The first time I saw my wife's pregnant belly rippling as our soon-to-be-born baby wiggled and squirmed inside, I was both mildly horrified and totally fascinated. But after taking a breath to recover, I felt something else: a concrete, "How do you do?" connection to my child. In the face of such a sublime, profound experience, I articulated my emotions as best I could: "Whoa," I said.
My slackened jaw is all Rachelle recalls of the incident. She had no idea how amazed I was which turns out to be pretty typical of my gender when it comes to maternal matters. "Men can have very complex feelings about what happens to their wives during pregnancy, but they often don't share them," says Greg Bishop, president of New Fathers Foundation, a nonprofit organization for first-time fathers in Irvine, California.
This is especially true of issues involving our partner's body -- particularly when it becomes rotund, streaked with stretch marks, and punctuated with occasional oddities like facial hair. So what's on our mind?
"Women Have Grit"
"Swollen ankles stand out for me," says Mike Downey of Bryan, Texas, whose two kids are now 8 and 12. "A lot of the difficulties of pregnancy, like breast tenderness, have some positive aspect because they're directly related to nurturing the baby. But getting swollen ankles during the third trimester on top of morning sickness earlier and everything else just didn't seem fair."
It's these sorts of uncomfortable side effects that let us see just what the women we love are made of. Some expectant dads are almost envious of their partner for doing the gutsy grunt work of carrying a baby and going through the painful rigors of labor and childbirth. After all, physical endurance has always been a test of manhood. Not that we want to trade places (but you knew that). Instead, our admiration often translates into a swell of affection. "I have so much respect for how well my wife handled the whole thing that I feel more in love with her than ever," says Jim Gorman of Philadelphia, a dad of two girls, ages 1 and 3.
"And it's almost a competitive thing," he adds. "I've had conversations with other guys along the lines of 'Oh, yeah? You should've seen what happened to my wife.'"
"We Love Swollen Bellies"
"I didn't see it as my wife getting bigger, I saw it as my baby getting bigger," says David Avrin of Highlands Ranch, Colorado, who has a 3-month-old son, a 4-year-old daughter, and a 9-year-old stepdaughter. "Though I was glad staying in shape was important to her. When she continued to walk on the treadmill, both she and the baby benefited."
Part of the sentiment arises from sheer astonishment. Chris Horner of St. Louis, who has five kids, ages 4 to 15, has never gotten over the wonder of a baby's growth. "The whole process of going from something that wasn't there at all before to a real live human being -- my child -- is just amazing," he says.
Pregnancy also brings about newly minted ideas of what's beautiful about a woman. "You're no longer looking at your wife only in sexual terms -- though I certainly found mine to be sexy when she was expecting -- but as a mother as well. This image of her was more profound somehow," says Paul Wirth, a dad of a 4-year-old daughter in Holly Springs, North Carolina. And as for all those quirky physical developments -- acne, nosebleeds, belly veins, or worse -- we certainly notice them but simply chalk them up to part of the process.
"I think all pregnant women look really cool," says Gorman. "The way they go through all sorts of wonderful transformations, it's almost like watching a construction project."
"We Still Want Sex"
"My wife and I had some of the most playful sex of our relationship while she was pregnant, which was completely unexpected," says Downey. "It seemed we paid less attention to the act itself and just had fun and laughed a lot."
Horner had a similar experience. "We made love right up until the due date." He says maintaining intimacy during the pregnancy was easy. "Getting back up to speed postpartum was another matter, though."
Some dads say they were concerned about hurting the baby during sex. "I was worried about it at first," recalls Avrin. "But my wife had a child from her first marriage, and she knew it was safe, so I felt comfortable."
"We Don't Quite Believe It's True"
"The pregnancy only became real with the ultrasound," says Dave Quast, a dad of a 6-year-old in New York City, "especially when the nurse pointed out the hands and feet and tried to find out the gender. Thinking in terms of an actual boy made it personal and real; this was no longer something that was just a part of my wife, but a person with a name."
And I'm not the only dad-to-be who was wowed by the spectacle of a baby wriggling around inside his mom. "At first, I couldn't help but think of the movie Alien," says Downey. But after his initial reaction of "It's alive!" he says, "I started to feel attached to my child."
Avrin found that his own pre-birth connections to his daughter helped him bond with her later on. "When the baby would get active at bedtime, I'd sing a low, rumbly song to my wife's belly, and without fail, my daughter would stop moving to listen," he says. "Moments after she was born and was crying, I sang the same song and she calmed down. It was absolutely overwhelming."
Most men would agree that the wonder of pregnancy and childbirth doesn't subside with time. When our second child was coming along, the baby's inside-the-womb antics weren't as surprising as the first time around -- like a cinematic special effect you've seen before -- but it was no less amazing. And the older our kids become, the more miraculous those early moments of acquaintance seem. Back then, it was all mystery and possibility. Each child's personality, abilities, enthusiasm, and sense of humor were a closed book. Now my kids are 9 and 12, and I have a sense of who they are. The fact that they're wonderful -- even when they're aggravating -- makes me cling to those first recollections like the memory of a first kiss, because those moments were part of falling in love. I look at how far we've come and how far we'll go and can still find only one word to take it all in: "Whoa."
Richard Laliberte, a former senior editor at Men's Health, writes regularly about parenting.