A Letter to a First-Time Father
As I write this, one of my best friends is waiting for his first child to make her entrance into the world. I’m following along at home like this is a spectator sport — watching him post nervous social updates; reading his frantic emails; expecting the “Why does my wife keep punching me in the balls?” text messages to arrive any second now. I vacillate between wanting to call him to say everything will be okay, and thinking that maybe I should just sit back and enjoy this for my own evil, selfish gratification. Being totally honest, as a mother with over six years of experience under my belt, this shit is hilarious.
By far the funniest part of the past nine months has been observing him as he tries to make sense of the changing world around him — there’s the well meaning advice given on his Facebook page and the stories he’s relating to me about the parenting knowledge he’s picking up. I’ve spent hours mulling over what my big contribution to his transition into fatherhood could be. Perhaps I would be the one to show him how to discreetly change a diaper in public, or teach him my own children’s favorite lullaby. Instead, after watching the unsolicited advice pour in from every conceivable avenue, I decided I would contribute something far more valuable.
The problem with books and well-meaning strangers is this: while they spare no opinion on sleeping, eating, housekeeping, baby wearing, etc., they leave out all the really stupid ancillary stuff about becoming a first time parent. And that stuff counts. It will drive you and your spouse to the brink of insanity, but when you Google it you’ll find nary a shred of information. Some people say these are things we don’t talk about because “we’re being polite”, or “we don’t want to scare new parents.” Know what scares the shit out of new parents? Being left with a tiny and totally helpless human without having every single shred of information we might possibly need on how to keep them alive.
So today, my friend, on the occasion of your daughter’s birth, I am giving you the five pieces of intel that I wish someone had told me before my children were born. Because there is no greater gift than knowledge. Also, this gift costs me nothing.
Number One: Immediately after the birth, you will be doing one thing: silently obsessing over the fact that your baby does not have nipples. It will be the first thing you noticed when they handed your child to you, and instead of basking in the overwhelming joy of holding your first born, you will be consumed with the horror of a future without pool parties. Not a single member of the hospital staff will mention anything, and you’re sure it’s because they have never seen something so embarrassing in their entire medical careers. If you can muster up the bravery, how are you even supposed to breach the topic? “Excuse me doctor, but do they make prosthetic nipples? Can we use stem cells to grow transplant nipples on the back of a lab rat or something? Is there a nipple donor registry?” Before you spend a solid week having panic attacks, know the nipples are there somewhere but too small for you to see. It will take a week or two for them to become visible enough to calm you down, and then you will immediately transition into feeling weird over the fact you spent all that time thinking of your daughter’s chest.
Number Two: There’s only one thing that can top nipples, and that, of course, is baby poop. This is about to become the most interesting thing in your life, because crying is not how babies communicate; they tell us what they need through their tushies. Over the next few weeks your daughter is going to begin to literally double in size, and the only way you’ll know if this is going smoothly is by monitoring and examining her diapers. The books will warn you about the first week, when the “meconium” is expelled (you can Google that good time on your own), but they will not warn you about phase two, when the crap inexplicably begins to look like whole grain mustard. Knowing that you haven’t fed the baby mustard or any type of seeds, you will begin to panic and think that the baby’s liver is dissolving, or that something equally horrific is happening. This, more than likely, will occur at 4am when your pediatrician is not available, so you will be tempted to call me. I cannot emphasize enough how poorly that choice will end for you.
Memorize this now: whole grain mustard poop is normal. Why does it happen? It is one of mankind’s greatest mysteries. Or maybe our pediatrician explained it to me, but I was asleep with my eyes open again. Be prepared for that to happen a lot, too.
Number Three: I’m sure plenty of older parents have already told you to “sleep when the baby sleeps.” And this is useful, because it distinguishes that person as someone who honestly has no recollection of what it was like to live with an infant. You will never sleep more than 45 minutes at a clip, and not because baby wakes up crying. You’ll be doing it because you’re terrified of SIDS, and will continually be hovering over the crib to make sure your child is breathing. Problem with this is that babies are so small, you can barely notice if their chests (with or without nipples) are rising up and down. So, logically, you’ll put a hand on your daughter’s little body, just to check, which will then wake her up. She will remain awake for the next three hours. She will also cry throughout the entirety of these three hours because she’s pissed you woke her up.
You will repeat this process every night until she’s a year old, when you’re out of the woods with the SIDS business. However, you will sporadically continue to do this for the rest of both of your lives, because the silence now terrifies you. Once, we were staying at my parents’ house and I woke up at 4am to make sure my preschool-aged sons weren’t suffocating in their blankets. When I opened my eyes, my father was hovering over me, making sure I, too, was not suffocating in my linens. I was thirty-one years old. Yes, it was creepy.
