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|Publisher:||University of Queensland Press|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)|
About the Author
Ben Robertson is a former journalist with the Courier-Mail and Sunday Mail and a former reporter for WIN television. He is a former freelance journalist and subeditor for IPC Magazines in London and Brisbane News magazine, for which he wrote an architecture column and travel features.
Read an Excerpt
Hear Me Roar
The Story of A Stay-At-Home Dad
By Ben Robertson
University of Queensland PressCopyright © 2012 Ben Robertson
All rights reserved.
Hello, little man
I met her at the Mad Cow.
Townsville in North Queensland – home of the Lavarack Barracks, the rugby league team the Cowboys and a mosquito-borne disease called Ross River fever – isn't the world's most romantic city, although I would tell Andy and Nick, all gooey voiced over the phone, that the girl of my dreams had stolen my heart in one of the nightclubs that line Flinders Street. In truth, the beer-and-rum soaked Mad Cow tavern with its black-and-white façade, udder bar and saloon-style décor was a great place to get into a fight on a Friday night or, it would seem, to fall in love.
'She was walking in and I was walking out,' I'd said. 'A few seconds either way and we would never have met.' Nick told me later that when I talked about Darlene I made Townsville sound like some kind of Casablanca.
'I've been to Townsville,' he said. 'It's a shithole.'
As I rub my fingers through her long curly brown hair I think about fate and destiny, those precious seconds. What if I'd stayed home that night like I'd originally planned? What if we'd never bumped into each other? Would I have still found her? If I hadn't challenged her to a dancing competition on the Mad Cow dance floor Darlene wouldn't be lying on the operating table at the Mater Mothers' Hospital, the lower half of her body anaesthetised in preparation for the birth of our first child. Right now, there is in me an overwhelming love for her, a love that seems magnified under the bright warm lights of this theatre.
I thought I would never see a more breathtaking sight than when she walked down the aisle at our garden wedding on the Sunshine Coast, dressed in a glittering white Darb dress and smelling of the fresh lotus flowers she held by long green stems in her hand. But how beautiful she looks here, prepped for surgery, so vulnerable and terrified and in need of protection. More than ever, she needs me, reaching out so that I can hold and squeeze her hand, and that makes her stunning.
We planned on a natural birth and had attended prenatal classes where our names, written on tags in thick Nikko pen, were stuck on our chests before we participated in the group sessions with other equally nervous first-time parents. We played a sort of pregnancy version of Trivial Pursuit, practised holding a plastic dummy baby, and were given a tour of the birthing suites and accommodation for new mums when the big day arrived. At the end the lights were dimmed and we watched a film that showed a young couple having a baby.
It wasn't as gory as the film I'd seen on the projector in biology class back at the Catholic boys' school I'd gone to in Brisbane in the 1980s. In that film a woman with gigantic pale breasts had wailed and screamed. The impossible contortions of her spectacularly hairy and swollen vagina were followed by an enormous gush of blood between her splayed legs, which made my head swim ... not to mention that the doctor nearly dropped the bluish baby that popped out at the same time, almost like he was juggling a tricky catch at first slip. What followed was even worse: a dinner-plate sized placenta, all reddish-blue with bulging veins and vessels, that had us squirming in our plastic seats and discussing at big lunch how it reminded us of Alien when John Hurt gave birth to that nasty extraterrestrial. But then the Christian Brothers probably knew that such graphic images (from the biology film, not Alien) would be enough to either swear us to celibacy and maybe into the priesthood or to abstain from sex until we were well and truly married and committed to seeing such horrors through to their time-consuming and financially draining aftermath. I'd sat there wide-eyed and just giggled when our biology teacher explained why the mother in the film had such large nipples, so enormous in fact they looked as though someone had knocked over a pot of ink on white writing paper.
'Could you please tell the class why you think the word nipple is so funny, Mr Robertson.'
'I don't think it's funny, Miss.'
'Then say it for me will you, Mr Robertson. Nipple.'
'Nipple,' I said, and Andy and Nick laughed through their covered mouths, and I laughed, too, and ended up in the form master's office.
The film at the Mater Mothers' Hospital focused more on the role of the politically correct titled 'support person', and the things that could be done to make the pregnant woman happy before she went into battle. The support person in the film was called Ken – he may have been her husband or he may have been her boyfriend or he may have been just a support person, we'll never know. He was rubbing his partner's lower back with a tennis ball, getting cloths to wipe her brow and helping her with her breathing as he gently eased her through the pain with kind words of encouragement. It seemed to me that Ken was a real superhero, the star of the film, which didn't seem right as he was stealing all the glory from the mother, and where was all that gore we'd been brainwashed with back at school?
