First-time-dads, I have some survival tips for you. You may be aware that a new baby means changes in your life but, as the saying goes, “you don’t know what you don’t know.”
Help. Your partner just birthed a human. If she’s nursing, she is simultaneously trying to physically, emotionally, and mentally heal all while sustaining another human life with that same fatigued body. You need to step up your game and pitch in. Take on at least two daily chores and don’t expect praise for doing so. Wash breast pump parts or bottle parts, cover bathtime duty, do laundry all the way from washer to folding, do the dishes, cook meals… just do it.
Competence. Do not play the incompetent man card. Just don’t. It demeans everyone. You helped create the child, you help parent the child. You’re scared and self-doubting? Practice makes perfect. If you need a break, make sure your partner gets one too. This is a team effort.
Encouragement. Your partner needs you to be her biggest cheerleader. Your baby needs you to lift up that mama in spirit. Remind her that she’s doing great, that she’s loved and smart and beautiful. She needs to hear that you’re right there with her loving her through all of the painful, embarrassing, and unglamorous postpartum woes. Tell her that she’s strong and competent. She may not accept your compliments but keep at it. She needs to hear it. Be that non-judgmental, safe place for her. Be her partner.
Support. If your baby is experiencing feeding issues this will affect your partner more deeply than you may comprehend. She just grew and nourished that child for the better part of a year, not being able to easily feed that same baby now that he/she is in her arms is dumbfounding. The guilt, anger, shame, and sadness that come with feeding issues (not to mention physical pain) are burdensome. If nursing issues are at play, encourage the expert support of an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (these medical professionals are trained beyond your standard Lactation Consultant. You can find one local to you here.) If your partner is exclusively pumping, wash the breast pump parts, buy extra sets of pump parts to lessen the need for quick wash-and-dry turnaround, make her a snack when she’s pumping, make sure her water bottle is never empty, encourage her, praise her. If she is formula feeding, you feed as often as she does and take over washing duty. She needs you. The baby needs you.
Jealousy. In all likelihood at some point within the first month postpartum you will become jealous of the baby. I know that sounds ridiculous now — almost as utterly ludicrous as those sentiments will sound to your partner when you experience them — but it’s bound to happen. Right now you are the center of your partner’s affections. You are her best friend, confidant, and Netflix buddy. When baby comes, you will be bumped back a post. That nudge to end of the line may feel harsh and unfair, but it is necessary. The baby is helpless and requires parental attention and affection to survive. This is precisely why nature has employed hefty doses of mind- and body-altering hormones to change your once sultry and affable partner into a leaky, exhausted, overtly maternal she-beast… baby needs her in order to survive. As abandoned as you may feel, you are an adult and will survive. Keep being there for her and she’ll return to you again once the baby haze dissipates.
Exhaustion. When I say “exhaustion” you’re likely thinking “really tired.” Like that night-turned-day back in your youth when you were out until 6am then chugged a Red Bull, hit up McDonald’s breakfast, and powered through your daily grind. But you know what was different back then? 1) Youth… being younger makes you more resilient, 2) choice… you personally chose to stay up all night, 3) infrequency… you stayed up like that on occasion, not 3 weeks in a row, 4) rest… pre-baby, you could take it easy and rest after a long night but not now. The tired you are about to feel will undermine every good quality, every value, every shred of intellect and self-control you possess. When you hit a certain level of stress and sleep deprivation you land at a rock bottom zombie mode of existence. But you, my friend, are not healing from birthing a human you grew in your body, bleeding profusely from your nether regions, leaking from your nipples, or presently existing with breast milk and hormones being your predominant body composition. Think twice before taking that nap ahead of your healing partner. You may be tired but she is positioned at a whole new level of fatigue. (Plus, she’s hormonal… don’t mess with that.)
Hormones. The word likely makes you think of body builders and PMS. Your partner’s body is in a state of flux. The amount of hormones coursing through her system paired with the stress and sleeplessness of new-motherhood has her living life as an alien being. She will get angry quickly and cry suddenly. She will feel anxious and agitated then flip back to calm and loving. It is best to keep a closed mouth and an open heart. Remember, this is not her acting like a maniac over improperly scrubbed breast pump parts, it’s the hormones. Leave your ego at the door and pull on some extra layers of patience. Empathy would do you well now.
PPD/PPA. “Baby blues” are to be expected. Postpartum Depression and Postpartum Anxiety are another level of sadness and agitation. They are more common than we often think. Many women go undiagnosed and only realized years later that their suffering could have been helped. Know the signs of PPD and PPA.
Doubt. Every single parent has a moment or week when he or she thinks, “Did we make a huge mistake?” Don’t feel guilty or lesser for that. It is an entirely normal and natural thought. The feeling will pass. You will adjust. Life will even out. Remember, your entire life just changed over night. You, your partner, your perspectives, your goals, your aspirations, and your worldviews will be affected by this shift. It is the most beautiful and wonderful adjustment that will ever touch your life. Know it will get easier… this is good change.
Patience. Parenthood requires a level of patience you never thought you had. Patience through the good stages and bad stages, the disgusting phases and tiring phases. Patience with yourself and your partner Patience with physical recovery and return to flexibility. Patience with a return to intimacy and mastering the learning curve. You’ll get there. It’ll get easier. You can truly enjoy it, if you actively choose to do so. Just be patient.
Bond. Skin-to-skin isn’t just for mom and baby. It has remarkable calming and bonding effects on fathers and offspring too. After baby is fed and changed, shoo mom off to take a nice, warm shower while you and baby rest shirtless, tummy-to-tummy on the sofa. You’ll soon find out why moms love sleeping baby cuddles… the hormones’ blood pressure lowering, calming effect is euphoric. Enjoy!
Savor. Some stages seem to last eons. Some phases seem like they’ll never end, but they do. They all do. Take the good with the not-so-good, and cherish it. This is a fleeting time. Take pictures, take time, take a break from the grind and experience this new life of yours. Children are only small but for a moment. Don’t let their babyhood flit by without notice.
Laugh. If you want to retain some semblance of sanity and composure, learn to laugh at yourself. There’s no need to take it all so seriously. Your kid will neither be the first nor last (that day) to meltdown in Target. Your inside-out shirt with a spit-up streak down the back, which you wore half of the day without noticing, deserves nothing short of a belly laugh. You can choose how you respond to life’s blips — yell, scream, stomp, cry, blame, or laugh — laughing is the funnest. Don’t be that guy who flips out because there’s a shin-level snot streak on his jeans. Just laugh.
Love. You are going to experience a level of love you never knew possible. A deep, unconditional, fear-inducing, beautiful adoration that will carve its way through you and your life and reshape everything perfectly. The adjustment may be scary and challenging at first but it will be more worthwhile than anything else in your life.
Parenthood is brutal and exhausting, enlightening and unpredictable, stressful and blissful. It is a partnership between parent and child as well as between significant others. It requires internal and external support, great personal fortitude, vast patience, and an open mind.
You are about to see the world in a whole new light. Fresh breath will be infused into the everyday. The mundane will become miraculous and the unusual simply extraordinary. Survive it and savor it for it goes all too quickly.
You can do this. Congratulations!