A Letter from — and Advice to — Very, Very Unexpected Parents

An anonymous Thinga-dad writes:

My wife and I are expecting a girl in April. When we found ourselves suddenly and unexpectedly pregnant in late October (we had planned a child-free life), we felt turned upside down. Reorienting ourselves has been a challenge because we’ve spent our lives avoiding all things baby. The amount of catch-up we feel we have to do seems daunting.

We are parents by medical miracle who never intended to have children. My wife had a Mirena IUD implanted about a month before she became pregnant. The IUD (whose published fail rate is  less than 0.001 percent) was implanted in lieu of a hysterectomy to treat endometrial hyperplasia and cystic ovaries, conditions that should have prevented pregnancy even without the aid of the IUD. Oh, and she’s 39-years-old.
We’re feeling a mix of emotions:

  • excitement (especially in the last few weeks),
  • apprehension (what will happen to my wife’s business when her doctor makes her stop working in a few weeks?),
  • resentment (mostly at giving up a life peppered with regular luxuries: frequent travel, stays in expensive hotels, dining out much more than in, not having to worry much about how we spend our money),
  • concern and worry over my wife’s health,
  • frustration and guilt at not being able to understand and empathize with my wife’s mood swings (especially when she gets weepy),
  • bemusement at our situation,
  • worry about whether we’ll be able to navigate the seas of parenting.

I’d say my outlook is actually mostly hopeful. I’ve always held the attitude that life’s surprises are what make life most interesting. The biggest surprises should lead one to the most interesting paths.

A kind of turning point for me was seeing “ Children of Men.”  I left the theatre thinking, Now I get it. Children are the source of hope in this world. Not a deep or earthshaking revelation, I know, but it’s been one that has allowed me to feel much more at peace about bringing a child into the world.

The above letter is several e-mails pieced together from a conversation this past weekend. What do you say to this dad? A few thoughts come to mind.

Everything this dad is feeling is similar to what most first-time parents feel. It’s fear of the unknown. Will I be a good parent? Is my life as I know it over?

The answers are: yes and yes.

The fact that he’s scouring web sites doing research indicates he’s ahead of the curve, taking an interest and feeling responsible for his baby’s life. It would be all too simple to slough everything onto the mom. His outlook is good.

If any one aspect of his comments concerned me, it was the word resentment. You can’t resent an infant who nurses every two hours for the first six weeks. It’s not part of the equation. This is part of your new life.

The key to not being overwhelmed by parenthood is to remember it doesn’t happen all at once. This is a project with a minimum of 18 phases, and many life-long obligations. You jump into phase 1 extremely confused and exhausted. You bumble around in a hazy delirium and after a year you realize something. It’s never going to get any easier. (You also wonder how your own parents ever got through it.)

Each phase of the project presents new challenges. The difference is that you get used to it. You become immune to many of life’s daily hassles. Good parents become stronger, more patient, more mellow people.

Your life as you knew it is over… not because you’re not partaking in life’s luxuries as often as before, but because you as a person have changed, or at least you should have. Before, you lived your life for you, and for your spouse, accruing wonderful experiences. Now, you are responsible for raising and nurturing a child into a responsible, loving, self-sustaining person.

Parenthood demands you turn your selfish existence into a selfless one. It is by no means a miserable existence. It must be experienced to be understood, but is best described by appropriating a slogan used by the Peace Corps: “It’s the toughest job you’ll ever love.” Parents don’t experience a loss of fun. You discover a richer sense of fun as you relive your youth while exploring the world with your child.

Now, this dad does have some specific questions.

Where should we be in planning for the baby? A timeline would be really useful. I wonder if a general consensus exists about some things: buy your crib by this date, pick your pediatrician by that date, and so on. Or maybe it doesn’t matter?

Again, these are typical questions. No timeline exists, except with respect to care for the infant and mother, and milestones for your baby after birth. My wife says the only products you absolutely need by the time of birth are an infant car seat, diapers and a boob.

I prefer to be a little more prepared. Consider that as mom grows larger, her endurance for shopping may wane, especially if the pregnancy has complications. And, after the baby arrives, both of you will be overwhelmed.

If I picked an arbitrary date, it would be 32 weeks. Develop a birth plan and pick a pediatrician or family practice doctor. Just don’t expect the birth to go according to plan (any more than your wedding did).

Hold a baby shower. Afterward, begin shopping for basic baby  gear — car seat, changing table, diapers, baby health kit, clothes, crib or bassinet, etc. Ultimately, for non-essential items, let your  interest drive you.

