Just a reminder that dads come in all shapes, sizes, and genders. This article is geared toward folks including (but not limited to) dads, birth partners, and adoptive parents. No matter how you identify, we hope these resources will be relevant to you and your parenting journey!
Join the PSP Dads group here and engage in discussion, share tips, find playdates and arrange to meet-up locally with other Dads.
In this article:
Be proactive about learning.
At a minimum read up on what to expect over the next month or two (beyond that is a waste of time--your sleep deprived brain won't remember any of it) so that you can contribute meaningfully when your spouse want to discuss the baby's needs and development. He/She will really appreciate that you're involved in the process, otherwise they're kinda going at it alone. A basic book like "What to Expect the First Year" is a good place to start but there are also plenty of online resources.
Trust your gut.
I know it's been said before, but your instincts are the best tool you have for raising a child (thanks nature--you and evolution, you guys are cool).
Enjoy food from others.
Coerce/bribe/force some of your friends and neighbors to bring you giant amounts of homemade food, coffee, and other treats -- it is a little thing but can mentally and physically restore your sleep-deprived brains and bodies.
Don't go overboard on new stuff.
You don't need it. Save the money for a sitter for date night.
The SINGLE best expenditure you can make is on a Diaper Genie II. It's cheap, highly functional and lasts years.
Be prepared for mountains of unsolicited advice from friends, family, and the occasional person on the street -- ignore them, even give yourself permission to be cross with them if you like. I get more baby advice from old ladies sitting on stoops than I do from all the books we have piled up in our closet.
It is possible to rely on the books too much, or give them too much credence. At least one of the books (Ferber perhaps?) is written in language so fervent and obscure that you'll read whatever you want into it, especially when you are sleep-deprived and suggestible.
You don't want to have a game day-type mentality when giving birth.
You want your special lady friend to be as chilled out and relaxed as possible (at the same time as she is in immense pain). And for that to happen, *you* need to be as chilled out and relaxed as possible. And for *that* to happen, you probably need to take a class so you can have all your questions answered beforehand, practice massaging techniques, and what have you.
Have a trusted friend in the birthing room.
It takes the mother plus at least two "emotional support" people plus the person delivering the baby to get through the first birth. Only have people in the delivery room who lower the mother's stress.
Do not read or listen to any birth horror stories.
Read positive birth stories, talk to people with positive birth stories, get into a positive relaxed frame of mind that this is a normal, natural body process.
On the night of the birth, try not to drink too much beforehand, as it's going to be an exhausting night. No matter how nervous you are, You're going to need your wits about you.
It'll get real. Newborns make a lot of weird noises. They’re ok.
Get help. Reaching out to others for help: crucial, but it can be hard to admit that you need help.
Smile. One thing that helped me deal with a screaming baby is simply to smile. You've probably heard of the "5 S's", well add a sixth, smiling. It tricks yourself into thinking you're happier than you are and not only makes it much much easier to weather a storm, it's contagious.
Know it will be OK. Oh the terror. It’s worth mentioning how real it got. People are will say things like "oh, you're having a baby? You’re not going to sleep ever again, ha HA!" but god dammit sleep deprivation is not fun. It inspires all sorts of fun mental spiralings. Add unexpected hospital time and breastfeeding issues, and this begins to feel like existential horror. Eraserhead comes to mind. HP Lovecraft comes to mind. Soothe yourself with some mint tea and leave the apartment for a minute if you have to. Write frantic questions to PSP. Call your mother. Send FaceBook messages to your old teacher. Take a deep breath. It will be ok.
Listen to baby. When the baby arrives, it will tell you what it needs. I don't mean this in a hippy-dippy sort of way; I mean this in a practical way. Though they can't speak, they'll tell you what they need. Try this, try that, try something else, and try not to lose it. You've already reached a major success: your child was born, and that cry is a sign of health. It doesn’t really matter if you use a pacifier before 4 weeks; if that's what works, it's right. Your kid is fighting and screaming in the swaddle? It's not for everyone. At your wits end with breastfeeding? Get the formula. You're kiddo is not just going to be fine, they're going to be great, especially if you try your best to realize and remember just how amazing every single thing is about it.
