Becoming a Father

If you just got the news that your partner is pregnant, chances are that you're experiencing a rush of emotions. Maybe it's all happiness and excitement. But the reality is that for many FIRST TIME DADS there are a whole lot of other feelings to deal with, too.

If you feel shocked, panicked, overwhelmed, scared, or like you're just not ready for this, you're not alone. Like any major life change, this is going to require a major adjustment. And if the pregnancy wasn't planned - half of all pregnancies aren't - you may be feeling these emotions in an even more intense way.

You don't have to feel guilty or anxious about having these mixed emotions; it's completely normal. Although you can't prevent these feelings, there are steps you can take to get more comfortable with the pregnancy, the idea of parenthood, and the preparations that can make both go as smoothly as possible.

Sweating the Details

Fatherhood can be particularly daunting at the beginning of the pregnancy. Maybe every time you think about it, the worst-case scenario pops to mind. Here are a few of the details that you may be sweating right off the bat, and a few ideas to help keep things in perspective.

Will I be able to care for a baby?

No one is born knowing this stuff - not even your pregnant partner - that's why there are childbirth classes. Depending on what's available in your area, you can take pregnancy classes as early as the 12th week of pregnancy. There are also classes that focus just on the day of labor, which can be taken as late as the eighth month of pregnancy. In some communities, there are even classes that are designed just for first-time dads.

In many of these classes, you'll learn how to change a diaper, hold the baby, feed and burp the baby, put the baby to sleep, install a car seat, and childproof your home. You'll also learn where to park your car when you get to the hospital, how to get through labor, and how to care for your child and your partner when you get home from the hospital.

Along with the lessons, you'll likely meet other guys who are going through the same experience. And they may be dealing with some of the same feelings you are. That may be a huge help. The nurses and childbirth educators who lead these classes have seen dads who are in emotional states that are all over the map, so you don't have to feel embarrassed or hesitant about going to them for help.

How will I know how to be a good dad?

Remember that you're not going to have to tackle every part of fatherhood all at once. For the first few years, a lot of the parenting is going to involve skills that you can learn and improve through practice. You can learn a lot of these skills in childbirth classes.

It's like a lot of other new roles that you have taken on in your life. When you got married, you didn't automatically know how to be a good husband. You learned along the way with your partner, in the way that worked for you both.

You have plenty of time before you are going to have to be setting curfews, teaching your child to drive, and doling out ethical guidance and relationship and career advice. All of these opportunities for teaching your child will come up one at a time, and when they do, they will likely feel like a natural progression. If you need guidance, there are plenty of resources in the community, and there are even parenting classes.

It may help to talk to and spend time with other fathers you know and talk about any issues you may be grappling with. If you feel like you have issues about your own father that you need to work through, it's a good idea to talk with someone - maybe a counselor or a family member - about them before the baby is born, so that they don't get in the way of your relationship with your own child.

How are we going to afford this?

Feeding, clothing, and educating another human being is going to cost money that's now being spent on other things - there's no question about it. But there are things you can do to reduce your stress about the finances.

It may help to get a sense of what your costs will be right after the baby is born. Your health insurer, employer, or your partner's employer may be able to give you a sense of the costs and what will be covered. Many workplaces now allow for some paid paternity leave for fathers, so you may want to inquire about that.

You may want to meet with a financial planner to get some money-management guidance.

You may also want to talk to other new parents who live in your community to get an idea of how they managed and where any unexpected expenses cropped up. You can open a college fund - or any kind of bank account - any time to save up for any of your new child's expenses. You may want to start putting away a few dollars each week to fund items like child care and diapers. That way, the day your child arrives in the world, you'll have a head start on meeting all of his or her financial needs.

Remember there will be a lot of expenses for your partner's pregnancy and new child you won't have to pay for. For instance, if you and your partner decide to breastfeed, you will save money on the cost of feeding your baby for the first few months. Also, many families share maternity and baby clothes because pregnant women - and new babies - wear a particular size of clothes for such a short period of time.

Is this the end of my independence?

Fatherhood doesn't have to spell the end of activities that bring you enjoyment. True, you may not get much sleep or time for yourself during the first few months after your child is born before he or she starts to sleep through the night. But eventually it will happen. As the baby sleeps more, you and your partner will have opportunities to do the activities that you enjoy, together and individually. Again, it's important to work together, communicate, and trade off on the child-care responsibilities so that you each get what you need.

Also, remember that in the first few years of life, you will likely be able to include your child in the activities that you enjoy. There will be times when your child will be able to sit with you while you watch a basketball game or while you read the newspaper or a book aloud. There are even special baby carriers that will enable you to take your baby on walks and hikes.

It's a good idea to get to know other people who have recently had babies. They may be able to give you more perspective on this.

