“I have a headache,” my wife Amber said.
She was four days past her due date. And the nurse warned Amber that if she had a headache to call the doctor and go to the hospital immediately. Her blood pressure had skyrocketed to 140/89. That wouldn’t be so terrible. But normally, her blood pressure is 100/60. I said a prayer.
“Why don’t we go to the hospital,” I suggested. But Amber wanted to wait longer.
“Let’s get a good night’s rest and I’ll see how I feel in the morning,” she said. She went to bed, desperately trying not to think about the HELLP syndrome that she had with our first son, Danny. (HELLP Syndrome is a life-threatening pregnancy complication.) A few hours later, Amber woke up. The headache lingered somewhat, but after a long, hot shower, she announced that she felt better. We stayed home, and waited for baby Peter to arrive.
Peter was yet to be born, but, unbeknownst to me, my body was actually already preparing me to be a good father. The fact is, new research suggests that, as I was nervously pacing the house and even in in the last few months of my wife’s pregnancy, my body was experiencing a surge of the hormone prolactin, the same hormone that helps mothers make milk. So why is this helpful to men if we aren’t the ones lactating? This is important because researchers have discovered that prolactin levels are higher in men who are more responsive to their children’s cries and in men who showed more pregnancy-related symptoms.
Pregnacy-related symptoms, in men?? That’s right—it’s called “couvade” syndrome, from the French word meaning “to hatch.” Paul Raeburn notes in his book, Do Father’s Matter?, that in Papua New Guinea, some men experience nausea and excruciating back pain during the last few months of the mother’s pregnancy,. In other words, it’s possible for men to experience a “sympathetic pregnancy.” It’s also common for fathers to gain weight while the mom is pregnant.
But back to the birth story. That evening, I went to my men’s small group at church. But I sat towards the door just in case Amber called to say that she was in labor. Sure enough, I received a call. “My contractions are six to seven minutes apart,” she said. “You better come home.” I rushed home, shaking with anticipation.
At home, I found Amber in the bedroom and two-year-old Danny bounding back and forth, from his room to the living room and back again. “Baby Peter is coming!” he announced in childish delight.
“Ohhhhhhhhh!” Amber groaned heavily, a contraction upon her.
“Ohhhhhhhhh!” Danny groaned, in joyful unison.
And then, only an hour after her contractions began, her water broke.
We arrived safely at the hospital and by midnight, Amber felt baby Peter coming and felt the urge to push him out. After fifteen minutes of pushing, Peter Francis came out, all 7 pounds and 5 ounces of him.
So what happened to my body then? Well, in the weeks and months after Peter’s birth, the scientific research says that I probably experienced a drop in testosterone. Some men might think of that as a bad thing, but it’s important, because studies show that men with lower levels of testosterone are more attentive fathers.
But, perhaps you’re thinking, maybe this just means that men with lower testosterone are more likely to become fathers in the first place? Maybe all the high-testosterone men are out there in bars and clubs, living it up and not wanting to settle down. But actually, men with higher testosterone levels are more likely to become fathers, and after birth, those same high-testosterone fathers then experience a significant drop in testosterone as they spend time with their new child and the mother of the child.
In other words, men are hardwired for more than just sex; we’re also hardwired to connect with our children. The truth is, while Peter was in Amber’s womb, my body was also already preparing me to attach and bond with my son.
But here is the catch: fathers who do not spend time with their children, or with the mother of their children, are less likely to experience these pro-fatherhood hormonal changes. As two researchers put it, “fatherhood is almost ‘contagious,’ in that you ‘catch it’ from spending time with your mate and child.”
Like most men I know, I wanted to catch it. And the week after Peter’s birth was like paradise. We’d lie there on our family bed, big brother Danny singing “You are My Sunshine” to his new brother, kissing his little brother’s soft head.
Only three months later, though, I’m deep in the drudgery of parenting . But even in the frustrating moments, I’m reminded of the beauty of this family I have helped create. Like one day during that week after Peter’s birth, Danny spontaneously said to me, as we were having lunch, “I love you, Daddy.” And then he gave me a hug—a long hug, just keeping me in his embrace.
Then he said, “And give Mommy a hug, because Mommy is a great woman—because she had a little baby.”
Out of the mouths of babes! Danny was giving tribute, in his toddler-wise way, to the gift of family. It was a vivid reminder that, as great as sex is, the little humans that we conceive, and the human family that comes together from a man and woman’s coming together, are among life’s most rewarding privileges.
Those are the moments that I’m glad I have a father body.
This article is part of a series on how parenthood changes us, and how children are changed by their parents. Each article explores themes raised in the new report, Mother Bodies, Father Bodies: How Parenthood Changes Us From the Inside Out.