In the company of women

30 June 2012

A visit to Joe Penhall's Birthday at the Royal Court theatre in London – about a man who gives birth – brought back memories of those dark, enchanted days when my four daughters were each brought forth screaming into the world.

The play, although it has the gimmick of a male progenitor, is primarily about the experience of giving birth in an NHS hospital. Actually, trauma is a better word than experience. Entirely missing from the play are conventional depictions of the powerfully bonding, joyful experience that childbirth, supposedly, is. Here, it's all pain, conflict, chaos, despair, hatred and fear.

This, unfortunately, is how I remember childbirth – and, obviously, I wasn't even the one on the sharp end. My memories are blurred, thankfully, but a few jagged images stay with me.

I think of my first wife, the mother of Rose and Jean, when I returned to the hospital after I had been sent home to grab a few hours' sleep during a protracted, seemingly interminable, labour. I shall not forget the vision of her standing in a corridor like a ghost. She seemed so terribly alone. Perhaps the loneliness is the worst part of all suffering.

The stifling heat, the appalling sense of helplessness I felt as a man. The awful repeated cliched mantras of "you're doing so well" and "being so brave" and the pathetic imprecations, always, to breathe, the vain begging for pethidine.

The sounds of screaming in a corridor, from any of a dozen stark cubicles. My wife, the mother of Louise and Eva, in agony afterwards from trying to breastfeed and angry and sad after feeling she had been pressured into a having a caesarian that she hadn't wanted.

Yes, the fabled moment when you look at your child for the first time never fails to deliver the promised epiphany of tearful ecstasy. And it is breathtaking, truly. But the business surrounding it can be, and often is, grim.

It was wonderful when the mothers could hold their children in their arms and get some rest after all the paraphernalia and forceps, and dreadful, bleeping, towering machines. But for me this could not banish the guilt of never being able to reach the place where the mother was, however agonisingly, taken.

In TV and films, all fathers do is gaze dotingly at their newborns, while stumbling about in a bliss of new fatherhood and fumbling all the catches while their wives gaze at them lovingly, but forgivingly.

I don't remember it being like that – not at the birth and not afterwards. The nine months mothers spend with their children inside their bodies gives them a head start. Most women – though not all – are bonded with their babies from the first moment. The time it often takes to cross that same distance for men is not really "meant" to be there – yet men are expected to share everything that the woman goes through during and after childbirth.

But this cannot be so. This is a central trope of Penhall's satire – that the father, who is giving birth, is furious that his wife can't understand his experience, even though she has given birth herself.

The unhappiness I felt was nothing as to the pain the women went through, but at least their pain was interspersed with fierce joy. I just ground along puzzled and hapless and failing resolutely to live up to expectations.

The striking thing about Birthday is that it makes little of the idea of the male giving birth, other than to feed him a few comic lines. But perhaps that is inevitable. Whichever gender is producing life from between their legs, the experience is fundamentally the same – agonising, and destined never to be fully comprehended by the person not having the experience.

Follow Tim on Twitter @timlottwriter © Guardian News and Media 2012

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