New BabyCentre UK dad John Lewis recalls the pleasures and pitfalls of life with his pregnant wife
What am I getting myself into?
In the final months of my wife's pregnancy, people would corner me in the lift at work and say things like, "So, are you enjoying your last days?", as if I had terminal cancer. A lot of people fear parenthood as the death knell of their creative ambitions. All those distant dreams - that career as a superstar DJ! That best-selling novel! That winning goal in the World Cup final! - must become a bit more focused.
I started compiling a mental list of activities that I'd never done and now would never get round to doing. Scuba diving, inter-railing, shark fishing, joyriding, going on a Club 18-30 holiday, visiting the opera, attending a hard house night! I quickly realised that all these things actually sounded rubbish, and I for one found the notion of dividing my spare time between 'Bear In The Big Blue House' and a box of Lego quite appealing.
Besides, my sense of humour, a once noble creature, had long been reduced to 'dad jokes': making rubbish puns, putting stupid lyrics to songs and inventing crap gags, all guaranteed to embarrass my children for years to come.
I started trying this out as I talked to our 'bump' every day, and actually enjoyed it. And really boring things suddenly seemed interesting - recycling, DIY, weeding the garden, even pottering around the shed! I started to worry that I'd soon end up tucking my shirt into my underpants and shagging with my socks on.
We both found it difficult to get excited in the first few months of pregnancy. Like many, I was a slightly reluctant dad, but even the most enthusiastic fathers will feel that the whole thing is a bit unreal. And the complete lack of any bump for the first few months led even my wife to doubt that she was pregnant at all.
There's also the very real fear of miscarriage - like many couples, we'd had a pregnancy scare a few months previously. My wife, Jenny, missed a period and tested positive. Then, just when we'd both got REALLY excited about having a baby, her periods started again. During the second (successful) pregnancy, that fear only really subsided at the 20-week ultrasound scan, when the radiologists assured us that everything was fine and dandy. It still seemed a very surreal experience, with the images on the sonogram largely meaningless to the untrained eye.
"Wow! Is that its fingers?"
"No, that's its legs."
"Oh. Is that its belly?"
"No, that's a lung."
"Oh. Is that its head?"
"No, that's the left ventricle."
And so on.
Later in the pregnancy, Jenny would panic if she didn't feel the bump kick for a while. Sometimes I could feel movements she couldn't and would reassure her that everything was fine, or take her to the GP so that she could hear the baby's heartbeat through a sonic aid. Some books tell you that you can hear the baby's heartbeat through a bog roll, but I'll be buggered if I could.
Pregnancy, of course, got us panicking about money. How were we going to pay for this? How much maternity leave is paid? What paternity leave can I afford to take? Can we move to a bigger house? How much will it cost to have this little sod leeching off us for the next 20-odd years?
We started projecting ahead, thinking about going part-time, and then recoiling with horror when we found out the cost of local nurseries (day-care centres), babysitters and crèches.
We actually found that life became much cheaper. After years of nagging, my wife's 20-a-day smoking habit was kicked immediately (she always threatened that she'd only quit if I knocked her up: she wasn't joking). We were no longer getting through a couple of bottles of wine a night or spending whole Sunday afternoons in the pub, or going out every night.
And, because I felt guilty drinking when she couldn't, those lagers in the fridge would stay untouched for months on end. In our case this led to a rather useful windfall at the end of every month, and a shocking realisation about how much money we'd blown over the years...
And that wedding that we'd been vaguely planning - and dreading the expense of - suddenly turned into a cheap afternoon down the local register office (although the bus ride to the town hall wasn't quite what she had in mind when she dreamed of marriage as a little girl). The thing was that we always wanted to BE married; we were just a bit embarrassed about GETTING married.
As our attentions become more focused, we started getting ultra sensible about our flat. Without the haze of beer bottles and cigarette smoke, we realised that we lived in a complete s••t hole. We started tidying up rather a lot. That crappy kitchen that we'd vowed to change ever since we moved in finally got fitted. That tiling in the bathroom got sorted out at last. The faintest whiff of fatherhood suddenly endowed me with rudimentary DIY skills that had evaded me for years. I suddenly found that I could plaster, paint, damp-proof walls, drill holes and put up shelving.
