Trying? Expecting? So were we. Here’s what I wanted to know a year ago.

R. Justin Freeman
Aug 19 · 27 min read
Pssst…you ready for me? (Image by Adrian Balea from Pixabay)

“Oh my GOD!”

My wife’s words dredged me up from the depths of slumber. I urged life into my listless carcass, nowhere near recharged in the middle of the night after a lot of travel. That was neither here nor there though, for danger was apparently afoot. As I noted a general commotion from the bathroom of our rented vacation cabin, I girded myself for the fight. Mouse? Fire? A mouse ON fire?

My wife burst out of the bathroom, thrusting something at me. “One or two?? Is it one line or two?!?”

In a stupor, I stood, trying to will my sleep-addled eyes into focus. The white blob my wife wanted me to inspect slowly began to resolve. A pregnancy test. I squinted through the last of the fog to see the result in the dim light of the cabin…

“…two.”

Though we’d been striving for that day for many, many moons, I suddenly felt like I was behind the eightball. Occasionally I’d peruse the Internet looking for wisdom. I found a lot of “what to expect” material for the pregnant people, but not much on what the next two years of my life might look like… so I learned as I went.

Now, with my healthy six-month-old daughter taking a nap, I sit to write the guide I was looking for (in what now seems like some sort of prior existence). In doing so, I’m presuming a hospital experience is in your future; if you’re doing something like a home birth, some of this won’t apply. Also, we live in Canada, which may make parts of our experience different than yours.

I’ll break my experience down into sections: Pregnancy, In Hospital Before Delivery, Labor and Delivery, In Hospital After Delivery, and Baby at Home.


Pregnancy

So you’ve decided to manufacture a new human. In that case…

The tests, my god, the tests

If you’re going into this making a concerted effort to get pregnant, you’ll probably get into testing — ovulation tests, pregnancy tests, tests to test for tests. It’s all very impersonal, and it can be the first of many experiences which threaten to dehumanize your partner. Be supportive here. Every negative result can feel like a personal indictment to her — and it’s more likely than not that you’ll have at least a few negatives, so encourage patience in yourself and your partner.

…But know when to lose patience

With the process, that is. You should be aware of when you need to investigate infertility issues as a couple. There’s no use rolling the same loaded dice over and over — if you’re working against a medical issue you don’t know about, all you’re in for is wasted time, wasted money, and frustration aplenty for both of you.

Understand that every pregnancy is different

The fewer, ahem, preconceptions you go in with about what you’ll do during pregnancy as a couple, and how your partner will experience pregnancy, the better.

Some women love being pregnant and happily stroke their belly the whole way through; others find it drudgery on their best day, torture on their worst. One of my friends was hiking and running into her eighth month of pregnancy, and another was in and out of an urgent care clinic with waves of severe nausea. Some women can’t fathom being touched sexually while they’re pregnant, while others find their libido cranks to eleven.

Even the same pregnancy, things can fluctuate wildly. If you project disappointment about that things aren’t going as you envisioned, it will only add to the stress level in the relationship.

Do you even lift?

Work in some strength conditioning, especially for your back. I wished mightily I’d picked up a barbell far more often in the run-up to having the baby. That static weight quickly decimated my back in hospital — rhomboids and erectors, if I had to pin it down. It was a deep ache that I couldn’t escape and couldn’t stretch out.

No need to go all gym rat — just find a simple program you can do anywhere, even with just bodyweight, even just a few minutes a day. You’ll thank yourself later when you’ve got a good foundation for lifting that baby.

Take ultrasound details with a grain of salt

I’ll outsource the ultrasound details to the more competent, but one thing I will say is to take any measurements taken by your ultrasound tech with a grain of salt. It’s not exactly reading tea leaves, but neither is it an exact science — the ultrasound tech will be trying to get a measurement of a picture on a monitor of a moving baby.

Our daughter’s femur length measured in the second centile per ultrasound measurement during a late assessment (meaning she allegedly had a shorter femur than 98% of babies at her stage of development), even though other parts of her body seemed to measure okay.

There was a fair bit of hand wringing until the reviewing radiologist communicated through our baby doc to say the image was too inconclusive to take measurements from. So don’t get too unduly concerned over how big the computer thinks your baby should be — and discuss the interpretation of those details with your doctor. Ours came out with legs feeling strangely fine.

