He Was Magnificent: What You Can Do When You Have To

Sharon January 14th, 2009

One of my best friends had a baby last night.  Noah, my new godchild slipped into the world at 8:10 last night, a healthy 8lbs, 3 oz, despite being several weeks early.

“Slipped” sounds so clean, and simple.  And it wasn’t - and it was.  My friend and her husband had had contractions on and off all day - they had been to the birthing center and were told that to come back when the contractions were 4 minutes apart for an hour.  So they went home, took a nap, had something to eat, and when things got intense, took off for the 1/2 drive to the birthing center.

Then things got exciting.  Her water broke in the car, and she hit transition.  My friend who is a mild sort of person refers to transition in the front seat of a moving vehicle on a freezing night as “not much fun.”  I would probably use stronger language, personally.  And shortly after they crossed over from Massachusetts to New Hampshire, my friend ordered her husband to pull over, because the baby was coming right NOW.

My friend’s husband pulled over into an empty parking lot, raced around to the other side of the car, pulled her boots and pants off, managed to dial 911 and give a rapid precis of their situation, dropped the cell into the snow, pulled off his sweater, and caught his infant son, all in the matter of a couple of minutes.  He was, from the description my friend gave me, utterly magnificent.  The paramedics arrived in time for the wrap up, and mother, baby and Dad are all doing just fine.

What’s funny is that Dad had been very worried about just this scenario.  My friend delivered her daughter in her previous pregnancy quite rapidly - with time enough for the midwife to arrive at their home for a homebirth, but still on the high-speed order of things.  Several times during the pregnancy, my friend had joked to her spouse that he might have to deliver the baby, and my friend’s husband always disavowed any chance that he could do it successfully, expressing his fear of doing so.   We were assured that he would do something awful, probably drop or harm the baby by accident, that there’s no way he’d know what to do, and that he’d likely panic. 

Now from my perspective “not wanting to deliver your own kid in a car” falls in the category of perfectly reasonable preferences.  My friend’s husband was gently teased about the possibility, but we were gentle, because he was so obviously worried about his own ability to do so.  And yet, when the reality struck, my friend and her husband did everything right, with the speed, clarity and grace (except, perhaps for listening to the birthing center people in the first place) that were called for by the realities of the situation.  My friend had little choice in her response, although she certainly didn’t panic or overreact to the scenario. My friend’s husband did have a choice - he could have been immobilized by fear - but doing so would have been completely unacceptable to him, and so he was not.

The distinction between “what you can do when you are sitting around worrying about possibilities” and “what you can do when the situation demands it” are, for most of us, quite vast.  Most of us routinely understate our own abilities to deal with extremely difficult and stressful situations.  And of course, we’d all rather skip those situations entirely.  But I think it is important to make the distinction between what we do in times of exigency, necessity, or even when we are powerfully moved, and what we do when we are simply sitting around talking about what we might be willing or not to do.

Perhaps the single most common response I get to any given strategy that I propose that involves moderate inconvenience is “people will never…”  This is always phrased with a certainty about the nature of human nature that cannot be argued with.  And, of coures, it can’t be.  Because if we “know” that people will never do something, there’s nothing further to be said.

But in fact, human beings through their history have shown themselves able to do all sorts of truly astonishing things.  They endure conditions that are literally unthinkable to most of us - they tolerate cold and heat that most of us would say we couldn’t endure.  They eat foods many of us would never touch.  They live in social and economic systems that are completely alien to us.  They go without food and water for religious and cultural reasons.  They go to jail for their beliefs, put their bodies on the line in front of bullets and bombs for their beliefs, they find, for the things they value most, reservoirs of strength they did not know about.