But that’s just me. What does everyone else think?


7 Responses to “A Letter from — and Advice to — Very, Very Unexpected Parents”

  1. Mark says:

    I’m also a very unexpected dad (only worth the one “very” though — that IUD story is amazing) so I can relate to alot of what you’re feeling. I think the best thing for me was immersing myself in thinking about parenting and being a dad long before my son made his appearance.

    I discovered dad blogs like Thingamababy, DaddyTypes, DadTalk, Laid-Off Dad, etc and became a daily reader of all of them 5-6 months before the birth, so I could see what regular guys had to say about real life, day to day challenges and joys. I went through lots of parenting books, from the What To Expect and Baby Whisperer stuff to more useful and helpful material. (Let that be a comment on what I thought about those books.) Didn’t finish alot of them, as many of them are pretty condescending towards dads, but just getting more info and viewpoints was helpful. Although my experience with infants and toddlers was pretty slim, I was lucky in that even before being a parent, I had a lot of friends with kids and had spent lots of time with them (including several years of career experience with middle and high school students.)

    I think the biggest challenge for me was, and is, making the mental adjustment. The more material aspect of it all, the stuff that you’ll accumulate, that part you’ll learn as you go and discover what works for you and your wife’s tastes and styles. Wrapping your head around the ways your life will change, and accepting that no matter what you picture beforehand, you’ll still be blindsided by some things about parenthood until you’re in that particular moment — that’s been the biggest hurdle for me, and I would suspect that it’ll continue to be for awhile to come. I absolutely adore being Justin’s dad, but there are moments when I’m like “Holy cow, I’m a dad, are you kidding me??!”

    To the anonymous Thingadad — AJ has my email, feel free to drop me a line if you’ve got any other questions/thoughts/etc. Always willing to help a fellow guy out.

    January 15th, 2007 at 1:16 pm

  2. Monique says:

    Congratulations! My children are tbe best thing that ever happened to me! Life is so much more rewarding and fullfilling as a parent. Welcome to the journey of parenthood and do let us know how it goes once the sleep deprivation wears off. Best of luck! :-)

    January 15th, 2007 at 3:37 pm

  3. mollie says:

    Congratulations on your almost-fatherhood! Sometimes life can take an unexpected twist, no?

    To address the emotions that you are feeling:

    -excitement: Yes! There’s so much anticipation. A new little person will be coming into your lives. She will bring you joy and happiness beyond anything you’ve ever experienced. You think, “I will love this little person.” but you really don’t know the DEPTH of it until you see her. Then you get it. And it’s the best feeling in the world.

    -apprehension: What line of work is your wife in? Is there a family member or friend who can assist? Can you hire a temporary employee to help?

    -resentment: There is life after a baby! It’s all in how you manage it. Our daughter is just over one year old. We’ve taken her on 11 overnight trips in the past year, and 5 of those were trips to resorts/luxury hotels. We haven’t taken her on a plane yet, but we’re planning to fly with her this summer when we rent a house for a month over the summer. We’ve taken her to classy restaurants and to an art exhibit. The more you’re out with your daughter, the more she will learn of the lifestyle you and your wife lead. Instead of thinking of things that you can’t do, think of ways to involve your daughter in your interests.

    -concern: Yep. You really don’t feel relief until that Little Pumpkin is born. And even then, there’s a new set of worries with the baby’s health as well as your wife’s. Just take that one step at a time. Trust your docs–follow their advice.

    -frustration: Even though you can’t understand why your wife is reacting the way she is, just be there for her and LISTEN. Anticipate her needs. Surprise her with something she likes (a foot massage, a pedicure, whatever). Reassure her that she and the baby are your priorities. Take the lead in scheduling your birth classes, researching baby items, or another task that is looming.

    -bemusement: It’s quite a story–I must say!

    -worry: Your parenting sense will kick in–I think it’s genetic. You will seem to know what to do with your kid–it’s just intuitive. The first couple of weeks are “survival mode,” and you’re trying to do a ton of stuff on NO SLEEP. That’s tough but temporary. You will have so many moments of sheer happiness like you’ve never known. You will figure out what works for your family.

    In terms of the timeline of where you should be, I think that’s totally relative. I didn’t want many baby things in the house before our daughter was born. I wanted to make sure that our child was healthy (didn’t know the gender before she came) and had had a difficult path to motherhood. In the Jewish tradition, people don’t buy anything for the baby until s/he arrives. That’s a great tradition, I think, but sometimes a little impractical.