Afterwards, when the lights were turned back on, the midwife asked if anyone had any questions.
'Can I get Ken's phone number?' asked a young father-to-be with an Irish accent who'd been making everyone laugh all day. 'I think he will do a much better job than me.'
Unfortunately the natural birth Darlene so desperately wanted never eventuated because at the due date there were medical complications and a Caesarean was recommended. The baby was breech – wrong way up in the womb with its head wedged uncomfortably under her breasts. The obstetrician said we could go ahead with a natural birth if we wanted to but the risks to the baby and to Darlene were high.
'Things could get tricky, but I've delivered hundreds of breech babies,' he said. We liked the obstetrician. He was old and wise, from a time when expectant mothers seemed to be not nearly as tense and certainly didn't have nearly as many questions learned from hours searching the internet. We trusted him. Despite his confidence, though, we could tell by the subtle undertones in his voice that a caesar was definitely the best option. But he wasn't going to push us. It would be our decision.
When Darlene first visited him at his consulting rooms in the city he told her not to become a crack addict or to go bungy jumping, but she could do everything else. She asked about a bacterial disease called Listeria infection that could affect pregnant women; whether she should avoid soft cheeses, eggs and processed foods.
'For goodness sake, just relax and enjoy yourself,' he said. 'Use your common sense. You can even have a glass of wine every now and then if you feel like it.' That's exactly what we were after from a doctor. With so much information available there was a tendency to over-analyse everything.
'You're having a very boring pregnancy,' he used to say to Darlene, which was his way of putting us at ease. Everything was going to be okay. We still thought about going through with it and having a natural birth but then considered a story someone had told us about a family friend who'd lost her breech baby in the delivery room. As long as the baby and Darlene were healthy, we decided we didn't care how it came out.
I had been a Ken-of-sorts up until now. I'd rubbed her belly with cocoa butter, fed her Subway foot-long salad and chicken rolls (no olives or carrot) and her favourite green chicken curries from the local Thai restaurant, massaged her swollen feet and coped with wild mood swings when she would be bright and bubbly one second then threatening to strangle me the next. One night she burst into tears before a movie on television had even started.
'I know I'm going to cry later so I'm going to cry now,' she said in response to my concerned look. She cried again during a commercial for the Commonwealth Bank. 'The family in that ad is just so gorgeous.'
Another time she started laughing at the dinner table and wouldn't stop. Then, not ten minutes later, she had the tissues out telling me how sick she was of feeling like a beach ball.
'I'm fat, fat, fat ... disgusting and fat.'
Despite all this madness, I thought we were ready. Darlene had churned through a mountain of books on the birthing process and what might follow. We'd watched soothing DVDs narrated by plum-voiced British experts called Miriam. Only when it was over did I realise how far from ready we really were.
The Rolling Stones' 'Satisfaction', is playing in the background from another room or over a loudspeaker; I'm not sure where it's coming from. The bearded and middle-aged anaesthetist sings and hums along under his breath, 'I can't get no ... satisfaction ... hey hey hey ...' as he threads the needle into the epidural space around her spinal cord. Darlene starts to shake uncontrollably and complains of the cold, a side effect when the drugs used to numb the nerves are injected into her lower back. There is a chance of paralysis, the anaesthetist had said, or a clot developing that could lead to complications, maybe travelling into her brain and killing her. A percentage was given to that risk.
After nine months I had grown weary of being given risk percentages. At the beginning there was Down syndrome, spina bifida and other conditions that kept me up at night with worry. And then we were told that even if everything looked good at the birth there was still a possibility of blindness, deafness, sudden infant death syndrome and autism. There's a two per cent chance of this! Depending on your age a one-in-500 chance of that! I had given up reading the baby books Darlene enjoyed so much because they scared the hell out of me.
'You're not interested in this baby,' she had said on occasions when her hormones were running wild. There was too much information about what could go wrong. I just wanted to focus on what might go right. And then there was my father, always in the back of my mind.
We had not bothered doing the test for Down syndrome, which involved an injection into the uterus that might kill the foetus (another percentage of risk). And even if the baby did have Down syndrome, what then? Now that I had seen the ultrasound, seen its heart beating, seen its tiny arms and legs moving, how could we terminate it? Nick's younger brother had Down syndrome. He was the ultimate optimist who loved taking around the bucket of water we washed our mouthguards in at rugby training, and handing out the cut-up oranges at half-time. It seemed ludicrous that anybody would have wanted to terminate him, this person who so much enjoyed every detail of life and made everyone around him happy.
