So You're Going to Be a Dad, revised edition


By Peter Downey

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For the first-time dad, useful and practical information about pregnancy, childbirth, and baby care, including: what to say — and what not to say–when you hear the news; taking care of moms-to-be; what childbirth feels like; crying, diapers, and bathtime; and baby-proofing the home.



And So, It Begins

“If only I could have seen the writing on the wall. It would have said, ‘Your wife’s pregnant! Run away! Run away!’”

Sex and its Side Effects

WARNING: The Surgeon General advises that sex may cause children.

Sex is an appropriate starting point for our consideration of fatherhood. After all, this is where the journey begins.

By the very virtue of the fact that you are actually reading this page, let’s assume that you have already passed this initial but crucial test. With flying colors. In the interests of good taste, I shall therefore refrain from elaborating any further on how much fun you had in the process and “Was it good for you too, babe?,” etc.

But we all get the message. While you were lying back in a haze of post-coital euphoria – like they do in the movies – an armada of about 300 million of your sperms set off from Port Penis on the first leg of their marathon swim through all that female plumbing, the names of which I can never quite remember.

(I will probably never come to terms with all those bits and pieces of the female anatomy. As a teenager, sitting in a Personal Development class at an all-boys’ school, I was always perplexed by the textbook cross-sections of women’s insides. You know the picture I mean? Yeah, the diagram of the one-legged woman. I could never follow all the bulbous squiggles and wormy channels with the funny names. In fact, it was only years later that I discovered that the cross-section diagram was in fact a side view, not a top view. (A tip: the top view looks like a Rorschach ink blot of a bat spreading its wings.) Maybe I should have paid more attention, instead of sitting at the back of the classroom with Adam Armstrong trying to put sample diaphragms on our heads like swimming caps.)

Anyway, while nothing to you, those several centimeters from the tip of the penis to their intended destination are an Olympic endurance event to these little tadpoles. They will only survive for a few days, so there is no time to waste. Like salmon battling upstream, they have to swim from the vagina, north through the uterus (or womb), and climb up one of the two Fallopian tubes to where an egg (more correctly an ovum, or the less well-known oocyte) is hiding, or soon to arrive.

Now, let’s just pause to reflect for a moment on what’s happening here. Before your child is even close to being created, this is already an amazing feat. To transpose it into human terms and dimensions, think of it like this. Imagine you (representing a sperm) are competing in a biathlon. You and the entire population of Brazil (all the other sperms) are shot down a three-mile urethral chute at around fifteen times the speed of sound. You splash down into an unpleasantly acidic subterranean ocean, in total darkness, and have to locate and swim for a half-mile through a secret tunnel that is only fifty or so yards wide, before emerging into, well, let’s say Long Island Sound. And then the race is really on. You’ve still got three miles left, still in total darkness.

Swimmers around you are dying by the tens of millions, just exhausted, or victims of aggressive antibodies, or swimming off somewhere lost and never to be seen again. It’s chaos. A couple of hours later, there are only a few thousand competitors left.

At the far end of the sound, there are two tributaries heading off in opposite directions, and you have to decide which one to swim up. It’s a big choice. Only one of them will contain the treasured prize – an ovum, which to you is an orb about the size of a double-decker bus – and, even then, only if your timing is just right and you happen to arrive at that exact moment each month when it happens to pass by. And so you and the last remaining few hundred of the strongest swimmers head off, desperately hoping that it’s all been worthwhile . . . (It’s amazing when you think about it that humans exist at all.)

Post-intercourse, while you are going about your ordinary life (making breakfast or snoring or heading back to work after your “lunchbreak”), you and your wife are both probably blissfully oblivious to all this mysterious and wonderful action taking place inside her body on a microscopic level. And the ovum hasn’t even appeared yet!

The ovum is the smallest cell in the human body that can be seen with the naked eye . . . although I can’t really imagine a situation where this would come to pass. Being about the width of a human hair, it makes the period at the end of this sentence look like a beach ball. The point is that it is very, very small.

