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dad next door microchimerism

Dad Next Door: Ready in the bullpen

One mic-drop moment clarifies a lot

Well, another Mother’s Day and Father’s Day have come and gone. Even though they’re just Hallmark holidays, we try our best to honor them, but they’re never very satisfying. 

Mothers usually get breakfast in bed or taken out to brunch, and maybe some earrings or a bracelet. Fathers used to get neckties, but no one wears those anymore, so now it’s just a card that makes fart noises and a random power tool. I’ve always thought that having Father’s Day a month after Mother’s Day was emblematic of its status as an afterthought.

“Oh s$#!, it’s Father’s Day already? We’d better stop by Home Depot on the way home.”

If you’re ambitious, you can take the whole family out to a ballgame, but your youngest kid usually gets bored and cranky by the third inning, and your oldest eats too much cotton candy and spews pink and blue vomit all over your “World’s Best Dad” T-shirt. 

Who could compete?

This year, Pippa and I took Jess out for a Mother’s Day dinner, and we asked her to regale us with the story of Pippa’s birth. Like all birth stories, it was unique in every detail, and universal at the same time. As I listened, I was struck by the sheer physicality of it: the overwhelming contractions, the exhaustion, the uncontrollable urge to push, and the flood of euphoria when she lifted infant Pippa to her breast. Even though I was present at the birth of my daughter Maddie – and actually delivered her with my own hands – my memories of that day are etched more into my mind than my body.

If you’re a dad like me, you’re probably in awe of the bonds that our children forge with their mothers. Sometimes we feel like second-string ball players – working hard on our games, deeply invested in our teams, living and dying with every play, but never the first to step on the field. Mothers have a nine-month head start in the major leagues, nurturing and protecting a growing life with their very flesh and blood. How can we compete with that?

Benefits of the bullpen

Of course, the intensity of that bond can have its drawbacks. Sometimes, when Jess and Pippa butt heads, I’m reminded that there’s no parent-child relationship as loaded as the one between mothers and daughters. When two beings are hardwired for social connection, they have to navigate the path from complete dependency to complete individuation amid the constant threat of suffocation, abandonment or betrayal. When those bullets start flying, I’m all too happy to hunker down and stay out of the line of fire. 

Still I can’t help but be a little bit envious. No one becomes a parent so they can sit on the bench. The other day, though, I read an article that shifted my perspective. It was about microchimerism.

Illustration courtesy Heighten Science Publications Inc(HSPI)


A chimera is a creature that contains parts of more than one individual. Think Egyptian sphinxes, or maybe Harry Potter’s hippogryph. Microchimerism is less spectacular, but in a way more amazing, because it actually exists.  It turns out that women who have carried a fetus retain some of that fetus’s cells in their body, perhaps for the rest of their lives. It’s only a small fraction of the total– we’re talking less than one in a million – but because we have so many cells (about 100 trillion), there can be tens of millions of fetal cells persisting all over the mother’s body for years.

It’s not clear yet what those cells are doing there, but we’re finding some intriguing clues. Most of them are fetal stem cells, with the ability to morph into all kinds of specialized cells under the right conditions. It turns out that these cells tend to migrate to parts of the mother’s body that have been damaged, and require healing. One place where this has been documented is in the mother’s heart, which goes through an enormous amount of stress during pregnancy and labor. In mice, fetal cells have been found congregating in the mother’s heart after birth, and appear to be helping with its recovery and repair.

Reading that was kind of a mic-drop moment for me. You mean mothers literally carry living pieces of our children in their hearts? Sometimes you just have to step back and let your ace do her thing. Welcome to the big leagues.

Standing ready

So when Father’s Day rolls around, don’t get discouraged if you aren’t the starting pitcher. Go take your place in the bullpen, keep your arm warm, and wait for your number to be called – because it will be. At some point, the starter will lose her control, or start to wear down, or just get batted around the yard. At any moment, you might have to climb that mound and take the ball in your hand. 

You’re not second-string. You’re the closer.

Jeff Lee is running out of room for his power tools in Seattle, WA.

Read more Dad Next Door:

Dad Next Door: Just Say No

Dad Next Door: The rich get richer

How a young wizard saved me from tedious bedtime stories

About the Author

Cheryl Murfin

Cheryl Murfin is managing editor at Seattle's Child. She is also a certified doula, lactation educator for and a certified AWA writing workshop facilitator at