The first words tiny Tobias Christopher Cunliffe-Jones hears when he silently slips into this world, blue and floppy, his gnarly umbilical cord still pulsing blood, are these:
“Hello Tobias. I’m your dad. And you are very loved.”
From the corner of the dimly-lit room in the birth unit at Westmead Hospital, I catch this moment on my iPhone. The words are so simple, so open. I don’t even try to stop myself crying.
I’m here because mum Zoe and dad Simon, a young couple from Sydney’s west, have agreed to the most generous gesture imaginable: to have a virtual stranger – a childless, middle-aged stranger, whose only points of reference for childbirth are the arms-length stories of friends (edited for humour or whatever other emotion fits the moment) and the full-on theatrics of television dramas – to be at the birth of their second child.
They want people to know that, amid the many upsetting stories of difficult labours and heartbreaking outcomes, there are good births. I want to get as close to the experience of birth as I’m ever likely to. It seems like a win-win.
But in those confusing moments after Toby has been pulled to the surface of the birthing bath and placed on his mother’s bare skin, as he lies silent and still, I wonder if we’ve both got it wrong. Is this a good birth? Is there a problem? Should I even be here?
Because this is all absolutely not what I expected. From that first moment, about 9pm, when I knocked tentatively on the door of birthing room five then cautiously let myself in — expecting bright lights, crowds and yelling, but finding only soft music, darkened spaces and the regular, focused rhythm of Zoe’s breathing — I’m struck by how out of whack my expectations are with reality.