Sex was no problem for the first few months of pregnancy - most of the time, with all those hormones pounding around, Jenny's sexual appetite was as voracious as ever. The only problem was our constant (misplaced) concern that sex would put pressure on the womb and harm the baby - a worry which would sometimes kick in at the most inopportune moment.
In the final months, only two sexual positions seemed possible - doggy and her-on-top. It also became more difficult to cuddle in the same way. As she started to get swollen ankles, dodgy knees and varicose veins, she began to pad herself up with what seemed like a dozen pillows before bedtime. After about 35 weeks I even had to help her put on her shoes and socks.
As her breasts became larger, different problems ensued:
"Are my boobs looking alright?"
"Yes, they look great."
"But you always told me that you preferred small breasts?"
"No, yours always look great."
"But are they better when they're big?"
"Err, no. Yes. Whatever."
It's also worth pointing out that, however great they're looking, antenatal breasts must be handled with extreme care. They do become incredibly sensitive.
My wife was actually more sensitive about her changing body shape than I was. Because I was seeing her every day and because it happened so gradually, I was somewhat immune to even the most extreme changes.
Even when she'd wail that she was the size of a house and had the belly of a darts champion, I tried to assure her that she looked great and was still gorgeous all the time. Why, I'd say, you only have to explore the more extreme titles on any newsagent's top shelf to discover how pregnant women trigger off the strangest carnal impulses in many men...
For the first few months of the pregnancy, Jenny was completely knackered all the time. She'd come home from work, wolf down her dinner and be in bed by eight o'clock. I found myself doing all the cooking, washing and tidying.
With her in bed by dusk, I'd end up spending countless nights alone watching 'Newsnight' until I realised that this was actually a good opportunity to go out with my friends.
"You can do what you want," said Jenny, regally. "I don't give a toss. I'm going to sleep."
Dreams became complex and surreal for both of us. She had a recurring dream of giving birth to a flat six-inch disc which was then inflated by the midwives into a baby. She also woke me up one night to inform me of a dream in which she could see the outline of a vacuum-packed child on her belly.
Meanwhile, I was having spooky premonitions of looking after a child, dreams which would often end with me waking in sheer terror.
Morning sickness - or just around tea-time sickness in our case - turns many pregnant women into sophisticated bulimics. Jenny would suddenly disappear into the toilet halfway through a fizzy drink or some creamy food, after which I'd hear a barrage of coughing and retching sounds, which I'd try to politely ignore. Minutes later she'd return and blithely demand to eat the rest of my sandwich.
For the first few months she craved bland food - I found myself making more mashed potato, fish fingers and peas than I'd ever made in my life. I was also alarmed by the amount that she was suddenly capable of eating.
The cardinal rule of any relationship, of course, is that no man should ever make a detrimental remark about his wife's weight. When I found myself making comments like, "Jesus, you're eating a lot of chips, you big fat cow," they didn't go down at all well.
The rule is that pregnancy insulates your wife from all criticism. She can do no wrong, and if she wants to eat a large cod and chips with mushy peas, three slices of bread and butter and added mayonnaise, that is her right. So shut up.
As well as food cravings, she had smell cravings, developing an almost erotic obsession with the odour of Sainsbury's Microban washing-up liquid. This was handy. I think it was the first time that I'd ever seen her do the washing up.
I was warned that all the extra oestrogen pumping around my wife would make her swing violently from Mother Teresa to Charles Manson and back again.
Pregnancy actually turned her from being a hard-nosed, tough-talking, razor-tongued vixen into a soppy, sentimental old fool, who'd start sobbing during RSPCA adverts or episodes of The Simpsons. Obscure children's books, pictures of foetuses and even Kooks by David Bowie would reduce her to tears, as would my comments that she really couldn't get away with wearing that figure-hugging crop top anymore.
