On Fatherhood & Training Wheels

by David Koff

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Best I can tell, there are only two kinds of fathers in the modern world: those who are scared to death when they learn that their wives are pregnant for the first time, and those who already have children.

Now that my wife and I are through the first six months of parenthood, I’m able to recognize how much the concept of Fear has played a role in my journey. I don’t say that with shame, by the way: I say it with a sense of pride — allowing, understanding, and even inviting my fear in to my life has been a huge part of the pregnancy, birthing, and parenting process.

Men in this country don’t talk openly of Fear, of course, so it’s essential that I share my own with you up front. I believe that keeping that Fear inside of us only sets men up for an entirely preventable failure. Not only should we men be talking about our fears when it comes to parenthood, we should understand and embrace what doing so can provide.

Experiencing and then talking about my fatherhood fears has been an invaluable teaching tool. I get that now. I didn’t before. Because even though my wife and I were prepared — even though we’d read all the books, taken all the classes, spoken to all the peoples, and purchased all of the equipment and conveniences — there was NOTHING that could have truly prepared us for pregnancy, birth, and parenthood.

Those are milestones you live through, life events that you just have to experience.

I liken it to riding a bike. Riding a bike is not something we learn by reading books or talking to people: it’s something we learn by doing — with training wheels at first — before we are able to physically understand the sensation of speed and balance and turning. Then, once we think we have it, the training wheels come off and we begin to understand that our learning has only just begun.

Then, we learn by falling.

I want to talk with you about falling and fear; about how these are not cruel or harsh punishments from an unkind Universe, but, rather, integral parts of our journey as men. As such, they’re experiences to be both accepted and expected. We will, all of us, experience fear and fall down metaphorically at some point in our journey to parenthood and even after we get there. I know that now. How could it be otherwise?! We are imperfect beings in imperfect relationships who are experiencing an imperfect pregnancy process all in an effort to raise the newest generation of better but still imperfect humans.

Our job, as I see it, is to bring as much joy as possible to that reality.

In our case, our story didn’t lend itself so easily to creating joy… We got pregnant four times. The first three pregnancies all happened within 14 months of each other and all of them ended in miscarriage, somewhere between weeks 8-11. That’s a lot of falling down. Worse, it all happened at a time when we had just lost both of my parents, my father-in-law, all four of our pets and my uncle. The third pregnancy got far enough along in the embryo’s development that we could see a small, fluttering heartbeat on the sonogram. Oh, I thought we’d made it! There it was, right there on the screen: LIFE! After two failed pregnancies, we finally saw life on that screen and allowed ourselves the luxury of becoming hopeful. We went home smiling and hugging. It was real. We’d seen it!

A week later, the heartbeat was gone. Another miscarriage. Another fall from the bike. Another death. Another round of devastation and depression. Another bout of fear if we’d ever be parents. We posted about the miscarriages after that on social media and learned that we were far from alone. Not only had a majority of people we knew also experienced miscarriages, but some of them had carried to term only to deliver stillbirths.

Can’t. Even. Process. That.

By sharing openly about our miscarriages, we gave others the permission to do the same. It opened a massive groundswell of support, so, if you’re like us, I hope you’ll do the same and invite the fear in and be brave despite it. The fear - in this case of other people judging us for not carrying any of our three pregnancies to term - was a falsehood that we had to see to believe. HUNDREDS of people commented on our posts. All in support. All in solidarity. And most of them sharing their own miscarriage stories. Our friends and their posts became our emotional and psychological  training wheels: they helped to get back up again and then keep us balanced as we moved forward.

More people should talk about this part of pregnancy, I believe, to help remove the shame, guilt, and negativity surrounding something that happens in as much as 43% of all pregnancies, according to this study of over 50,000 women. If miscarriages happen that frequently, then there’s no shame, friends: it’s just nature, running its course, and not allowing non-viable lives to be created.

As people in our 40’s who were trying to conceive, it was doubly important that we understand this. Nature was going to be a fickle friend. So we had to work with Nature.

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Our fourth and final pregnancy came via IVF. A friend of mine (talk about luck!) ran a fertility clinic, had heard our story and reached out with an offer: would we like to participate in a small research study he was doing? They would cover the egg retrieval, in-vitro fertilization, genetic testing and implantation. We’d have to cover our out-of-state transportation along with all medicines and hormones. We considered it a gift from God and accepted.

The gift, it turns out, came with some serious strings attached. Mary carried to term but her pregnancy was marred by nausea for the entire nine months. It was fucking awful, can I just say that? It was awful for her because she was in pain most of the day for nine straight months. She couldn’t eat the foods she’d liked, she couldn’t be around food or smell foods, so she avoided the kitchen. The near constant sickness meant she couldn’t sleep well either, so she moved into the spare bedroom and set up camp there, just trying to get by one day at a time.

But her pregnancy was also difficult for me. Her constant nausea made her quick to anger and impatience. We fought a lot. We rarely ate meals together. She spent most of her time in bed and rarely left the house, so we rarely socialized outside the house as a couple. The hormones and illness had caused her to become a different person than the woman I’d married. That forced a change on my end: I became a caretaker, far more than I was a husband or a partner.