Despite my relatively strict Catholic upbringing I am not overly religious and had long ago dispensed with Sunday Mass, but we agreed to 'take the hand that God has dealt us' because that seemed like the best way to explain it when people asked if we had done the amniocentesis test that women aged in their mid-thirties sometimes take. Thanks to computers everyone is so much better informed now. Sometimes I wonder if the fathers of years past had it better, men like my dad who sat it out in a waiting room and slapped each other on the back, maybe smoked a cigar, when the news came through. Ignorance must have been bliss, although not being there for the birth is something I wouldn't have missed for anything.
I am tapped on the shoulder by one of the male nurses who is starting to take photos with the digital camera I have provided him. It is the Kodak moment of all Kodak moments, more important than the wedding, which I never thought possible. There is a clean blue sheet, the same colour as the rather comical gown and shower cap I've been given to wear, held in place on a frame over my wife's chest so I cannot see the obstetrician cutting her open, and it is now time for me to stand up and see my firstborn son emerging from the womb.
It is a moment that is impossible to prepare for, not at all what I was expecting. I had imagined her panting and sweating, just like in a Hollywood movie, as I rubbed her shoulders and back, bursting into tears when the baby popped out. There is none of this, no overwhelming feeling of joy, or tears, or tenderness, nothing like what I feel for my wife who is clearly in distress as she is tugged and pulled in every direction as the baby is yanked free. Every one of my senses is on high alert; the smells, the sights, the sounds, all bombard my brain, vying for attention, demanding to be the one that will be remembered is the years that follow. Here's what I will remember, though: the obstetrician and his assistant laughing.
Whatever tension there has been in the operating theatre, it is broken by a remarkable moment because the baby – my baby, our baby – has just crapped all over both surgeons, splattering their chests with a greenish black tar-like substance that I remember from the lectures is called meconium. The obstetrician's pale blue eyes twinkle from the gap between his mask and cap. He has my baby by one leg, the other spread-eagled at an impossible right angle due, I find out later, to his cramped position in the womb – there was a danger, we'd been warned, that because he hadn't turned properly he might have dislocated hips. The baby is dangled before me, covered in blood and yellow mucus and squealing.
'Here's a photo for his twenty-first,' the obstetrician says as the flash goes off.
A moment of incredible tunnel vision overwhelms me as I zero in on the baby's left ear. It is my left ear, slightly wrinkled and speckled with blood, but a tiny exact replica nonetheless. This is definitely not the milkman's kid. My God, I think, I am a father and this is my child, a child who possesses my left ear. How truly incredible!
I thought I already knew my baby quite well from the ultrasounds and the tummy rubs when I felt him kick and squirm as I'd sung and read stories to him, my wife lying with her feet up on the couch or propped up with pillows in our double bed. The ear brings on a moment of panic. This is happening, this is serious – I am a father.
I've always been like this. There needs to be visual concrete evidence or at the very least a firm image in my mind before I can get excited, before I can truly commit or believe. I couldn't picture myself being a father. What did I know of being a father anyway? My relationship with my father was a complicated disaster. Estranged since my parents' divorce, I haven't spoken to him in years. He doesn't even know that I'm having a baby, that as of a few seconds ago he is a grandfather. All I know is that I so desperately want to be a better father than he was or is; to provide the love and trust and security and confidence in my child that he never could me. And now there is this blood-spattered left ear, and I anchor on to it.
We already knew he was going to be a boy. We agreed that the birth would be exciting enough and that knowing the sex wouldn't detract from the experience. In this regard we were definitely in the minority, with most of the people we knew astonished at our disregard for tradition. Nick, as usual, put it best: 'I bet you open your presents before Christmas.' Our baby was already named too, which I found out later is bad luck in some cultures but then I am not one for superstitions and neither is Darlene. I've always believed that bad luck and good luck are dished out in equal measure. If the vagaries of life are controlled by such things as walking under ladders or shattered mirrors or naming babies before they are born then we are all in a lot more trouble than we bargained for. As we both came from Scottish and Irish stock Darlene and I had agreed without the slightest hint of argument on the name Fergus. It was a strong Celtic name meaning 'man of strength'. Knowing he was a boy had apparently also made it easy for everyone at the baby shower. My wife told me they didn't have to buy neutral yellow for baby clothes. I had lived my whole life up till this point blissfully unaware that yellow was the Switzerland of baby colours.
The size of his swollen scrotum takes me by surprise. I guess I wasn't listening to the midwife in the prenatal classes because this is perfectly normal in newborns it turns out, due to the hormones.
'His nuts, look at the size of his nuts,' I think. Although I did not think it, as Darlene told me later that I shouted it out loud enough for the whole ward to hear, and the nurses and doctors laughed.
Excerpted from Hear Me Roar by Ben Robertson. Copyright © 2012 Ben Robertson. Excerpted by permission of University of Queensland Press.
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