But, of course, not Americans, I’m often told.  American-ness is permeated with a chronic tendency towards a rhetoric of exceptionalism (almost always delivered by Americans about their fellows, and often by people who themselves give the lie to what is being said) - either Americans are fat, selfish, drooling idiots who stare at the tv all day and greedily and intentionally consume everything in sight, or they are the single noblest people in the world, superior in every way, acting as they are because of divinely ordained right to whatever they want (I realize I’m overstating a bit).  In either case, the assumption is that Americans will never make radical shifts in their lifestyles.  The former assumes they won’t because they are too fat, too lazy, too ignorant and too selfish.  The latter assumes that we won’t because we feel we deserve what we’ve got.

The problem with this assessment is that either way, we slander and belittle ourselves. We tend to assume we will not change, or if faced with a crisis, we will fall apart, die, riot mindlessly or give up.   But this, to me, seems unlikely.  That is, I suspect that in the coming crisis some people will riot, and some will probably and unfortunately die or give up.  But saying that we know from our present circumstances that “people will never sacrifice” ignores the fact that until this past weekend when Obama actually used that word, no one ever asked them to.  Of course many people (not all - I am aware of thousands of people who sacrifice things even without such a call to action)  would be unwilling to sacrifice without a clear rationale for doing so, without the invocation of a national crisis, without the sense that others too were going to be making sacrifices. 

And just as my friend’s husband professed himself both unwilling and unable to a deliver a baby when no one was really seriously asking him to do so, most of us, speaking in hypotheticals, without our passions engaged, and while advertising and the weight of our culture push us firmly in the other direction, are unwilling to commit to anything really different.

And yet, within humanity is the capacity to live with almost any kind of reasonably humane circumstances - and often to live well there.  In order for us to believe that our current rate of energy consumption is the only way we can live a decent life, we must slander our grandparents and their grandparents and all the people who came before us, slander all the world’s majority who live without the things we do.  We must rewrite history to say that all those lives before us were ones of unendurable suffering, ones not worth living.  For Americans, to say that Americans must remain as they are now, requires us to believe that living the life akin to the one that Benjamin Franklin lived - one with outhouses and no electricty, the ones that helped form our nation, were unworthy of us.  Now it is one thing to say that you’d rather not use an outhouse (unless of course, you are our own modern Franklin, Greenpa ;-) ) or get along without a washer, and still another to sit around in a party game about what is possible and claim you couldn’t live without your coffeemaker and washing machine.  But those do not represent our real experiences of the world of urgent necessity, or even commitment.

Because just as my friend’s husband found, when something is needed - and by needed I mean either practically necessary because there is no alternative (ie, the baby is coming or the power is out) or when something is needed because a body of people are committed to its rightness and seriousness (ie, the embargo requires us to make our own cloth, or the bus boycott requires elderly women to walk miles each day) we find in ourselves capacities that we hardly knew were there.  While sometimes the worst does happen, often we are surprised by outcomes - simply because we underestimate people.

Those remarkable capacities are particularly hidden by the culture of consumption (I initially wrote “the American culture of consumption,” but while it is a deeply American sin, it is not, I think by any definition American “culture” so much as culture’s  antithesis), which constantly convinces us to rely on fossil fuels, on corporations, on anything but ourselves.  The can of industrial peas convinces us that the production and preservation of peas is not our work - it belongs to industrial farmers and industrial canning plants.  The rototiller convinces us by its very existence that it is needed, because the shovel is infeasible - never mind that using a rototiller can be as physically demanding and difficult as using a shovel.  The constant narrative that if we buy this, our lives will be transformed denies us access to the real, internal, moral capacity for transformation.

But I for one do not believe that the capacities for adaptation that have made possible the tremendous range of forms that human lives have taken are gone in one or two generations. I think, instead, we are shifting from the conversational mode of estimating our own and one another’s capacities “Oh, no, I could never deliver a baby - I’d probably drop it” to the actual shift in society that drives us to push past our sense of what we or other people can and will do, and presses us to discover who we are at our deepest points, and what we really, truly can do. 

