From A Dad's Point Of View: Feeling Helpless During A Difficult Birth : The Baby Project Frank Braun, Lateefah Torrence's husband, gives his account of their difficult birthing experience. During one of Lateefah's painful moments, Franks says he realizes that he failed her — and he replays that moment over and over in his mind.
NPR logo From A Dad's Point Of View: Feeling Helpless During A Difficult Birth

From A Dad's Point Of View: Feeling Helpless During A Difficult Birth

Frank Braun, with his daughter Dalia. Courtesy of Frank Braun hide caption

toggle caption
Courtesy of Frank Braun

Frank Braun, with his daughter Dalia.

Courtesy of Frank Braun

Lateefah Torrence, one of the Baby Project moms, shared her difficult birthing story earlier this week. During the experience, her husband, Frank Braun, wrote notes when he was able and recorded voice memos. Here, Frank, a special education teacher in New York City, shares his version of the events.

Saturday, July 16

Noon: I time three pressure waves before Lateefah decides to shower. I feel on alert, but not scared. I think my relative ease is because Lateefah says something about the pressure not being so bad. Could it get worse? Sure. But I also hear her talking herself through it.

The crib mattress is being delivered today. We haven't finished organizing our bedroom — we plan to strap the crib (minus one rail) to the bed. Our bags are packed for the hospital. Our intention is to leave only when Lateefah has been having 1-minute pressure waves every 3-4 minutes for an hour.

12:10 p.m.: She's had waves of more or less a minute in the 3-4 minute range. But it hasn't been an hour. I'm keeping myself prepared: staying hydrated and grazing on whole nut and fruit bars for energy. I hear Lateefah talking herself through pressure waves in the shower. She has unalloyed joy when she thinks about the baby. Her voice becomes musical. Her eyes sparkle. Her smile is contagious.

About 1:10 p.m.: Lateefah decides to nap. On cue, our neighbor starts blasting '90s club hits. And I mean at a volume that makes our bedroom shake — even with two wardrobes, a changing table and rugs under them against our shared wall.

1:40 p.m.: Lateefah is sound asleep.

About 2:30: Lateefah wakes and gets on the birthing ball. We start timing contractions again. After 30-45 minutes, Lateefah tells me from the bathroom to call the doctor because of the contractions. I ask Lateefah if she wants to wait until the contractions are consistently 3 minutes apart, not the varying between just over 4 to just under 3. She says she doesn't want to give birth in a cab.

About Lateefah

Lateefah Torrence, 38, is a writer who lives in New York, N.Y. She and her husband, Frank, welcomed Dalia Joule on July 17.

Just as I get our wonderful OB on the phone, Lateefah says, "Tell Dr. Y, 'bloody show.' " (That means that the mucus plug in her cervix is loosening — to me, that means a few hours until Lateefah would, as our hypnosis training indicated, "know when to push.")

I tell Dr. Y about the contractions. "They're birthing waves," I keep reminding Lateefah as she sits on her birth ball, rocking and using her hypnosis cues. Dr. Y says in a conversational tone to get Lateefah to the hospital — the hospital staff has Lateefah's records, and Dr. Y would make sure the hospital staff would be expecting Lateefah.

I call a car service and the cab driver arrives within three minutes, but I am frustrated at Lateefah telling me the driver would wait as she packs more stuff into her bag. The drive to the hospital is manageable — the birthing waves don't increase — maybe we should have realized things weren't going according to plan.

The hospital guard waves us through; people make complimentary comments; one older woman puts her hand on Lateefah's belly and moves her body as if in blessing. We take the elevator to the 12th floor and sit in a triage suite.

I hand our admissions paperwork that we had completed at home to the staff member behind the desk, but she hands me more paper and asks me for my insurance info, which was part of the completed paperwork I had just given her. Between that exchange and the chatter of the various people behind the desk, the banality of the experience for the paper pushers is unsurprisingly at odds with my desire for Lateefah to get into a labor and delivery room so she doesn't have the baby in a waiting room.

Dr. Y comes by in scrubs and asks Lateefah some specifics. She reassures us and checks on other moms-to-be.

Maybe 20 minutes later, the door to the exam part of the triage suite opens and a nurse asks for "Ms. Torrence, Ms. Torrence?" Either there was a shift change or records had been confused. Of course, Ms. Torrence is waiting right there, ready to pop. But Dr. Y told the staff to be ready for her, so why did they have to go through paperwork to admit her and call for her in a waiting room?

Maybe 20 minutes of more waiting (Lateefah had told me to wait outside the exam area), and then Lateefah and at least two nurses come out. The nurse tells me they need to talk to Lateefah about "woman things," so I can't come. Lateefah is busy breathing, but I rationalize that maybe I'll just be in the way.