Naming and shaming

This is my very personal perspective, but I recommend that you do not share your baby name deliberations with your personal or social media focus group. You’re the only experts in the world when it comes to what your baby’s name should be — nobody else has any skin in the game.

We had a couple of names we liked sullied by poor reactions from family and friends, and if we’re blessed with number two, our name deliberations are happening behind closed doors. All it takes is for one of your friends to have a sister who used to date someone who had a jackass roommate in 1998 to tarnish a name for you. If there’s someone whose blessing you’ve just got to have, go to them directly. Otherwise, I strongly recommend you skip the hive mind.

Have a heart for your feet

Have a “go bag” — I’m not going to duplicate the multitude of lists online, but one item I personally lacked that I later wished for daily was comfortable, well-padded footwear. All I took were broken down house slippers going into their fourth year, and it wasn’t long on that unforgiving tile hospital floor before the arches in my feet were throbbing.

Get the good car seat

You’ll be tempted to cheap out on the car seat. “They’ve got to conform to the same safety standards, so they’re basically all the same, right?”

So went the thinking with our first car seat. We subsequently got a better quality convertible seat, and almost felt guilty for putting our daughter in the first one. You’re likely going to be using it a lot, so it’s worth the research and investment.

Once you make your choice (and there’s no one seat best for everybody), become an expert in your particular car seat long before you need it. I went in thinking, hey, these things can’t be too complicated, plus the hospital’s Got a Guy, right?

Well, many wasted weeks and one bare-bones car seat primer later, and I’m the slackjaw who’s fumbling around with the car seat straps while my wife is desperate to leave the hospital and the discharging nurse is radiating judgment.

Get on YouTube and find a professional video on your exact car seat — preferably produced by the manufacturer themselves. Know the purpose for every strap, every aperture, and then use a sack of potatoes and practice.

Lay low on the threads

I wouldn’t buy many baby clothes in advance, period — and I for sure wouldn’t buy newborn clothes.

Most every parent I talked to during our pregnancy told me this, and I didn’t believe them. But I’ll be damned if clothing didn’t start manifesting out of thin air. The unexpected baby shower here, a downsizing mother done having children there, and suddenly you’re awash.

If you have no benevolent family or friends, get a cheap onesie for insurance out of the gate. Otherwise, you’ll probably be okay.

The one exception I might make is a sleep sack with Velcro’ed wings so you can swaddle in it. Your experience may differ, but it was a lifesaver for us because neither of us could figure out the old fashioned swaddle. Otherwise, hats and socks and onesies with dumbass sayings will likely fall like rain (suffice it to say “Daddy’s Little Monster” never made it into the rotation). You’ll probably want specific clothing features down the line, but it’ll take time spent in free stuff to figure out what those features should be.

Whisper sweet somethings

Brag on your partner. Pregnancy is an often uncomfortable, sometimes depressing, sometimes humiliating process. Women don’t often advertise their difficulties in pregnancy — you know, because they’re supposed to be incandescent and unaffected and dancing around a meadow in one of those bleach-white dresses and wearing a tiara of daisies and whatnot.

Difficulties are probably stigmatized to some extent in your partner’s mind; none of her friends brag on Facebook about peeing when they sneeze. In the midst of it all, though, there’s something she’s doing well. If you can’t see it, you’re not paying close enough attention. Find it and throw a spotlight on it. Compliment her in private, commend her in public. There will be a thousand voices — including her own — telling her how poorly she’s doing. It’s your job to drown them out.

Recon your cot and three squares

If you know where you’re planning on having the baby, figure out your own logistics. Where will you sleep? What will you eat? If you’ll be in the hospital, and unless you’ve got friends and family willing to deliver, I recommend ordering your own tray of cafeteria food for your time there. If your experience is anything like mine, you won’t have a lot of opportunities to leave for food, and when you do it’s usually at the expense of precious sleep time.

I got lucky with bedding — someone either donated or forgot an inflatable twin mattress in our room. Otherwise, I’d have been on a pullout couch obviously furnished by the lowest bidder and which the nurses offered but made abundantly clear they did not recommend over the mattress. If you know your destined facility, inquire in advance.

Consider getting a doula

For the uninitiated, a doula is a birth coach; where everyone else in the room is principally there for baby’s sake, the doula attends to the laboring mother’s needs (and some of yours, too).

