Confessions of a pregnant father

The woman gets plenty of warning, that is nature's way. But this expectant father's eyes are only just being opened to the pains and pleasures of life about to be transformed

"Try to imagine you have a pencil in your anus and you're writing your name with it." Sixteen adults duly stand on all fours. "Full name or just the first?" I gasp as National Childbirth Trust intructor leads us through the physical difficulties of having a baby.

It's our first lesson, appropriately enough in National Pregnancy Week. Eight couples, all of whose babies are due in late October and November, have come seeking enlightenment. We'll be backonce a week for the next two months, hoping that, come the EDD - expected date of delivery - we'll not be as green as we are now.

We're in north London, parodied as the home of the refurbished terraced house, Provencal decor, stripped pine floors and anxious, aged first parents. Stoke Newington to be precise, where thirtysomethings breed in a hothouse for human fertility before it's too late. Many gay women also come here to have their children - you can go to a kiddies' party in "Stokey" and meet virtually no dads: they simply don't exist. Perhaps there's something in the water here, but we've got the highest birthrate in western Europe. The one restaurant that dares to ban children has provoked a huge rumpus. And our playground is state of the art.

EastEnders had warned us to expect the worst at the NCT. A few months ago, Kath attended a class and found herself swamped amid incense burners and touchy-feely middleclassdom. Her husband, macho man Phil, wasn't having any of it. "It'll be full of poncy men huggin' each other," he complained, and swiftly arranged for his brother, Grant, to ring at the vital moment to call him away for an emergency.

You can see Phil's point. This is therapy country - that world of scatter cushions, futons and Bodyshop smells, where counsellors in converted lofts heal mental anguish and aromatherapists ease physical pain. All of which makes it foreign territory for most men.

It's hardly surprising then - stripped at the door of our shoes - that we size each other up cautiously. This isn't just any old meeting. Typically at NCT classes, people discover not only the gory details of childbirth. They also seek like-minded couples upon whom they will rely intimately for support, wondering perhaps, if they would trust them with their little treasure.

It's amazing how old we all are. Whyhave such apparently competent people taken so long to bear a child? Barely anyone is the right side of 30; several, including myself, are heading for 40. How will such ancient specimens, young when the Bay City Rollers were big and already set in our ways, adapt to a tiny baby? We sit cross-legged, and learn to breath deep in our bellies - "like babies do, but we forget as we grow older", says the instructor. The women's tummies, filled with kicking foetuses, rise and fall.

Would the men, I wonder, do the pencil routine in the delivery suite as our partners roar obscenities to relieve the pain? Apparently not. These playful indignities, we are told, are all about learning to control the muscles down below, a vital skill to prevent prolapse and incontinence after pregnancy. Such exercises, our instructor reassures the men, could also prove handy in later life with the onset of prostate problems.

I'm still a little shocked from this first session. It wasn't the fooling around pretending to be a cow with a handwriting problem, or even the humming. . The shock came from a sudden realisation: "Oh Christ, this is going to be very messy, pretty frightening and I don't really know the first thing about what I should do."

The crucial moment was the "birth atlas" unfolded halfway through the class, showing pictures of a baby gradually inching its way down the birth canal, its head squashed and elongated. And there are those throwaway lines about how labour can last anything from three to 48 hours. 48 hours! All this produced a now familiar stunned feeling that I get after each new stage in the pregnancy, each visit to the doctors. The aftermatch (??) is general discombobulation, and a restless night's sleep.

The best bit is the talking. There are hints of the fears that some have experienced: of miscarriage, of it all going wrong. When the killings of the schoolchildren took place at Dunblane, I wondered had it been even worse for the parents because they may have relaxed, because they may have begun to believe that their children were safe, having survived pregnancy, birth and the early-childhood illnesses.

The women lead the conversation, swapping stories about which hospital is best, which midwives are most attentive, how to avoid some units that seem to look like a "torture chamber". What exactly is a "domino delivery", I wonder, amid thoughts of little babies emerging covered in white dots. But the more personal stuff is left unsaid. It's too soon. We don't talk, for example, about who has actually bought their first baby goods. How can you buy a bag of nappies which might, if something goes wrong, never serve any purpose except to haunt you?

It's not easy to explain how the prospect of becoming a parentchanges you. But for the first time, I feel properly grown-up. The angry child, still lashing out at my own father, is becoming more sympathetic and understanding. Now 75, with his career some way behind him, my father's life has at times seemed very distant from mine. But I've been questioning him lately about his time as GP. He had, he revealed to my great surprise, delivered hundreds of babies at home in the days when a hospital birth, especially for second and third babies, was rare. Stumbling my way through the mechanics of this single birth, I just think, "Wow."

But at the NCT, the men hang back, dutifully reticent. "I'm just dying to play with it," says one expectant dad. We're not as knowledgeable as the women, who have read all the books, but we want to learn. So far, we've largely been ignored by the maternity services. "They don't talk to me, so I've stopped talking to them," says one.

Nevertheless, we're doing our bit. For months we have been supporting our partners, cooking and doing housework when they were sick. Now, as they become more immobile, shopping is out because the bags are too heavy. The women are growing more tired each day.

Many of those jobs around the home that need doing before the baby is born - painting and decorating the nursery - are beyond them. Men realise early on that it's a myth to imagine being a father starts with birthbecause the child indirectly makes demands on the father by causing the needs of the mother. One of us speaks of getting into training for sleepless nights because his pregnant partner is already awake a lot due to discomfort.

It's great to talk - the partners of pregnant women don't often get together. Men in my office have had babies lately but I didn't even realise they had gone on paternity leave until a message flashed up on my screen declaring that so and so is now proud father of little Horatio or Harriet.

At the NCT, we are tentative. We chat about work and the difficulties of combining it with fatherhood. "Your attitude changes with pregnancy," says one, to general nods. "You're more worried about your job because you need it to support the family. But at the same time you're not so interested in doing it anymore." Discussion moves to the case this week of a man sacked, after 10 years' employment, for taking the day off for his baby's birth. "I'm doing my best. But I'm not sure I'll be there," says one man.

Will we, I wonder, get on to the difficult stuff that no one talks about once we get to know each other better. I'd like to talk, for example, about how couples plan to handle their income if the woman is not going back to work. Perhaps, most important, about what sort of fathers we all hope to be. Maybe we will with time. Who knows? We might even end up hugging.

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