I woke up that morning giddy. Something big was happening in our family that day but for once it was not happening to me. I drove us to the urologist’s office, which happened to be in the same hospital where, five years earlier, our second son was born. The poignance did not feel like a reach. In fact we had gotten the referral for this procedure at one of my last prenatal OB appointments, after I’d burst into tears at my doctor’s suggestion she tie my tubes while she was “in there” for my C-section. A surgical 2-for-1 did seem like the prudent thing to do, but also: really? One more thing? To her credit, my OB backed off immediately, and gave us the number of the doctor’s office in which we now sat.
Full circle! I felt lighter than air. Well, lighter than air and a little on edge, wondering if I’d be allowed back into the exam room and if it would be weird to ask, and how long it would take, and whether or not to admit I’d watched three to four videos of the procedure the night before, and how I would communicate to the doctor that I would be unobtrusive, undemanding, yet eerily informed. “Do you work in the medical field?” I hoped he would ask me, before inviting us to be friends with him outside of work.
It wasn’t until the nurse called my husband’s name and was turning to follow him down the hall to the exam room that I blurted out, “Can I come?” If she was taken aback by my request, she didn't show it. Her chin raised, her spine went straight. Well sure! You can come for the first part and the doctor can talk to you both about the procedure.
I wondered if she thought I would need to be counseled out of any ambivalence, as if we would have been anywhere near this place were we not sure. For weeks I’d found myself giggling maniacally whenever the subject came up, and I’d crammed like a pre-med student to understand exactly what would go down. I watched animations of ball sacks, paged through slideshows, and — thanks to r/vasectomy — watched a real-life procedure, the human nuts in the foreground and a woman heard in the background saying Wow.
I don’t think non-birthing partners are allowed to so flagrantly enjoy their role as bystander — the stakes are too high, the suffering too great.
I wanted to be that woman. I wanted to be in the room and feel a little sick to my stomach but also fascinated — from a pleasant, liberating distance. Gleeful, I texted the video to my husband, but he just wrote back, “I like that you think I’m going to watch this.”
I followed the two of them down the hall, feeling slightly unwelcome but not really caring, taking my spot in the chair of shame in the corner, the Watcher, the Wife, on high alert with worry about being in the way. And yet, wasn’t this just my territory, the exam room being such a female place on its face, examination so feminine itself, and then all of the corner chairs I’ve sat in as a caregiver, undergoing pediatric Q&As like pop quizzes, chattering encouragingly through vaccinations and blood draws and pharmacy stand-offs, and as of late, another new phase, my mother’s bedside, whether in the ICU, or the infusion center, or on the couch with a hospice social worker. Yes I could do this, be the patient or the attendant or the one who asks questions and the one who answers them — women's work, a kind of work in all its indignity I've come to love.
But then this was different, wasn it? My husband was told to change into the gown. I want to say it had a hole in the front for the dick and balls, but unfortunately I think it was a regular gown. The little medical sheet they put over his bathing suit area had a hole in it, but that came later. “How are you feeling?” I asked my husband. He said exposed. He looked exposed, too. No one looks like they are operating from a place of power in a hospital gown. Yes I said. The crinkly paper, the boxes of old needles, the mysterious cabinets, some of them locked. I told him he could keep his socks on, but he didn’t listen. I’m not sure he respected my medical authority. “Do you wish I wasn’t here in the room right now?” I asked him.
A vasectomy, though, is less of a hero’s journey than an uncomfortable 20 minutes.
“Yes,” he said, sounding as sure as he had ever been about anything. I suppose I am a petty and vengeful person, but to have the tables turned this way? My delight was palpable; the circumstances, ideal. I don’t think non-birthing partners are allowed to so flagrantly enjoy their role as bystander — the stakes are too high, the suffering too great. They must sublimate any giddiness about meeting their child while their partner writhes in agony. And rightfully so. The most they can get away with, I’d say, is a hand squeeze, maybe a solemn, We get to meet the baby soon.
A vasectomy, though, is less of a hero’s journey than an uncomfortable 20 minutes.
When the doctor did come in he was cheerful, cautious, ready to do that truly generous thing that great care providers do when they patter without ceasing as they, in this case, paint a scrotum with iodine and shave it bald. Before we got to the big event, though, we all made small talk and cracked jokes. He asked where our kids went to school; the same elementary school, it turned out, where his had gone. “I just did a vas on a guy whose kids go there this morning!” he shared, perhaps unethically. I asked him if he would look around the schoolyard at pickup and think about how many of the dads’ balls he had seen. His and his and his. Actually, he said, he used to offer a vas in the school auction, but it was a hard sell. No one would bid. I was practically levitating with joy at this point.