My wife needed all of me to be able to help her. All of me. And she wasn’t able to give much in return. Some days, honestly, I wasn’t very good in my role, if you want to know the truth. More falls off the bike. We’d expected some amount of sickness during the first trimester: that had happened in our previous three pregnancies. But being that sick for the entire pregnancy?!? We just weren’t prepared for that.

And yet... the pregnancy continued in perfect health. We could feel him kicking now. And hiccuping. Life was growing inside of her, despite it literally changing her mind, body, and spirit.

My Fear kicked in. Would this shift in her personality become permanent? Would her patience and personality ever recover? What about after delivery: would she be able to co-parent with me? I didn’t have answers to these questions, so the Fear hit me hard. I spoke with teachers, mentors, and friends. I spoke to therapists, family, and God. Hell, I spoke to just about anyone who would listen to me. I was scared about what had happened to my marriage, and I was uncertain of the future.

“It is what it is,” is something my mom used to say. I grabbed a hold of that sentiment. It became my motto. It became my set of training wheels at a time when I desperately needed a pair. I had to learn how to let my fears inform me, not derail me. I became better at allowing my wife to vent but not take it personally. I hugged her more. In fact, I began learning how to give without expecting anything in return. But it took time, patience, and practice to get there. I was extremely imperfect in that journey. Maybe that shift is natural for others; it just wasn’t for me. My friends, family, therapists, mentors became yet another set of training wheels. And, boy did I ever need them in the last trimester.

Then, on December 1st, 2018, our boy was delivered via Cesarean section. He weighed in at 8lbs, 3oz and possessed a healthy voice that he didn’t hesitate to use. We couldn’t have been happier. Or more relieved. He passed all of his initial medical tests, so we knew he could hear, see, breathe, and think on his own now.

After delivering, we spent three days in recovery in the care of the staff: they helped us feed him, change him, nurse him, care for him, and get to know him. They also helped us work through emotional disagreements we had and shared another “secret” that no one talks about openly: most every couple has SOME kind of emotional meltdown on the second day after their child is born. That made us feel normal again. They were our community. They were our support. They were our training wheels.

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But then — and this is the insane part — they SENT US HOME. Home with a baby, with no prior experience at parenting; home with no manuals or support staff; home with no local family to help care for us.

I drove home with my wife and our son at about 5.5 mph even though we literally live around the corner from the hospital. Not even two miles away, but still: my first job as a new dad was to get us home safely. And, damnit: I did just that.

But we still needed help.

Never mind how “seasoned” we were to be parents our 40’s; never mind all of the “life experience” that we’d gathered: this was our first child and we needed help. My siblings gifted us something spectacular and essential for our peace-of-mind and well being: they paid for us to have nighttime doula care for 4-5 nights a week for the first two weeks we were home.

This is how we came to meet the staff at Bridgetown Baby. At first, I let my ego get in the way: “Do we really need night time babysitters?!?” Well, friends, we did, and I found out why very quickly: because we still needed training wheels.

Our doulas cooked food for us, fed and changed our son in the middle of the night while we slept, and made coffee and light breakfast for my wife in the morning. In short, we got to recover from the previous nine months of challenges, heartaches, and life changes and greet each morning having slept soundly for that night. The baby was cared for, yes, but WE were cared for as well, something I didn’t even know that I’d needed.

And my GOD, did we ever need it.

In fact, we needed it so much, that after the gift from my siblings had expired, we invested in hiring Bridgetown to continue providing the gift of sleep, sanity, and safety for us — this time twice a week — through the first three months of our son’s life. Was that a significant expense? Yes, I won’t lie to you about that. Was it worth every, single penny? Without question, yes, so I won’t lie to you about that either.

Our doulas became part of our family. Even better, they were experts who were on hand for us, providing advice, strategies, techniques, and kindness whenever we needed it. Our son needed it in the middle of the night and they provided that for him. My wife needed the security that comes from knowing that experts were in the home to keep a watch on our boy and to help us out with cooking meals, saving us both valuable time, and they provided those things for her. And I needed it, because I spent time talking, venting, sharing, and confiding in our doulas about MY story and my process; and they provided that.

Although some in our society have forgotten or don’t know this: dads have a story and a process as well. We might not go through pregnancy and morning sickness or surgery to deliver a child, but we most certainly go through a journey to parenthood as well. We’re thinking, feeling, emotional creatures, whether we’re able to admit that to ourselves and to others or not. What we aren’t is a disposable item that should be left behind emotionally when the child is born, although it can certainly feel that way at times.

Dads - just like moms - also need to talk, to be heard, and to be validated. We need support, caring, and kindness, especially at a time when our partners simply aren’t available to provide those things to us, because they need to focus on our sons and daughters. Our doulas gave that gift to me more times that I can say, and I will forever be grateful for that kindness, and that space they opened for me as my training wheels.

I leave you all with an open invitation: if you’re a man who needs to talk more about your process as an expectant or existing father (which, I think, should cover all of you reading this!) and you’d like to meet with other like-minded men who can support, uplift, and hear one another, I encourage you to reach out to me. I’m organizing a bi-monthly support group for men here in Portland metro area where we can talk openly about the deep emotional reality we all inhabit. I look forward to learning more about your stories as well.

David Koff is a Portland-based actor, writer and teacher - and dad. You can learn more about his work at davidkoff.com.