We finally made it to the point in the pregnancy when we could start telling people. We knew a lot of people had been waiting for this news and we were looking forward to their excitement as we unveiled the secret. I anticipated the smiles, the screams of delight, the words of congratulations. What I didn’t anticipate was that those wouldn’t be directed to me.
When we started telling people, there were many that went straight to Katie and congratulated her with a big hug. I understood, knowing she was the key player in this situation, but then I waited for my congratulations, my hug, and more than once I was left waiting. “Wait,” I thought, “isn’t this about me too?”
The thought felt selfish to me, at first. I know there’s a little thing growing in her and leeching away all of her energy, but I’m fairly certain the congratulations aren’t in response to the fact that her body will change in ways extreme enough to be featured in horror films. The congratulations, I’m assuming, are for the child that will eventually be birthed. The fact is that if you have a baby it means, inversely, that you are a parent. And in that context, my life is irreversibly changing too, maybe even equally.
But the congratulations weren’t equal and as my need to celebrate this happy secret I had also been painfully harboring was stifled, I wondered why. Was I not seen as an equal parent? Or worse, was it some kind of homogenized reaction of society to congratulate the woman as the one who “wanted it”. I felt an urge to fight for my status as equal parent, but even though I’ll do my share of diaper changing, and rocking the baby when it’s crying, I know that what the baby will mostly want are functioning nipples. It’s hard to compete with that.
I couldn’t think of my physical disadvantage without contemplating if this is also how men felt in this situation. Were they standing around waiting for their congratulations and hugs too? Or was it easier for people to dole out a hug to the mother, and a hearty handshake to the father? After all, they were both necessary for the creation of the child. All I have to show for it is a credit card statement from helping purchase the sperm. And although I’m a very thrifty shopper, that doesn’t seem quite as integral to the process. To be honest, I wasn’t even in the room when my wife got pregnant. I had already missed a lot of work keeping up with her ovulation cycles, and we both decided that, ultimately, my soothing comments such as, “you think this is bad, wait for the delivery!” weren’t entirely necessary in the baby making process.
Full disclosure here: I like attention. I mean, I will get up and sing karaoke completely sober. I recognize that that’s part of what’s happening here. But at the same time, I’m starting to realize what dad’s are up against, especially ones that want to be involved. It’s probably common knowledge that paternity leaves are much shorter than maternity. You bring home a baby, get one, maybe two weeks of time with it and then you’re back at work. It must be torture to leave when you know you have this baby that’s yours at home. And even though it’s not all tickling and giggles, it also must be hard knowing the mother is left staring at this tiny human and wondering how she’s going to find time to shower when she can’t stop thinking about how not to break said tiny human. For the fun and the torture, involved second parents want to be there to help.
This is all in addition to the aforementioned problem of non-functioning nipples. Women can pump and that gives them a break and the other parent an opportunity to bond with the child. There are even contraptions to facilitate the bonding where you can take the bottled milk and put it in a fake breast to wear on your own body. Even though babies practically were born yesterday, I suspect they know the difference. That’s not to mention that you can really only pump enough milk to do this once or twice a day and I’m starting to learn that babies eat a lot. This is all to say that even though I might eventually boast about my chance to sleep when the baby hungrily cries at night, I’ll secretly be jealous that I can’t help even if I wanted to. That’s something a birth mother has that we second parents have to watch in envy.
I’ve thought back on my interactions when I was the one receiving the news of couples’ pregnancies, hoping that I received it in a way that was perfectly balanced between the parents, or at least acknowledged the role of the non-pregnant one. No matter how hard I try, though, I can’t remember how I reacted, but I hope that I said words of congratulations to the fathers, or at least gave them an awkward high five.