Being a dad is one of life’s rare treasures, a milestone man cherishes alongside losing his virginity, getting married, and the day he discovers masturbation. And while having many weeks to attain this level of greatness, the first week of fatherhood is as good as none of these things. In fact, it’s much worse.
Your child is a crying, crapping ball of mystery. Your poor wife — having cooked this kid to 8 pounds and then forcing it from her vagina — is understandably not yet herself, and the trained medical professionals are back at the hospital, leaving you, the alpha male of this newly formed pack, spiraling through one nonstop holy shit moment.
Holy shit, what am I doing? Holy shit, my life is over. Holy shit, I’m the world’s worst father.
Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way. And could I take the responsible dad brain I have now and go back to that week, I would do things much differently. What follows is everything I wish I knew before fatherhood. My hope is it allows you to start off being a dad who is the shit, instead of one holy shitting his pants.
Get Your Mind Right: Caring for Yourself
A new family operates like a three person conga line. As the leader, baby does as he pleases, while you and your wife cling helplessly behind. You’ll be tempted to quit, to leave the conga-ing to your wife and baby. But they need you, and the best way to care for them is to first care for yourself.
Take time off. Never was my job more insignificant than during the first weeks of fatherhood. As it turns out, there is a biological reason for this. Researcher Anne Storey discovered that a man’s testosterone drops by as much as 1/3 after the birth of his child, which means a new father is wired to settle down at home. Take some time to be with your new family.
Know there is no right way to feel. 25-40% of new fathers report feelings of indifference after the birth of their child, while other dads cry tears of joy in the delivery room. This is a major life event. You’ll respond in your own way and that’s okay. Stay involved, work on the bonding techniques we’ll cover shortly, and soon the love for your child will hit you. And when it does, be ready…
Prepare for new and extreme emotions. The affection for your wife, the love from your dog, that night you drank a bottle of Merlot and cried through the ending of The Notebook — no emotional experience prepares you for fatherhood.
The feelings for your child are disarming; they tear away your tough guy layers like peels of an onion. And at a time when you want to feel responsible and in-control, it’s more likely you’ll feel helpless and vulnerable. You might worry.
Don’t worry, be happy. When we love something worrying comes naturally, especially something as fragile as a newborn. And while every new parent worries, remember this:
In the history of human existence, never has there been a safer time for your baby to be alive.
For thousands of years, babies were raised in caves, holes, huts, without electricity, and without modern medicine. Hell, they’re still raised this way. Learn about newborn safety, take precautions, but most importantly know what to look for.
Know the newborn warning signs. Call your health care provider if your baby experiences:
- yellow skin or eyes
- blueish or pale skin
- a fever (rectal temperature above 100.4 F)
- redness or infection around the umbilical cord or circumcised penis
- stiff or floppy limbs
- no stool for 48 hours or blood/mucus in the stool
- repeated vomiting
- drastic behavior changes
Stock the house with healthy food. A nutritious diet gives you the energy necessary to keep up with baby. More importantly, healthy food will speed your wife’s recovery and replenish the baby’s nutrients if breastfeeding. Pediatricians recommend a natural diet including lean protein, leafy green vegetables, and fruit.
Embrace abstinence. After birth, the default recommendation is no sex for six weeks. During this time, your wife will be inundated with new priorities all more important than your sexual gratification. Plan to be on your own, and even that may be a challenge. With mom and baby home and a revolving door of visitors, it’s not like you can set up PornHub headquarters in your living room and go to town whenever inspiration strikes. You’ll need to get creative.
Ask for help. Not necessarily with the abstinence part but for everything else. Adjusting to life with a baby is tough. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Your First Priority: Caring For Your Wife
Take a woman having just delivered a baby, sign her up for fulltime newborn care, and you will have one new mother who needs your help. A good start is to understand the aftermath of labor.
Lochia is the bleeding from the site where the placenta was attached. It lasts about 3-6 weeks.
Uterine contractions feel like menstrual cramps and cause the uterus to shrink back to its normal size.
Physical damage along the birth canal. A baby was just born through a vagina. General soreness is common throughout the area, its supporting structures, and the muscles of the pelvic floor.
Hemorrhoids are common throughout pregnancy and even more so right after labor. Basically, the pressure from pushing results in swollen blood vessels of the rectum. Yup.
Engorgement typically occurs 3-4 days postpartum and is caused by increased blood flow to the breasts, swelling, and accumulation of milk. The pain can range from mild discomfort to intense and throbbing.
Cesarean section recovery requires extra care.
The baby blues affect about 70% of new mothers and can last hours, days or even weeks after birth. During this time, your wife may experience periods of weepiness, sadness, irritability, and anxiety, so, really, nothing you’re not already used to. Just be extra sensitive and know it will most likely be short lived.
Postpartum depression is a longer lasting, more intense, and much more serious bout of the baby blues. If your wife is experiencing the following symptoms more than 2 weeks after birth, it may be time to call your doctor.
- Feeling empty
- Lack of energy
- Lack of interest
- Significant changes in appetite
Though commonly believed to be a result of a new mother’s changing hormones, some researchers associate the baby blues with low levels of social support — specifically from the new father. This, of course, means you can improve what was previously believed to be a hormonal and uncontrollable phenomenon. And while there are many ways to help your wife, the most surprising and maybe most important is with breastfeeding.
