A few weeks ago, I gave a talk for expectant parents at the Please Touch Museum. I can’t be sure what it meant to the audience, but I know what it meant to me.
Roughly 14 months earlier, my kids were brand new, barely free of the womb; my days and nights smashed together in a whirring centrifuge of diapers, bottles, tears, fear and sleeplessness. I barely knew how I’d survive any particular 15-minute increment, let alone the rest of my life. I accosted near strangers: This is temporary, right? I’d ask. I mean, it gets better? A few times a week the exhaustion defeated me. Miserable, scared, I closed my office door and cried till I could function again.
A little more than a year later, I stood in front of a microphone and lectern, well rested and smiling. I have no doubt the coming years will challenge me in ways I’ve never considered. But I could already tell these guys about the place they’ve never been: The first year. Here, then, is some of what I learned in Year One, including points I ran out of time to share with the Please Touch audience.
1. You Start Becoming a Dad Before the Baby Is Born
Your unborn’s hearing develops at 16 weeks. So baby hears mom all the time and emerges attuned to her voice. How can you compete? Sing.
I started crooning “What a Wonderful World” each evening at bedtime. Sure enough, when Eli and Jack emerged, squawling, I sang right to their crying faces. They quieted, like I just sang magic words. We were on our way, and remembering that moment later, during some of the raw times, restored me.
2. True Love Takes Time
Moms, particularly breastfeeders, enjoy loads of snuggle time with baby. Dads can sometimes feel left out (more on this in a second)—and worse. Where’s the love? Some men think they will transform, immediately, at the first sight of their baby. But that sense of connection eludes many for long months, even a year. (One particularly hard case I know claimed he didn’t love his children till they were old enough to laugh at his jokes.) Worrying over this lack of love can cause depression or a total freak out.
My suggestion? Be patient, with yourself and the baby. And be aware. Good, large-scale research projects have demonstrated that newborn baby boys whose dads are less involved in the first three months of their lives are more likely to demonstrate aggression and behavior problems at one year old. Older boys and girls are also perhaps even more strongly influenced by dad’s love than mom’s, meaning the care you show the baby early on will reveal itself, in myriad ways, for the rest of your life—and your child’s.
3. Mom’s Boobs
The guys in the audience at Please Touch didn’t seem to take this very well. But when it comes to breastfeeding, dad’s job is to do as he’s told. Sure, we might value our opinion. We might consider breastfeeding too problematic for too little reward. Or we might believe the health benefits of breastfeeding are so great that our wives must breastfeed, no matter the physical or emotional toll. I say, express your opinion; cast your vote. But tell your wife that your vote only counts for 1 point while hers’ counts for 1.25. Face it, fellas. Breastfeeding costs us, directly, very little. We also won’t face the same guilt trips and judgment from family or peers as mom. In this instance, sacking up means knowing your role. Offer advice, then provide support—whatever she decides.
4. You Are Feeling Very Sleepy Now
Start planning now. If, like us, you’ve got twins, you’re pretty much screwed. But if you’ve got one baby on the way, you can minimize the pain of sleep deprivation. Follow me: During the first few months—or more if the baby is born prematurely—your little lump of love will want to be fed every few hours, day and night. That means feedings occur at, say, 10 p.m., 1 a.m. and 4 a.m. Trust me. Till you’re running this obstacle course, every night, you simply can’t imagine the havoc this causes with job performance, cognition and emotion. So help each other. Maybe mom takes the 10 p.m. and 1 a.m. feedings while dad holds down the 4 a.m. shift. This way, dad enjoys a six-hour window, every night, in which to sleep, providing him with something near a full rest. Mom, if she has the luxury of staying home for the first several months, can hit the sack after her 1 a.m. feeding knowing she doesn’t have to get out of bed again till 6:30 a.m. or 7. She might still wake up at 4 a.m. to breastfeed or pump. But just staying prone and undercover for a long stretch is a gift. Finally, before the baby is even born read Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child. We read it in the midst of a sleepless crisis, and it changed all our lives.
5. One For the Dads
Dads get beat up—a lot. One female speaker at Please Touch warned the ladies in the audience: They will be trapped with baby, day after day, home on leave and stuck in their own pajamas. Then dad will breeze in from work, holding off requests to hold the baby till he can get changed out of his work clothes. “He’ll say, ‘Just give me two minutes,’” she said, as if the mere request is crazy.
So, blooming dads, I ask you to take this column to your wife and show it to her (the whole thing, including the bit about breastfeeding). Because I say if dad asks for two minutes, give him five. And don’t complain. Transitioning into fatherhood is difficult. Trying to maintain his usual performance standard at work, while home—previously a place of rest—now looms as a kind of haunted house, redolent with the spooks of sleeplessness, stress, doubt and fear, is a daunting challenge. There really is no winning, either, only degrees of failure. So when dad comes in, greet him with a smile—he’s there to help, really—and give him five minutes to acclimate and adjust. If he’s like me, he’ll put on his house clothes, take a deep breath, and get to the work of being a father.
6. It Gets Better
Finally, this is the most important point: It’s worth it. Sure, sometimes our boys cry. They fill a ba-jillion diapers per day. And they want near-constant attention when they wake. But I get to hold and nurture these little boys, my sons, in the act of becoming. I come to know them—their likes and dislikes, their emerging personalities. I come to know myself and my wife in a new way, finding new levels of patience and care in previously unexplored chambers of my heart. And I come to know my parents—experiencing, finally, the sacrifices they made, understanding their stresses and failures, and feeling the same love that fueled them fire in my own chest.
Jack plays a game with me: He stands behind a swinging door on our entertainment center. His feet remain plainly visible beneath the door. But he thinks himself well hidden. Then I come crawling, clomping around the corner. He squeals and giggles—found out, discovered—just like me.
Steve Volk is Philadelphia magazine’s senior writer. A new dad to twin boys, he blogs about the ups and downs of modern-day fatherhood on Be Well Philly. Read the series from the beginning.