Dads Tell All: The First Month of Fatherhood
That First Month of Fatherhood
In an online fathers’ forum recently, a dedicated new dad related an insight he’d shared with his wife: “You know what makes the first two months of having a newborn bearable? The last two months of pregnancy.” She laughed, the guy said, then gave him a good jab in the shoulder.
Caring for his pregnant partner can truly help a man prepare to meet his newborn’s needs. It can also serve to warn him that his own life is about to change just as dramatically, although less visibly, than his partner’s body. In asking dads about how they changed during that first month of fatherhood, I found that their stories and comments dealt with four major themes: their partners, friends, work commitments, and personal lives—which, as you’ve probably guessed, covers just about everything.
In the delivery room, many guys discover a profound admiration for their partners’ endurance. Boyd, a brand-new dad from Leominster, Massachusetts, says, “Samantha’s birth has accentuated all of the good feelings that I already had towards Kandi. So far in our marriage things have been pretty easy—we work together the best we can, but we’ve never had to face any extremes, really. Seeing how Kandi faced what I consider to be an extreme challenge was inspiring.”
Kory, a father of two boys in Orange County, California, felt a similar growth of respect for his wife during the birth of their first son. Afterwards, however, he struggled with the shift of her attention to the baby: “I never blamed Cameron or Victoria, but it was hard. I felt as if she didn’t love me as much, although I knew she did.”
For myself, the first month with my daughter Alexis helped me feel a stability in my marriage to Leah that a wealth of professional help prepared us for but couldn’t actually provide. Also, our physical relationship took a temporary back seat, so to speak, to our parental nurturing, which created space for me to feel a greater range of emotions than before. There was the almost-tangible gratitude I felt at Leah’s devotion to Alexis—especially when she’d take my bottle-feeding turn at 2 AM—and the plain old affection that comes from sharing a set of challenges and rewards with someone you trust. I like Boyd’s explanation of how a baby helps a couple grow: “Although Kandi and I have worked together at having a good enough time, making our house decent and fun to be in, and paying the bills and so forth, we now have something we both care a whole lot more about to work together on.”
As a new dad reorients himself toward his partner and gets to know his new baby, the friendships he has with other guys inevitably get restructured. Christopher Healy, a Brooklyn father and author of the book Pop Culture: The Sane Man’s Guide to the Insane World of New Fatherhood, explains, “You can often tell from the first moment a friend meets your child whether or not things are going to go sour. If the guy seems awkward or clueless, it’s entirely forgivable—hey, you’re just as new to being around infants as he is at this point. But if he seems resentful (as in a sarcastic, ‘So I guess we’ll never go out for a beer again, huh?’), or if he gives off a ‘babies-are-icky’ vibe, who can blame you for thinking a bit less of him? One of my friends acted like my daughter had cooties the first time he met her, and I haven’t seen him since.”
For some new dads, the most troubling interpersonal conflicts they face aren’t with jealous friends or even overbearing parents-in-law, but with unsupportive employers. The 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provides up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for both mothers and fathers to care for a newborn. The response across US workplaces ranges from enthusiastic endorsement to grudging compliance. New dad Brian from Kansas City, Missouri, describes the reluctant attitude of his company as follows: “Legally, the boss has to say yes, but he doesn’t have to like it.”
Brian requested two weeks off for the birth of his son Riley: one week of FMLA time and one week of personal time. His manager acknowledged Brian’s right to take the leave but remarked that his request for the two weeks was basically unheard of from a man. “What burns me,” Brian explains, “Is that a producer with a similar job is taking two weeks’ vacation. No problem, enjoy time with your family on your trip. But if I take two weeks to be with my wife after the birth of our first child, it’s a big deal.” Partly in response to the pressure, Brian ended up taking off only eight days: five days of personal time, two days of FMLA leave, and one day for the Fourth of July.
Given the typical hierarchies and deadlines of the business world, a guy’s work life doesn’t tend to complement the demands of a newborn. Most dads just hope to keep the two as separate as possible. To mix them metaphorically, however, fatherhood means taking on an additional part-time job with a schedule of never-ending on-call shifts. The time for it usually comes out of what many veteran dads may still remember as a “personal life.”
A self-confessed workaholic, I came to the following painful realization early one morning while holding Alexis with one hand and typing with the other: “How did I ever think I was busy before now? And why do I seem to get just as much done now as I did before she came along?”
Never had my addiction to being busy hit me so starkly. In that moment (and many more after it, I admit), I decided that since things are going to get done anyway, I should take time out first for Alexis. And despite my anxiety over awaiting tasks, I know the hours I give her are exactly what I need too.
When my friend Nick became a father, he basically started his personal life over. Nick began dating Jasmine, an Australian girl he met while at college in Utah, and after a few months she became pregnant. They discussed her having the baby in the US and placing it for adoption, but ultimately she decided to move back to Perth. Shortly thereafter he followed to see if they could make a long-term relationship work.
Nick left behind his friends, family, job, and a band—all the people and things that defined who he was—and arrived at the Perth airport with nothing but a backpack, a barely-finished graphic arts degree, and an open return ticket.
He stuck around, though, living with Jasmine’s family and working as a secretary in her dad’s accounting office. He and Jasmine decided to get married, and a few months later their son Isis Dragon Blade was born. “I’d never even held a baby before,” Nick said. “And I was worried about how I’d react to Isis in the delivery room. I told Jasmine, ‘If I say I don’t want to hold him, don’t try to get me to do it.’”
Nick did end up holding Isis, and whatever makes a dad and baby bond definitely happened. “In that first month, I loved tucking him in and checking on him at night,” said Nick. “I also loved the fact that he was mine and Jasmine’s, and no one could tell us what to do with him.”
When Isis was a year old, he stopped eating. His rare muscular condition means that now, at age four, he has to stand up with the help of furniture and is fed formula through a stomach tube. It also means that, because of health-care costs, Nick and Jasmine have had to postpone indefinitely their original plan to move back the US.
Twice I’ve sat with Nick in the hospital watching Isis fight a cold that became pneumonia because he’s too weak to cough. Wires and tubes feed into him; his big brown eyes droop under thick eyebrows just like Nick’s. As with many of us, Nick never could have planned out the life he has now. While he’s proven that many details are interchangeable, there is no replacing the father-son relationship.
When They’re Your Own
I’ll never forget waking up one night at 3 AM to the crying of our next-door neighbor’s sick girl. Leah was about four months pregnant by then, and so I imagined having to get up and take care of the neighbor girl. I was sick myself and had worked a night shift the day before, and I have to admit that I would’ve faked sleep until Leah got up to tend her.
My own daughter is 11 months old now, but it would still be nearly impossible for me to get up in the middle of the night to take care of someone else’s child. I sometimes hear of dads-to-be worrying about how well they’ll provide emotionally and physically for the baby, only to have their fears almost vanish with the infant in their arms. There’s ample truth in the old saying, “It’s different when they’re your own.”
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