My wife and I were blessed to have a friend of hers with a medical occupation offer to be her doula, and it was extremely valuable to both of us.

Medical staff, even if they’re perfectly intentioned, don’t always have the time to stop and explain; that’s where a doula comes in. They can keep your partner focused by explaining every step of the process, interpreting the medicalese you’ll hear, giving helpful tips in the midst of labor and helping with coping mechanisms.

They probably aren’t for every couple, but we’re retrospectively relieved we had ours. If you want to involve one, the earlier you have that interview or discussion, the better.


At the Hospital, Before Delivery

So the time has come — you’ve checked in at the hospital and have a room. Assuming you’ve got some time before the main event begins…now what?

Be the librarian of your stuff

Relish the opportunity to be competent in something — because it’s not going to happen often here — and expertly manage your things. dd

First things first: What is going into the room with you? You neither want to be the couple who runs out of clean underwear on day two nor the couple with three oversized wheeled suitcases the nurses were laughingly recalling with us. It’s going to be different for everybody, so sit down together beforehand, think through your time there, and plan a buffer without doubling everything.

Second, once you’re admitted to a particular room and it’s yours, find a place for everything you brought, and make it your job to ensure it all stays there. You’ll look like a million bucks when someone asks where something is and you’re moving toward it before they finish asking. There will be enough chaos — a tidy, minimal room will lower both of your blood pressures.

Go in knowing it ain’t about you

You’re going to feel like a third wheel sometimes in that room… maybe all of the time. Make peace with it in advance.

Your partner will be fussed over endlessly, a million questions asked about her; you’ll occasionally get a stray “You doing okay?” thrown in your direction. Deal with it. Content yourself with being the shadowy figure keeping things moving smoothly.

Ask questions, write answers

Don’t know something? Ask someone.

Maternity nurses are walking treasure troves of information, but they’re not going to sit down for a week apiece and tell you everything they know — you need to ask questions. If they’re not pressing questions, batch them for the next time the nurse is in.

And don’t trust your stressed, sleep-starved brain to remember anything about anything. Write answers down. One of the things in your go bag should be a hardcover notebook with a pen attached to it somehow, which shall become your Baby Bible.

You don’t need a fancy Moleskine — a cardboard covered composition book is fine. I guarantee there will come a point when your far more stressed and sleep-starved partner says, “What did they say to do about X?” and you shrugging won’t be a great look.

Be nice to your nurses and other staff

These folks have rollercoaster shifts — they can go from attending a stillbirth in one room to being asked for honey mustard in the next to doing impromptu relationship counseling in the third. Please show them every kindness and assume the very best intentions from them.

Also, keep in mind they’re medical professionals. They may offer to bring you a soda, but they’re not waitresses. They may swap out soiled bed linen, but they’re not maids.

If your partner’s or baby’s health deteriorates, they’ll be the ones rolling up their sleeves while you chew your fingernails off in the corner. They deserve due respect. Even if you bump into one you don’t thoroughly click with, rest assured there is something you can learn from them.

Be the wuh-wuh-waterboy

You are the hydration police. Figure out a water intake level for the both of you (if you don’t know what that level is, go back two points), find and fill containers that hold that much water, and don’t end a day without finishing your respective bottles.

Staying hydrated is easy to forget, and I’ve found hospitals to be very dry environments that wick the moisture right out of you. If you or your partner can’t stand the hospital water, get a filtered pitcher, or haul in bottled water in bulk, like I did. It’s that important. Proper hydration makes everything in your bodies work better.

Find out where you can get ice; you may need to walk down the hall to a nurses station and ask for it. Ice may make it more appealing for your partner to drink water and stay hydrated.

“Over here! I’m your smallest fan!”

Strongly consider bringing a small fan for your partner, preferably battery-powered, preferably with some means of attaching it to a hospital bed rail.

Hormones can throw your partner’s inner thermostat into chaos — my wife found herself burning up in what everyone else thought an uncomfortably cold room, and the only recourse was a big oscillating fan that nearly frostbit everyone but her.

If your partner gets cold, no worries, the hospital has hundreds of blankets; if she gets warm, though, they’ll not have much means of cooling that aren’t time-consuming and messy (wet washcloths and ice packs). And don’t think winter absolves the need for a fan; it was -44° F the night my daughter was born.

Birth plans: Fluid, not rigid

It’s fine to go in with general ideas about how you want things to go, but there’s a saying about the best-laid plans of mice and men.

