The first thing that happens when you announce your wife’s pregnancy is people congratulate you. The next thing they do is start telling you how it will go and what you should do. The most specific advice—nearly all of it useless—will come from your single friends, while those with children will just arch an eyebrow and say “Hmmm” when you mention your plans. Never mind: Here’s everything you really need to know.
The medical industry seems intent on hedging its bets these days. Technicians will drone on about possible complications; your wife will undergo a battery of tests, particularly if she’s over 35; and your head will be buzzing with all you need to do (buy new tires, buy a new home) and think about (When will I put up the nursery shelves? What are we going to call this thing?).
“You’re a mess. What you’re thinking and feeling is not rational,” says graphic designer Bob Callahan, a Brooklyn, N.Y., father of 2-year-old twin girls. But it is normal. It’s just that no man ever talks about it.
Bonus tip: The only one to worry about is yourself, as you adjust to the unfamiliar role of supporting player. “Then the baby is born, and you realize that becoming a father is the best thing that could possibly happen to you,” Callahan says.
However, you will both be happier if you don’t carp when she orders the 64-ounce porterhouse. “I was afraid of the changes to my wife’s body, but I kind of enjoyed it when everything swelled up,” says Vince Carlen, an editor in New York whose daughter was born last September. “Then I worried about how her body would be after giving birth. It was changed, but in a nice way—better than I could have imagined.”
Bonus tip: The heft of her breasts will astound and delight you, but don’t get too attached—they won’t be yours much longer.
If there was ever a time to give up your macho stubbornness, it’s now. Look at some of the books she spends all night reading. Learn the benefits of breastfeeding, both to her (it’s easier than formula feeding and reduces the risk of breast cancer) and to the baby (toughens up the immune system, and much more). Take Lamaze—there’s as much information for fathers as for moms. Besides, the stopwatch around your neck will go well with the sweatpants you’ll wear in the delivery room.
Bonus tip: There is no accurate instruction manual. If you think real-life labor contractions will actually correspond to the charts handed out at Lamaze, you’ve obviously never seen a 10th seed upset the No. 1 during March Madness.
Witnessing childbirth is the reality-TV moment of your life, only without the silly tiki torches. “When I saw my first baby for the first time, I thought, that ain’t right,” says Callahan. “I was asking the doctors, ‘So, what do you think? Everything OK?’ My girls looked like shaved monkeys that fell out of a UFO.”
Bonus tip: Even though you may be your wife’s punching bag, the delivery room is not the gym. Don’t encourage her as if you were cheering on Lennox Lewis. If she could push any harder, she’d have shoved you out the window already. Another thing: Go with plan B—nothing works as intended. “If she asks for drugs, don’t argue,” Carlen warns.
“In cultures around the world, parents know how to soothe a crying baby,” says Harvey Karp, M.D., author of an excellent book on the topic called The Happiest Baby on the Block. “But it’s not intuitive—it’s just that they’ve been around infants all their lives.
In our country, people need primers.” Karp took a male approach to the subject—he made a video of the techniques described in the book. Guys will watch any video! “Nursing aside, fathers are actually better at calming a baby than mothers are,” Karp says. “Dads tend to put more oomph into it: They wrap the baby snugger, they shush a bit louder and jiggle faster.”
Bonus tip: According to a study at New York’s Beth Israel Medical Center two years ago, 91 percent of couples with babies who cry a lot have marital problems. Avoid the tension by learning the techniques that give you control.
Because you won’t be able to solve every problem yourself, you may have to hire one or more of a variety of helpful experts. Learn the following: A nanny takes care of the baby; a doula takes care of the mom; a lactation consultant takes care of the boobs. None of them costs as much as a losing night playing poker.
Bonus tip: Count your (nonfinancial) blessings. You may be spending more than ever, but you’ll be living with an embarrassment of intangible riches—and an array of neon-colored plastic gizmos that would astound the ancients. “You realize that what you used to spend your time and money on was generally worthless,” Carlen says. “I’m living happily without fancy dinners, new clothes or weekends away. Home has become the best place on earth.”
How you handle and play with your baby may look rougher than your wife’s methods, but babies benefit from their parents’ dual styles. “Dads whistle and pop, while moms speak in high-pitched but even tones,” Karp says. “Mothers are strokers, fathers are pokers. Babies learn early to distinguish between the two.” Don’t worry: You won’t freak him out or break him.
Bonus tip: Start out slow. He may look too tiny to touch in the beginning, but in three weeks you should be burping and changing him like a pro. Some of the sights and sounds may even remind you of your college heyday.
Your life has radically changed forever. You may struggle with your identity. Your sure-footed, decisive approach that’s served your career so well will not necessarily work at home. So try this: Defer to her. Yes, you’re holding it wrong—the baby, your head, the bottle. “Make her happy and you’ll be happy,” Callahan says.
Bonus tip: Revel in your new identity. Take pictures of your grizzled self, your belly low and impressive, the BabyBjíorn riding up on your old sweater high and proud.
Carve out a role for yourself by learning the skills that will make you a man among men. “Men get frustrated when they can’t master a situation,” Karp says. “Having a role makes them feel better.” For example, he says, “If you know what to do, your baby’s crying goes from something that grates to something you almost look forward to—you can fix it!”
Bonus tip: Your wife will have her doubts as a mom, too—particularly after a visit from her mother. Praise her excellent mommy skills (this doubles as a great new seduction technique, too.
Which is a good thing, believe it or not, because you’ll be in sync with your wife (stressed, tired, absorbed in the baby). Just because you can’t remember what sex feels like doesn’t mean you’re never going to have it again. “The intimacy comes back. It’s not as inventive, but we don’t appreciate it any less than the old gymnastic routines,” Carlen says. “Skip the last half-hour of whatever dumb TV show you’re watching and get to it.”
Bonus tip: Consider that your sexual frustration stems from something else. There’s a rival for your wife’s affection in the house, an interloper, and you may want physical assurance of her love. But even if sex is out, sometimes quiet moments and verbal expressions can work wonders.