Thirty minutes later and nothing. I walk across the hall to the nurses' station and ask what's going on. I'm told that HIPAA regulations stipulated patient privacy. I say, "What? She's my wife, I've known her for eight years, and we both get regular checkups. I'm her birth coach, and she and I didn't practice my giving support from a different room." The nurse at the desk says she understands my concern. She calls wherever Lateefah is and is told it would be a few more minutes.

Frank and Lateefah, pre-pregnancy. Courtesy of Lateefah Torrence hide caption

toggle caption
Courtesy of Lateefah Torrence

Frank and Lateefah, pre-pregnancy.

Courtesy of Lateefah Torrence

6:30 p.m.: I approach the nurses' station, and the same nurse sees me. She says I had waited long enough and gets on the phone to find Lateefah. Then I see Lateefah and the nurses come out of a nearby room.

When Dr. Y had seen us earlier, she told us that Lateefah would be admitted, since the plan had been to induce Lateefah the next morning anyway. Dr. Y and the staff know Lateefah's dilation and effacement, but Lateefah doesn't want to know, so we proceed to a labor and delivery room.

Lateefah uses her hypnosis cues, and I put up our "Using Hypnosis" sign on the room door, and take our birth plan and "How to Help Family Using Hypnosis" guide (all 12 copies of each) to the nurses' station. Realizing I don't know anyone's name, I see the nurse who had helped me track down Lateefah. I explain how Lateefah and I didn't want to tell nurses how to do their jobs, but could this nurse pass the copies to the people who would be working with Lateefah? She takes them and tells me it's obvious that I just want everything to be OK, so I have no reason to worry about offending anyone.

It's time for the nursing staff shift change. Andrea introduces herself and says the nursing staff agreed she was the best fit for us, because she describes herself as the "earthiest, crunchiest" nurse in the hospital. She wasn't trained in the method Lateefah and I were using, but she has used other hypnosis-based birthing techniques. She is also a doula. This is better than we could have hoped.

Later, Andrea introduces us to another nurse who had given birth at home three times. So again I think, "This is great."

Lateefah and I use the hypnosis techniques we practiced, and they work for a while, but my memory is a blur of attending to Lateefah's needs until she says to Andrea that she can't take it and needs an epidural. Since I had only whatever I had read as a guide, and my idea of birthing had rapidly converted from "whatever is safe" to "natural," I foolishly mumble something about "drugging our baby." Lateefah's response is along the lines of: "Don't you care about my pain?"

I can't say the hypnosis cues Lateefah and I had used. As she experiences contractions, I place my hand where we had practiced, but I'm embarrassed to say the verbal cues in front of Andrea and the home-birth-experienced nurse (I realize this later).

(I failed Lateefah in that moment. I don't know if she remembers, but it replays for me every time I think about that night. Even worse, she looked at me and said: "Say the words! Say the words!" and I didn't. My mind was split: We were using hypnosis in front of strangers and I managed to psych myself out. Plus, I started to fear that using the cue word "anesthetic" during the contractions would reassign that cue word from positive imagery to the agony Lateefah was in. And I was helpless watching her contortions — I just wanted her pain to stop.)

Relatively soon after that, two female residents come in to administer the epidural and hook up a switch so Lateefah can self-administer the drugs.

(Lateefah's pain turned out to be back labor, which we didn't plan for. We thought back labor didn't apply to her since the baby had been in the proper position for weeks, according to our weekly monitoring. My advice: Prepare for back labor just in case.)

Andrea instructs both of us to get some sleep; they have reclining chairs for partners just for this purpose. I set my phone's alarm to wake me every 45 minutes, so I'm not expected to rouse from a deep sleep to handle active labor or an emergency. I manage to wake up and reset the alarm twice, but I don't remember waking up again until just before 7 a.m.

Sunday, July 17

7 a.m.: Andrea leaves. A very caring nurse takes her place, but Lateefah and I don't understand her very well.

8 a.m.: Dr. Y checks Lateefah and says that induction might not be necessary as the baby had moved, and Lateefah's cervix had effaced and dilated more since the last look.

9:12 a.m.: I'm in the deli next door (Lateefah had told me to make sure I eat). I'm not sure what part is emotional and what part is physiological, but I feel myself trying to navigate the deli, yet my body is made of Jell-O. I have to consciously seek where to pay, where to order, how to use the stairs. I've been gone 15 minutes, but feel it's too long, even though I know there's nothing I can do.

Sometime before noon: Another nurse comes in and says she would be our nurse until the other nurse finishes some special assignment. We understand her better, but the switching seems odd.

