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The first month of fatherhood, a baptism of fire

By Sandro

The first month of fatherhood, a baptism of fire

I never used to understand why I started seeing less of my friends after they had kids. They seemed to disappear off the face of the planet. I used to cycle with a couple of mates almost every weekend and then bang - it stopped. Why, all of a sudden, was it so hard to go to the footy on the weekend? Can't your wife look after the baby?

On our first day home from hospital with our new baby I was pretty sure that things shouldn't change too much. I remember saying goodbye to my wife on the way into the city for a couple of celebratory drinks with work colleagues. My wife Mel was resting on the couch and little Lily was asleep - with any luck, I'd be back before the baby woke and Mel would have whipped up some of her culinary magic.

The mobile starting ringing about an hour in. At first, it was my wife asking roughly what time I’d be home. It moved to my wife demanding I get home. And who could blame her? Lily woke as soon as I left and didn't stop crying until I got home. Who am I kidding? She didn't stop crying when I got home, but rather just kept on crying in my arms. She was in good company as by this stage, Mel was crying too.  We changed Lily, fed her, rocked her, walked her, sang to her, fed her again, walked her, changed her and then fed her again. In the end, Lily fell asleep and Mel and I somehow made it through the day.

The first month was very much a baptism of fire.

As expected, I quickly learnt the basics of fatherhood. How to change nappies, how to hold a baby (before Lily I had probably only ever held one other baby), how to bath a baby and how to feed a baby. There were, however, a couple of unexpected thing we learnt too. For example, I didn't realise how hard it could be to settle a baby. I am pretty sure my wife and I wore a path out on the carpet walking Lily up and won it to a point where we thought she was asleep. Slowly and quietly we'd then gently place her in her bassinet, tip toeing back to bed while holding our breath, only to have her let out a scream. And then we'd start it all again, a bit like Groundhog Day but usually at 1:00am in the morning.  

This brings me onto another unexpected learning - babies dictate when parents sleep ... and not the other way around! Whilst we ultimately got Lily's sleeping patterns in order (it took about 3-4 months for us with the help of some experts), the initial period was a nightmare with sleep deprivation becoming the norm.  

Before I knew it, my annual leave had passed and I was back at work. Mel was left on her own for most of the day looking after Lily and I have to admit, going back to work was a bit of a relief - I needed the break!

I've read a heap of articles describing the good and the bad of being a parent. In fact, it's pretty hard to be original when you put your fingers to the keyboard. But there were certain things I couldn't find out much about. How will I cope with having to go back to work? How will we manage on a single income? Should I be spending more time at home? Should I be spending more time at work? Do we need a bigger house? Do we need a bigger car? How can I do my job properly when I haven't slept properly for a week? Is a work deadline more important than kissing your daughter goodnight before you go to bed? What is the right work life balance? Interestingly, all the questions I've listed are related and how much you pull on one lever will dictate how hard you can push on another. Having spoken to a number of new fathers, these do seem to be things that go through a lot of our heads.

Earlier I wrote, "I needed the break".  But very soon after going back to work, I realised there was no break. I had a routine of waking up countless times during the night, going to work half asleep and getting home late. The unknown in my day was what I was coming home to - a crying baby or a crying mum? Or a mum who was keen to have an adult conversation after having spent the whole day alone with Lily. In fact, when I broke it down to absolute hours, I was lucky to be home 2-3 hours per weekday and most of that time was spent either helping Mel, looking after Lily, and somewhere in between that, eating. I found that I couldn't switch off when I went home which was tough because I am a big fan of downtime.

And then it dawned on me. You see less of your friends because you've got less time when you become a new parent. And yeah, your wife can look after the baby while you watch the footy on the weekend - but as a husband, you'd prefer to spend time with your wife. And as a father, you'd prefer to spend time with your daughter. And on the work front, unless your lucky numbers come up, work is a necessary evil so the challenge is to find the right balance. I'm still working on this one, but I know I'll get there like so many other fathers before me.

Reading over what I've just written, it would seem that my experience at being a new dad has been horrible. In fact nothing could be further than the truth. Last Sunday I celebrated my first Father's Day as a 'dad'. My daughter smiled all day, and it lit up my world. My daughter also gave me the most heart-warming gifts (which I think Mel might have helped her choose) which took me to another planet.

I guess the point of writing this is to highlight that life changes. Things aren't always roses along the way (especially in the early days of parenthood), but in the end, there is no greater experience and I truly am blessed to have a loving wife, a supportive family and a beautiful daughter that I would move heaven and earth for.

Expert response from What Were We Thinking! expert, Sue Doogan

Sandro, your perspective on becoming a father is wonderful. As a society we are lacking in the area of information for fathers regarding parenting. Even in my own profession, even though we absolutely welcome dads, I’m called a MATERNAL & Child Health – not inclusive at all to dads but that’s another story! It’s improving, but not quick enough.

The Raising Children’s Network is just one site that does have some great information for dads. It also takes men to communicate openly and honestly with each other, forgetting about machismo and speaking from the heart. (This is one area where women certainly have the jump on men). I’m really pleased, Sandro, to see that you have, indeed spoken to a number of new dads. It must be reassuring to see it’s not only you with some of these quandaries.

For dads, learning to read your babies cues (just as your partner had to learn – surprisingly women are not innately born with skills in how to quieten a crying baby!) and making time for some 1 on 1 time with your baby – you’ll find your confidence and enjoyment of parenting increasing whilst all other stressful aspects of your life lessen in their intensity.

There is no “one size fits all” – parents need to discuss and agree upon the division of paid and unpaid work that goes into caring for a baby.  As babies grow & develop & the immediacy of attending to their needs lessens slightly then the division of labour, for want of a better phrase, can be re-negotiated. This division must factor in some “time out” for both parents. Whether that’s to join the mates at the football or go for a bike ride or sit quietly in the back garden and read for a spell (you are invisible during this time - No questions can be asked of you & no answering phone calls – unless you want to!!) Most of the activities (whether leisure activities or household activities) you did pre-baby can still be done but certainly not to the same extent of time or even frequency, initially anyway! Modification will be required and some of these activities may well become “family” activities.

For the vast majority of people, it is not until they become parents that they reflect on the way they were parented. This is where we can either maintain family traditions or we can break the cycle and you can make an obvious stand to parent differently in all or some aspects of how you were parented. Of course this is done with open and honest communication with your partner so you are both “on the same page” to avoid conflict and tension. As Sandro points out, the stress for most men when a baby arrives is that they are often the sole breadwinners for the family. This is a major stress irrespective of whether it is for a few weeks, months or for a long time. Trying to achieve the elusive work life balance is a major challenge. Trying to balance family life and work deadlines or going to work exhausted, maintaining your relationship as a couple to name but a few, is a huge juggling act.

Surprisingly, babies and children do not care that everyone thinks they must have their own bedroom, or if they live in a brand new house or one that’s ripe for renovation, or whether there is a home cinema or a pet in the backyard etc. Babies and children are funny in that all they want is you! You, who can talk and read and play and blurt on their tummies and make them giggle and generally are THERE with them. Not just “minding” them but literally BEING present with them as they navigate a huge upswing in their development. Remembering to breathe and enjoy the journey rather than wish it hurried up. Life moves all too quickly as it is, don’t hasten babies life - Did any of you ever think 5 or 10 years ago that you’d be in the position you are now in?

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