How to survive your first year as a father?
Hands-on tips on how to become an equal parent
This week, my son had his first birthday. The last year has changed my life a lot, and I believe I have changed as a person, too.
It was important to me from the very beginning, that I wouldn’t be just the secondary parent. Although we live in the 21st century, it seems we are stuck in roles that are from the 1950s when it comes to parenting.
In case you’d like to be an active father and an equal parent, here are a few things I learned throughout my first year as a father that might help you along your way:
Start talking early about the details
Whenever people give a couple the advice to talk with each other this seems like such a no-brainer. It seems ridiculous to even mention it. But when it comes to parenting and the question which role you want to take on (and maybe which one you don’t) it is just so important.
I suggest you start talking really early about your ideas and most importantly that you are as specific as possible. I always thought I’d be an equal parent and that’s where my thoughts stopped. I’d just be the modern dad I wanted to be. The problem is, that many of us go back to a traditional role model ever so slowly, that we don’t even notice. Because the small details in daily life add up and become the real game changers.
When my wife and I started to discuss our parental leave while she was still pregnant, we realized that we had quite different ideas of “equal”. Only when we talked about how many months I really wanted to stay at home full time and how much I wanted to reduce work hours during the rest of the time we realized that our ideas diverged.
When you say: Let’s just split 50/50 or 60/40 or whatever, it is still very general. But when you start to think about what that actually means, then you’ll have the important discussions. Suddenly it becomes something like that:
Man: “Let’s do the 50/50 model. 50% of work time that means I’ll start at 9am and leave at 1pm. Oh, wait a minute, Thursday I usually have a meeting at 9am and one at 3pm which I really can’t miss. So I’ll just stay longer that one day. Ah… and maybe sometimes Monday, too.”
Woman: “So what does that mean? I just work whenever you choose to be available? How am I supposed to plan that at my work? By the way, I need to be at the office Monday morning as well. And I can’t just always go to work at 2pm.“
That’s the moment when it gets interesting and when the actual discussions start. So stop making general comments and be specific early on. How? Write a plan, draw a sketch, create a shared calendar. Whatever, but be sure to be specific.
Stay at home after birth
When our son was born I stayed at home with my wife for about two months at first. My wife had a pretty difficult birth and wasn’t doing too well afterwards. I really have no idea how mothers manage their daily life alone when fathers go back to work just after a few days. We were both struggling with the new life, the lack of sleep and all the new challenges and worries.
When I look at the pictures from those days I think “Gee, we look terrible”. It is a funny mixture of what seems to be the longest sleepover ever (we are wearing PJs all the time) and the night after a rough party (messy hair, sleepy look…).
But besides the fact that this is a time when there is enough work for two people, it is also a time that you really don’t want to miss as a father.
During those first weeks my son and I got to know each other. I learnt how to hold him, how to dress him, how to change his nappies (of course), how to calm him down etc.
I know a lot of fathers who were at home just very little during that time or not at all due to work related travel. In these cases the learning curve of the mother was just so much steeper than the father’s, because the mother was at home all the time. And after a month, the mother has the feeling that the father is doing it all wrong. Holding the little one too tight, not rocking her properly and so on. So the mother starts to take over and the father feels insecure. This creates the first divide and will just keep growing until the mother is the primary and the father the secondary caretaker.
I met fathers with 6-month-old babies who can’t bring their children to bed by themselves, are not able to calm them down during the night or never stay home alone with them. This is not because fathers are genetically less connected to their child. It is simply the lack of practice that makes fathers feel uncomfortable or the child has established those routines with the mother alone and gets irritated when suddenly the father tries to do it.
So bottom line is that there are two reasons why staying at home makes a whole lot of sense: on the one hand, your wife needs support so just be there with her. On the other hand, you can create a strong bond between you and your child from day one. Try not to miss either of those chances!
Take parental leave and reduce your work time
I am lucky to live in Germany where (at the time I became father) it was technically possible to leave my job for up to 12 months while getting partially paid. Of course, this sounds awesome, but it is a bit more complex in reality. Anyways, basically EVERY father has the legal right to take (paid) parental leave in Germany, no matter whether he is employed or self-employed. The expenses are covered by the state.
That being said, in 2013 almost 80% of the fathers who went on parental leave only took the minimum of 2 months. Mothers, however, took an average of 12 months. What these numbers show to me is, that it just isn’t the highest priority for many fathers to spend time with their kids.
Personally, I can only encourage everybody to take the time off with your child. I took 2 months full time parental leave when our son was born and stayed home together with my wife. Afterwards I reduced my work time to 75% for the following 7 months. For the last 3 months of our son’s first year I took full time parental leave while my wife was working full time. During these 3 months we left Germany and spent the time in Australia.
The seven months in which I reduced my work hours allowed me to spend more time with my son. I had the chance to see him grow much better, because those 2 extra hours each day really made a difference.
The 3 months of parental leave in which my wife worked full time were an incredible experience. Of course, it wasn’t always fun. Taking care of a baby is hard work and not vacation as so many people think. I had times when I was tired beyond anything I’d ever experienced before. I was also annoyed at times or just really felt there was no time for me as an individual. But during parental leave I was able to really get to know my son and to deepen our relationship. We were able to establish our very own routines and rituals independent from his mother. I very much believe that this created a foundation and will hopefully grow into a very close bond for the rest of our lives.