If your plan is so rigid that one unforeseen complication antiquates it, then it’s of more harm than good to you. No two pregnancies or births are alike, and you can’t plan for everything. Making peace with that in advance can save much stress. You’re in a raft on rapids here — paddle all you want, but in the end, it’s more suggestion than a direction, because Baby is running the show.

Broker a ‘nothing personal’ pact

Before things get crazy — but close enough to time that you don’t forget it was said — ensure you and your partner go in explicitly knowing that nothing that’s said in the midst of pain, stress or exhaustion should be taken personally. You’re both going into an extended period of acute stress, and upfront forgiveness about the inevitable cross words tamp down energy wasted on sulking.


Labor and Delivery

It’s all come to this — all the articles, all the YouTube videos, all the conversations you’ve had with your partner fade into the background as everyone gathers around and prepares for your little munchkin’s arrival. Some things to think about before you’re whisked into the maelstrom:

Nobody gets a gold star for not taking pain medication

Your partner may develop the impression from research and conversation that The Goal is to deliver vaginally with no pain medication, and that anything other than this is a compromise and only necessary because she’s weak-willed and probably not fit to be a mother.

It’s complete nonsense.

Everybody experiences labor differently, and pain management is an important element of your partner’s overall healthcare in delivery. If, as one nurse put it to us, pain turns into suffering, the rush of cortisol (stress hormone) into your partner’s system can severely hamper the cervical dilation process and unnecessarily lengthen labor. That’s dangerous.

Bouncing back to my birth plan point, I strongly advise both of you to keep an open mind to the options. My wife went from hyperventilating nitrous oxide before her epidural to joking between contractions and threatening to leave me for our anesthetist afterward. In all seriousness, it may have prevented a case of PTSD. There are risks to every intervention, yes, but there are also risks in not intervening.

Seek wise counsel from competent people who are aware of your needs in meatspace here — not websites, no matter how slick. My takeaway: there’s no secret sorority your partner gets to join for eschewing pain medication. Nobody, upon seeing your baby in a grocery store, is going to look back at you and say, “delivered without pain medication, right?” Nobody’s going to care in the least about how they got here, so get them here safely.

Be prepared for the water to break

That pending water break is a liquid time bomb of unknown magnitude — could be measured in ounces, could be measured in liters. I’m not telling you to try to banish your partner to the tiled areas of your residence — I’m just saying that the sitcom trope of a shot glass worth of clear fluid dripping out won’t necessarily be your experience.

You might want to think (in advance) about how you will react when this happens. If you tend to live life without a filter, screaming, “OMG it’s everywhere!” could be your default reaction…but that’s not necessarily the most supportive and compassionate thing your partner could hear. Even if it’s the new sofa.

So fresh and so clean clean…

Your partner is likely to have heightened sensory perception in labor (and postpartum — tuck this away for future reference), meaning your breath may be overwhelming to her even if it’d be no more than questionable to anyone else. Take a mild breath fix in with you — something in the Juicy Fruit neighborhood. The superpowered mentholated mints may be too much in the other direction.

Everybody poops

Not to be crass, but if your partner is delivering vaginally, she will poop on the bed, so both of you might as well make peace with it now.

Medical staff will actually be happy to see it — we were told it’s a sign she’s using the right muscle groups to push. I’d recommend broaching that with your partner somehow in advance to reassure her that she doesn’t need to be self-conscious about it on your behalf. One of our nurses told us about how worried people get with it — fasting for days prior to expected delivery, getting enemas beforehand, and other weirdness — none of which is helpful at all. Provision will be made for it, and someone will quietly clean it up when it happens. It’s just a normal part of the process.

Look for opportunities to meaningfully help

I was rather dreading the pushing phase — I envisioned everyone toiling away competently at their designated tasks while I stood at the head of the bed going, “Uh, you’re…doing great.” I thus went in watching for a chance to do more, and happily found it when baby doc was occupied as a contraction hit, and I took over counting out ten seconds for pushing.

Suddenly I had a mission and felt like I was part of the team. It was a tiny thing, but it helped me feel like less of a lump.

That’ll look different in each delivery — maybe your partner does need you to be in her ear, giving her the Vince Lombardi treatment. Read the room and roll with it.