Hours pass with Lateefah wearing the fetal monitors. She tells the nurse something's wrong, that the sensation is different in her right leg than in her left leg. The nurse is unable to do anything about this. Lateefah presses the call button multiple times and someone eventually shows up, but dismisses her concerns.

Lateefah uses the call button again and a resident appears. The resident says this level of pain is normal at this stage of birth. (I should have walked to the nurses' station, but I didn't. I thought my presence and my now-restored ability to use the verbal and the physical hypnosis cues was better than leaving Lateefah alone in the room.) Finally, after pressing the call button three or four times, someone comes in to check Lateefah's epidural. It had broken off.

We're told that there are only two residents on the floor, and they need an attending present to do procedures, and unfortunately they're administering another epidural right now and there's only one epidural cart.

When the resident does show up and is preparing her equipment, some guy in scrubs walks in (Lateefah is in tears) and without looking up from his iPhone, he says, "So-and-so are ordering from the pizzeria. Want anything?" The resident responds. Lateefah is leaning on me as she sits on the edge of the bed, curving and straightening her back according to the resident's instructions.

By this time, the resident is having difficulties with the epidural and she tells this guy she's having problems. He talks her through options while still using his iPhone. Lateefah is still leaning on me, tensing with every contraction.

Lateefah arches her back and looks at the guy and says, "I understand this is a teachable moment, but can you just do this for her? I'm in so much pain right now." The guy, who has not introduced himself, has finally put his iPhone away and begins to say something. But I cut him off with something along the lines of: "You need to expedite this. We've waited for you, and my wife has held out as long as she can."

Lateefah was sitting on the side of the bed with her legs dangling, leaning on me, crying. In eight years, I'd only seen Lateefah cry three times. In less than 24 hours, that number doubled.

Around 4 p.m.: Lateefah has indicated pain since noon. Now, four hours later, the epidural goes in. Unfortunately, it takes longer to take effect this time.

Dr. Y comes by to check, expecting more dilation, more effacement and finds no change, which makes sense after we tell her what happened with no one listening about the epidural. The fetal monitor isn't getting good readings of the baby. Given how many times the monitor's been moved, Dr. Y believes the baby is settling near Lateefah's cervix. Dr. Y decides to induce out of precaution. Now Lateefah and I, who wanted drug-free, are standing on the top of the cascade of interventions: Give Pitocin to induce, feel pain, increase epidural, which causes difficulties with pushing, give more Pitocin. Repeat ...

I step out to go to the bathroom and miss Dr. Y breaking Lateefah's sac. There's meconium in the fluid, so Dr. Y decides that the pediatrician will see the baby immediately after she is born. The cord will have to be cut immediately, and skin-to-skin contact will have to wait.

Somehow, we luck out. Lateefah still feels contractions. And with the shift change (we've now been in the hospital for more than 24 hours), Andrea's back with us.

Dr. Y comes in and out of the room a few times, and at one point indicates that we are to start the pushing, possibly at 8 p.m.

8 p.m.: Lateefah and the space are readied for the pushing. She's shifted on the bed. The part of the bed where her feet had been was removed. There are stirrups at what amazingly appears to be a comfortable angle and height. Andrea holds Lateefah's right leg and I hold Lateefah's left. Dr. Y is on a stool between Lateefah's legs.

Lateefah and I had discussed where I would be during this stage even before hypnosis was part of it, and I was supposed to be at her head, holding her hand, comforting her. From the position I am in, I can do all of that except when we thought she'd need me the most — when she was pushing.

The four of us talk about whatever, until Lateefah feels a contraction. Dr. Y had previously told Lateefah to push three times during a contraction, and that's what Lateefah does. We talk, she feels a contraction, she pushes, pushes, pushes, relaxes and we talk more. Dr. Y examines the progress below. Andrea and I bring Lateefah's legs out of the stirrups and toward her chest only for the contractions.

I can see straight down, but I can't see what Dr. Y sees. I see what appears to be a corner of dark wet fabric after the second or third contraction. Then I see scalp. I don't say anything to Lateefah because I don't know if it will comfort her.

I lose count of the contractions (my earliest memories of sharing this with anyone are that Lateefah might have had six contractions, probably five and definitely less than 10.)

8:43 p.m.: Our baby slips out and someone, not me, says the time. (Later, I went over and over it in my head, and I didn't see our baby slip out. I didn't hear her either, as she made nary a peep even as she was examined by the pediatrician.)

I stay with our baby girl when the pediatrician or Andrea steps away. I try to spend as much time as I can with Lateefah, but I don't want our baby to be left alone.

Dr. Y talks to Lateefah as she stitches. Andrea attends to some paperwork when she isn't assisting the pediatrician. I don't call our baby girl by either of the names we had chosen until Lateefah is able to hold her.

