So, I have been planning this post for some time now. I want to write about what I've learned in my first couple of months as a father -- my daughter is just over three months old now so it seems like as good a time as any to talk about what I've learned.
1) Other parents lie to you about things.
All babies are different. Your situation isn't exactly the same as anyone else's, and while I think there may be similarities in situations or personalities no one has any idea what you are going through, except for you. So when people say things like:
"My kid slept seven hours a night right from the second week home."
"Oh we had absolutely no problem feeding. S/he loves food!"
"Kids are great. We started sleep training in-utero."
"My kid solved for X at fourteen minutes old."
They're full of shit. Some people brag because they think (maybe even subconsciously) that it makes them sound like better parents. The truth is that you don't have the same support system as anyone else -- you may have similarities but it isn't the same. As new parents everyone is trying to get through and survive. You do the best you can -- and none of us are perfect. Be forgiving and understanding to everyone -- including yourself. It doesn't matter when that kid solved for X, the point is that your kid will develop at their own pace, and things will be fine.
2) Babies are really frustrating that first month.
One of the things that does seem to be pretty common (at least people have said to me) that the first few weeks are really frustrating because developmentally a baby can only interact with you so much. They don't see much except what is immediately in front of them, and their senses are starting to come together so they experience the world as a sort of "soup" where things blend together. This is one of the things that makes the lack of sleep so much more punishing -- you feel like you're putting in tons of work and getting very little pay-off. Incidentally, this is how I felt about my fast food job, back in the day.
The screaming is also a thing that wears on you. It can be absolutely grating and seems to never let up. You need to recognize that loud noises and sleep deprivation are all recognized forms of torture. Make sure the child is safe, but do your best to put them down when you need to and take a couple of minutes to catch your breath.
3) Once the baby starts giving you "happy baby time" things are way better.
For us this happened at about the month-and-a-half mark. Our daughter started to smile. Now she's evolving a giggle. She reacts when we make faces or silly sounds. She'll react to what we tend to think of as play. That's so rewarding. We spend time together every morning during the weekends playing with her and singing to her. These minutes are some of the happiest of my week.
These little developmental milestones -- picking up a toy for the first time, or starting to track you as you walk in or out of the room -- these are really big deals. Enjoy them. Take them as proof that you are all doing OK.
4) Have a tribe.
You need a support system. Evolutionarily you are designed to have a family built in a tribal structure -- with people who have done this before, and people who are physically able to help you with a variety of tasks. You may be able to forgo sleep and do the dishes, laundry, clean the house, and cook. Without support, you will only be able to keep up that pattern for so long -- and it will be at the expense of time with your partner and newborn. That is a sacrifice that isn't worth making. Cultivate strong friendships. Practice random acts of kindness for people. Ask for help from the people who are willing to reciprocate. Make sure you take care of them going forward, as well.
People who help you aren't always family. Sometimes they are friends who become as close as family. Don't waste energy on family members who promise to be a part of your support system and are conspicuously absent after your baby's arrival. Re-enforce the relationships that work, and go forward for the sake of your nuclear family.
5) Make time for yourself.
You need an outlet. Find something you like to do and do it. For me, it is training for marathons, and playing music. You aren't being selfish. You are doing it for your sanity, and to help develop the concept of a "new normal." It also provides time for you to process things, and decide on which action to pursue next.
Don't undervalue yourself.
6) Ask for help.
Monitor your partner, yourself, and your child and ask for help if it seems like you need help. Our understanding of postpartum mood disorders is expanding (as they manifest in both sexes, and both partners.) Some problems can't be fixed with duct tape. Sometimes you have to ask for help. Don't let other people's stigma against these things belittle your efforts to reach an even keel. I have had people tell me that they think the reporting on PPD is "over-exaggerated" so that people can get more time off of work. My feeling on this attitude is:
Only you and your partner get to validate your feelings. You're the only people who know what is up and what is normal for you. No judgmental ass with god-knows-what baggage gets to put labels on you. Be kind to yourself, and actually, be kind to that person, too. They clearly have issues of their own.
Take care of yourself first, then bring them a coffee.
7) Find a "new normal."
Your life doesn't stop after a baby is in it. It keeps going. Your role in your life maybe changes, I don't know. I'm still in flux myself. I expect to be in flux for the next ten years. Or maybe twenty.
I think you need to establish 'tent poles' of your routine that you can count on no matter how unpredictable stuff gets. I count on my morning family time, my pancake Saturdays, my workouts, and my Tuesday night playing cards with friends. My once-a-month beer tasting social club. Whatever else happens, I've got those things. They keep me feeling like I have enough variety in life, with a decent outlet to go with it.
Accept an active role, and talk to your partner about dividing the roles that you can. As a father, I couldn't carry the baby, and I can't nurse her. But now that she is born, and my wife handles the nursing, I can do anything else. And I do. I baby wear, change diapers, dress her, comb her hair, play, read, sing. Be involved. It helps take the burden off your partner, and really, this is something that should be a team effort. I reject the idea that there are "mother" and "father" roles in parenting (outside of carrying and nursing) because I want my child to grow up thinking she can be anything she wants, she can determine her own role in her life and make it happen. I would like her to look for a partner completely willing to help carry the heavy burden of life. We start setting those examples now.
So these are just some of my thoughts a few months into this parenting thing. I imagine that a lot of this stuff will be elaborated on, and that I'll learn even more as we continue this journey. It has been exhausting -- but thoroughly satisfying.