I have tried to collect the bits that I either wish someone had told me or I’m happy someone told me.
If I had to boil it down to two things it would be this:
- All time with our children is precious and not be wasted or traded away
- They will learn from what you do, not what you tell them. Not that they’ll copy you or become miniature you, but they will watch and learn.
You know what this section is going to say. I don’t have anything particularly insightful or touching to say. Every single moment with your children is special, even the shitty ones. In 30 years you’d rather have any of those moments back than any sum of money, fame, or things.
If you’re up for it and ok with a good cry, read Cranking by Merlin Mann. I printed it off and I reread anytime I need to be reminded.
The Slow Burn
Based on my experience, and that of most dads I’ve asked, the father-child relationship takes longer to get going than the mother-child relationship. This is not a reflection on you, how you are doing as a dad, or even the eventual strength of the relationship. It is reflection on the fact that all babies are genetically programmed to crave mom for food and safety. All moms are genetically and hormonally driven to care for their baby above all else. The advent of formula, bottle feeding, and other modern luxuries hasn’t changed that.
So, sometimes it can be hard to build that relationship. Sometimes it feels like it’ll never be there and you’re working so hard for nothing. But that changes. I’m only three months in and the smiles she gives when I wake her up in the morning make it all worth it. Hang in there.
Before the Baby
Before you have a kid — heck, before you even decide to have a kid — you should ideally reflect on why. Which kind of dad do you want to be? More importantly, which kind of dad do you not want to be? Once you know that, what about yourself do you have to change to be that dad for your child? Next, just do the work.
These questions don’t go away once the baby is born. And neither do your answers. You have to keep working at it and living up to it.
Personally, I’ve decided that I am not going to be a scary dad.
I’m also not going to be my child’s friend.
For the first decade or two, my responsibility is to teach my daughter how to be a human.
I can do this best as an example and earnestly answering every question she asks.
Once she is grown, if I am lucky and did the first part well enough, she will look to me as a mentor and a coach.
This is not to say that we will not have fun together and we will not feel love. I am just not her peer and I will not pretend or strive for that. I have my own friends and I hope she has her friends. Besides, a parent-child relationship is so special and rare. Why would I want to replace it with something else?
Credit for the short version of this to Merlin Mann, but your child should never have to explain or spell their name. With a last name like “Gee” there is only so much we could do, but we did our best. We also tried to follow a few rules:
- First name should not be after anyone we know. Our child should not feel an obligation to live up to someone else.
- Middle should be used as an honorific to someone important in our lives
- If you’re going to call your kid by a name, just give them that name. Don’t name her “Elisabeth” if you’re going to always call her “Lisa”. They’ll want to be called whatever you call them.
Learning the Gender (or Not)
We chose not to learn the gender for our child for a number of reasons, and the ultimate decision to not know was left up to my wife. I even felt reluctant to participate in a guessing game at a family gathering 1.
Reason the first (and simplest): It doesn’t matter. Based on my research, there is biochemically no difference between males and females until puberty. All other differences are inflicted by society and culture. I did not want to start to put that on my baby before they were even born. I’m reluctant to do it after, but going against the grain comes with its own traumas.
Reason the second: I wanted my baby to feel loved and wanted no matter who they were and to feel the freedom to be who they truly are. My daughter will not be sad that her father really wanted a son, because all I wanted was a baby and she is perfect. The fact that she is a girl matters as little to me as her eye color or how many toes she has. I am her Dad, it is not my place to wish she was something other than what she is. It is my place to be sure she knows I love her and to help her be the best version of whatever she wants to be.
Throughout pregnancy and after you will see that the mother of your child is stronger than you know. Probably stronger than you will ever be. But she still needs your help. Until the baby is born, she is your number one priority. Make sure she is eating and getting rest. Help her to get sleep and stay active as much as you can.
I’m going to admit, I was nervous going into the day. I told my wife I would be there to support her, but I wasn’t sure how much I’d be able to watch (of course I’d still hold her hand).
I was wrong.
When the time came, and I saw the love of my life in that much pain, it all changed. I was there to do whatever was needed. Not to say it wasn’t all horrific. It’s a beautiful and awful experience.
And some good news: it was so far outside our normal realm of experience that when we returned home 48 hours later, it felt like something from a dream. The most real part is my journal entries, and the memories faded fast.
