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Expectant Couples Get Earful

April 23, 2008
susan greene | columnist Expectant couples get earful By Susan Greene Denver Post Columnist Article Last Updated: 04/17/2008 12:26:53 AM MDT It is a Wednesday night in Denver, and eight couples are gathered in a conference room clamping clothespins on their ears. Let's be clear. Clothespins hurt. A lot. Yet, oddly, none of these 16 adults is complaining. Only one thing explains their behavior: first-time parenthood. "We are a bunch of sheep who are all trying not to be terrible parents before our babies are even born," says Anita Boronkay, who is expecting her first child May 20. "If the teacher told us to stand on a chair on one leg flapping our arms, then all of us would stand on a chair on one leg flapping our arms. We are brand new to this. We're all that gullible," adds her husband, Brian. Welcome to "Prepared Childbirth," as taught by Ellen Berlin at Exempla St. Joseph Hospital. The five-week course — like those taught by other teachers at other hospitals — helps women develop strategies to cope with pain and encourages their partners to empathize with them in the process. So eight swollen wives and their eager-to-please husbands start by holding ice in their hands for pretend, minute-long contractions. Then Berlin ups the agony by passing out clothespins — big, tight, plastic ones. After they compliantly clamp them onto their lobes, she encourages them to do lunging exercises, balance on bouncy balls, pinch each other's bodies, slow dance or repeat mantras to distract from the pain. "Ah-hee. Ah-hee. Ah-hee. Ah-hoo," they breathe together in unison. One husband, Brian Cooper, shares with his wife, Michelle, a chant he learned in basic training. "I like it. I love it. I want more of it. Make it hurt," they repeat, not daring to remove the green vices until Berlin announces their 60 seconds are up. I can't help but notice the satisfaction on many of these women's faces as the men who impregnated them writhe in pain. And I can't help but chuckle at their eye-rolling when their guys express even the slightest hint of discomfort. "I'd like to give him a punch in the ribs," says Karen Levine after her husband, Bill, questions the need for an eighth minute of ear-pinching, his right lobe red as an apple. The scene brings to mind something Berlin — a 26-year childbirth educator — once read in a book about Mexico's Huichol tribe, in which the expectant father traditionally sat, with the end of a rope tied around his scrotum, in the hut's rafters above his laboring wife. When she felt a contraction, she would tug on the rope's other end so that he would share the full mix of pain and joy that is childbirth. "That story always makes me smile," she says. My husband and I endured Berlin's clothespins before the birth of our first son. His ears and mine were sore long after the discomfort of childbirth. Returning to her class five years later, I am struck by the same earnestness in these couples. In their faces, I remember how scared we were, how out of control we felt and how unable we were to say it. Like us, it never occurred to the Boronkays to say no to the torture. "Because the rest of the class is doing it, I don't want to be the only one not," Anita admits. "We missed the first class, and my husband missed the third class because he was sick. We're already behind in this childbirth business and scared to death about the whole process. So we can't raise any more red flags. They might call social services." Susan Greene writes Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Reach her at 303-954-1989 or greene@denverpost.com.