I do not doubt that some people will fail these tests, or handle them imperfectly - in a world of human beings, there are always mistakes and failures.  But I know this - had my friend’s husband truly been paralyzed by panic, my friend, gentle but courageous soul that she is, would have reached down in the midst of her pain, in that empty, icy parking lot, and caught her own son, and prevented him from falling.  And in the next moment, her husband, broken from his moment of panic, would have recovered and called 911, apologized and done what he could to make things work.  That is, even when we fail, often there are moments when we can redeem ourselves and move on to success.  Even if we begin imperfectly, there are often second chances.

And, of course, my friend’s husband did not fail.  He rose to the occasion, as most of us would.  He was, as I have said, truly magnificent. And when events force us to become more than we think we are, well some of us, perhaps even most, will be magnificent too. 


29 Responses to “He Was Magnificent: What You Can Do When You Have To”

  1. deweyon 14 Jan 2023 at 10:51 am

    *sniffle* Right on. And congrats to mom, dad, baby, and godmother (who no doubt has an eco-friendly toy in mind for baby!).

  2. Greenpaon 14 Jan 2023 at 10:56 am

    And magnificently observed and told.


    Not to take anything, at all, from the magnificent father- the ability to cheer someone else’s success - simply and whole heartedly - is so important, and so rarely taught.

    Good stuff; all around.

  3. Terry Mehlmanon 14 Jan 2023 at 11:18 am

    Well said.

    You should forward this to Obama so he can include it in the inaugural address. And, no, I am not kidding.


  4. Saraon 14 Jan 2023 at 12:06 pm

    Beautiful. So encouraging.

  5. squrrlon 14 Jan 2023 at 12:53 pm

    Yes, yes, yes. Of course, I am in the odd and not particularly enjoyable position of being one of those people who is basically a lazy bum _until_ there’s a crisis, and knowing it, but I quite agree that people never know what they can do until they have to, and that hard times create heroes, however unwilling they may be. I think that, as horrible as the times to come may well be, we will also have cause to be proud.

    Incidentally, my husband caught our child, too. Pretty different situation, as the midwife was right there, but he was the only one in position to do so, I wasn’t interested in moving, and she didn’t actually realize that the baby was coming out (not her fault). He did grand. And relatedly, people often say “I don’t know how you did it” to natural childbirth…but of course you do it! What choice do you really have, once it’s started? You do what you have to do.

  6. Theresaon 14 Jan 2023 at 1:21 pm

    Wow! Congrats to the magnificent dad and mom, and welcome to the new little baby Noah.

    What a fantastic and joyful message Sharon, and so eloquently phrased. I almost can’t wait for the chance to be magnificent too!

    And I second the recommendation to send this piece to Mr. Obama.

  7. Peak Oil Hausfrauon 14 Jan 2023 at 1:26 pm

    Women have been told and shown a million times by our popular culture, and by our institutions, that birth is an ugly, painful, dreadful business best managed by doctors who tell you to lay on your back and when to push.

    A perfect example of the authorities taking control and power away from women, and mangling it in the process. And yes, I know that doctors save lives - but more often, they cut open women who shouldn’t be cut, medicate women who don’t need medication, and don’t explain the side effects or complications of either.

    Even I, a five foot two woman with little hips and a fairly low pain tolerance, can do natural childbirth. Not that I’m saying YOU should. I just think it should be on the radar, if you are pregnant, especially if you are preparing for peak oil……

    Sharon - Congratulations to your friend, and to you!!!

  8. Peak Oil Hausfrauon 14 Jan 2023 at 1:29 pm

    Sorry - that came out a little wrong. I read Sqrrl’s response and got thinking about all the women who are derailed from natural childbirth by their doctors. Again, not saying that women SHOULD do natural childbirth. Just that many want to, but can’t because they don’t have the right kind of support.

    That was a beautiful and inspiring story!

  9. Loison 14 Jan 2023 at 2:18 pm

    Mazel tov! This is an empowering story… I also second the motion to forward this essay to our new president. Wasn’t one phrase repeated throughout his campaign: “Yes, we can!”