Remember that it's easy to imagine - and fear - all the free time you may be losing out on when your baby arrives. But you have to wait until your child is born to find out how much you will enjoy spending time with him or her.

How will this change our marriage and sex life?

While your partner is pregnant she is going to be experiencing huge physical, hormonal, and emotional changes, while also grappling with the same life changes that you are. As she deals with these changes, it may affect both of your moods.

Moodiness can be tough to deal with no matter what the cause. But your patience and understanding can go a long way. Any hormonal changes that pregnant women tend to experience typically stabilize by the fourth month of pregnancy. You may be able to help her work through any stress she might be feeling about the pregnancy and parenthood.

If you're not feeling stable or good about your relationship with your partner, it's a good idea to work through the issues as soon as possible. Many couples mistakenly think that a baby will bring them together. But a baby can't fix a relationship that is falling apart - that's the job of you and your partner. And the sooner you resolve any issues, or find a way to work together, the sooner you're going to feel more comfortable with your impending parenthood.

There are safe ways to have sex during pregnancy, as long as the pregnancy is considered low risk for complications of miscarriage or preterm labor. It's a good idea to talk to your doctor, nurse-midwife, or other health care provider about any risks that may be relevant to you and your partner. You don't have to feel embarrassed about asking these questions; these health care providers are used to fielding them. As with any other aspect of pregnancy, it's important for you and your partner to speak openly about what feels right for each of you.

Of course, just because sex is safe during pregnancy doesn't mean you and your partner will want to have it. Many couples find that their sex drive - and comfort level - fluctuates during the different stages of pregnancy as both of them get used to all of the changes. Again, it's important to keep the lines of communication open.

How am I going to get through labor?

As far as the gross-out factor goes, there's no rule that says that you must be there to catch the baby when he or she emerges, cut the umbilical cord, or even be in the delivery room. In fact, in childbirth classes, you'll likely learn about massage and pain-management techniques where you can stand with your partner at her head and shoulders while she is pushing. As you learn about this, it's a good idea to talk to your partner about what you each feel comfortable with.

It's common to fear fainting, but the truth is that few men do. In fact, many men come out of it thinking that there's much less blood in the process than they expected!

People may say that "the woman does all the work" of giving birth to the baby, but you, as the partner, still have some crucial parts to play in the process. Your partner will need someone to look out for her interests and needs. Long before the baby's expected due date, it's important to discuss your partner's preferences for any pain management, medication, and treatment so that when the baby comes, you can articulate your mutual wishes if your partner is unable to do so. You will also be the liaison between your partner and your families during the process.

What if something goes wrong?

Your doctor will probably warn you about a laundry list of things that can go wrong, particularly if you and your partner are older. And it's likely that you and your partner will have various tests and screenings for birth defects and other health problems. Hearing about all of this can be very frightening. Yes, there are things that can go wrong. But there are many things you can do to help your partner - and your unborn baby - stay healthy during the pregnancy.

What You Can Do?

As you're dealing with all of the stress about fatherhood, there are things you can do to help this scary, abstract prospect seem more real and manageable. If you know other families with newborns and young kids, it may be helpful to spend time with them. If you don't know anyone with a newborn, your partner's doctor or your local childbirth center may be able to put you in touch with other families in your area.

It's also a good idea to go with your partner to any doctor appointments that relate to the baby. There you will be able to ask the doctors any questions, gather more information, hear the baby's heartbeat, and see an image of the baby on a sonogram. You may also want to tour the maternity ward at the hospital or birthing center where you plan to have the baby.

It may also help you to start preparing your home for the baby by making any needed home improvements or renovations. That way, you can use the skills you already have to help take care of the baby.

Remember that anxiety about pregnancy and parenthood is like anxiety you might feel about anything else. It's a good idea to execute the stress-relief strategies that work for you. It may be exercise or immersion in movies, books, music, or sports. Any constructive strategy you have that effectively helps you cope with tension can't hurt here.

Talking About It

Communication can be a big obstacle for couples who are expecting. Even before the pregnant mother begins to show, she is consumed by physical reminders that the baby is on the way and life is going to change dramatically, so she may want to talk about the pregnancy a lot. But you may need time to intellectually and emotionally process this change. And you may not be ready to talk about the baby or the pregnancy.

If you're not ready to talk with your partner, there are plenty of other options. You may feel more comfortable confiding in friends, relatives, and other new dads. They may be able to reassure you and provide some helpful suggestions.

Lots of hospitals and childbirth centers also have professionals who are experienced in working with new parents and are available to talk in a confidential setting.

Remember that millions of guys have been experiencing - and surviving - fatherhood for millions of years. There's no magic elixir that you have to drink to be a good father, there's no secret handshake, and you're not supposed to just instinctively know how to be a good dad. There are things you can do to prepare for fatherhood and much of it will be on-the-job training. Luckily, there are many resources that can help you get through this. All you have to do is reach out for them.