The ovum has undergone a journey of its own. Women have about half a million of these ova stored in their ovaries. Each month during ovulation, a mature or “ripe” ovum leaves its sisters and bobs on down one of the Fallopian tubes, like a little planet wondering if the strange aliens with the tails will perhaps come and visit.

It’s a pretty narrow window and time is critical, because this ovum has a “use-by” date of only about twenty-four hours. Either it arrives and waits to see if any sperms turn up, or the sperms are already there, hanging around impatiently. They could have been there for a few days already, although after seventy-two hours they are really running out of steam for the second stage of the biathlon.

By now, there aren’t too many sperms left. (One book I read described it as “a handful of sperm,” a mental picture that I could have done without.) To return to our human-scale analogy, out of the original field of a few hundred million, it’s now down to you and the final fifty swimmers, now surrounding the bus-sized orb, desperately trying to get inside first. Because that’s the point. There is only one winner. Only one prize. First one in wins. The rest just swim off and die.

The sperms all find a spot on the ovum they can call their own, stick their heads down and start spinning around and around like fence-post diggers. Picture a tennis ball swarming with animated alfalfa sprouts. The winner is the first one to break the ovum wall and get in.

Two things immediately happen. The tail breaks off from the head of the successful sperm and the ovum gets coy and undergoes a chemical change, which instantly shuts out all the other contenders. It’s a bit of a disappointment for them, I should imagine: getting all that way, beating all those odds, only to be defeated in the last second.

Sad, really.

Anyway, at that specific moment, what you have there is your child. Sure, it’s only a single cell, technically and unromantically referred to as a zygote, but your child nonetheless, sitting in its own little dark, warm universe. You can almost imagine the Starship Enterprise zooming past through this microscopic universe with Spock at the view-screen musing, “It’s life, Jim, but not as we know it.”

And there you have it. The wheels of fate have spun in their diurnal course and, although you don’t know it yet, the rest of your life has just massively changed direction. In short, you’re going to be a dad.

This is the miracle of life. The miracle of sex. And it is a miracle.

God really was very clever to have thought it up.

This child of yours is unique in the universe. You and your wife are the only combination in history who could have created it. Think of it this way: your wife has about half a million ova. You have about 300 million sperms per ejaculation. Let us assume, for the sake of argument and mathematical convenience, that you have sex once a week over a ten-year potential parenting period. Your child could be any combination of any single sperm and any single ovum. So, if my mathematics serves me correctly (which it might not do, considering my grades at school), then that makes your child one of 78,000,000,000,000,000 (seventy-eight quadrillion) possible people combinations.

This is a humbling thing for a father to contemplate. Without getting into a philosophical debate, it’s kind of awesome to think about the incredibly complex and infinitesimal beginnings of human life – the beginnings of the life of your child. What is at this point an indistinct speck will grow to be a person whom you will know and love intimately—a person, I might add, who will change your life and take you into a world you could not have possibly imagined.

You will see this infinitesimally small spot learn to crawl, walk and talk. It will keep you up at night. You will spend countless hours on the floor with it playing with blocks and books and watching Disney cartoons. It will create bizarre, abstract drawings for you to stick on your fridge and say great stuff such as “Why aren’t I a tree?” It will get dressed up as a giant cheese for school play night. You will tie its shoes and make thousands of sandwiches and carrot sticks for its lunch. On Father’s Day, it will make you cold tea and burnt toast and present you with the most hideous and aesthetically unappealing hand-painted coffee mug in the history of mankind, and yet you will be strangely proud of it and treat it with the utmost respect and value. For years. You will carry this now infinitesimally small spot on your shoulders around a zoo and find yourself making crazy animal noises for illustrative purposes. You will feel hopeful as you launch it on its bike for the first time without training wheels, exhilarated as it pedals off manically into the distance, concerned as it suddenly veers off and disappears down an embankment, and sheepish as you explain to your wife why your child now has four stitches in its forehead. You will spend hours throwing balls and kicking balls and hitting balls together at the park. You will teach it to drive a car and struggle not to grab the steering wheel every time a corner is taken too widely, and you will lie awake at night because it borrowed your car and is two hours late in getting home. You will treasure the photo you have of you and this spot on top of a mountain on your camping holiday. This little thing will take you to the peaks of pleasure (“I love you, Dad”) and to the depths of despair (“Dad, I just backed the car into the side of the house”). And then, one day, that microscopic cell will leave home and you’ll wonder what you ever did before it came along.

