It’s been half a century, but I still remember when fathers weren’t allowed in the delivery room as their babies were born.
I thought of that recently after two of our granddaughters and their husbands had daughters of their own. One birth took place in a Sioux Falls hospital a couple of weeks ago. The other happened just last week in the hospital in Mitchell. Mothers, babies and fathers are doing well. So are great-grandma and I.
Both Nancy and I were born in the Mitchell hospital. Many infants from the Chamberlain and Reliance area were back then. I don’t know many stories about my birth, just that I was such a big baby the nurses called me Joe Louis. He was heavyweight boxing champion at the time.
I often wish I’d asked more questions about that birth. I know my dad wasn’t allowed in the delivery room, but I don’t know what he did all that time. I don’t know how long the labor took, what either parent thought when they saw me or even how many days we were in the hospital before we could head back to the farm.
It wouldn’t occur to a couple these days that a father would be anywhere but in the delivery room during the birthing, I suppose. Why would it? That’s how things are done. That’s how things have been done for so long that it’s hard to imagine a time when laboring mother and expectant father were separated at the doors to the delivery room and fathers went off to sit alone and wonder.
That’s what I had to do when our first child, a daughter, was born. We lived in Sioux Falls at the time, just a couple of blocks from the front door to McKennan Hospital. The little rental house is long gone, of course, probably part of a parking lot now. Nancy worked at McKennan at the time, and we sometimes joked that she was such a dedicated nurse she waited until her day off to start labor.
When the time came, just before dawn on the Friday morning, we walked from home to the hospital, taking it easy and timing the contractions. I like to tell people Nancy clung to light posts along the street as she handled each contraction. She denies it, but it’s a much better story with that detail. And it could be true. Neither of us was thinking clearly on that walk.
Once the nurses got Nancy set up in a room, they beckoned me in, and we sat together while the process moved along. Dr. V. V. Volin, a wonderfully kind and caring man, oversaw things, and I’ve never forgotten how calmly he moved and spoke. I’d have been jumping out of my skin, but I figured he knew a whole lot more about it than I did, and if he was calm, there was no reason for me to get wild.
The worst part of the day came when the doctor said it was time. I walked beside Nancy, holding her hand as they wheeled her down a hall to the delivery room door. “You’ll be the first to know," a nurse said as they wheeled my wife through the swinging door, and it closed in my face.
The father’s waiting room smelled of stale coffee and tobacco smoke. Ashtrays flowed over with cigar and cigarette butts. Year-old “Sports Illustrated’’ and “Field and Stream’’ magazines lay open on tables and chairs. A couple of older guys smoked and watched some late-morning soap opera on TV. There were probably worse places to be that day, but I couldn’t think of any. It seemed forever before a nurse came to tell me I was a father, an eternity before I could see Nancy and our baby.
Fifteen months later, when our first son was born, hospital policy allowed fathers in the delivery room. I hadn’t quite made up my mind about going in, but Dr. Volin grabbed my elbow and hauled me along. It was an incredible experience. I don’t know if I ever thanked him enough for making sure I didn’t miss it.