Early fatherhood is a not-so-exclusive club with minimal requirements for membership. There is no secret handshake, but there is an infinite knowledge base established by millennia of experience. Unfortunately, fatherhood is a definitive case of you-don’t-know-what-you-don’t-know. As new fathers, we usually have to learn by doing, making our own mistakes. No matter how much research we do, how much equipment we acquire, or how carefully we study friends and family, our preconceived notions and best laid plans are quickly shattered by sleep-deprivation and the baffling, sometimes alarming idiosyncrasies of our new infants.
Having navigated through my own highly imperfect early fatherhood years three times now, there are certain things I know to be true that I wish someone had clued me into prior to the blessed events. I’m not sure I would have listened at the time, because I did have preconceived notions and needed to learn certain things the hard way. But just in case there are some new dads out there with open minds willing to consider another man’s journey – or just plain desperate for ideas — below are some basics I wish didn’t have to be part of my learning curve:
Men who embark on this adventure with the misconception that nothing about their lives will change – not the quality of their marital or personal relationships, their leisure activities or social schedules — are setting themselves up for a losing struggle and a world of frustration. Becoming a father changes everything — mostly for the better – but change is inevitable.
You say you attend a weekly couple’s night at a local bistro? Take a hiatus. And that goes for bridge (or poker) night, cocktail parties and sporting events. Babies need a quiet, safe place to sleep with minimal disruption or stimulation. There are few places outside of a home environment that offer any of the above. So, my advice is to give it up. You’re a dad now. Accept and embrace it. Get a bottle of wine, a Netflix subscription, and get reacquainted with the couch. Better yet, get some sleep. And speaking of sleep…
Get Some Shut Eye
There is nothing more humbling or debilitating than sleep deprivation. The world becomes a very dark, confined place with little hope, and feelings toward your new situation are clouded by frustration, anger, even hatred. When you are sleep deprived, your thoughts are not entirely rational. You are desperate. I will admit that I was so wasted during the first three months with our first born that it occurred to me it might be okay to put the inconsolable child in the closet for a few hours. I admitted that fleeting fantasy to a seasoned father, and he told me: ‘You are absolutely allowed to think that. Insane thinking is fair, reasonable and normal. You just don’t actually do it.”
Share the Pain
If you’re working a day job and your bride is pulling full-time mom duty, please know that she is more exhausted than you are. Really. In addition to exhaustion, she is also struggling with hormones run amok. So, either get a relative to do a couple of tours of night duty so you can put together four uninterrupted hours of sleep, or at the very least take turns waking with the infant. In my experience, four hours of interrupted sleep is the magic number to gain some perspective. You’ll realize the change (in both of you) immediately. More importantly, you’ll notice and appreciate what a beautiful, perfect child you’ve brought into the world and look forward to your futures together.
Embrace Your Role as Backup
This is when you make your bones as a husband. While the baby doesn’t particularly need you, your partner does, and in a big way. So, make yourself useful. Shop, cook, clean, massage, soothe, change a few diapers and get used to saying, “yes, my love” with a big smile. Otherwise, mom has it handled. If she is breastfeeding and can stockpile some milk, the greatest gift you can offer is to do a night feeding while she sleeps. You will see the benefits of this selfless act immediately in a refreshed and less homicidal bride.
You Don’t Have to Sleep With the Baby
Yes, co-sleeping works for many families, but this is my opinion based on experience, so I’m sticking to it. I admit there was a period of time when it seemed the cozy, loving and convenient thing to do. What a wonderfully fulfilling sensation to have our new baby sleeping between us. But the novelty wore off as I realized that when one of us awoke, the others would too. This was not a prudent use of precious down time when it was critical that at least one parent was operating at minimum capacity. Furthermore, as our first baby got older, she began expecting comfort milk from my wife every time she stirred, which isn’t a brilliant strategy as you try to develop sleep and feeding routines. It became clear that we were a) disrupting all of our sleep; b) training our child at this impressionable age to always seek comfort outside herself, even for things she was fully capable of doing, like falling asleep; and c) depriving ourselves of any alone time whatsoever. So, the baby was introduced to her crib, where she quickly slept through the night (most of the time).
Don’t Start with a Pacifier
You will notice when your infant cries that if you put something into her mouth she will often stop. In that moment, when all you want is some quiet, it’s a beautiful, quick-fix solution. In the long term, however, it’s short-sighted and a totally unnecessary, parent-instigated habit. Why create a habit that is so difficult to break? My first child had a pacifier for about two weeks until my wife got educated on the subject. Subsequently, she (and her siblings) were given the freedom to find their fingers or a thumb so that they could self-soothe, whenever and wherever they chose. The thought of using a pacifier never crossed our collective mind again, and it was never missed. If one of our infants was crying and couldn’t soothe herself, we knew there was something going on that needed to be addressed.
Don’t Be In a Hurry
Your baby’s physical and mental development are not processes that can – or should – be rushed. Each baby is on his or her own unique schedule, and Nature will take its course if we just stay out of the way. Exercisers, flashcards and videos marketed for infants may be highly satisfying entertainment for parents, but messing with Mother Nature (which I’ve written about before here….) is never smart and has the potential to undermine the organic stages of an infant’s development. So sit back, relax, and observe.
We’re all enthusiastic as new dads and anxious to do the best for our babies. The most fundamental lessons I learned from fathering my three infants are: a) that our partners need us to share the load; b) that our babies are capable human beings – more so than I ever imagined — that their ability to communicate their needs and figure out how to negotiate their worlds cannot be overestimated; and c) that their needs are simple and basic, albeit totally consuming. So, I have come to believe that the very best we can do is to look after these basic needs and then leave them to experience and investigate their world without our well-meaning interference.
Michael is a frequent contributor here and at the The Good Men Project and tweets at HumbledDad. I know he’d appreciate hearing your comments or contrary views.
(Photo by jencu on Flickr)
I love these points. We tried co-sleeping for a little while and I agree, it was difficult. I won’t be trying it the second time around.
What a refreshing read! I am going to save this to share with my husband in a few years 🙂
These are great suggestions, and I’m so glad you were willing to put them out there. Obviously, everybody has different experiences and different philosophies, but great to hear what works for you. By the way, I totally agree with you on co-sleeping and pacifier, but not so sure about Dad as “backup.”
Thanks, Matt. Janet told me the co-sleeping opinion wouldn’t sit well with certain readers. For me, it was convenient and cozy for a while but quickly became inconvenient. But if others are getting plenty of sleep and the system works, that’s all that matters.
What a great post! 🙂
Backup is a beautiful thing. This article promotes respect for infants AND mothers.wonderful.
While I agree with most of your comments, my own experience was contrary for various reasons. For instance, both co-sleeping and a pacifier were necessary for my son that turned out to have autism. You warning that each kid is absolutely and completely different is the second-best advice… Ever. The first is that Dad needs to support Mom and let her sleep. The “homicidal” comment made me LOL because it is true!