to see my wife in so much pain but I truly felt grace to stay present to her, calmly and confidently encouraging her through every moment. As I held her hand in these moments, I knelt by her bedside; I found myself reflecting on the image before me. My beautiful wife, exhausted but determined, moving through an ocean of pain and tension to bring our child into the world. Even more than admiration I felt such reverence for her in that moment. The story of our faith, the sinless young woman bearing the Son of God who would endure His own suffering for our sake and rise to new life, was brought to life before me. Here, as fully as anywhere, Casey lived out our shared faith, enduring suffering for our family to bring new life, a new vocation of love. And then I snapped out of my meditation to help her trudge through another contraction, breathing, then panting until it was time to push.
Though everything was more intense I kept encouraging my wife, breathing with her, even as she pushed, to the point the nurse told me to breathe so I didn’t pass out! I was on the brink of crying out of excitement, joy, and anticipation but I kept it together so I didn’t frighten Casey with my ‘joyful face’ that sometimes resembled a ‘terrified face.’ Even as Casey pulled from reserves of determination I could only aspire to, I cheered with her, counted with her, breathed with her between pushes.
Finally, I watched our baby emerge and be laid on her mother’s chest. At last, the rushing tide of emotion could be released and I was crying and sniffling all over the place, out of amazement, happiness, but also relief. In all ways I could be, I was with her through labor. Her sighs of relief filled my heart and to see the fruit of our love made my heart overflow with gratitude and joy.
Our baby girl, Noelle, was born at 4:58pm.
After some time with her mother, Noelle came to rest with her Dad. She didn’t seem to mind my fuzzy hair as they laid her on my bare chest, leaving our little family to have a moment alone.
We both discovered strength, endurance, and love we didn’t know we were capable of before that day. Throughout this first year of our marriage we have tried to be constantly aware of the grace God offers us through each other. We have been immeasurably blessed to welcome a little girl into our family, and now we are again novices in this stage of life. I know that God will continue to teach us and to help us grow even more in our capacity to love, sacrifice, and share in one another’s joy.
While I cannot separate or contrast the experience of going through labor with my wife and meeting my daughter for the first time, our experience that day was about more than Noelle. It was about the fruit of all our hard work preparing for marriage. It was about the sacramental graces God had given us that day nine months before, grace that helped us become better, stronger people. It was about the work of a vocation, to bring love into the world, in all its forms. And now our love for each other must grow to support the life we’ve been given charge of. Luckily, we rest in the knowledge that we are supported by Him who first loved us.
Anthony Esser is recently married and lives in Southern Maryland with his wife, Casey, and daughter, Noelle, who they welcomed in May! After serving in various ministry roles from Ohio to New Orleans and three years at the Naonal Shrine, Anthony now works in evangelization in the Archdiocese of Washington. He considers himself an artist, a wannabe chef and a sometimes stand-up comic.