My Father's Day, and My Own

Things change.

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By Robert Schlesinger, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

Today marks a first for me—a Father's Day on which I am a father (for all of a bit more than three weeks). And while I continue to regard Father's Day as a "Hallmark holiday," I've nevertheless pondered how much things have changed during my lifetime regarding fatherhood, and specifically the father's role on the day itself.

At the doctor's suggestion, my father, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., was absent when I entered this world. "At 11:04 tonight I became, after an interval of 24 years, a father again," he wrote in his journals. "I took Alexandra to the hospital about 5:30; two hours later she was given something to accelerate her labor, and I was told that I might as well go back [home] and await developments."

Having spent several months pondering not even whether I would be in the delivery room (a given) but whether I would cut the umbilical cord, the notion of being banished (or freed) during the actual event seems unimaginably archaic and disconnected—a throwback to a time when parental roles were more traditionally and distinctly defined. The mother is ushered away by doctors and the father either waits nervously in the hospital or, as in the case of my father, is sent away entirely: nothing to do here. ("By seven, I was filled with a curious feeling—not quite apprehension, but anxiety, I guess— and felt quite sick," he wrote. "When I came back to the house, I had several bourbons in quick succession, followed by a steak, and felt much better.") The doctor recalled him shortly before 11 p.m. "Around 11:30 he picked me up in the lobby and took me to the second floor, where the offspring was revealed—a cunning little boy," he wrote.

I had no such consideration. When I took my wife Francesca to the hospital last month, I was sure and prepared to stick through to the end and help her bring our first child (we did not know the gender—like my parents before me, though they had concluded that a girl, Elizabeth Emmet, was on the way) into this world. (Dad had fortified himself with bourbon; I had a flask full of very good scotch tucked into my bag.) Rather than anxiety or disquiet, the scene was more one of calm anticipation. Her parents and I sat with her in the delivery room, tracking contractions and trying to distract her from growing discomfort. We were hunkered down for a long haul with a certain, happy conclusion.

At around 10 a.m., I remarked that the monitor tracking the baby's heartbeat had gone blank and my mother-in-law noted that she had not heard the heartbeat. The monitor must have slipped off or the baby must have moved, I said and sauntered over to the nurse's station to get help. The nurse came back and immediately started bustling: She got out various instruments and put an oxygen mask over Fran's face; she summoned doctors and other nurses. That's an odd reaction to a sensor having slipped out of place, I thought. Things started to happen very fast.

Doctors came in and dismissed my in-laws. The baby's heartbeat was very faint, Fran was told, and if they couldn't bring it up quickly, they would have to do an emergency C-section. As I stood by muttering supportive comments (I think—for all I know I might have been standing slack-jawed and frozen), my wife was told to turn on this side and that, and was poked and prodded in, ahem, indelicate ways. She passed the ordeal with heroic equanimity. I'm sorry sweetie, the doctor said, the baby has to come out right now. They wheeled her out the door. Not five minutes had passed (less than it takes to read this blog post) since I had fetched a nurse for what I assumed was a glitchy sensor.

It's hard to describe the emotional gear shift from a long, certain haul to an almost literal sprint whose uncertain conclusion would be decided momentarily.

As Fran, the medical professionals, and I moved out of the room, a nurse told me that I could not follow her into the operating room: She would be under general anesthesia and so civvies could not enter. She would show me to a waiting room. I followed Fran's bed through corridors under construction (bump! bump! she went against a couple of door frames), picking up her parents along the way. The promised waiting room was under construction, leaving me in a hallway as my wife was wheeled through double doors to the OR.

The waiting was a blur. It seemed to stretch on infinitely, even though I knew the matter would be decided very quickly. Her parents were there and then were off sensibly taking care of all of the stuff we had left in the delivery room to which we would not return. I am an inveterate pacer and did so up and down the corridor, ignoring a chair that someone had produced for me.

At some point a nurse came out and gave me the simplest, barest, best possible news: They (they!) are doing fine.

A few minutes later a doctor came out: It's a boy. Mother and son are both doing well. A bit later another doctor: His umbilical had wrapped around his head and been caught between his head and the uterine wall. He had cut off his own oxygen supply. But all was well: He came out of the womb, screaming. He had entered this world 15 minutes after I'd noticed the blank monitor.

And some time later the tightly swaddled little (6 pounds, 7 ounces—smaller than his 7 pound, 11 ounce father had been 37 or so years earlier) was rolled out. Is that the Schlesinger child ? I asked. It was, the nurse said. Would I like to hold him? She reached down to pick him up and then thought better of it—Can I see some identification , please ?

Fran's first memory waking up in the Post Anesthesia Care Unit some time later was of me standing next to her, holding our minutes-old son, Emmet. My father would have been delighted with his grandson; he is, as Dad would have said, a cunning little boy. 

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