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Finding out that you’re going to be a father is a very crystallizing and defining moment in a man’s life. Some men run from it, others embrace it, and still more are, frankly, puzzled by it—and some fears and uncertainties, once believed to have been overcome, can come flooding out again:
Will I be a good father?
Will my children love me?
Can I escape my own upbringing, and do better?
Can I parent with my heart, more than with my head?
Will my partner still love me if I’m not a good father?
Would she even tell me if I were doing poorly?
Will I ever learn enough, know enough and contribute enough to our parenting relationship?
How will I respond if the kids get sick? How will I respond if one of them dies?
How can I keep them safe, provide for them, provide for my partner and stay happy at the same time?
It can be completely overwhelming under the best of circumstances. We experience a sudden sense of being responsible for someone else, of having to provide for them and our partner. And we may still be grappling with the other uncertainties and inadequacies that we have carried around with us for years.
There is an immediacy to being a new parent which requires us to handle stressful situations in a calm, thoughtful manner. But if we have not been willing or able to reconcile our fears and uncertainties, “calm” and “thoughtfulness” are states of being that are difficult to attain, and even more difficult to maintain. I think that, under stress, we are prone to default to our most basic personalities, to use whatever familiar coping mechanisms we’ve used in the past. Sometimes, the only way to really work through this effectively is to latch on to something familiar that helps ground us a bit, so we can deal effectively with the swirling emotions and seismic shifts in…well, just about everything, that come with being a new parent.
In order to grasp my new life, I had to rely on my old paradigms of what a parent “should” be for guidance. In my head, I had mapped out exactly what it takes to raise a child, be a husband, have a productive household and be an accepted member of society. For me, it was pretty simple, really. Dad works, mom works; breakfast as a family with a healthy meal; lunches and book bags all packed the night before; kids on the bus and doing well at school; work being hard but rewarding; home by 6:00, kids all there; dinner together, then chores; some time to play, then homework; then time to brush your teeth and put on your PJs, and off to bed by 9:30 or so. Of course, the kids would play sports, I’d be a member of the Jaycees, mom would be on the Chamber of Commerce, etc., etc., etc. We might even go to church on Sundays and sing in the choir. It’s important to note that these “expectations” of what my life would be like were not some mere abstract, or some societal norm that I simply bought into. These were things I wanted. They were what mattered; they were the way it was done. If we did it this way, everyone would be happy, no one would get hurt, and we would raise our kids to be responsible members of society. And as a dad, my role was critical—I had to be the driver to ensure all of this happened on schedule.
But as a soon-to-be father, all of that was overwhelming. I had to focus on finding ways to control things as early as possible, to make the wonder of pregnancy easier for me to process and deal with, despite the flurry of changes. I had to establish some sort of comforting paradigm for how my children would spend their time in utero, and how they would come into the world. So for our first child, I approached the birth process in ways that were familiar and made sense to me. In fairness, I should mention that both my wife and I were raised in traditional ways, and although we knew that we wanted to be more connected to our children that our parents were to us, we still agreed that the birth would be in a hospital, and that the pregnancy and delivery would be with the help of an OB-GYN.
Our first son, Kai, was born in the hospital, in a fairly traditional way. Overall, it was…okay. In retrospect, the word that comes to mind is “satisfactory.” We did attend a birthing class for several weeks that was sponsored by the hospital, which provided us with fantastic insight and guidance into several paradigm shifts—no circumcision, vaccination choices, cloth versus disposable diapers, etc. We prepared by reading books like The Hip Mama’s Guide to Pregnancy, and spent hours trying to learn all we could to have as authentic and non-invasive a pregnancy as possible. I loved the time when Ginger was pregnant. The way she glowed, the laughter and joy we felt, all of the changes, even the newness of the uncertainty—it was all part of a joyous process as we got ready for our first son. On the morning her water broke, we called the hospital to let them know we were on our way (why do people do that?), and then sat down and watched an old episode of Colombo and ate granola before we went in. There was no fear, no concern—just uncertainty, and a bit of tingling nervousness as we readied ourselves to meet this little dude that we had been talking to all these months.
When we got to the hospital, the experience became…clinical. The nurses were nice enough, I suppose, and they did their best to accommodate our wishes. They did induce with Pitocin a bit earlier than I would have liked, and the labor was very long. I felt so helpless. The woman I loved—my soul mate, my best friend, and the person who changed my outlook on life—was in obvious pain and there was nothing I could do. As the minutes passed to hours with little progress (as though birth could be measured in milestones of good or bad), I felt like I was getting smaller. The swirl of machines and nurses and doctors somehow made me feel less visible— and less needed. But toward the end, when we knew we were getting close, all of that gave way to a laser focus. Ginger and I looked at each other through each contraction, as though we could see into each other’s bodies, with a love and understanding that made me feel in perfect sync with her. And when we got to hold that little boy, some nine months and 17 hours after we started that journey, I was simply stunned. I was stunned at Ginger and how amazing she had been on that difficult day; I was stunned by the little precious body I was holding in my arms; and I was stunned by the overwhelming sense of love and protection I felt, so much stronger than I expected. It was a different kind of love than I had felt before—deeper, more thorough, away from my heart and my mind and into my bones, my cells, every part of me. It was a love for life, for all things, always and in all ways. And it took over my life in ways beautiful and unexpected, like it has each day since.
As the years went by and we learned more about raising a child—which was much easier now that we actually had one—we began to think of things we might do differently if we were ever blessed enough to have another. For example, Kai received some vaccinations, but we knew that we would not vaccinate our other children. We also knew that we would carry our next child in the sling more, and cuddle more. So when Ginger came to work one afternoon and blew me away with her “positive” pee stick, I just knew that it would all be okay the second time around.
And then she told me that she wanted midwives instead of doctors. And wanted to give birth at home. In water. And I freaked.