A few years ago, while my wife's baby bump got bigger and my daddy reading list grew longer, I felt cautiously optimistic that this parenthood thing would, somehow, suddenly click one day. The baby would come, instincts would kick in, and the transition from established couple to a new family would be tiring but not baffling.
Boy was I wrong.
This is not an attempt at what so many parents seem to revel in: scaring the heck out of parents-to-be with an eye-rolling mix of martyrdom and schadenfreude. This fatherhood thing isn't going to rob you of all freedoms, friendships and fun.
But there are certainly a few things that, in retrospect, I wish I had a heads up about beforehand. Like these six things.
1. Above all else: TAKE PATERNITY LEAVE.
First and foremost: if at all possible, take more than just a few days off when your baby arrives. I've written previously about my regrets over going back to work too soon after my son's birth. I implore you not to make the same mistake I did. Take as much time as feasible.If your employer has a paternity leave policy, take the time. If your employer doesn't have a paternity leave policy, make the time. Push the envelope—it's worth it.
You're only a new dad once. Your family needs you more than your boss does right now. Just as importantly, you need them. Invest time in bonding with the baby and establishing a co-parenting dynamic that lays the groundwork for child-rearing equality.
Emails can wait. Embracing your new role as a dad cannot. Take the time, even if it means burning vacation and/or sick days.
2. Put your visions of parenting grandeur on the shelf.
Specifically, right next to the diapers, powders, ointments and breast pump.
When my wife was six months pregnant, I couldn't wait to play catch with my son in the yard. Six months later, I couldn't wait for him to stop crying so I could get some sleep.
My point: this is a marathon, not a sprint. The whimsical Hollywood moments of fatherhood—ball games, bike rides, BBQs—are years away, and real life doesn't have montages. But don't let your yearning for more seemingly fulfilling- parenting—the teaching moments that guide them through adolescence and into adulthood—divert you from the mission at hand. Newborn nurturing may be less glorious but it is equally necessary, and rewarding in its own right.
3. Listen, learn and leave ego out of it.
All joys of new fatherhood aside, this is the greatest opportunity you've ever had to develop a valuable new skill: childcare. And you get to do it in the service of people you love. Welcome to Baby U. Your instructors include your beloved wife, parents and in-laws.
The vast majority of early parenting is logistics. Mastering how to arrange a diaper for maximum dryness (fold the front top an inch in before fastening) is far more important than developing bigger-picture parenting perspectives.
Little humans need little things—learn them with humility.
Your reward—other than the satisfaction of dad duties well done—will be comforting, coagulating insight into how this whole baby thing works. You won't be intimidated when someone's watching you swaddle your baby. You won't be befuddled by how a car seat straps in or a stroller unfolds. It's not magic—it just takes willingness and practice.
4. Your wife is more important than you right now.
This isn't some hackneyed "happy wife, happy life" nonsense. Your marriage of equal halves has one partner who, for biological reasons, needs her spouse to be particularly helpful and supportive right now. And by "right now," I mean the first six months of parenthood, at least.
Your wife is sore, probably feeling less-than-attractive, and potentially experiencing some level of postpartum doldrums. And since you can't breastfeed, she's taking the lion's share of the overnight shift. So add exhausted to the list, too.
Your job, then, is basically "everything else."
Coddle. Clean. Cook (or in my case order takeout). Run errands, walk the dog and stand guard against unwanted visitors. All woke-ness aside, early parenting roles revert to tradition out of necessity; she has to care for the baby right now, and you have to care for her. Do your duty—and the dishes—with honor and gratitude.
5. That said, don’t bend so far that you end up with resentments.
Let's have a frank discussion about self-respect and marital equilibrium, because both may be tested in early parenthood—for both partners. Though new moms deserve loads of leeway, there are limits to how much you should be marginalized. Her needs—and especially the baby's—are paramount right now. But not to the point where you forfeit all respect and relevance.
Flip on the TV and you'll see how disrespected dads are these days. From Modern Family to Family Guy, the "doofus dad" stereotype permeates society. Don't let it infect your household.
You may be third fiddle right now but remember: you're still in the band. And so long as you're really trying, you deserve respect; not because you're a man, mind you, but because you're a well-intending soul navigating new parenthood, too.
6. This is only temporary.
And by "this" I mean "all of this."
Newborns go through phases and stages with head-spinning speed. As soon as you recognize one pattern, it often gets replaced or redirected by another. Sleeping habits, feeding tendencies, what does and doesn't soothe the baby when they cry all evolve remarkably rapidly.
So if you find yourself in a particularly rough phase, relax. It will pass. And if you find yourself recognizing stages only in their twilight—before their inevitable dissipation—don't kick yourself. That happens to everyone—moms and dads alike, and especially with firstborns.
And even if, like me, you're not prone to sentimentality, do stop to soak this in. You'll only be a new dad once: the pride, the pain, the simple joys and sleeplessness are all part of it, and all beautiful in their nascent reality.
This is all normal, and an unprecedented opportunity for growth. You are fortunate, durable and altogether fine.
Now go change that poopie diaper, Daddio, and make mom some breakfast while you're at it.👌