Just do it. Make all the dinners, do all the dishes, take out all the trash, run all the store runs, eat all the cold pizza at 3AM, have a little booze at inappropriate times if you’re into that, and take all the pictures.
Get organized. You will be sleep deprived and forgetful, especially in the first 3 months so get organized. I found setting timers, alarms, and calendar reminders to be invaluable for remembering to give medicine, remove bottles from the warmer, and myriad other tasks that would immediately slip from my mind.
Google everything, believe nothing. There's lots of great info online but also plenty of crazy talk. No, your baby doesn't have lupus. He's fine. Call his doctor if you're really concerned.
Related reading on PSP: Newborn Advice for Dads
Sleep deprivation. If you at all had a crazy college or early 20s... access that feeling if you can, when your life was chaotic, sleepless, emotional, etc. This is a very primal moment and if there was ever a period in your life where you lived a bit like an animal, well guess what, it's back. If you fight it it's going to hurt real bad and you will lose. So roll with it and revel in it when you can. If you have a partner that bore a child, I think this is important. You are the one not trying to nurse, or recover from childbearing; you are the one not drowning in an ocean of hormones. You can be the one who can provide energy and buoyancy, and not feel "overwhelmed." And if you do, you are in a better position to straight-up suppress the feeling with lots of useful action. We're supposed to be good at that, right?
Sleep when the baby sleeps. The people that say, “sleep when the baby sleeps?” That's really good advice. Take it literally, and as often as possible.
Seek help. Get an early morning baby-sitter so that you can both sleep. Yum.
Take turns. If you can muster, take turns letting each other sleep in. Go to bat for each other; enjoy the extra rest when it's your turn, and enjoy doing something awesome for your partner when it's theirs.
White noise machines/apps FTW. White noise apps are your friend.
Sleep patterns change. As first-time parents we took all this seriously and I remember keeping a log of the baby's sleep patterns and agonizing over how to get the best result and one terrible night when I was certain we had triggered the dreaded adrenaline no-sleepy switch. As second-time parents we stopped worrying and accepted that there isn't always a sleep "solution" per se and you have to follow the kid's lead and get really tired and wait for the next developmental stage to hit. It was comforting to realize we weren't necessarily doing something "wrong" and we just had to hunker down and take care of each other.
Every kid is different. For what it's worth, we did "cry it out" with (on?) both kids once they were big enough, and it worked for us in a matter of several nights. It doesn't work for everyone and some people find it too upsetting or unkind. Without discounting that view, which I totally understand, I will note that some online sources suggested it would turn our kids into little psychopaths who were permanently unable to trust us or receive affection. This did not occur.
Being a new parent can really expose all the cracks in your relationship with your partner. It took a lot of work not to fall into blaming each other at times (especially at 3am after a week of no sleep). Once you have decided on something together, even when you really don’t agree with what she or he has decided to do, try to commit to supporting them through it. It’s hard in some ways, partly because we cannot be 100% in it equally together to the extent that biologically we are constrained to different roles in some parts of parenting (e.g, being pregnant, nursing…) . The more you can find that attitude of “being in this together,” the better.
Your child is made up of different parts from of you and from your partner. Try and remember all of the good things about yourself and all the things that you love about your partner -- your child will get to have all of those good things, which is a really neat thing. Don't forget that it's every bit your baby, too, and the dad doesn't need to take the back seat in that relationship or feel like a secondary parent.
First and foremost, I’d suggest that fathers make the moms the priority. As any father/partner would attest: when the mother is happy, the family is happy. Second, when everyone feels ready, have the dad spend a large portion of the day with baby. Great empathic developer. Third, Encourage mom to take care of herself in whatever ways she can muster. Fourth: Take care of yourself in whatever ways you can., the days are long; the years are short.
We’re not mind readers. The other thing to add is gently reminding your partner that we can't read their mind, and that we are indeed right there but don't always know when we're needed. So when they need help with something or need to hand off the baby, just ask!
