12/01/2014 02:30 pm ET Updated Jan 31, 2015

The Moment a Heartbeat Changes Your Life

Dan Szczesny

They say your life changes when your baby arrives. They are wrong.

Your life changes the moment you know the baby is coming.

Let me tell you the story of how I learned I was going to be a dad. Last Easter, after coming back from a book presentation with my foster daughter, Janelle, my wife was waiting for me with an Easter basket of little gifts. This has become a bit of a small holiday treat for us.

In Kathmandu, where she grew up, Easter wasn't a thing. Here, she knows I enjoy the nostalgia of a little chocolate and maybe some colored eggs. One of my fondest holiday memories is of our parish Easter basket blessings when I was a boy. My mother would go all out, as was proper for a Polish, suburban housewife of the 1970s in Buffalo, NY.

Her baskets would be magnificent works of symbolic art consisting of a bed of green and purple plastic grass as a base, followed by just the proper combination of pastel eggs, chocolate bunnies, a lovely butter lamb and other nicks and knacks. The topper? Smoked Polish sausage, made in our driveway by my father in a home-made smoker welded together out of two steel drums.

So, this little offering that my wife puts together for me is a happy place sort of thing. This year was a little different. She wrapped two gifts and nestled them in a small basket. The first little gift was a chocolate rabbit.

The second was a book on being a new daddy.

I was thrilled, of course, and told her so. After all, we do have two kids in our lives that we try to be good role models for and part-time parents to, and any book on helping me be a better "dad" to them was much appreciated.

She gave me that look, a look I've come to recognize. The look meant that I messed something up.

"No, dummy, you're going to be a daddy!" she said. And thus, with those words, our lives changed. Our baby isn't due until December, but our lives changed on that day, back in April, the moment I opened that package.


First, the warnings. Oh man, the warnings. The medical profession apparently wants you to be worried about the risks of being older parents. In those early months, as we waited for my wife to clear the first trimester, there was not one single doctor who didn't begin a conversation with "Let me tell you about the risks," and ended a conversation with "Do you want to take meds/xrays/shots to see if your baby is at risk?"

But once those first three months is behind you, once the in-laws and parents are on board, once the diet begins to change and you're given a due date, everything is different.

For me, that moment is clear and focused, like looking into a microscope and being aware that my life up to that second just blinked out of existence, like the popping sting of a light bulb filament burning out.

My life ended when I looked up at the ultrasound screen in that dark room, moments after we were told she was a she, and the technician paused her wand at my baby's beating heart. "That's it," the nurse said, "all four valves, beating hard. Looks good."

In the shadowy haze of that radar, my baby's heart fluttered like a moth and in that split second everything that came before -- everything -- disappeared. Poof. Gone. In a heart beat, because of a heartbeat.

They don't tell you that in the books. They don't tell you that your new world suddenly becomes hyper-sharp. The lenses I used to filter life changed. My wife began walking that thin line between nesting and hoarding. All the furniture in our house suddenly had sharp corners.

Everything became more important, and nothing was important anymore.

Now, as we near what we call the end of the beginning, I'm only able to realize how different it all is in retrospect. Any doubts I may have harbored about my ability to be a good man and good father are now full-blown panic attacks; that is if I have the time to think about it. But I have new tools at my disposal as well, new ways to stay grounded in the moment.

For example, tonight, as I lay in bed feeling the weight of the future on my back, I'll turn over and place my hand on my wife's belly. And when my daughter moves and I feel her on my fingertips, I'll think of that beating heart as a compass that I can follow toward my new life.

Originally appeared in Good Men Project