Be careful not to samba with the midwife


My wife, Susan, gave birth to our four children in Japan, and at the time we both considered the experiences very positive ones . . . though I was only an innocent, if that is the right word, bystander. This was back in the 1980s, when new fathers were not generally allowed into the 分娩室(bunbenshitsu, delivery room) to witness the birth. I was insistent, however, and the medical staff graciously relented.

Now, it is said that in olden days in Britain women giving birth had their husbands tied to the bedpost so that they could not avoid seeing how much suffering their wives went through. I can tell you, I didn’t need to be tied — and, in fact, the 分娩台(bunbendai, delivery table) had no posts anyway — in order to see just how painful birth is and how brave a woman can be in the face of it.

“To give birth” in Japanese is 生む (umu), often written as 産む. This second kanji, for san, is the key to a number of other words associated with birth. 産 by itself, or accompanied by the honorific “o” — as in お産 (osan, giving birth) — is the most common word for childbirth. 産婆 (samba) is a midwife; and if you make the mistake of writing it in katakana, you’ll have a lively dance helping to deliver your baby. Perhaps birthing mothers in Brazil are into this sort of assistance.

A fascinating linguistic phenomenon surrounds the term Caesarean section, which in many languages reflects the association with Julius Caesar, because it is said that his birth involved just such an operation. Though this notion has never been substantiated — and it is much more likely that the derivation of the word is from the Latin for “to cut” — the translation of the term in Japanese, 帝王切開 (teiō sekkai), literally means “imperial operation.” I suppose we must render unto Caesar even those things that may not be his.

The passive form of umu is 生まれる (umareru, to be born). This is something that everyone does, though I do wonder about some people. 生まれ (umare) means “born,” as in, わたしはトロント生まれです (Watashi wa Toronto umare desu, I was born in Toronto).

You would think that 妊娠 (ninshin, pregnancy) in one country would last as long as it does in any other. Non-Japanese people who find themselves in the family way here are often surprised to learn that the term of pregnancy is considered to last for 10 months and not nine. It all depends on when you start counting, i.e., from the last menstrual period or the moment of conception. Think of it as the difference between an American starting to walk up the stairs of a tall building. She would begin on the first floor. A British 妊婦 (nimpu, pregnant lady) would begin on the ground floor, not getting to the first until she arrived at the American “second.”

And speaking of “nimpu,” once again those dreaded homonyms rear their ugly heads. Nimpu — written 人夫 — is the word for “work hand,” a laborer, or what the British call a “navvy.” Make sure you get the kanji right when you send the forms into the hospital, or the 産婦人科 (sanfujinka, obstetrics and gynecology ward) will wonder why you are sending them a navvy whose waters have broken.

Once you have got the kanji right, you should start worrying about 陣痛 (jintsū), that is, contractions. One Japanese businessman I knew in Melbourne made a frantic call to the hospital, screaming, “My wife is having contracts!” They transferred his call to the business office.

When the intervals between these contractions get shorter and shorter, it’s time to prepare yourself for the new arrival. Once the baby starts to make its way into this world, you may be asked to 息む (ikimu, to push). I was straining so hard in the delivery room that the 婦長 (fuchō, head nurse) said to me, “Not you, her.” Her words came just in time to save me from a dislocated pelvis.

I left the delivery room and had a good cry. Another expectant father was in the waiting room, sitting there stoic and dry eyed. But then, he had not been through what I had. I ran out of the waiting room flustered and embarrassed; but, I swear, if there had been a bedpost there I would have lashed him to it and made him witness a good case of NFPNSD, or “new father’s post-natal stress disorder.”

Well, this was, as I said, back in the 1980s; and I have, in recent years, heard much anecdotal evidence (though it isn’t very funny . . . I don’t know why they call this sort of thing “anecdotal”) of Japanese men entering the delivery room and coming out 生まれ変わった (umarekawatta), or “reborn.”

Birth is a thing we ourselves experience only once, though some of us may feel we are reborn over and over again. And these days you don’t even need a bedpost.