  10. Jennieon 14 Jan 2023 at 3:12 pm

    Awww Sharon, it’s been awhile since you made me cry. But I’m 6 months along with my first child, and this one did it. I’ve been frustrated this week with my Ob/Gyn, who is about as far from what I want as is possible to get and still be talking about delivering babies. The past couple of days I’ve battled a feeling of powerlessness about the upcoming birth. So, thanks for sharing this. It really helped bouy my mood, (in spite of the crying.)

  11. AmyDon 14 Jan 2023 at 4:03 pm

    In all the talk about preparing for possible outcomes…. I was just wondering. Given the prior quick delivery and the discussion of what “might” happen…. did they have emergency stuff with them (like blankets, shoe string, bulb suction) nothing fancy, but just in case.

    It goes along with the concept that we can see possible problems but actually preparing for it is that extra step that can be so hard to take. I guess because it’s admitting to the “real” possibility of it.

    I’m betting LOTS of people are really glad they stocked up ahead of the frigid weather. From sunny california, hope ya’ll staying warm and safe!

  12. Shambaon 14 Jan 2023 at 4:03 pm

    1 magnificent story ….

    2 last posts hopeful …

    3 words .. YES WE CAN!

    thanks for giving my spirits a life today …

    congratulations to your friends and you


  13. Wendyon 14 Jan 2023 at 4:07 pm

    Wonderful story! And I can relate. My fourth baby was born in the ambulance, because we waited at home too long ;) . My fifth baby was a planned homebirth, but the midwife was late, and my husband “caught” her. Both experiences were incredibly empowering.

    I am loath to say, “I can’t” do something, because, as a VBAC, I did … four times, twice outside of a hospital … what everyone said I couldn’t do, and that is, have a virtually “unassisted” birth (I knew more about childbirth than the EMT who “caught” my daughter ;) .

    I have a lot of faith that people will, ultimately, do what’s right.

  14. pat nixonon 14 Jan 2023 at 4:09 pm

    Congratulations to MOM, Dad and Noah- and this is the best catch Dad will ever make!

  15. Lydiaon 14 Jan 2023 at 6:32 pm

    This writing is timed perfect! I just had both of my vehicles crap out of me at the same time. Rather than make a rushed decision I took 2-3 weeks and gathered information, talked to folks, looked under the hood a lot and to make a long story short just changed out the master cylinder of the clutch in my truck and it is now running. Cost 35 bucks and my time. It would have cost me $170-450 if I had just left it to the professionals. (The bull that mechanics sling at women is absolutely amazing bordering on criminal)

    I am so pumped that little ole me (female and 55 years old) can fix my own cars with a set of socket wrenches, the internet, and bit of logic, that I am going to attempt to remove the radiator from my Volvo myself as well.

    I did not have the money to pay someone, so I guess necessity really is the mother of invention. Hurah!

  16. Michelleon 14 Jan 2023 at 7:58 pm

    Fantastic post. Inspirational.

    I think you could safely broaden out the American anti-culture of consumption concept to a developed nations anti-culture of consumption - Australia’s following right behind on that one.

    Peak oil Hausfrau, I agree with you that ‘natural’ childbirth is shamefully not even presented as an option - how can women/couples make informed decisions and choose the best way for them if they aren’t presented with all the possibilities in an objective manner? When I suggested to my Ob/gyn that non-interventionist birth was how i’d like to see my first child arrive in the world - he laughed at me…needless to say I got myself a new Doctor. :)

    Bravo Lydia!!

  17. Leslieon 15 Jan 2023 at 7:08 am

    Great story used to illustrate an important point. We can become what we must become. We only need willingness. Really, we have found that willingness is more important than abilities of the moment.