The First Three Months
Hopefully you get some time off of work. Hopefully baby’s mom gets some time off of work. If you can, try to plan ahead of time as much as possible. We designed our life for this and were also fortunate; my wife was able to be at home full time. I got two weeks paternity leave and have been working from home >50% of the time (thanks COVID). Our solutions were based on this paradigm.
At the beginning of your baby’s life, all they will want is their mother. The corollary of this is that Mom will be very busy and very tired. Without dwelling on how broken the nuclear family paradigm is, this leaves a lot for you to do. You and your wife should discuss what is most important in the housework, because for a few weeks or months it will only be you doing it. Try to make as much of it a habit as possible.
In addition, you should try to help pack everything before all family outings so your wife doesn’t have to worry about it. You’ll probably also be the one carrying it, although sometimes Mom wants to carry the baby. Here’s everything that’s in our diaper bag at all times (@ 4 months old)
- Diapers (~4)
- Spare onesie
- Changing pad (came with the bag)
- Mom’s wallet & sunglasses
- Milk/formula if required
- Pumping stuff if required
- A pacifier and baby blanket live in the carseat, so they don’t need to be in the bag.
In addition to normal house chores and packing/carrying. I tend to “prepare the way” as much as possible. Make sure the bottle warmer has water and is ready to go, the swaddle is laid out and ready to go, the formula in the fridge is full & ready to be used, etc etc.
And of course, taking care of mom continues. Eating and drinking get hard for her, so make sure she’s doing plenty of both. Prepare food for her when needed and don’t get upset if it goes cold and you need to make more. Try to help at night as much as possible, and try to make sure she gets a nap.
You’ll want to learn about sleep training your baby. Your baby may hate the swaddle at first (ours did), but if you give it a few attempts they’ll get over it real quick. Remember, what they actually want is back inside of mom, so don’t listen to them too much. If you’re consistent it’s not really too bad. Here’s some resources we found useful:
- The Happiest Baby on the Block for people who learn better through reading/books. The author also has a follow up book specifically about sleep.
- Taking Cara Babies is better if you learn more instructionally. My wife vastly prefers this to the book, although it is more expensive. But, we’ve barely had any nights with less than 8 hours of sleep. So that is well worth the cost to us.
Finally, help mom get back to full health. Two resources that were unbelievably helpful for us and I recommend at least considering/getting a consultation for:
- Get a lactation consultant. Breast feeding isn’t quite as straightforward as you think. The hospital will send someone to do a crash course, but if they know their stuff it still won’t help because you’re both too overwhelmed. We loved Dana and cannot recommend her highly enough. She’ll drive to your house and is knowledgeable and supportive. My wife went from tremendous pain, scared of breast feeding, and full of shame to a pro and comfortable with our baby eating breast milk or formula. Do yourself/Mom a favor and schedule at least one appointment.
- Pelvic floor physical therapy. Not necessarily for everyone, but absolutely necessary in our case. My wife was a gymnast and was miserable after birth. N2 Physical Therapy fixed her right up and even helped with lots of issues that were present before pregnancy.
Ask For Help
I can’t express how helpful it has been for us to have family nearby. We also set up a meal train starting ~week 2. That was pretty awesome. Ask your village for help. Better yet if you know parents of kids around the same age (or a year or so older), they’ll help a lot and teach a lot. Not everything comes to mind (I’m certain I’ve left a lot out of this), so be sure to ask questions. Even if you think you know the answer, ask. It can’t hurt to hear another person’s story.
If you can explore alternative options for sharing childcare or other resources, do it. It is expensive and time consuming and it’s better for everyone if parents and kids are part of the same community.
And if you know me personally (you probably do), don’t hesitate to call and ask questions, or we can go for a hike or something. No question is too bizarre or too personal. I’m just happy to help.
- Newborns’ nervous systems are not fully developed. They may sound as if they’re in the worst pain ever, but they just don’t actually have control over their cries yet. “I’m slightly uncomfortable”, “I’m starving”, “I’m a bit sleepy”, and “My diaper’s wet” all sound the same at first.
- You made the choice to bring this little person into the world. It is your responsibility to take care of them. It is not a burden, it is an honor.