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COMMITMENTS : Labor Day Stories : Used to be childbirth tales were not told in polite company. But with women being awake and men present, chances are you'll hear it all.

August 28, 1995|DAWN BONKER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The new father describing his wife's childbirth experience had his audience in the palm of his hand. After all, his dramatic tale mixed sex and childbirth, events ordinarily related to one another by about nine months, not mere hours.

"We were ready and we wanted to get on with it. So we called the doctor and asked if there was anything we could do to move things along. He said mineral oil or sexual intercourse," the Irvine dad said.

A ripple of chuckles and a couple of "oh, yeahs" arose from the circle of new and soon-to-be dads at a Saturday morning hospital support group for fathers. "We tried intercourse. Within hours she was in labor. I had bought the mineral oil, but I didn't even have to open it."

Thank heavens. Otherwise, friends, family and generations of baby shower guests would have had to endure a retelling of whatever indelicate details that exercise requires.

Because as surely as women get pregnant and babies get born, childbirth stories get told. At the office, in the hair salon, over lunch. Men swap them, too, since the prepared childbirth movement scooted them from the waiting room into the delivery room. No baby shower would be complete without a few. Messy details available upon request. Just step away from the punch bowl, please.

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"There's a very strong need to share these stories. Women just have a real strong need to see what it was like for someone else and compare it to their own experience," says Nancy McQuillan, a Huntington Beach resident and a master storyteller for the South Coast Storytellers Guild. "I don't suppose it's too different from the other kinds of personal stories that people tell each other. Stories have traditionally been life-experience teachers."

If it seems as if they are bandied about more nowadays, like gallstone operations of yore, it may be that women are catching up for a generation clouded by general anesthesia, spinal blocks and other forms of heavy medication routinely used before childbirth instruction became common, says Debbie Kariman, a certified childbirth educator at Daniel Freeman Memorial Hospital in Inglewood.

"We're back in the generation that's awake and aware and going through labor and delivery as a participant. Even with epidurals [localized painkillers] . . . it's still an incredible experience," Kariman says.

"It's in a woman's nature to talk about her birth and to relive it. I think the heavily medicated generation was just a timeout in the whole scheme of things."

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So all this childbirth chitchat is some sort of universal ritual?

Well, no. Childbirth is universal, but different cultures manage the event differently, says Nancy Jabbra, an anthropologist and associate professor and director of Women's Studies at Loyola Marymount University.

"I can't speak for anybody else, but I'm sort of squeamish about really personal stuff from other people. I guess I come from a background where people just don't talk about it," Jabbra says. "My mother couldn't tell me anything other than 'I went to the hospital and then you showed up.' And my dad? Well, God forbid. I mean, a Minnesota Swede? You just don't."

Many others do. And Jabbra isn't alone in her squeamishness. Karin Stout of Long Beach wavers between awe and shock when she hears childbirth stories. As a schoolteacher surrounded by mostly female co-workers, she hears plenty.

"They're really letting you in on something that is profound and life-changing for them, so that's pretty cool. It is the most profound moment of their lives," Stout says. "And when the moms describe seeing their babies for the first time and crying, that just brings tears to your eyes."

So does all that other "stuff."

"For those of us who haven't had kids, it's like ohhheeeeyowww. Especially the episiotomy thing," Stout says, referring to the perineum incision often made to allow more room for the baby's head. "Oh, my God. When they start talking about that it just makes you weak in the knees."

Nothing troubles the stomach or nerves of Rick Cruz, a hairstylist for 15 years. He's childless--and a guy, to boot--but he's heard it all, compliments of his clients.

"I know, like, way more than I want to about babies and I've never had any," says Cruz, a Downey resident. Women dish while he snips the "super short bangs" pregnant women often request right before delivery to stave off salon visits for a while. One of his favorites is of the woman who waited too long to go to the hospital because she wanted to see the end of a Laker game. She ended up delivering her baby in the living room.

Kariman applauds people's willingness to share birth stories because they can foster more openness and understanding about the experience. But beware the tall tales, she says.

"Something I tell my students is that childbirth stories get embellished along the way," Kariman says. "The long labor becomes the incredibly long labor and the short labor becomes 'I hardly had time to get the cookies out of the oven and the baby came on the kitchen floor.' "

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