Wednesday, December 4, 2013

10 Bits of Advice on the Transition to Dadhood

A few guys I know are about to become fathers for the first time. Since I’ve had my share of kids, and ample time to ponder my successes and errors, I wanted to pass on some advice to fathers-to-be on the ever-challenging transition to dadhood---not the big picture philosophical stuff or the woe-is-me feelings of leaving your youthful freedom behind, but the everyday decisions you'll face. 

This lists focuses on the final weeks of pregnancy and the first few months of having a freshly-minted person in your home. It's just to get you started. So here goes.

1. First and most obvious, Get some sleep while you still can. Every list like this is required to start with sleep, and you'll hear this advice from all new parents. There’s a reason. You might never sleep again after that little being currently making your significant other uncomfortable comes out into this world. At the very least, your days of getting a solid-night’s sleep on a regular basis are done for sure. By the way, it only gets better (which, in parent speak, means it gets worse). 

Sure, you might luck out and get a baby who sleeps through the night within the first six months. Our first born did that---once. Or maybe you’ll get a truly great sleeper, and you’ll all have normal sleeping patterns within the year. It’s possible, but not likely. Even if they do sleep well, eventually they’ll learn to scale the walls of their crib. Then, maybe you’ll have other kids, and every night from now on, one of those kids will be scared, hungry, or sick, or come up with some other B.S. reason to wake you up, crawl into your bed, put their feet in your face and ruin your night’s sleep.

We had our first child a decade ago. I can count on one hand the number of undisturbed sleeps we’ve had since. Most were at hotels.  So enjoy these final restful hours. 

More information than you could ever want. 
In "What to Expect," focus on Ch. 15 for labor and
delivery, and Ch. 19 just for expectant fathers.
2. Read Whatever She Reads. If you're lucky, your partner isn't a big reader of pregnancy books. If she is, try keeping up with what she reads.  Even if you just flip through and look at the pictures. Scratch that; don’t just look at the pictures. It’ll freak you out. Read what you can. Though feel free to skip to the chapters on delivery, since that’s where you’re needed---again. 

My wife was a big reader of how-to books. I remember her still reading What To Expect When Expecting when she was three centimeters dilated (Look it up, if you don’t know what that means). I thought it was a total waste of time. And it may have been. But, there’s a lot to know about birth, and a reason those books are so thick. As a guy, you’re already starting the process with less inherent understanding and a predilection to baby-bearing ignorance. If she reads and you don’t, game over.

That said, don’t watch any birthing movies if you can avoid it. It’ll only frighten you both. For some reason, they show these films in birthing class, with the screaming and the blood and nary a boiling pot of water to be found. The time to show this movie was on that drunken date-night half a year ago. Watching a birth movie at this point only causes undue stress. Besides, the book is better.

3. Know when to keep your mouth closed, and when to speak up. Sure, she let you choose the tuxedos for the wedding, and you have a full vote on the baby’s name. You may even get a say on the paint color of the nursery. But at some point there may be a disagreement about how exactly to get this baby out of its mother’s belly. Trust me: keep your opinion to yourself and support what she decides. Whatever she decides. Especially when it comes to the so-called “Birth Plan.” Mouth closed time.

But if you're in the hospital and some medical student doing their maternity ward rotation comes along and tells your wife to take a sedative, or morphine, or something else not in the plan, support your wife. Stand up for her. When her actual doctor says it's time for the Pitocin or a C-section, that's a different story. But talk about this stuff before it's sprung on you in the hospital. Know her plan and do everything you can to support her.

I made the mistake once of letting the fog of war---and the grogginess of night---get the better of me in the midst of a labor. A young resident came in and told us the labor wasn't progressing. My wife was dumbfounded. I just nodded. The resident wanted to send us home. Luckily, my wife's actual OB showed up and told us to stay put. The baby was born within the hour. We would've been on the highway headed home if we'd listened to the other doctor.

On a related note, do your best to remember everything about the experience. There will be a quiz later---possibly years later.

4. Be there. Sounds obvious, right? But trust me. From the last few birthing classes, to the delivery, to the trip home, and thereafter, just be there. I made the mistake of working on a political campaign during the final months of pregnancy for our third kid. I was there for the actual birth, at least physically, but that’s about all. It happened five years ago, and my wife is still a little mad. Understandably. 

Do what you can to be there for everything. Short of serving overseas, there aren't too many good excuses for missing this.
You may even think you’re free to go when a whole family of experienced mothers, grandmothers and aunts descends on the homestead to show every trick. Lots of men have the urge to get out of Dodge, going back to work early, or to the gym, or to the bar. Don’t. Stick around as much as possible. Start a house project if you need to. At some point all the pros will leave, and it will by just you, the baby and the baby’s mother. The only way you’re going to learn is by being there.

Now do you understand?
5. Invest in baby wipes. Baby wipes are the duct tape of parenting.

Not only can you use them to efficiently wipe poop off your newborn’s bottom and spit-up off a sport coat, these little wonders can also clean off the grocery cart’s kiddie bar so your toddler doesn’t get sick; wipe dried boogers off the lip of a preschooler; polish hand-me-down soccer cleats; and remove make-up from the cheek of a tweener who’s dressed like she’s going to a fashion shoot on the first day of middle school. 

Our youngest left diapers behind months ago and we still have baby wipe containers in all our vehicles, and neatly stowed throughout the house for any emergency wiping needs. I just wish I’d bought stock in a baby wipe company back when I still had two nickels to rub together.

