A few days after I turned 34, my wife, Sarah, told me she had a belated birthday gift. I assumed that meant she was going to bring me leftover Thai food from a work lunch, but when she got home that evening, she handed me a Ziploc baggie. Inside it was a pregnancy test.
I looked at it for a few seconds, then asked, “Am I understanding this right?” Sarah nodded.
We embraced, each got teary-eyed, and then laughed nervously the way you do when what you’re really feeling is overwhelmed by too many simultaneous thoughts to process at once. What’s striking to me now is that despite our deliberateness about wanting to start a family, we were still surprised to find out that the journey was actually beginning.
After learning our news, most nights as I was going to bed next to Sarah, I would think, “How does she fall asleep knowing that a human being is growing inside her?” (Not to mention kicking and jabbing her.) The weirdness of the whole process, the magnitude of the responsibility, the bodily sacrifices, and discomfort that occur have made me all the more appreciative for how Sarah approached pregnancy, and how tens of millions of women do it every year.
As soon as I found out we were going to be parents, there was a flood of questions constantly swirling around my brain—some weighty, some silly, some mundane. What will his personality be like? I’m quite extroverted, Sarah is more introverted; it was anyone’s guess who our son would take after.
What will he look like? In particular, we felt like we were playing “nose roulette” since Sarah’s nose is cute and small and mine is large and not-so-cute. We kept our fingers crossed that schnozz genes are matrilineal.
What kind of world are we bringing him into? While overjoyed to think about welcoming a new person to the planet, it’s also hard not to feel anxiety about climate change, our vitriolic and divided politics, school shootings, online bullying, and the many other perils that keep parents—and everyone else— up at night.
And hovering alongside all these questions is the one that perhaps prompts the most introspection: What kind of parent will I be? Looking toward the hardest, most high-stakes job of a lifetime, it seems natural enough to have some self-doubt—to wonder if you’ll rise to the occasion, if you’ll strike the right work-life balance, if you’ll raise a child who absorbs your best traits and is spared your worst.
I asked my friends in advance of the baby’s arrival for the best advice about parenting they’d given or received or what stands out to them as most noteworthy about their own parenting experience. A lot of great feedback rolled in: “Parenting is a constant exercise of learning to relinquish control.” “Admit mistakes! Children are your biggest support group.” “Accept all the help that’s offered for those first few months. I didn’t understand how a creature that sleeps 17 hours a day could be so challenging, but somehow they are. Ask for help!” “Keep play simple: cardboard boxes, wooden spoons, the hose on warm days, crumpled paper.” “Don’t get caught up in the keeping up with the Joneses in parenting. You will make yourself crazy trying to sign your kid up for every class, to master every new trend, to buy the latest toy or gadget.” “Put down your phone when you are with your children.” “Family dinners.”
More feedback: “As children get older, you may have to explain certain things with gentle language that avoids harsher truths. But never bullshit your children; they see through it, and it undermines your authority.” “Never wish away time, even during the moments that are really hard. It already goes by too fast without trying to speed it up further.” “Enjoy seeing the world through your child’s eyes. It’s amazing and beautiful in ways we forget about.”
As the pregnancy progressed, I found placing my hand or head on Sarah’s stomach and feeling the baby’s kicks and turns was one of the happiest things I’ve ever experienced. I imagined it being like the joy of receiving a new letter from a cherished pen pal whom you’ve not yet met. Mystery and affection intersect, the one multiplying the other.
On June 12, the truly wonderful, wild, vulnerable part of the journey began when we met our little boy, George Pete Isaac Sittenfeld, for the first time. As profound an experience as pregnancy is, childbirth was that much more mind-blowing—and that much more deepening of my appreciation for Sarah specifically and for womankind in general.
When the doctor placed this precious, terrified, perfect little creature on Sarah’s chest, we cried, smiled, and kissed him and each other. There he was, our son. Ours to protect, ours to love, and ours to help become his own person.
As is the case for most new parents, these early days have been marked by equal parts joy and exhaustion. George is sweet-tempered and mostly calm, but particular enough to let us know what he needs and what he does and doesn’t like. He is constantly making soft little baby chirps, uninterrupted even by sleep. And he is masterful at wriggling off his socks and wriggling his hands free if an outfit otherwise restrains them.
There have been plenty of milestone moments along the way: first smiles, first reading of favorite books from our own childhoods, first visits with family and friends, including two great-grandmothers. What’s been most cheerful to me is how inherently forward-looking this whole adventure is.
A life’s journey has begun full of unknowns, full of possibility.
P.G. Sittenfeld is currently serving his third term as a member of Cincinnati City Council. He, Sarah Coyne Sittenfeld M.D., and their son live in East Walnut Hills.