When you really boil it down, your daily routine after your child is born changes because of two major differences: Lack of sleep and lack of time. Lack of sleep is something you get used to much quicker than you’d expect. It is amazing how our bodies work, really. Lack of time is what I found most challenging.
Before our son was born, my wife and I were both very active people. During the day we’d work and meet people for coffee or lunch. In the evening, we’d go out, meet friends, join professional meet-ups or work on our own projects. Once there is a little human who needs care and attention literally 24 hours a day, your life changes quite dramatically.
I read a really good book about equal roles in parenting. It suggested to have a strict shared calendar that plans for everything. We tried this out and it worked extremely well for us. Basically, our calendar includes work slots, child care slots and external babysitting. So far so good. What made the real difference is the fact, that we added individual free time and couple time as predefined placeholders. We agreed that they were equally important to anything else in the calendar. Each of us had one evening per week (always the same day of the week to make planning easier) for ourselves. This allowed us to see friends, go to meet-ups or whatever. We also made sure to plan in regular date nights for which we would get a babysitter.
Without free time for yourself and for you as a couple, you loose a lot of your life, get dissatisfied and this will eventually have an impact on your relationship and the way you interact with your child. Make sure you don’t get sucked into the funnel of diaper changing and cooking baby food completely. I know many couples who didn’t go on a single date during the first year(s)! When you start early (as in during the first weeks, not after the first year), it will be perfectly normal for you as a dad to bring your child to bed while your wife or partner is out and about.
Include your child wherever possible
It seems a lot of people exit the world they used to live in once they become parents. But contrary to popular belief, you actually don’t change completely as a person the moment you become a parent.
Once you get over the first three months, normal life starts to come back if you allow it to. And you’d be surprised how many events you can actually attend with your child. Here are just some examples of things I did with my son before he turned one:
- going to a startup & tech conference
- join birthday parties of friends late at night
- participating in most work meetings for organising an international conference
- going to an openair movie theater
- join professional meet-ups
- going to an office warming party
- take part in business meetings (with business partners who have kids as well)
- be in the office
- attend a wedding
What I found much harder than actually bringing my son to these events was the idea of doing it. I was simply scared to do it. However, most people are very supportive and happy when you bring your child. During the first months, your child wants to be physically close to you anyways. At almost all of the outings above I would carry my son in a sling and he would just sleep.
For some of the events, I found it easier to go there with my wife and take turns if necessary (e.g. going to a conference). Give it a try and see what works best for you. Just don’t decline invitations to all the things you still want to do.
Get support and ask for help
It has always seemed odd to me to let other people do the things that I could as well do myself. When I became a parent, this attitude changed — a lot. As I said, your daily routine will change dramatically once the little one arrives. Suddenly, individual and couple time as well as sleep will be your most precious resources. Don’t waste them on things you might as well outsource.
One of the first things we did was to get someone to clean our apartment once a week. This saved us so much stress and arguments, that I honestly think it was one of the best value for money investments ever.
But there are other things you can outsource. I became a regular customer of services that send pre-packed recipes to your house. What I like about this is, that I can still cook by myself (which I find relaxing), I have the feeling that we eat healthy and our diet is diverse. With little time at hand and a tired brain, it seems to be increasingly hard to come up with inspiring meals. Of course, the home delivery saves up time I would have spend shopping.
Besides professional help and services, there is, of course, your family. If your family is around, then you’re lucky. We were super lucky, because both, my parents and parents-in-law live only 30min away.
In the beginning I didn’t like the idea of my mum cooking lunch for me — it felt like going back in time and losing my independence. But when she came over with a delicious meal, ready to be eaten, all doubts vanished and I was deeply thankful. Often, the small things matter the most. Like my parents or parents-in-law coming over and taking our son for a short walk in the park while we can take a nap. Or my sister-in-law (yes, she lives nearby, too), coming over to babysit while we can go on a date night.
The thing about help is, it won’t magically appear on your doorstep. Often you’ll need to ask for it. This seems so hard, but once you do, you’ll discover it is worth it. So swallow down your pride and ask family and close friends for help. And free some of your savings to invest in one or the other professional service. Believe me, it’s worth it.
Bottom line: Life is a list of priorities
In my opinion, life is a list of priorities. You can have (pretty much) everything you want — just not everything at the same time. It is easy to find reasons why certain solutions work for others, but just not for you. In most of these cases, however, they don’t work for you because you don’t want them bad enough.
Yes, taking parental leave might mean a bump in your career. That’s probably true, but it also means that, if you don’t take it, this career is simply more important to you than the time with your child.
You can’t afford someone to clean your apartment for you? Might actually be true for some people, but for many others it actually means that the nice car, the new iPhone, the lunch at the restaurant are just more important.
Decide what is important to you. If necessary, put these things on a list and prioritize them. The thing about a priority list is, that items can never be in one line. Something is either more or less important than something else. Whatever is on top of your list is a conscious choice. And only you are responsible for it.
In the end, you have to decide what’s important to you and act accordingly.