Then Lateefah asks, "Dalia?"

Our girl's response seems nonexistent — or at least noncommittal. So Lateefah says, "Aziza?" Our girl pretty forcefully stiffens.

Dalia Joule it is.

After the room is cleaned, pizza-ordering doctor comes by to remove the epidural. He comes back moments later and tells us how he had been observing the resident the whole time, and there really wasn't a problem, but he was sorry we had to wait so long.

Lateefah sends me out for takeout. When I return, she's dressed and on the phone.

11:30 p.m.: Lateefah and Dalia are wheeled to recovery. While Lateefah settles into a recovery room, I accompany Dalia to the nursery. I remember thinking how young the nurse who was holding our baby looked. I remember thinking how sad it was that these babies weren't rooming with their parents. The workaday atmosphere was apparent from the way certain babies were handled or not — it wasn't lack of care or substandard care, but it seemed obvious that these nurses had numerous tasks and numerous babies. Dalia and I are given ID bracelets: I would not be allowed near her if I lost mine.

Just as when she was first born, Dalia is silent, her head moving as if she was taking it all in. Intellectually, I know her eyes aren't focusing, but I keep describing what I thought she was looking at. Because the nurses are so busy, there are times when it's just Dalia and me. Her eyes are gray, but she has her mother's nose, lips and ears. Her hair (that she came out with so much was a surprise) is long enough that it doesn't appear to be her mom's, but not long enough to determine if it's mine.

Frank had to leave at midnight while his daughter Dalia and his wife Lateefah stayed in the hospital. Courtesy of Lateefah Torrence hide caption

toggle caption
Courtesy of Lateefah Torrence

Frank had to leave at midnight while his daughter Dalia and his wife Lateefah stayed in the hospital.

Courtesy of Lateefah Torrence

When the nurse finishes, she asks me if I want to wheel Dalia in her bassinet to Lateefah's room. I talk to Dalia the whole way.

The nurse tells us that regulations require fathers to leave by midnight, but she also says she doesn't watch the clock. I leave at about 12:30 a.m., walking the same way I had walked when Lateefah had asked for the takeout. Dalia had been born by that time, but that fact sunk in more.

Monday, July 18

8:54 a.m.: Lateefah is starving. I sleep through her call, but the alarm wakes me at 9 a.m. I get to the hospital before 11 a.m. with Lateefah's requested meal from the Whole Foods a block from the hospital.

Tuesday, July 19

12:01 a.m.: I'm forced to walk away a second time from Lateefah and Dalia. Lateefah notices that I'm short-tempered (this happens whenever I'm hot and sweaty without exerting myself). So I wonder, how can I maintain an even keel, how can I do this? When I'm holding Dalia, I don't feel capable of protecting her, and I know it's a short time: 25 years, college, I'll be 65, and for all I know, she'll be in my hospital room. Having Dalia changes everything.

12:03 p.m.: There should be more to say, but holding Dalia and the responsibility that goes with it draws from the same source as teaching and all of its aspects (caring for the students, planning for them, being proactive for them), as well as all aspects of being Lateefah's partner. I haven't figured out my life as husband and teacher, and now I'm a father. And shouldn't I be falling all over myself with words to describe Dalia and the change Dalia's birth has triggered?

12:46 p.m.: While Lateefah and Dalia stay with a hospital volunteer, I leave the hospital lobby, walk to a corner and flag a cab. As the cab driver gets the cab to the entrance, I run back to assist Lateefah from the lobby to the cab. Lateefah's standing, holding Dalia, and I can't find a way to use the LATCH child safety system, and the seatbelts are loose. I pay the driver for his time and help with attempts at securing the car seat. I help Lateefah get Dalia and her things back into the lobby, and then I'm back at the corner to flag a second, later-model-year vehicle. Again, I run back to the lobby as the cab drives to the entrance. See LATCH system and fail at it, but I manage to secure the car seat with seatbelts. We put Dalia in the car seat, and Lateefah and I get in. As the cab rounds a corner, Lateefah says the seatbelt is too loose. I can't tighten the seatbelts further. I say to Lateefah, "I can't check every single car without the car seat." The cab driver pulls to the curb, and Lateefah takes Dalia out of the cab. Something she says reminds me that I hadn't checked for the lower LATCH anchor on her side of the car. Lateefah had put me in charge of the car seat, so she has no experience with it. How could I be so shortsighted as to not realize that from the beginning? I check her side, find the anchor, and the seat is secured without further hassle or delay.

How can I be more than a biological father? How can I be a dad if I have trouble with a car seat in a parked car when it's not raining or snowing, baking or freezing?