And then, my husband had to lie back. Gossip time was over, it was happening, a dick was out, more flaccid than I’ve ever seen it, and it is being rubbed vigorously and thoroughly while I watch from the watching chair, answering rapid-fire questions about where we are from and what we do while my husband stared up at the ceiling, presumably doing his best dissociating.
I’m sorry, I said finally, bursting into a laugh, unable to answer the question about where I grew up. I am having trouble thinking straight, I told him, while you’re —
I know, he said with a small laugh, clearly undaunted by the fact that at that point, he was digging around in my beloved’s ball sack with a pair of surgical scissors. I think we had what was a shared moment of delight.
It’s amazing I whispered, standing up for a second as if to peek out over the vista. I may have taken a hesitant step or two towards the table, worried that I would get too close, overstep my bounds.
The procedure is touted as being “scalpel free” and I suppose that is true in the technical sense, though spiritually, they’re still cutting. It is not as if the work is done via lasers or a manual ball flick. I mean I had watched the videos: they poke a little hole in the ball sack, they stick the scissors (really more like grabbers) through, somewhat blindly fish around for the vas deferens, and pull it out through the tiny hole like an embroidery thread through fabric. And there it is! A part of your body you’re never had the privilege of seeing before. It’s so…white? I said. I felt a little bit of biological awe. Medicine! Science! Bodies! Once the little sperm tube is out, the doctor cuts it with the scissors in two places — not just a snipping apart but an excision of real estate, an actual length of human body. There is cauterization, which, lidocaine aside, I don’t think my husband enjoyed on a sound or smell level, but I was too busy experiencing gratification and mirth. It was, truly, a kind of narrative satisfaction that you don’t often get in real life.
And I know it is a very heterosexual cliché to be flippant, to laugh maniacally while referencing the desire for men to suffer in a genital way. But that is what I felt, only much more profound. I knew my husband was safe. I knew he would be fine. He was not suffering. He was uncomfortable, inconvenienced, somewhat debased, sure, but for us. It’s not that this act heals some lingering unfairness in your relationship, which was mostly healed by now, or long-since accepted, integrated into the long ultimately futile scorekeeping of life — but just the gesture, the willingness, to know, to not pretend otherwise — it helps.
The doctor asked Dustin, supine, if he “wanted to see.” Sure he did. They were like kids on the playground with a dead animal, except it was a piece of my husband's vas deferens, looking like a little white worm.
Bet you won’t want to have spaghetti for dinner tonight! He joked and I laughed probably too hard, jubilant that we had been deemed cool enough to talk shop with and make jokes.
Each cut end of the sperm tube gets capped off with little brackets (?) and then the doctor lets go of them and they disappear, like drawstrings on sweatpants, back into the balls, and it’s time to rummage for the next one. Via that same tiny hole, though, I feel it should be said. It is a puncture, really, and it requires no stitches. It heals on its own.
As the doctor was leaving he shook our hands and patted my husband on the shoulder. “Tell your buds, it’s no big deal!”
(Yes I am thinking here about fistulas and prolapses and incontinence and people forced to bring pregnancies to term against their will. Of death and postpartum mood and anxiety disorders and nipples falling off while breastfeeding.)
The doctor assures my husband he is doing great. And because we are insiders now — or so I like to think — he tells us that, you know, practically 1 out of every 2 patients scheduled for this procedure don’t show up. Cold feet! I express disbelief. He says some men kick tables, they panic. They call it off. We all disapprove, shake our heads, pat Dustin on the back for being one of the good ones, which is easier to do than to think of these men, the table kickers, the no-showers and their medical anxiety, maybe even their trauma, making the damn appointment finally like they promised only to not show up, knowing with dread they have disappointed their partners yet again.
The doctor says yes, vasectomies really should be the standard form of birth control for people who are done having children (or who don’t want them at all). Given how safe they are, how simple to perform — it’s really only because of double standards that they aren’t. He didn’t namecheck “hetero-patriarchy and ultimately capitalism,” but I chose to believe that’s what he meant.
As the doctor was leaving he shook our hands and patted my husband on the shoulder. “Tell your buds, it’s no big deal!” Not half an hour had passed. He left and I looked to Dustin and silent-screamed.
“You loved it,” he said. I did. I felt proud of us as we walked out, or really, I strode and he shuffled. A phase of life had ended. Our reproductive lives had come full circle, and I got to be the one who watched.