Becoming a new father is a rewarding and life-affirming experience. But it’s also exhausting and terrifying. The old saying, “they don’t come with an instruction manual” rings absolutely true, and while on an intellectual level we might know the essence of what to expect — sleepless nights, a messy house, a lull in romantic life — it’s not until you’re in the thick of it that you get a real true feel for the challenges and what’s at stake.
You think you know chronic fatigue? Just wait. Babies have surprisingly little interest in your meeting tomorrow morning, let alone the fact that you haven’t had a full night’s sleep in several months. They’re not interested in your workout schedule. They don’t care if you’d prefer to be eating keto — you eat what you can get.
And they will test your patience. This is where you’ll learn what you’re made of.
None of this is meant to scare new dads off. It’s simply a reality check: the cartoon version of the first days, weeks, and months with a new baby is not reality. Reality is filled with tiredness, strained nerves, plenty of unsolicited advice, and a lot of amazing milestones that will blow your mind and make everything worth the effort. Enjoy the time with your new baby, but go in knowing you’re in for some highs and lows.
I know everyone says this challenging time is temporary. It won’t seem like it at first. It will seem like there’s no light at the end of the tunnel. But I will tell you, having 10 years of space between my two kids, I have virtually no memory of the exhaustion and emotional impact of the first few months with my first. I know in my mind that it happened, but I only really remember it as a happy time. As your new baby grows and changes into a little person with a personality and their own quirks, you’ll find that any struggles you have at first quickly fade into the background, to be replaced with overflowing joy.
And a whole lot of cuteness.
Emotions Run High
Childbirth is a glorious and miraculous thing. And then you spend a day in the hospital, watching your partner in agony. And then you spend one, maybe two more days in the hospital while she “recovers” enough from this physically traumatic event (I say “recovers” because, let’s face it, she’s not recovering in a day or two). There’s the very real possibility that she will experience frustration and sadness as she has difficulty getting baby to latch for feeding. There may be complications with the baby himself. And you’re both awake through all of this.
Then they send you home without an instruction manual.
Now you have a partner who is in full recovery, a new life for which you are both responsible, no idea what you’re doing, zero sleep, and quite possibly the added luxury of a baby who is really not happy about being out here in the world (yet) and screams for 10 to 12 hours a day.
Right. In. Your. Face.
That’s all great, isn’t it? So we’ll add to that a sprinkling of your partner’s complete hormonal reset, and the possibility of some very powerful pain medication.
Emotions at this point run very high. Under normal circumstances, it would be reasonable to take a step back, assess, and discuss things rationally like adults.
These are not normal circumstances.
Here, you need to accept that emotions are going to be all over the place. You’re going to feel resentment and resented. You’re going to feel like you’re doing everything you can and it’s still not enough. But guess what: that’s tough. This is a temporary condition, and things said at this point are not things meant. Rational thought is not really on the table here.
It’s up to you to gird your loins, steel yourself, and remain as stoic as possible. Make your mantra: What do you need? What can I get you? How are you feeling? Can I do that for you while you take a break?
There is, at this stage, a significant amount of sucking it up you’re just going to have to do. I’m not going to pat you on the head and tell you you’re right to feel worn out and upset. Those are a given. I am going to tell you that you need to just deal with it, find a zen space, and accept that for the moment, you’re just there to keep everyone comfortable, calm, and alive.
And if you’re feeling your anger growing beyond the point of self-control, put the baby down (he’ll be safe in his cradle for a bit), walk away, take ten deep breaths, and call your mom, her mom, or a friend. Then get back to work.
You Will Not Sleep
Let’s just get this out of the way right now: In the first couple of weeks, you will not sleep. I don’t care if you think you need to sleep. You won’t.
Nor should you. Newborns have an unofficial schedule of eating about every two hours. That happens regardless of what side of sunset you’re on. Resign yourself that fact, and be prepared to deal with it in other ways.
There will be plenty of people who share this glorious bit of advice: “Sleep when the baby sleeps.” Of course, that seems plainly obvious, until you’re confronted with the harsh reality that you already have a grown-up sleep rhythm and can’t just sleep on demand.
After the first day or two, your body won’t give you much of a choice anyway. Fear not. This condition is temporary. However, as I pointed out in the introduction, if you’re not off work then even this temporary condition can cause you seemingly insurmountable stress.
Seriously, take the time off. But if you can’t, please arrange a carpool or other commute option so you’re not falling asleep at the wheel. And make sure your boss understands the situation; they may be willing to let you take a nap at the office in exchange for a few hours of extra work at home. Focus on deadlines and projects rather than enumerated daily tasks, so you can take advantage of times when the grandparents come over to help.
We discovered in the first few days that sticking to a regular eating schedule doesn’t work. The reason is actually pretty simple: if you’re awake overnight, the time when you would normally be fasting (say, eight hours) is when you would normally be asleep.
If you’re not sleeping, you’re awake, right? And how much fun is it to remain focused, calm, and energetic when you’re not eating for eight to ten hours straight?
It’s not fun. Not at all.
So keep eating! You don’t have to have full meals, but this is also not the time to go on a strict dietary regimen. Consider keying snacks to baby times. When the baby gets up, you change him, hand him off to mom for his snack, get yourself a snack, and get one for mom.
When the baby’s done eating, you take over to get him settled and tucked back in while mom finishes her snack (she needs to eat even more than you do…she’s sustaining another life here) and gets herself tucked back in.
You have a supportive role in this process, on every level. That means you can’t afford to be lethargic, worn out, and hangry. You need to be the level head and the captain of the ship. Things need to get done, and your amazing partner has all the responsibility for both healing her body and keeping someone else alive.
Play your role effectively, and stay fueled.
Take the Reins at Home
The good old days, when mommy stayed in the nursery at night to feed baby while daddy got a good night’s sleep before leaving her to the children and housework all day long, were not good old days at all. In fact, the whole concept is pretty ridiculous when you think about it.
I’m not saying both partners need to be exhausted all the time. Far from it. You should be getting adequate rest whenever you can. But that doesn’t mean you can’t take the reins at home.
Change some diapers (it’s not hard, dude). Take care of meals, dishes, and laundry. You don’t have to run a full-scale maid service with deep cleans on every floor of the home. But you do need to pull your weight. You’re in a partnership, and that means you have to do some of this work.
What would you do if your partner had just had major abdominal surgery? Would you expect her to get up and throw your stanky workout clothes in the wash, vacuum the floors, and do the grocery shopping? Would you sit at the table, fork and knife in hand, waiting for her to serve you a stellar prime rib dinner?
I doubt it. Not if you want to stay married.
Yet having a baby is precisely that. Recovery time for delivery can be a month or more, and six weeks or more for a c-section. This is a major surgical event. Treat it as such, and take care of business. Your jobs are all the jobs.