I learned I was going to be a dad just as I was moving to a new area to start a new job. If you have done any reading about stress and stress management, you probably know that having a child, moving, and starting a new job are all stressful events in your life. Ideally, such life-changing events are spread out giving you time to cope and adapt to the changes one event at a time. Real life though does not always allow such opportunities. My wife and I decided to do it all at once.
Being a dad is somewhat mysterious…
The idea of a good dad is a moving target. The good dads of the ’70s are not the good dads of today. It has changed quite a bit. It is also possible to find a wide range of opinions on what makes a dad a good dad. There is also a fair bit of misinformation. I didn’t have an authoritative guide on parenting that told me what to do. I had a variety of sources.
My wife and I had what I consider a solid relationship. We had been married for five years and shared adventures together from long distance cycling, public school teaching, and serving in the United States Peace Corps in the Middle East. We learned to support each other through tough times and good times. We learned how to work together to adapt to stress. Our families supported us and wanted us to be successful. I felt like we had the pieces in place to become good parents.
The new job was foremost on my mind as a soon to be dad…
I saw my role as a wage earner as essential to our success as a family. I know such duties can be shared, but I think I carried that burden on my back because of stereotypical views of what it means to be a husband and father. I was ready to start working and show my new boss the level of my commitment to my work. I also focused on our personal finances. We still had student loans and other financial pressures that would be at odds with our new spending habits to support our growing family.
My wife, meanwhile, was dealing with her body changing to accommodate our new family member. She would often get sick when we would drive in the car. I would have to pull over so she could throw up. She also started eating more.
Beware that dads can gain weight too. You might not be directly feeding the baby, but you can’t help but eat more when your spouse ups their calorie intake. You may have to add some exercise to your schedule or monitor your eating habits. I might add here that every time you see your wife experiencing hardship which is increasingly constant as you go through the process, think of showing some loving support and touch.
Withhold affection at your own peril…
A person can only go so long carrying a child without some words of assurance that you are there for them. You are partners in this venture and she is doing much of the heavy lifting. If my wife raised her voice, I got up ready to help.
My wife’s goals included making a beautiful room for our baby and purchasing the necessities for caring for an infant. I am afraid I did express my surprise and dismay as various new items we never had a purpose for suddenly became necessities.
The list seemed to grow and grow gradually exceeding any budgeting efforts. This put my wife and me at odds with each other. It isn’t that I didn’t want to have the necessities for our new baby, but I think my wife and I had different ideas on the size, scope, and scale of what necessities are and which ones are true necessities and which are negotiable.
For example, I didn’t see the true necessity to purchase stencils for painting the baby’s room in a rental apartment we would only live in for a year. As I recall, I lost that argument. The stencils were cute including a butterfly and dragonfly theme. I also was very involved with picking a stroller. I got a big teddy bear from the store and put it in every stroller to race it around the aisles to see how it took corners. It probably looked ridiculous, but I thought it was fun and it gave us something to laugh about. We probably would never need to take corners so fast with a stroller.
I grew up with a detached father…
He worked and when he came home he retreated to his office with his pipe and the door was closed. It was the 70’s and I’m not sure my upbringing was atypical. I knew that the model of the disengaged dad wasn’t what I wanted for my relationship with my children.
I went to the library and piled up the books on fatherhood and child-raising. I read 7 or 8 books. Some books were unhelpful, and some were humorous. One thing I learned from books was to go to the doctor’s appointments. I know that might not be possible for everyone, but I could talk to my boss and have the time to go. Going to the appointments means listening to the baby’s heartbeat with your wife and seeing ultrasounds.
These are important moments to share. In addition, I attended birthing classes. There were free ones at the hospital that were worth every penny, but we also attended some more expensive ones that were more informative and holistic in their coverage. The difference was that the hospital lessons were scripted and covered hospital processes and focused on the biology of birthing along with some first days of infant care tips. The paid lessons included discussions of parenting and often ventured into topics of interest of the soon to be parents in attendance. I found them both valuable.
The second thing I got out of the books was that humor was a viable tool for being a dad. I learned that a dad to be could learn to love the dad joke. Humor diffuses stress. That was going to be a good tool.
One day my wife’s water broke…
I called in at work and took her to the hospital. The doctor told her she wet herself. My wife said, “I’ve wet myself before. This is not that.” They argued until the doctor said there was a simple test. He did the test and told her to go directly to the hospital. My wife opted for no drugs. She didn’t eat.
The doctors augmented her contractions with a drug. The process was exhausting and scary. I would fetch crushed ice and such. It was uncomfortable seeing my wife in pain. I did cut the umbilical cord. I basically just did what I was told.