    Consumer Reports has a list of basic baby gear. Start there. Beyond that, survey parents you know with infants (today’s baby stuff is different than stuff even five years ago). From what other parents tell you, add those items to your wish list. For example, three different friends of mine loved the Baby Bjorn. Luckily, I got a hand-me-down one. I am not sure if I would’ve bought that on my own.

    Also, think about what your parenting philosophy might be. Do you want the baby close to you at night? If so, a co-sleeper would work. If not, you might want a bassinet for the first couple of months before you transition baby to her crib.

    For our January baby, we didn’t have her crib (and other furniture) set up until the end of November. I didn’t buy clothes until a couple of weeks before my due date. Having the basics is fine–friends and family will flood you with gifts. Trust me! Everyone loves to welcome a new baby!

    You’re right, your wife might not have enthusiasm for shopping, but who says that she needs to be the one to shop? My husband picked out our daughter’s furniture, stroller, Pack n’ Play, coming home outfit and more… It was great! I know that some women are controlling about all of that stuff, but I don’t get it! I loved looking at the things my husband selected, and I think he enjoyed finding things for the baby.

    There are so many resources on the web. I am new to this site, but check out some others. The Parents Journal website (an NPR program) archives its shows–you can listen to parenting experts discussing any subject–it’s great.

    If you have about 3 months before your daughter arrives, you have plenty of time to get the “stuff” you need. And really, it’s not about the stuff, but I know that you don’t want to feel unprepared… The basics are fine. Just go with the flow.

    Enjoy the journey–parenting is by far the most rewarding experience you will ever have in your life.

    January 16th, 2007 at 10:01 pm

  4. Chris says:

    Mark, Monique, and Mollie (mmm . . .),

    Thank you for your comments. I’m the anonymous Thinga-dad AJ wrote about. I so appreciate you sharing from your own experience, validating my experiences, and simply making me feel so much more excited about what awaits my wife and me!

    January 17th, 2007 at 2:50 pm

  5. Wendy says:

    Congratulations! You are in for the ride of your life. There are plenty of ups and downs to keep you on your toes. The ups are exhilarating and the downs are shortlived but will prepare you for the next down until it all evens out. Having kids are the best thing that has happened to me next to marrying the love of my life of course. I never thought that I would ever have the patience to stay at home with kids but due to several nanny issues I am a stay at home mom to 3 kids under the age of 3 (2.5 year old twin sons and a 7 month old daughter) and I love it. It is the most challenging job I have ever had but definitely the most rewarding.

    January 17th, 2007 at 9:59 pm

  6. Lisa says:

    I too was an unexpected parent at the ago of 39 and we both felt the same range of emotions you are feeling… I kept thinking am I ready for this? Am I old enough to raise a child? How can I give up all I have for this? I love my independence… being able to pick up and go whenever I want… all the great trips we take, kayaking, hiking, camping… you name it… But the plain and simple fact of the matter is I was going to have a baby… and when that day came and I met this little guy, I fell in love right then and there…the minute I heard that cry… and so did my husband… It is amazing, incredible, intense and perfect… the love you will have for this little person will far outweigh all you might think you are giving up… and you will have that again… It is all up to how you chose to live your life. I admit, we dont kayak with my little one… yet… but we will! We do hike and camp and take trips and do much of what we love… our motto being No child will stop us from living life to the fullest. You adapt, you modify and it is worth it… each and every time you look into that little face…and it gets better everyday… Just think of the amazing thigs you will teach your child…trust me, as a 39 yo first time mommy, I love every minute… (Ok, there are moments I dont love so much but they are far and few.)
    Good Luck…you will be a great daddy…

    January 19th, 2007 at 1:43 pm

  7. thordora says:

    We were unexpected and not desiring to ever be parents a few years back, and so it took a little while to get over the shock, and yes, the resentment of the sudden life change. I resent anything that happens so forcefully.

    Just take it as it comes, and don’t expect it to be perfect. You’ll learn, she’ll learn, and somehow, it all will come together. Our children have been the best things to ever happen to us, but it’s taken awhile to get there.

    We received most stuff at baby showers, and relied on other parents to fill us in on what worked for them. And I noticed that if 2 or more people said something was useless, it likely was. :)

    Good luck! You’re in for a ride, but life eventually returns to a semblance of normal.

    January 23rd, 2007 at 10:12 am