Money may be no object until your wife gets pregnant. Then: It's panic time.
People tell me I’m a calm person. Rarely do I panic: not at the sight of blood, not even when I realize I’ve left my wallet in the back seat of a taxi. But after my wife called with the news that she was pregnant, I went to my office cubicle, clasped my hands behind my neck, stared at the ceiling and let the floodgates of anxiety open wide.
Suddenly our life, which I had thought was a good one, seemed booby-trapped with quandaries that were mine to solve — alone. All that passé stuff about being the provider reared its mummified head and said, “You wimp.” It was as if I’d only been playing at being a husband.
My fears were primal. If my wife quit work, we’d never be able to afford a bigger apartment (a scary thought, because our current place was tiny). We both believed that she should stay home to nurse and be with the baby for the first year, so that meant I somehow had to boost my income by at least a third, if not by half.
“Impossible,” I thought. My job at a boating magazine paid poorly. But getting a new job would mean losing the chief advantage of the old one: the time and opportunity to travel to my wife’s native Hawaii. The islands were where we were most ourselves, where we surfed, swam and relaxed in the bosom of a large extended family. Say aloha to all that.
Expectant Father Fever
That night, when I shared my fears with my wife, she said: “Don’t worry. Things will work out. We have lots of time.” It didn’t matter. Within 24 hours, I had succumbed to Expectant Father Fever — the sum of a guy’s conscious and subconscious fears about pulling his weight during and after the pregnancy.
I’ve witnessed The Fever among many male friends, and if you think an expectant mother’s belly looks big after nine months, you ought to see the size of an expectant father’s fears. They’re huge. In his mind, he suddenly is eating for two, thinking for two, worrying for two. At the office, he’s scared by well-meaning older guys who explain in gruesome detail how they screwed up their kids and marriages by ignoring the distinction between term and regular life insurance. And his boss (if mine is any example) makes matters worse by loading him up with work on the theory that he can’t afford to complain.
My friend Greg reacted by slashing every possible frill from his budget, including holiday visits to family, clothing allowances, a weekly dinner out, and all magazine and cable TV subscriptions. “I had a vision of Shakerlike simplicity,” he told me, ignoring the fact that the Shakers didn’t last too long.
What to Do About Fear
“The problem for expectant fathers is that there are reasonable and unreasonable fears,” says Frances Brown, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist with a couples and family practice in Honolulu. “Many young fathers find it hard to draw the line between them, because they feel it’s their traditional duty, as the provider, to cover every contingency.” It’s reasonable, she suggests, for Greg to chart bottom-line expenses and then trim a bit, putting off any big-ticket expenses such as a car, trip or new home. It’s unreasonable, though, to act as if an occasional takeout Chinese dinner will leave you homeless.
In my case, I wore shirts twice before putting them in the laundry, skimped on shoes and haircuts, and let my ordinarily cheerful demeanor betray a wary, hunted look (not so smart when you’re angling for a big promotion). At least I didn’t go the route of my neighbor, Neal, whose impending fatherhood inspired a series of ever larger and more grandiose moneymaking schemes. Thank God I didn’t “get in on the ground floor!” of anything, except the baby section of the department store.
When my boss came through with the lowest raise I ever had received, I mastered my anger, realizing that he was sending me a message, not an insult. Then I let my wife throw out the more threadbare elements of my wardrobe as the first step in looking for a new job. “Change requires growth,” Brown says, and it was indeed time to move on. I did, and I moved up, too, to a higher-paying job at a better magazine.
Today, 11 years later, I’m here to report that we eventually moved to a larger apartment, and we still visit Hawaii. In fact, this past summer on the island of Molokai, I sat on a green hill overlooking a whitecapped ocean and talked to a young Hawaiian who works as a guide for adventure campers. The topic of discussion? The pressure of being an expectant father.
The advice I gave Jack was to concentrate on being there for his wife and child that first year, and to not spend all of his time working and fretting. I reminded him that he didn’t need the complete unabridged Encyclopaedia Brittanica, a computer with CD-ROM, a college fund or a remodeled house right off the bat. Just remember, I told him, hang on to your dreams.
And forget about serving leftovers, at least after the second day.