Morning Sickness

At this stage, you are probably still unaware you are travelling down the road to dadhood. It’s not like there’s an app on your phone that buzzes you with a message:

CODE RED FERTILIZATION ALERT: OvumApp has identified a sperm signal matching your DNA that has fertilized a nearby ovum. Currently at eight cell divisions and counting. Please verify with external testing.

At least . . . I don’t think there is. Is there?

Similarly, the stork doesn’t wake you up in the morning by tapping on your bedroom window and squawking, “YOUR WIFE’S PREGNANT! BRAAA! YOUR WIFE’S PREGNANT! BRAAA!”

But there is a telltale sign. An early warning system, if you like. Its medical name is the grandiosely titled nausea gravidarum, but most people just refer to it as morning sickness.

I still remember the day Meredith accompanied me to get a haircut. The salon was half-full of women getting perms and rinses and other things out of my experience and beyond my comprehension. Everything was going fine until she unexpectedly leapt up and bolted into the bathroom at the rear of the shop. For the next few minutes, we all sat there perplexed by the cacophony of gurgling and gagging, beautifully amplified by the tiled walls and floor.

At the time, I assumed this sudden and violent illness was due to my substandard attempt at a chicken laksa the previous evening. I don’t think I’d even heard of morning sickness before (does coconut milk even go off?). But that sickness was the trumpet blast that heralded the end of one era of my life and the approach of a new one.

If only I could have seen the writing on the wall. It would have said, “Your wife’s pregnant! Run away! Run away!” But back then I was ignorant about such things. You see, on the outside, my wife looked fine and normal, just like she did every day. A lifetime of television clichés had taught me that pregnant women staggered around, they groaned in and out of chairs, were prone to bouts of irrational hysteria, wore ridiculously frumpy maternity tents and developed inexplicable middle-of-the-night cravings for cucumber ice-cream or pickled onions on toast. But my wife was slim and attractive and athletic, and she was wearing jeans and a T-shirt; ergo, she was not pregnant.

But, on the inside, that sperm and ovum combination was hard at work on its human cocktail. And you can’t have another person starting to grow within your own personal body space without certain side effects. The presence of the fertilized egg causes the mother’s body to be flooded with estrogen and hormones, including the insidious-sounding Beta hCG. Meredith’s blood and major body systems had gone into overdrive. One small side effect was that she felt nauseous.

This is morning sickness, an unpleasant physiological reaction experienced by most pregnant women usually throughout their first three months. Think carsickness, or airsickness, or roller-coaster-after-a-seafood-lunch-and-a-few-pints sickness. Then multiply the quease factor by ten. It got its rather obvious and uncreative name because of its unwelcome appearance in the early hours of the day, but in reality it can happen all day. It should really be called “24/7 sickness,” but that doesn’t really roll off the tongue as well.

There is only one positive aspect to morning sickness. Research suggests that women who suffer from it have fewer miscarriages, and it may be a sign that a fertilized egg has implanted successfully. However, while this quirky statistic may be of great interest and comfort to you, it is likely to be of little comfort to your wife as she throws up into a potted plant outside your local supermarket.

Confirming the Obvious

Some women know that they are pregnant within a few weeks of conception. Their biological systems start ringing alarm bells and they soon put two and two together. But you also hear stories about women who go to their doctor with suspected irritable bowel syndrome or a gallstone problem only to find their gallstone has eyes, hands and a heartbeat and is already eight months old. Obviously, their biological alarm bells did not ring loudly enough. They put two and two together but ended up with three.

However, quite a few moms have assured me that most women know when they are pregnant. “It’s just one of those instinctive things,” they say. Being a guy, I can’t validate or refute this comment, but I guess there must come a point in every woman’s pregnancy when she begins to suspect that something is going on down in the engine room. It might be because of a missed period or food cravings. It might be because her breasts have become sore or because she is suddenly moody or tired or in frequent need of a toilet. It might be because of an unexpected propensity to vomit, even when you didn’t cook the night before. It may well even be “just one of those instinctive things.”

