Ta-Nehisi Coates
Photo: Noah Greenberg
His pregnant girlfriend came from a long line of vanishing dads. How could he—a young, unemployed college dropout—persuade her (and her mother) that he'd be any different? Ta-Nehisi Coates remembers the nine most thrilling, unnerving, tightrope-walking months of his life.
Early one August morning, I stand and pledge a shamed fraternity—The Order of Unmarried Dads. I am the prototype: a college dropout with bad credit, a man who can't hold a steady job. I'm also 24, arrogant, naive, and convinced that "good father" and "husband" are not synonymous. It's around 6 A.M. and I am sitting in a maternity ward in Wilmington, Delaware, beside Kenyatta, my pregnant partner, waiting for a nurse to finish a battery of tests. Every day some nervous father-to-be wheels a groaning woman into the ward, only to find out it's a false alarm. Our nurse assures us that we probably fall into that category. But ten minutes later, she walks through the door smiling and I catch the sign—in the bowels of St. Francis Hospital, I am up.

All year I've studied for this moment, leafing through What to Expect When You're Expecting, Eating Well When You're Expecting, and The Expectant Father. I've humored the old women and their blind predictions of boy or girl. I've worshipped protein and iron, spurned sushi and smoky clubs, mastered rhythmic breathing, all to prove myself a responsible father and the iconic dad for these modern times. Never let it be said that I am simply the lunk who swills Guinness and cheers on Emmitt Smith. Let it be said that I swill Guinness only after ensuring that Kenyatta receives the correct allotment of folic acid. Now I sit at Kenyatta's bedside, feeding her ice chips from a plastic cup, watching the meter for contractions, holding her close when it spikes. When she grunts and whispers, I untangle the web of IV tubes, toss her arm over my shoulder, and help her to the bathroom. Across the way, a woman is screaming like the goblins have gone to work on her. But from blood to bone, I am steel. Occasionally our nurse checks in—We should have you on payroll. You're a really good birthing partner. Not good. The best. And this is me drumming solo, beating the buzzer, embracing my moment, claiming my manhood.

Still a mountain looms—excluding the soon-to-be grandparents from the actual birth. In birthing class, Kenyatta and I watched a woman go into double labor on film—first with the baby, and then with her family. Eyes loomed everywhere, a scrum of relatives milled about, and in the midst of all the pointing and smiling, the expectant mother groaned and glared. It looked miserable. And so Kenyatta and I formulated a policy—grandparents are welcome at the hospital for support, but nonessential personnel won't be allowed in the birthing room.

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