Number Four: Know how on TV a woman comes home from the hospital just positively radiating joy and beauty? Fully made up and looking happier than she ever has in her entire life? Like most things TV has shown us, this is a massive lie. I came home from the hospital with two black eyes, hair so filthy it was dreading up onto itself, and breast milk constantly leaking through my shirt. I will not go into detail on the condition of everything below the belt, because I believe stating the fact that I was admitted to the hospital to launch a human fucking being out of my lady parts should give you a general idea of the damage. It is this damage the leads you to come home with an accessory almost as sexy as a new baby: a little inflatable donut pillow.
There is no dignity in using a little donut pillow in the first place. Adding to the indignity is the fact that every single person you have ever known is coming to your apartment to see the baby and take lots of pictures. Now, either people will know exactly what the donut is for, your wife will know they know, and will spend her first few days as a mother silently cringing over the fact her in-laws, parents and second cousins are actively thinking of her naughty bits. Or — option two — one of your guests will ask, “What’s that thing for?” as loudly as possible, so now everyone is thinking about the naughty bits at the same exact time. Want to take a guess how a woman feels after she’s spent years having unrealistic expectations about her appearance, only to be displayed to the world at the most important time of her life when she’s sans makeup, covered in bruises, and perched on an inflatable donut while people think about her hey-ho?
Your job for the next few weeks is not only to take care of the baby, but also to take care of your wife. Make her feel beautiful. Act as a bouncer between her and the company. Buy her lots of ice cream. Paint her toenails and sing her silly love songs. A dad doesn’t just take care of his child — he takes care of his whole family. You’re going to be amazing at it. You may also want to wrap a nice pillowcase or fancy cloth over the donut and make it look a little more “high society”, and a little less “my vagina is broken.”
Number Five: Right off the bat, this parenting stuff is much easier than you think. Seriously. We get bombarded with all these gizmos and gadgets and guidebooks, because babies are big business. The human race has survived for hundreds of thousands of years during times of plague and natural disasters and tigers running around eating people like McNuggets. We managed to survive all of that without devices that replicate the sounds of a uterus or heat up baby wipes.
Honest truth is that the baby is going to be really, really boring for a good long while. I know you can’t wait to take her to the park or the zoo, and you’ve spent the past nine months thinking of all the amazing things you’re going to do together for the rest of your lives. That stuff will come sooner than you can imagine. But, as of next week, she’s going to eat, sleep, and poop. That’s it. If she’s crying, you check if she’s hungry, tired, or if her diaper needs to be changed. Sounds simple, I know. Still, it’s going to take you a few weeks of getting it down pat to the point where you tell yourself, “This is easy! I can totally do this!” Second that happens, she’ll add another trick. Maybe it’ll be gas. Or she won’t like being swaddled and can’t get comfortable at night. Soon, it will be rolling over. Then teething. Then she won’t eat vegetables, or understand long division; or she’ll feel like she has no friends; or she doesn’t get into the college she wanted, or she gets her heart broken.
What do we do as parents? We keep up. That’s all. We can’t expect to have all the answers, because every child is different. These kids keep changing the game every day. We may be the adults, but we don’t run the show anymore; they do. When you’ve spent nearly your whole life being your own top priority, and then, suddenly, your lifestyle shifts and you’re number two, that’s where it gets hard. You’ll have fewer problems with the fact that you haven’t had a full night’s sleep in weeks than with the fact that it will take you two hours of prep time just to go to the store for a gallon of milk. You will miss little things like going to Starbucks, watching adult TV shows, or eating at the restaurant that none of your friends will shut up about.
You don’t have to be the best dad in the world; you have to be her dad. You have to be the goofy awkward guy that everyone falls in love with. It’s okay to have days where you feel like you can’t hack it, or think that everyone else has it together except you; to have no idea what you’re doing; to make it up as you go along. Every moment I think I’m doing really well at this whole mom thing, my kids throw a wrench in the machine. The more you play the game, the harder it gets. The flip side is that, as I move on, I keep getting better and better at it. You will, too. Just keep up.
If you ever have a day where you feel you’re failing — when you’re not sure how to make her stop crying, or if her bottle’s the right temperature, or any of the other ten million doubts that will flood your head for the rest of your life, just remember: The good people of the internet are here to tell you exactly what you should be doing. And in the event your modem is on the fritz, or you’ve grown so overtired you’ve lost your ability to read, I encourage you to listen to your gut. You probably know a lot more than you think you do.