Once the woman reaches this point, however, things really start to heat up. She can go to either the phramacy or the doctor to have her suspicions confirmed with a pregnancy test.

Ah, the marvels of modern medical science! This test is really quite amazing and is certainly worth seeing. It measures the level of Beta hCG secreted into the mother’s urine because of the suspected internal guest. There are a couple of different tests available from your pharmacy but they all basically involve introducing urine to some type of test strip. Some tests are even done “mid-stream,” for those who like to live on the wild side. Home-pregnancy tests are about ninety-nine percent accurate and are best done first thing in the morning.

Pregnancy test kits used to resemble a credit card. (Heck, we even used to keep them in our wallets as a conversation starter!) Potential Mom would sprinkle four or five drops of urine on one corner of the card (something well outside my skill set), which then seeped across to the other corner, passing through a little viewing window en route. Five minutes later, Potential Mom watched as a little cross appeared in the window, confirming her suspicions. Meredith showed me one that said, in no uncertain terms, we were going to be parents.

Nowadays, pregnancy tests are quicker and leaner, resembling a thermometer. This is a good thing, because you won’t ever have that awkward moment in a liquor store where you try buying a six-pack of pale ale by swiping your pissy pregnancy card. Oh yeah, that’s a moment.

And Now, the News

There are two types of fathers.

There are the fathers who have been trying with their wives to become fathers. “We’ve been trying now for about twelve months,” he will pipe up cheerily over an after-work drink, euphemistically referring to the fact that he has been having sex a lot. His wife and he have talked it over and they have both been trying for a long time to get it all happening. In the parental blogosphere, this is called TTC (trying to conceive).

Some guys have just always known they wanted to have children. It’s just part of their identity and an integral narrative in how they see their lives playing out. For some – the fortunate – this may come to pass without too much effort or stress. But for others, despite their best efforts, pregnancy remains elusive, for any number of biological reasons, such as your sperm motility (capability of moving), or if your wife is heading towards her forties.

This can be a very long, complicated, emotionally rocky and frustrating process, perhaps involving thermometers, calendars, expensive cycles of in vitro fertilization (IVF) and visits to that special doctor who gives you a specimen jar and says, “Third cubicle on the right, if you please,” and ten minutes later you have to hand the clear, plastic receptacle over to the intern behind the counter. Oh, the joy. (One of my friends even got into “Ovulation Tracking,” a medical service that monitors ovulation and calculates the best times for intercourse, but really just brings to mind images of a surveillance satellite (from any Michael Bay movie) zooming in on a woman’s uterus from a thousand kilometers up.)

Anyway, the bottom line is that this type of guy and his wife have been TTC, working hard at getting pregnant, at becoming parents, mother and father, mom and dad. He is expectant and is keenly waiting, planning and hoping for those magically whispered words, “Darling, I’m pregnant.”

Then there is the other type of father. He is the one who has not been trying to become a father. (However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that he hasn’t been having sex a lot, nor that he doesn’t necessarily want kids.) Perhaps in the heat of passion he and his wife brushed aside the security of contraception. Perhaps the contraception failed. Maybe they forgot that sex causes children or they just thought damn the torpedoes and wanted to see what would happen.

Anyway, the bottom line is that this type of guy and his wife enjoyed sex largely for relational purposes, as opposed to specifically “extending the family tree” purposes. He is not expectant and is not keenly waiting, planning and hoping for those magically whispered words.

Now, these guys have two things in common:

     in just a few months, they will both become fathers

     there will come a day soon where this important fact is revealed to them.

At this point, they may have fairly distinct and different responses to the actual news that fatherhood is nigh. Let’s examine the different scenarios.

Father Type I – the one who has been trying – receives a cryptic text from his wife in his lunchbreak: “Dnt make 2 many plans 4 end of year. See u tonite.”

