How do men really feel about making the transition from regular guy to dear ol' dad?
A group of men — some of them expecting fathers, some dads already — got together recently over pizza and beer to talk about what it's really like to be a parent. Once we edited out all the Monty Python jokes and references to that cute chick on Survivor: The Australian Outback, what was left were honest admissions, valuable advice and true tenderness. That, and a couple of veggie slices, which one dad-to-be took home for his pizza-craving wife.
The Participants: Billy 37, sound editor for television and film; wife is six months pregnant with first child. Kevin F. 29, dot-com refugee; has one son, 4 months old. Kevin D. 45, programmer; wife is eight months pregnant with first child. Don 47, engineer; 2-year-old son; wife is seven months pregnant. Keith 35, boat captain; has three sons, ages 6, 5, and 20 months.
Fit Pregnancy: When you found out you were going to become a father, what was the first thing that went through your head?
Billy: We weren't trying, but we weren't not trying. My wife came out of the bathroom with this terrified look on her face, extremely upset, and that's when she told me. I said, "That's great! Cool!" But she thought she'd ruined all our plans—we had these financial goals that we wanted to reach before a baby came. But I was like, "Hey, we didn't get up there and say all those vows for nothing."
Don: We were trying for a second baby, and she did the same thing—came out of the bathroom and said, "Come check this out," and there's the little green line on the test. We were really happy, but we were much calmer the second time around. The first time, we were probably panic-stricken in terms of not knowing exactly what to do. Right after we found out, we ran out to the bookstore and bought about $100 worth of pregnancy books.
Keith: We took the test—she actually made me go buy it—and it was stressful. We weren't married at the time, and we didn't know what to expect. But we were happy about it.
Kevin D.: My wife had had a miscarriage before, and she was pretty sure she was pregnant—it was the first time since losing the baby that we'd tried. But the test said no. We were disappointed for about a week—until she took another pregnancy test and it came out positive. But it really didn't become real for me until we saw the first ultrasound. I was so surprised to see the baby moving around so much ... I guess I'd thought that they mostly just sleep in there. But he was just sort of spinning around, and it was amazing.
Kevin F.: In the movies, you get the test results and there's this lightning bolt, but for me it was more surreal. Women can feel these things going on with their bodies, but for a guy, no matter how close you are as a couple, no matter how much you've planned it, the baby isn't growing inside your body or making you tired or nauseated.
Was that a problem for you and your wife?
Kevin F.: She was a little ahead of where I was in seeing the baby as real, as part of the family. We didn't have conflicts about it, but I was thinking, "Shouldn't this be more real for me?" In some way, I don't think the reality sets in until you see that head coming out.
Has your lifestyle changed a whole lot during the pregnancy or when the baby came? Are you missing out on things that you used to enjoy? Don: We'd traveled a lot already and done a lot of things—what we were missing out on was having a family.
Kevin F.: I found myself thinking about things like money and investments, education IRAs. We'd go out for breakfast and I wouldn't order coffee, and I'd think, "All right! A dollar-fifty in the college fund!"
Kevin D.: With work and everything, it seems like I'm always fighting for free time now, and I wonder how much time there'll be once we have a baby. But as far as going out and partying or anything, that's not really us.
Billy: Yeah, our Friday and Saturday nights were usually Blockbuster videos and a pizza. We've never been party animals.
Hey, I've got another full pitcher here. Anyone for a refill? [Beer mugs are thrust forward simultaneously.] What's the one thing you're looking forward to most about being a dad, or what were you looking forward to before you became one?
Keith: Being a kid again—playing catch, making snow angels, throwing snowballs, doing silly kid stuff.
Kevin D.: I know what you mean—like re-experiencing your childhood through your own child's eyes.
Kevin F.: Through your own father's eyes, too. Becoming a father really helps to clarify your relationship with your own dad.
Kevin F.: In my earliest memories, my father seemed really old, but he was about the same age I am now. And to me, he was like a god. It's a humbling thought — how am I going to be worthy of the trust and affection my son puts in me?
Billy: It's a rite of passage, understanding your own place in the world.
What about your relationship with your wife? You're really close during the pregnancy and delivery, but all of a sudden, there's a baby with needs to be met.
Kevin D.: Actually, we're kind of gearing up for that, for a lot of our emotional energy and time being dedicated to taking care of the baby.
Billy: Our relationship changed at the end of the first trimester, when my wife went into premature labor and the doctor told us no more sex. There's a stress that comes with that, but I think that in some ways, my wife and I have become more intimate. Other couples can work out their stress in the bedroom, but we have to communicate in other ways. Let's talk a little bit more about sex. How do you cope with the changes in your physical relationship?
Don: It's definitely more planned than spontaneous now, especially when she's feeling nauseated or fatigued. And with trying to not make her uncomfortable with the weight and the pressure, it kind of becomes a Keystone Kops sort of thing.
Keith: It was great during pregnancy. She was still really sexy. Sex is a different story with three kids, though — there's no time or place to hide.
Kevin F.: Since the baby, we've been figuring out how to make our lives work. His needs are all-consuming, and ours, physical and emotional, have taken a back seat. We're both frayed, so I have to think twice and not say or do anything I'll regret.
Speaking of stuff you regret, is there anything you'd advise an expecting father to never say or do?
Billy: Don't ever say she looks big.
Kevin D.: Actually, my wife is very small, and the doctor keeps telling her to gain more weight, so I get to call her a hippopotamus with impunity.
Don: My wife gets kind of a dopiness thing, but she takes it in stride if I kid her about it. I don't push it, though.
Billy: No matter how much she's worrying about something, don't ever tell her not to worry or try to stop her from expressing her emotions. She needs to do that; it's your job to listen.
Keith: You have to be more sensitive.
How about your ages? Do you think it makes a difference if you wait to become a dad?
Don: Well, we've both had longer careers than many new parents, and money isn't as stressful as it could be. I also know that age and maturity have given me a lot more patience. The biggest negative is the concern that later, I won't be able to throw a baseball to my kids. I hope they help keep me going.
Billy: There's a certain amount of finesse required for being a parent. I think I have that now, but a few years ago I might not have.
Keith: And you've left the wild stuff behind you.
So out of all this, how has fatherhood, real or imminent, changed you?
Kevin F.: I think it's a sense of wonder at this unfolding relationship, of having him look into my eyes and know who I am.
Don: More than anything else, the feeling that what's to come far exceeds anything I've given up.
Billy: There's a Zen saying about how it's better to want what you have than have what you want. I think that when you become a father, that's particularly true. Now if I can just do that in real life, it's gonna be great.