6.  Ignore the parenting bullies.  You are entering a world with many questions and even more opinions. Some people are going to tell you they have all the answers. And they'll be passionate that their way of taking care of a baby is gospel truth. They'll tell you that a baby must be breastfed for four years; or that you should only use this type of diaper, this food, or that pacifier; or that you should let a baby "cry it out" in the crib so they learn to be independent.  Do you really want an independent toddler? Strong opinions exist on everything having to do with babies you can imagine---and some of the strongest opinions are attached to very judgmental parenting know-it-alls.

Practice nodding your head and saying, "Thanks for the advice."

The real answer is that there isn't one answer. You have to figure out how the two of you want to do this, and ignore all the a--holes who will judge you for not doing it their way. Read up on everything, and talk to people you know. But don't let the parenting bullies get to you, and do your best not to become one of them.

7.  Get to know your kid. Here’s a big secret: most of parenting is trial and error. While those books can give you a foundation, and you’ll learn a ton from other parents, most of this you’ll have to figure out on your own, with your kid. Because every kids is different. We have four kids, and each one had a different set of challenges and solutions.  

Take something simple, like how to get a baby to stop crying. (It’s not simple, just to let you in on the joke). Some kids like to be sung to with specific songs. Some kids like to bounce. Some only cry when they're wet or hungry. Some just need to be burped. Some babies will cry because they want to go outside. I swear. Our youngest, the boy, would stop crying the second we walked him outdoors---it started when he was two weeks old. Luckily he was born in July and not December. But each kid is a riddle, and all the books and all the advice can’t replace figuring out your own kid.

8. Repeat after me, it's just poop. Before having a baby, you likely avoided direct contact with pee, poop, and the like. Good choice. But now, you're a parent. Soon, you will get used to your new and rather close proximity to all these things thus far avoided.  It starts with spit-up, which may gross you out the first time it lands on your bare shoulder. But, within days, it will be nothing. Then your aversion to tinkle and poop, too, will ease. Before you know it, you'll be on your hands and knees cleaning up vomit with an old t-shirt, muttering things like, "I'm going to need a shower one of these days." Welcome to parenthood.

9. Know your place, and like it. Being a dad is pretty cool---once you get past the overwhelmed and anxious phase---but it’s not the same as being a mother. Babies love their mothers. Accept it. They’ll love you too, just probably not as much. Maybe someday it will even out, when it’s time to play catch in the yard or to learn how to drive stick. But a mother is a mother.

Unless, of course, you get a baby that's a daddy's girl or daddy's boy right out of the gate. If so, enjoy your new number one fan ... but try not to flaunt it. More than likely, you're newborn will prefer its mother, being a source of sustenance and all. Don’t be jealous, just enjoy the proximity, and be the father. It’s a good place, and an important job.

10. Make time to hold your new child. With all the visitors clamoring to hold, burp, and sing to your baby, and the newborn’s incessant need to be held by mom---especially if nursing---the dad can get lost in the shuffle. Find your time. It may be late at night.  Maybe even really late. Find it. I still remember lying on our bed ten years ago with my new three-day-old baby girl on my chest late one night, the rest of the house asleep, just holding her and talking to her and being the only one in her world for a moment. It feels like yesterday. Trust me, they don’t stay small for long. Hold your child and cherish the moment.

That should be enough to get you safely through the birth and into the first few months of being a parent. Except the baby wipe thing; that’ll help until they go away to college.

There's much more advice to be had, so just ask another dad. And remember, it only gets better.

Like the article?  Here's others you may enjoy. Learning Lessons from a Little Boy, Tip of the Hat to Single Parents, and Thanks to My Backup, and New Year, Few Expectations


Larry said...

Some good tips here.
So right on number one - oh glorious sleep.
Funny comment about baby wipes.
Thankfully, my wife was no so hyped on the baby books. However, we certainly had the one where it talked about what your kid should be doing after each month of the first year. Talk about pressure.

Cort Ruddy said...

Larry, You're lucky on the pregnancy books. But I too remember the What to Expect the First Year. It's amazing how those milestones become the baby's first achievement tests. Parents say things like: "Our baby sat up two weeks early" or "Why aren't they doing raspberries yet?" Thanks for reading.

Jason Mchenry said...

What a great post and so true! Baby wipes equals the parenting duct tape cracked me up. We use those things for everything.

Anonymous said...

I can recognise near all of this as a dad of a 9 month old.

It is amazing, tiring, worrying and the best and worst thing (depending on the hour of the day) you will go through.

I try not to be one of those parents you mention (bully) and it is all about what works for you.

Suggestions are great, but I know I am not the oracle just because baby number 1 seems to be doing really well.

The only comment I would challenge (especially as they get older, even at 9 months) is Daddy is 2nd fiddle to Mummy.

This is true, but actually my daughter is a daddies girl already (and not really by design). We were out and mummy was carrying her about and giving her a hug, sees me and pushes mummy away and arms out to daddy.

It has happened the other way around, but so far she is far more interested in being with me than her mother. Mummy knows it's not a real thing and does not feel upset by it as she was a daddies girl and feels the karma.

Totally agree with just enjoy it.

It's hard but so rewarding when you start to see all the firsts, that are cute until they do them a lot (moving is a great example). Ohh look she is trying to walk....get down from there!

Cort Ruddy said...


Thanks for reading and writing. Glad you enjoyed and agreed with most of it. You're lucky to have a daddy's girl. Of our four, only one seemed to prefer me. But you're right, it evens out over time.

Thanks again,

Anonymous said...

Great advice! I can really identify with a lot of what you've said here, especially the bit about trying to get more sleep. In order to get through the week at work, I find myself needing to go to be really early at the weekend as our ten month old son doesn't like letting us stay in bed a little bit longer at the weekend.

I totally agree that reading books about pregnancy and kids before they arrive can be a great way of preparing for parenthood. I also love the way that there are more and more books specifically aimed at dads that set out to share other dads' perceptions of pregnancy, child birth and fatherhood.