“Okay, men, circle up and start sharing. Ladies, take that side of the room. Rearrange your chairs — hop to it!”
The nurse in charge of our prenatal workshop is all business: plain scrubs, orthopedic shoes and a mouth drawn on with a ruler. A few men grumble, but her glare ends the mutiny. We form as ragtag a circle as we can get away with, while across the room our partners chat happily and organize their own neat, intimate gathering.
My wife is in her third trimester, and I’m beginning to feel anxious — and by anxious I mean scared out of my mind. I’m hoping this workshop will teach me everything I need to know about pregnancy, birth and fatherhood, and still get me home in time for dinner and a ballgame.
Mere seconds into our breakout groups, the women look like extras from The Ya-Ya Sisterhood. I expect Oprah to stroll through the door and start cheering them on. Meanwhile, we dads are peeking at our cell phones, slouching in our chairs and carefully avoiding eye contact. I try to force some answers from our group — “So, who wants to share how he feels about becoming a dad?” — just so we can be done.
I scrawl our responses on a wobbly whiteboard. Apparently, what we soon-to-be dads worry about most is … becoming dads. And becoming a dad makes us feel … worried. Having plumbed our emotional depths, we pass the time texting or studying the ceiling.
Now that I have a toddler, I can look back at that workshop and smile. Being a dad is better than I ever imagined, and it has nothing to do with answers on a whiteboard. But the painful awkwardness of our circle demonstrates an important truth about pregnancy: Men can spend those nine months feeling left out, uncertain and lost.
My wife had a stack of books, plenty of pregnant pals and all the support needed to make it through nine months of enormous change. I was having trouble, however. I didn’t know what to think, or feel, or read or do. During pregnancy, I often felt unemotional and distant, but it wasn’t because I was keeping secrets from my wife — I was keeping secrets from myself.
I really did want to be part of Team Jacobsen during pregnancy. I wanted to know what was expected of me; I wanted to have a job and to do it well. But if my wife’s job was to grow the baby, what was mine? Was I just supposed to feel happy and expectant? Truth be told, some days I wished my wife wasn’t even pregnant not a thought that makes good after-dinner conversation. Was I failing at my only job?
Fortunately for me, pregnancy provided a natural training program. I didn’t have to transform overnight from clueless to clued-in. I didn’t have to suddenly love and care for a newborn. But I did have to love my swelling, shining wife, and that felt like the most natural thing in the world. If she was beautiful before she was pregnant, she was flat out radiant during pregnancy.
So I didn’t need to change diapers yet, but I did need to change a few habits. Even I knew that there’s a link between the mother’s health physical and mental and the baby’s proper growth and development. I realized that loving my wife was loving my baby. During the first trimester, the smell of a wet sponge made my wife want to vomit, so I became a willing pot scrubber. When she wanted nine McNuggets and a chocolate shake at 9:45 pm, I sped to the nearest drive-thru. Taking care of my pregnant wife was hard work.
And the payoff was huge: As I cared for my wife, I learned how to be a father. The skills I used to love my wife courage, patience, tenderness were the same ones I needed to be a good dad when my son was born. During the nine months, my wife grew the baby while I grew into the role of fatherhood.
And, boy, was it worth it! A few weeks after your partner gives birth, the baby locks eyes with yours and smiles the most beautiful smile you’ve ever seen just because you’re the dad. As you smile back, you’ll awaken to the great secret of parenthood: Love begets love. Yes, you’ll be tired. Bone-tired. Yes, you’ll be burdened by new responsibilities, frustrated by your lack of free time and shocked by the infrequency of sex. You’ll feel the 24/7 weight of someone so tiny depending on you.
But in the midst of this, there will be moments as you watch your sleeping baby rise and fall in your partner’s arms when the size of your expanding heart will astonish you. Is this the same man who couldn’t wait for his prenatal class to end? The same man who read more sports scores than pregnancy books?
The first time you place your hand on your partner’s belly and imagine the life inside, a seed is planted. That seed is watered when you fold laundry late at night. Roots begin to tunnel into rich soil when you plan for your unborn child’s college expenses, and when you study the ultrasound photograph for the thirtieth time. And later, in the bright gumminess of your baby’s smile, the tree of your love will grow wide enough to hold your family.
David Jacobsen is the author of Rookie Dad: Thoughts on First-Time Fatherhood (Zondervan, 2007).