Wifey’s Little Helper: Breastfeeding Assistant
Breastfeeding is often the most unpleasant of afterbirth surprises. It takes about 10 seconds to realize that your preconceived notions — mom offers teet, baby accepts teet, baby drinks milk for like 10 minutes, mom burps baby, everyone is happy — were absolutely asinine. At best, nursing grinds along as mom and baby coordinate supply and demand. At worst, it doesn’t work.
Adding further stress, most experts believe breastfeeding is critical to newborn development. Research shows that breastfed babies score higher on cognitive tests than those fed formula. Breast milk also contains ingredients like Taurine, an amino acid that a baby’s brain needs but cannot make on its own. Because of these and other benefits, John Medina, in his book Brain Rules for Baby, refers to breast milk as “The nutritional equivalent of a magic bullet.”
The difficulty of breastfeeding and potential of baby missing out on the benefits of breast milk can put a lot of pressure on a new mom. By doing just two things, you will vastly improve the feeding experience.
1. Educate yourself. Read the guides you received from the hospital, birthing classes and prenatal visits. Learn about latch, feeding positions, and supply issues. Serve as a consultant and help your wife troubleshoot. Stay involved and be supportive when things aren’t going well.
2. Burp and change diapers. The average newborn feeds every 2 hours. After eating, baby needs to burp and has most likely shit himself or will shit himself shortly. If you burp and change baby, your wife will have a few extra minutes before the next feed.
Wifey’s Little Helper: Other Responsibilities
Assume your wife’s old chores. Over the years, you and your wife have honed a systematic division of chores. You maintain the yard while she cleans the house. She cooks while you walk Spot. This is over, and you will now do all of these things. Baby monopolizes your wife’s time because babies don’t care about chores. Baby will say to hell with chore division, and then cry about it, and shit his pants.
Cook that healthy food. The FDA recommends that nursing mothers consume an extra 500 calories a day. Since a nursing mother is so often, well, nursing, you might have to step up your cooking game.
Regulate visitors. People love babies, man. Never is this more obvious than during the first week of parenthood. Visitors will line up, clamoring to get their paws on your child. If you’re not careful, you’ll be hosting house guests all the time. Don’t overbook and schedule visits based on baby’s feeding and sleeping schedule. Also, ask visitors to wash their hands before rubbing up on your child.
Keep the new mom off the internet. Parenthood is filled with questions, none of which is more common than Is this normal? Take this question online, and you will get 100 different answers. All unfavorable. Baby blogs and mommy forums are packed with hormonal new mothers scaring the collective shit out of each other. Google baby runny nose and I promise, if you look hard enough, you can diagnose it as a terminal illness. The web builds on inaccuracies like a schoolyard game of telephone. For at least the first week, skip the drama and call the pediatrician with any concerns.
Beginning to Bond: Taking Care of Jr.
In the 1950s, scientist Harry Harlow performed a heartbreaking but important experiment on infant attachment using newborn rhesus monkeys. He separated the monkeys from their biological mothers and placed them in cages with two dolls.
The first doll was made of wire and supplied food to the babies through an attached bottle of milk. The second doll provided no food and was made of soft cloth. Harlow then ran a series of tests to see which mother the baby monkeys preferred. In every variation of the experiment, the babies preferred the cloth doll to the wire doll with food.
Harlow concluded that the parent/infant relationship is built on more than just feeding, and that contact and comfort create the emotional attachment necessary for the psychological health of infants. As sad as this is for the monkeys, it’s a welcome discovery for a new father looking to bond but unable to produce breast milk.
Start now. I’m gonna assume you had this kid for the father/daughter or father/son relationship and not because you wanted to change diapers and never fuckin sleep again. And while baby is too young to go to his first ball game, you don’t have to wait two years to start bonding. Here are some activities that, if started right away, can lay the foundation for a lifetime bond. Almost like little bonding hacks.
Provide skin to skin contact. Touch is vital for baby’s development. Research has shown that skin to skin contact comforts baby and can regulate his temperature, breathing, and heart rate.
Get close and make eye contact. A baby sees up to 12 inches and is especially intrigued by faces. If you’re consistently within his range of sight, he’ll become familiar with your features. Soon the day will come when he recognizes you. That will be a good day.
Read to baby. Reading helps baby establish the building blocks of language. Since he is too young to understand reading material, read whatever is on your nightstand.
Talk to baby using “parentese”. Speak in a high pitched tone, stretch your vowels, and use a melodic voice. Because you’re slowing your speech and making your vowels more distinct, it helps baby learn the language.
Schedule daily bonding time. Habits form most easily when done at the same time, so every night as my wife gets ready for bed, I pick up my daughter, nestle her in my shirtless man sweater, and together we read one of my favorite children’s books. My hope is that we are establishing a bond that exists years from now, that soon I’ll be reading her favorites, and soon after that she’ll be reading them to me.
This is Only the Beginning: Surviving the First 3 Months
The first week of fatherhood is tough, but it is not the toughest. During the early days, the experience is fresh. You still have willpower, and adrenaline, and the blissful unawareness of what life is really like now.
When all of that shit dries up, when nothing is fresh because you’re living in filth, and when baby has slaughtered your adrenaline and willpower — that is when shit gets real.
My wife and I fondly refer to weeks 2-12 as the dark ages. Your dark ages survival guide can be found right here:
(Post coming soon)