He is uncertain and curious about this, but can’t help but wonder, Could it be . . . ? At odd moments during the day, he is sure he can hear wafting violins somewhere in the background.

Later that day: “So what’s the deal?”

“Darling, I saw Dr. Lloyd this morning.”

[Crescendo of violins. Counter-melody subtly and harmoniously introduced by cellos and violas.]

“You mean . . . ?”

“Yes, my love. The tests were . . . positive.”

[Massive crescendo. Whole symphony joins in.]

“You mean . . . ?”

“Yes, my honey blossom pancake . . . you’re going to be . . . [and then the magical words as the whole room starts to spin uncontrollably in soft focus, accompanied by beautiful orchestral themes and bursts of color] A DAD.”

He experiences a sensation of being lifted off the ground. He soars above the trees and spins around among the clouds. Clutching his wife to him, he feels deep inner warmth and fulfillment. It is a beautiful moment, full of symphonies and fireworks, confetti and rainbows.

Father Type II – the one who has not been trying – has something of a different experience. On his lunchbreak, he receives a cryptic text from his wife: “Dnt make 2 many plans 4 end of year. See u tonite.”

He is uncertain and curious about this, but can’t help but wonder, Could it be . . . a month in Bali? But at odd moments during the day, he is sure he can hear the theme from Jaws somewhere in the background.

Later that day: “So what’s the deal?”

“Darling, I saw Dr. Lloyd this morning.”

[Crescendo of Jaws theme. Aggressive, discordant counter-melody suddenly introduced à la staccato crotchets from Psycho.]

“You mean . . . ?”

“I had some tests. They were positive.”

[Massive crescendo of untuned violins, timpani, gamelan and other nastily percussive instruments.]

“You mean . . . ?”

“I’m pregnant. You’re going to be . . . [and then the room spins sickeningly to the deafening chorus of cannons, breaking glass and sirens] A DAD.”

The room lurches like at the end of a bad bachelor party. His head swims and his knees buckle. He clutches his wife to him, for stability. In a feeble attempt at speech, he produces only pathetic squeaks and gurgles.

In this situation, it is important for the moment to be handled delicately. For example, there are certain things that should not be said, such as:

     How did you let that happen?

     Sorry, did you just say, “I’m eggplant”?

     I’ve got practice.

     We can’t afford it.

     What’s for dinner?

     That’s fine, but don’t expect me to get involved.

By the way, when your wife says she’s pregnant, DON’T – whatever you do, DON’T – say, “Oh, you better sit down,” as if she’s some sort of invalid. They only do that on TV.

If you’re a Father Type I, you probably feel pretty good. You’ve been trying to be a parent and you’ve just found out that soon you will be, so everything’s sweet.

If you’re a Father Type II, your first reaction could be anywhere on the scale from mild surprise and delight to confusion, shock and possibly fear. Don’t feel too bad. I’ve been a Father Type II three times now and it hasn’t done me any harm (if you don’t count those bouts of involuntary twitching). Meredith had been on the pill for a while, and for various and personal reasons, which are frankly none of your business, we decided that she should come off the pill. Our basic idea was that nature would take its course and she would fall pregnant eventually on some distant fantasy day in the future and, whenever that happened, it would be just fine.

It happened the next day.

Call me naive, but I thought that pregnancy was actually a pretty difficult thing to achieve and that our “nature’s course” method would take a while. What I didn’t know then was that there’s a ballpark twenty percent chance that a sexually active couple can get pregnant in a given month, rising to about an eighty percent chance in a given year. As it so happened, Meredith and I turned out to be as fertile as the Nile Delta and only need to drink from the same coffee cup for her to start feeling sick in the morning.

I clearly remember the moment when I found out my life was about to take off in a new and radically unexpected direction. It was March 8. Meredith was picking me up from work. She’d needed the car that day because she was going to the doctor. She hadn’t been her usual self since that emergency at the hairdresser’s. It was a bit of a concern, really.


On Sale
Mar 1, 2016
Page Count
320 pages

Peter Downey

About the Author

Peter Downey is an author, father of three, and teacher of high school English in Australia.

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