Watching the process was somewhat like being in a movie, except the illusion was shattered when I was handed my child to hold.
My wife required some stitches so I held my daughter. I was told to talk to her. I didn’t know what to say. I felt a bit on the spot. A baby doesn’t know any words so I could have recited words from the new car seat manual. What was important was just to talk. I really felt like the baby had been through a traumatic experience. Her skin color was not normal and she was not clean.
I teared up trying to say “I’m going to take care of you. You are going to be ok.” I said this over and over again. Perhaps you can do better if you plan ahead a bit. I held her close to my blue cotton sweater. I didn’t care about any messes. I can tell you that I felt a bit humbled and not at all ready for the job of being a dad.
We were in the hospital a couple of days and we had some mandatory things to do, but most everything was taken care of by hospital staff. My in-laws brought food.
When we got home…
I put a pillow in the bassinet. It collapsed into many pieces. My daughter was not breastfeeding and the only way she would eat was off my pinky which was sore. A bottle of pumped milk exploded. My wife broke into tears as self-doubt set in. I was fresh out of jokes. There were no nurses present to take over. It was just us. That moment was our lowest low. It was time for us to use our own judgment. The birthing classes now showed their value. We were told that the lowest low would show up about then. We had to step up and make choices that would lead to the best outcome for all involved. Emotion will cloud your logic, but just under ideal is another path that might just work. It was challenging and didn’t include much sleep for a while, but we were parenting and I was a dad. You know you can pull a drawer out of a dresser, line it with a towel, and poof, bassinet.
One of the interesting things about taking care of your infant is that they don’t know about day and night. You might be tempted to turn the lights on and enjoy them when they wake to eat in the middle of the night, but we always treated night time diaper changes and feedings like the most boring activity in the world. No lights. No cooing. No playing. Just business. That way they just might learn to sleep when it is dark instead of playing. Also, if they are crying, at least they are breathing.
Sure, check the vitals: hungry, diaper, sleepy, etc. If they are still crying try a change of clothes; they might have a thread wrapped around a toe or something. If you have done everything you can think of and they still cry, then let them cry. Sing to them. Hold them. Learn not to associate deadly
One thing I liked was dancing while holding the baby…
I put on my favorite music and I
My dad persona is a bit ridiculous. I had time to develop it because early on the baby just needs to be held and loved. Their eyesight is still developing. I worked it though. A colleague at work called it “playing the boob.” I would balance the diaper on top of my head and pretend like I had lost it somewhere and couldn’t find it. Eventually, I would look down and the diaper would fall into my hands. When we are in a hurry to leave the house I would put their shoes on the wrong feet and make a joke of it even if we were late. When my daughter could talk she would say, “just give me the shoes. I’ll do it.” She was pretty young for that. I guess the joke got old.
Also, I enjoyed teaching and learning sign language with my daughter. Even before your infant is talking, they can communicate. Teach them to sign and they will tell you when they need a diaper change, if they are hungry, or if they are tired. Knowing which is which saves effort and energy. I’d say developing and using a vocabulary of 10 to 12 signs whenever you do various activities like feeding and diaper changing is super useful. I remember having lots of people over and my infant daughter pulled on my pant leg. I looked down to find her signing that she needed a diaper change. Awesome. No crying. Just communication. There is joy in that. You build on that communication.
We had a game when I read to my daughter…
I would try to sneak in the word “chicken” and if she didn’t believe that the book actually said chicken she could take the book from me and look to see if she could find the word. If she found the word then I had fooled her. She would exclaim, “I can’t believe it!” If she caught me sneaking in a chicken she would shout, “I knew it!” It made our reading sessions fun and engaging.
I have a better appreciation
of my dad now…
Some of the things I thought were unfair at the time now seem pretty logical now that I’m a dad myself. Children often argue emotionally while parents argue logically. It is a disconnect. Emotionally, we all want chocolate ice cream at 10 pm, but logically, we need to get to bed. Kids don’t get the second part of the argument.
If you end up having chocolate ice cream at 10 pm, know that the rules do sometimes break down. You might accidentally make a memory together.
Now my daughter is 17…
She is her own person. We still communicate, but it isn’t sign language. We like to watch scary movies together. I think we are going to see the new Godzilla movie soon too. I’m still a silly dad. I’m on call for any goofy shenanigans. Not all of my jokes are appreciated, but I no longer have a lost diaper on top of my head. I attribute much of our success in our relationship to that foundation of communication that started with me holding her in my arms against my blue cotton sweater telling her it would be ok.