    It is willingness that provides the space to allow us to prepare ahead of time for exigencies that our personalities want to pretend can’t happen or shouldn’t otherwise happen, I think. Willingness allows us greater scope of creative thinking.

    For the birth of our sixth child, my husband and I planned ahead of time for a so-called unassisted birth. My husband didn’t really do much to prepare (other than pay attention to previous births!). I told him what he would probably need to know in terms of possible scenarios and we both rested in the fact that natural childbirth is natural and that our considerable previous experience would hold us in good stead. Correct on both counts! That unassisted birth (and I hate that term, by the way, as it is a misnomer to my way of thinking) did so much for us as individuals and for our marriage. Wow. My husband squared his shoulders in a new way because he had just done a very cool thing and I swooned in his general direction with new verve because my husband had just done a very cool thing and together we had done a very cool and self-sufficient (by which I really mean depending upon Nature rather than on man-made ideas and procedures) thing which had a very big impact upon us, our family, and our future.

    You can never tell where willingness will take you. That is what makes it all such an adventure!


  18. Rebeccaon 15 Jan 2023 at 9:02 am

    I really like the idea of natural childbirth, and that’s what I hope to do if I ever have a baby. (I just want the one God/dess.) One thing I’ve noticed in discussions of this topic -Alternet had one just a few days ago -is that people are always quick to point out the chance of complications/death and mention the old boogeyman (before medical intervention many many more women died in childbirth). While modern medicine has saved lives, the complication rate isn’t as high as people make it out to be and neither was the pre-modern death rate. (If it was, most of us wouldn’t be here.) Everything I’ve read also indicates that a large portion of those deats were caused by infections resulting from lack of proper hygiene.

  19. Helenon 15 Jan 2023 at 9:50 am

    Lydia, congrats! A great accomplishment! Also congrats to everyone who is becoming more self sufficient. Helen

  20. Susanon 15 Jan 2023 at 12:14 pm

    I agree with Rebecca above, I actually did a paper on this topic many years ago as a college term paper. Midwives in Puritan America were demonized by the doctors of the day, who set out deliberately to discredit the midwives in order to take over their position as caretakers of women’s health. They were successful, obviously, and the roots of looking at childbirth as a medical issue rather than an natural process took hold.

    When you standardize for higher risk births taking place mainly with physicians now, both the Puritan midwives and modern midwives have a much, much lower rate of complications and infections than the doctors do. I firmly believe it is because midwives’ philosophy is to let the mothers do what they do, and to intervene only when absolutely necessary, and only with the level of intervention necessary to allow things to proceed.

    With my middle son, I had a midwife and a hospital birth. I am fairly certain that if I had had an OB he would have been a cesaerian birth; thanks to Kathy, we had patience and ingenuity, and a vaginal birth.

    With my youngest son, I lived in a very small town and had one of those doctors who presumed to tell me exactly what he would and would not allow me to do during MY labor. Well, it truly was not planned, but my son was born at home (4 blocks from the hospital no less). My family has a history of precipitous labors, and I held true to the family history — 2 1/2 hours of labor total. I delivered him in the bathroom standing up, and caught him myself. Not the way I would have preferred him to be born at home, but infinitely better than the alternative!

    And congratulations to Noah’s family!

  21. Shelleyon 15 Jan 2023 at 3:15 pm

    Yes! I have always thought this. We can do what we must WHEN we must. And many folks have different levels of when the “must do” time is. But in the end, I think most people are programmed to rise up instead of lay down and die.

    Very inspirational!
    Have a great weekend and keep warm! I know what it’s like….the kids will get stir crazy. Mine are so happy to be able to play outside again yesterday and today.

  22. jyotsnaon 15 Jan 2023 at 5:55 pm

    Hi Sharon,

    What a beautiful story. It happens alot more than we all know. And, instead of a great organic toy, I hope you are starting the baby with his or her own storage of food. BAbyfood, rice (which can be ground), wheat which can be ground, and maybe a good book on breastfeeding (Sears) to the mom, for continuous milk making.

