'I donated the eggs, my wife carried the babies': What it's like to be the unexpected parent

Image: iStock
Image: iStock 

I'm hardly the first woman to have a pregnant wife, so I'm surprised when I turn out to be, well, such a surprise.

After a while I get used to the misunderstandings: the doctors who think I am Beth's helpful sister, the shop assistants who tell me I'm a good friend to help her carry the bags. I get used to explaining myself, defining myself, defending myself. No, I am not pregnant. Yes, I will be a mother soon.

What I never get used to are the questions. The old school friend who emails, not to congratulate us, but to ask, "How did you actually do it though, a syringe?" The receptionist who needs to know what we will call ourselves ("Won't two mummies be confusing?") The neighbour who leans on the fence to ask me, "Did you toss a coin to decide who would be the real mum?"

In the early months of pregnancy, Beth sleeps a lot, her body doing nothing and everything at once as our twins grow inside her. As she rests I make lists of all the things I don't know.

I don't know what it is like to be in a pregnant body, to have people ask when I am due or offer me a seat on the bus. I don't know the intrusiveness of a stranger reaching out to touch me, or the burden of their assumptions and advice. I don't know what it feels like when a baby kicks or turns inside me. I don't know what it is like to give birth. I don't know how tiring it is, or how frightening, or how wonderful.

Beth knows these things, or will know them all soon enough, and I worry that it might draw a line between us. The things we can and cannot share. It will cut the other way, too, Beth reminds me, saying, "It's you they'll look like." She opens the scan pictures on her phone and says, laughing, "See, this one already has your nose, the poor thing."

We both need it, this compromise of biology that binds us all together from the start. My eggs, her womb. As the months pass and her body stretches to make space for our daughters I am in awe of her, of all that she is doing, all that her body is going through.

It feels petty then, pitiful even, to remind the people who look past me for a father that these are my babies, too. I know that I have held a part of them deep in my body like buried treasure all my life.

In the spring, we start prenatal classes at the local community centre. We are a group of six couples bound together by all the things we don't yet know about being parents.

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It makes no difference to our classmates that Beth and I are the only same-sex couple. We are all comrades-in-arms here, sticking together through tutorials on infant rashes and trying to memorise the stages of labor.

Each class, after the tea break, the teacher separates us: Dads to the back of the room, mums to the front. She doesn't know what to do with me.

I listen to the men as they imagine the dads they want to be. Who wouldn't want to be the dad who builds treehouses and fixes bikes? The dad who pushes daddy's little girl on the swing. The dad who puts up the tent and packs the car for vacations. The dad who does his bit around the house, but not too much. The dad who has the last word but never the first ("wait until your father gets home").

In the third class, Paula instructs us to write our fears and worries about fatherhood on a flip chart. One is worried about not getting enough sleep once the baby is born. Another admits he is dreading all the blood during labor. They are all very worried about parking arrangements at the hospital.

I feel like a spy, anxious that I might be curbing them, but suspecting that the opposite is true, that somehow I am diffusing it just a little. "I mean," says one, "you all know what I'm worried about," and he raises his eyebrows, leaving his darkest fear unspoken. It seems to be in deference to me that he doesn't just write, "WILL I EVER HAVE SEX AGAIN?" in red letters across the paper. We sit in manly silence for a few moments contemplating this until a father admits, "I'm worried that something will go wrong."

In the last weeks of the summer I take a few days off work, put the radio on and set to work preparing the babies' room, sanding every surface and blunting every corner until the spare room meets the safety standards of a secure psychiatric unit. I am desperate to do things for the babies, to share the burden as much as I can. I paint the walls, I build the cots. I wash and fold their clothes as if it is my life's calling.

In the evenings, Beth arrives home from work, hot and swollen in her new body. Between breakfast and bedtime, the bump has grown again. Soon, she says, she won't be able to reach the steering wheel. Her shoes don't fit. She cannot sleep, even with the windows wide open and the electric fan pushing cool air across the bed. She is sometimes miserable, sometimes euphoric. She carries on.

In the final prenatal class, the teacher gives us dolls with which to play. We have to wipe their plastic bottoms and change their nappies. When the dolls are all dressed, the "dads" are expected to practice holding them safely. So I sit, with a pretend baby nestled in the crook of each arm, listening to a woman explain the pros and cons of an epidural.

The teacher's parting advice is on the tricky matter of encouraging an overdue baby to come into the world. The best way, she tells us, is to get it out the way it got in. Beth and I discuss this on the way home. Neither of us is confident we have the skills to conduct microscopic procedures on the kitchen work surface. On balance, we decide, we'll just have to wait.

The first person to call me Mummy is a nurse. Twenty minutes after our daughters are born, I find myself in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, surrounded by implausibly tiny babies and the machines that keep them alive. In the dark cave of beeps and lights, she turns to me with a clipboard and says, "Mummy, we'll need you to bring in nappies, cotton wool and their clothes."

When I realise she means me I manage to nod. In the far corner of the room I find our daughters, side by side in their incubators. I stand between them, one hand on each incubator, forming a bridge. "Mama's in the next ward," I reassure them. "She'll be in to see you soon."

"And I'm here," I say. "It's all okay. Mummy is here." And for the first time, I am.

The Washington Post