Taking care of yourself actually helps your partner take care of herself, and helps you both with the baby. Which is to say, if you all need to eat dinner and Mommy is dealing with baby, don't wait until she's done for you to eat (or to shower, or whatever it may be in that moment). The sooner you get yourself sorted out, the sooner you can take the handoff from Mom and handle the baby so she can take care of herself. If we didn't take turn eatings at the start, neither of us would have ever eaten!
A note about breastfeeding. There's obviously a lot of data about the benefits of this but, in our experience, breastfeeding was extremely difficult. If you are interested in supporting your partner, which was the gist of a lot of the advice, then you may want to be really careful about pushing for this at the expense of the breast feeder's boobs, her sleep levels, her sense of self-worth, etc. Stinky poops and the fact that the male has to do a lot more at night aren't a good enough reason to extend everyone's suffering if the breastfeeding isn't working. (Having written that, I can also say that there are loads of EXCELLENT lactation consultants in the Brooklyn areas who can be extremely helpful.)
Things change—all the time…I never realized parenthood had so many phases, but sometimes month-to-month or even day-to-day things shift and seem really different. I've had only one child (a girl, now three) so far, but I've felt like I've had about seven different children, depending on what's been going on with my child.
Take a trip with the baby, if you can. They travel much more easily before they're a year old. We took our 10-month old on a 7-week trip to Europe. it was totally fine. They have baby supplies everywhere.
Get time for you AND baby. Remember to carve out time for YOU and the baby where you can just hold them or go for a walk with them and not think of them as an epic list of to-dos or worries or risks, but just an astoundingly amazing thing to be with.
Kids are resilient. We grew up ingesting more pollutants than our kids likely will. My grandparents grew up when people still tossed their excrement out of their windows and you often didn't name your child until after the first year because of child mortality rates. Things right now are pretty frigging great. Even if they aren't, they will be, and so they are again.
There are many ways to parent. When I accepted that the big picture can go pretty well with a wide variety of parenting approaches, it allowed me to use what various baby “experts” in classes and books told me without urgency to make sure I did it just right, and I used those ideas to try to connect better to our second child, or better support his growth, rather than trying to shoehorn myself into one parenting approach.
On Crying. On an unrelated note -- I'm not telling anyone to be callous, or let their kid cry it out or anything like that. But for any dads who are like me, which is nearly pathologically incapable of listening to his kid cry, my advice is to figure out how to calm down and somehow get more comfortable with it. Because if you let the crying trigger an internal freak-out about your child, to the extent that you go nuts trying to placate him/her, you sort of set you and your child up for a certain way of interacting, and it's a tough cycle to break. As at least one other dad noted, assuming you are methodical about figuring out what's wrong (tired? hunger? dirty diaper? etc.) the baby is likely to be Ok, and staying calm and realizing that the crying, per se, isn't bad (even at the expense of slightly longer crying) might actually give you a healthier relationship with your baby.
Having a child is like having a front row seat to millions of years of evolution, sped up into the span of a few hundred days. A large part of it is this invisible force of evolution telling you what to do, building the bond between you. The only rational thing to do is try to relax and enjoy the ride.
I asked an older man who I respected for advice on fathering daughters, getting through the tough years, etc. His three daughters were beautiful, successful, happy, vivacious, grown women with their own children and were very affectionate towards him, exactly the relationship you would want them to have with each other. And he said, "Just love them." That's all you need to do.
And that has been my fundamental guiding principle. The "just" is key: very simple, uncomplicated, unadorned love, in whatever form it comes naturally to you, is all you really need to carry you through.
Recommended books and advice:
- Harvey Karp's "Happiest Baby on the Block". The 5S's he talks about is the checklist that we run through.
- Precious Little Sleep. As far as I can tell, it's the best synthesis of the currently available advice, delivered in an extremely mom-friendly way. You'll like it.
- Take a class from Shara Frederick. The most important one is: You want to be in Oxycontin Land, and you do not want be in Adrenaline Land.
- Watch Babies, a documentary about babies in four different places in the first year of life. The one in Mongolia is particularly awesome. It shows you how tough babies are. You pretty much plop them down anywhere and, so long as they get food and sleep and the like, they do their thing. No big deal.
- I can't help but share this Portlandia sketch about baby books