    Have fun visiting!

  23. Besson 15 Jan 2023 at 7:48 pm


    Thanks for such a wonderful and inspiring essay — I will make sure Chris reads it as well.

    And thank you all for all of your well wishes and congratulations. Noah is doing beautifully and we are all resting peacefully at home and getting to know this newest little member of our family.

    -Bess (and Chris, Ira, Inanna, and Noah)

  24. Liz in Australiaon 15 Jan 2023 at 7:59 pm

    My son was born at home 14mos ago in a planned freebirth (aka unassisted birth). My husband didn’t “deliver” the baby: I gave birth to him, and so did your friend. The idea that babies have to be “delivered” and that everyone except the mother has an active role to play is another layer infantilising women and separating us from the understanding of what we are able to accomplish when we need to. Might be worth unpacking a little further given the direction of your argument, which apart from this point, I totally agree with :)

  25. MEAon 16 Jan 2023 at 9:58 am

    Congraulations to all concerned.

    Having never given birth, but having read a great deal about the subject (WHO has lots of good info), I’ve come to the conclusion that most births just take place, and women don’t need a lot of intervention, but a skilled midwife can coax out babies that might otherwise be stuck. (An unskilled one an kill the mother and child.) The outcome is a lot better if a woman has an unpaniced and supportive compaion, even if untrained. And it’s really really really a bad idea to give birth totally alone (even if you feel it is very impowering). If you bleed out or have a stroke there is no one there to care for in infant — and if it’s hours before you are found the baby (not to mention you) might be dead.

    Just as funny story, when I was born — at my parents home in England, my grandmother who thought she was calling the midwife got in to an arguement with the man who answered the phone — turned out she’d called the waterboard. Nurse Brown didn’t have time to take off her hat or coat — but did stay long enough to wash me and make sure my mother was given a cup of tea. When my brother was born 2 years later, things went so fast that he was born before anyone (inc. my mother) realized what has happening — along the lines of “I felt a contraction and thought I should being timing them because things went so fast last time and then there was another, and there was the baby.”

  26. bridgeton 16 Jan 2023 at 1:28 pm

    Sharon, as I heard the news about the plane crashing / landing in the Hudson River, your post is what I thought of. People acting calmly to get everyone out. A pilot and crew doing an amazing job that they probably never believed they would need to do. Women, children and elderly being taken care of first. (I’m a little mixed on the women first, but I appreciate it.)

    And I am listening to the Larry King coverage, where the Aviation Safety Expert, who said that the pilots generally remain calm because of the “training, experience and education.” Everyone’s training, experience and education comes in a different form.

    I certainly think that applies to what you promote.

  27. nikaon 18 Jan 2023 at 10:12 am

    WIth my second, we were going to have a doula for early labor and then assistance at the hospital - we expressed our usual concern that we might have some sort of emergency that would make for an interesting drive to the hospital which was some 30 miles away or so. MY husband said “Hey, I fear, at worst, cord prolapse” - damn doula took the $50 deposit and then “fired” us because she was freaked out about it.

    I ended up learning hypnobirthing and then when the time came we did have an emergency - placental abruption - I wasnt going to let anyone get between me and the hospital (amazon reaction) so I drove myself and my husband - good thing it was the middle of the night.

    ANYWAYS - in the end- the baby came out - NICU docs took good care of her (had to revive her and put in two IV lines etc) and we ended up facing the worst and came out ok - puts a lot into perspective!

    I am deeply thankful I never delivered in a car.. its hard enough to labor in the car on the way to the hospital.

  28. billon 06 Feb 2023 at 8:57 pm

    All child birth is natural until it is given over to the “experts’. When I was present for the birth of my daughter I was merely a spectator. I can only assume the doctor had more important things to do as she unceremoniously hauled my daughter into the world using forceps. Ever since that event I have observed all so called experts with a healthy dose of skepticism.

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