Terrified of looking like some slack baby father, I made a point of rushing out of work early once a week to get to the antenatal classes on time. I actually found them more useful than my wife did - she'd already read widely on the subject, while I sat there like an eager schoolboy soaking up all this new information.
I found myself crossing my legs and wincing in unison with the other men in the class when the midwife discussed vaginal tearing, and contorting in horror when we were given the brutal details of an epidural.
I found it useful to ask plenty of questions. What books can't tell you about is the specifics of your locality - what painkilling drugs your health authority prescribes, what water birth and homebirth provision they offer, what additional classes they offer. Remember to take note when they give details of breathing through the contractions - you can actually be quite useful here.
The drive to hospital
Many expectant fathers become obsessed with driving to hospital. This is their big moment, their cameo role in the drama, and they spend weeks working out the shortest route, finding every possible rush-hour detour, avoiding every speed bump and Gatso camera trap, and then doing a reconnaissance job on the nearest available parking places.
I did all this and then remembered that we didn't actually own a car.
When Jenny's waters broke, we took a minicab to the hospital, with my wife perched on a towel and a plastic sheet, and our birthing ball tucked in the boot. And I'm glad that we did take a cab, because so many other expectant fathers on the early labour ward seemed to expend all their energy demanding parking permits, shouting at the midwives about parking tickets, and rushing out every 15 minutes to move the car.
All this while what their partners needed was someone to act as an advocate: someone to alert the midwives, someone to swear at and say this is your entire fault, you f•••ing b•••••d, through gritted teeth during contractions.
This is the one moment in pregnancy when you can be useful, so don't mess it up by acting like Jeremy Clarkson.
It was two in the morning when Jenny woke me up and said that her waters had broken. The due date was a week off. I was prepared for this in theory, but all I could think of was my mountain of assignments at work tomorrow. No time for that now. As our cab wound through dark back streets on the way to the hospital, it finally occurred to me that I was going to be a father.
Next was the wait. In our case there was a 36-hour delay between the waters breaking and the contractions starting. That meant 36 hours of plodding around the hospital, sitting on birthing balls and bringing in sandwiches to replace the awful food they were feeding her.
Then the contractions kicked in. Jenny was surprisingly calm and polite between contractions, but then I'd hear the most blood-curdling howl I'd ever heard in my life. You meet ultra-butch, Alpha-male dads who've fainted at this point, and you can understand why fathers used to be barred from births.
But the worst thing is that there's not a lot you can do.
Your instinct is to cuddle your wife, to try and protect her and make the pain go away, but of course it won't. It's horrible. And the last thing she wants is the man who put her through all this telling her, "Don't worry honey, it'll be all right."
Your main role is as an advocate - to convince overworked midwives that your wife's contractions really do hurt, that she's started dilating, that she still wants to stick to her birth plan, and no, she still doesn't want an epidural.
Like bare-knuckle boxing, labour is an endless barrage of noise, blood, shit and bodily fluids. And yes, chances are that there'll be some tearing involved.
I became an auxiliary midwife as my wife was choreographed through more and more improbable birthing positions (on your knees, on your back, bend double, get in these stirrups).
Later, the midwives had me holding up one of my wife's legs at a bizarre angle while I tried not to look at the carnage going on between her legs. Jenny told me afterwards that I worked best as a big, safe, chunky cushion to lean against.
After the most protracted scream I'd ever heard in my life, out it popped. I picked up our wonky-headed, blood-covered, prune-faced little baby, with a furry back and alarmingly hairy ears. The fruit of my loins.
"It's a girl!" I shouted excitedly.
This was a relief. Our boys' names were all rubbish, but we both liked the same girl's name - Lilah. My wife instantly forgot the excruciating pain she'd been in seconds previously.
"Hello Kitty," she gushed as soon as she picked Lilah up. Kitty was what she called the cats. For days afterwards, the midwives thought that the baby was called Kitty. Or Poppet, or Sweet Pea, or Babu, or Biddu, or Chunky, or Chicken. Maybe we'll keep one of these for baby number two.