Stay calm

“For a moment, nothing happened. Then, after a second or so, nothing continued to happen.” — Douglas Adams

Don’t freak out about anything to do with your baby right after delivery. Their heads get misshapen on their way out, they’re sometimes weird colors, they don’t always immediately cry, and you’ll be tempted to interpret the deft movements of medical staff tending to your baby as a sign of a problem.

Don’t panic.

Babies aren’t as delicate as we often treat them — they’re resilient little balls of cartilage and sunshine and rage.

Cutting the cord is no big deal

I was a little nervous about it going in, but the mechanics of it are trivial. A nurse will place two clamps on the cord about half an inch apart. They’ll give you medical shears, and you cut between the clamps.

If you successfully passed kindergarten, I have the utmost confidence in your ability to not mess this up.

There aren’t any nerve endings for mom or baby. If you’re the slightest bit open to it, my advice would be to do it… it’s one of the few actual once-in-a-lifetime experiences for the three of you to share. Decide in advance though — things will be moving fast, and they’re not going to sit and wait while you deliberate.


In Hospital After Delivery

Hooray, you have a baby! You…have a baby. A bay…bee…

Keep whispering those sweet somethings

After your baby’s birth, there will be a lot of hubbub, pictures taken, congratulations offered. That will fade away soon, and in the silence, your partner will start to realize how tired she is, how much her body has changed, and how much work lies ahead.

She will likely feel very vulnerable and emotionally raw in the hours and days after delivery. If she’s breastfeeding or pumping, she may come off feeling like a dairy cow.

She’ll be sore all over, no matter how she delivered.

She’ll feel inundated with information at the exact point she feels least equipped to process it.

And she’ll be physically on exhibit for a rotating cast of strangers when she likely feels at her all-time least attractive.

Find the words to tell her you’re still attracted to her. She needs to know she’s still desirable as a woman, that you’re proud of her, and that she’s not just a mobile lactation station (without ever, ever using that phrase). Your partner will appreciate being reminded that she is powerful and capable, no matter how obvious it is to you.

Document, document, document

In the initial days, write down everything you can, but particularly every input (breastfeeding session with time per side or bottle-feed with amount consumed) and every output (diaper changes — note whether it’s poop, pee or both, and their relative heaviness). There are good apps for this, but they may not be much slicker to you than just writing them in that Baby Bible of yours.

Your nurses will deeply appreciate all of this data — they make important assessments about baby’s health based on urine and stool frequency and characteristics, as well as how readily Baby is eating.

More pine tar than George Brett’s bat

The first few to several of your baby’s poops will be a dark, tar-like substance called meconium. It looks unsettling. But it’s totally normal. The cleanup can be rather onerous; a trick an old battle-ax maternity nurse taught us was to preemptively smear petroleum jelly anywhere on baby’s skin the next meconium was likely to touch. It made things exponentially easier.

Whatcha gonna do, brother, when mocha-mania runs wild on you?

Beware the siren song of caffeine when you’re in your initial baby days.

Trust me, nothing will sound better at points than a fat mug of coffee or a tankard of your vile energy drink of choice. Not saying a bit is never appropriate, but it’s often a case of being penny wise and pound foolish; you’ll be scavenging sleep wherever you can get it, and if you’re staring at the ceiling for your baby’s entire nap because Red Bull gave you wings, you’ll likely hate yourself for it.

When you think you’re done, you’ve just begun

There’s always something to do while you’re in hospital. Always — if not, there’s no reason for you to be there.

If you’re not actively caring for baby or tending to your partner’s needs, you can be tidying up, filling out paperwork in preparation for discharge, folding blankets and towels, or prepping materials for the next feeding session.

If that’s all done, then sleep. If you absolutely can’t sleep, then journal — you’ll come to treasure a record of your thoughts and feelings. If you’re like me and find talking to yourself on paper awkward, do what I did and frame everything as a rolling letter to your child.

Just stay off your phone as much as you can. The blue light murders your sleep quality, and it robs you of the ability to be truly present. I know the temptation to escape for a few minutes will be compelling, and I certainly didn’t do perfectly in this regard, but don’t forfeit many moments to mindless Internet browsing or a brain dead game you’ll have uninstalled in a matter of weeks.

Lactation domination

If you’re breastfeeding as a couple (note the emphasis), consider getting (and yes, that means paying for) professional advice beyond the passing counsel of busy nurses, and pay attention.

You’ll feel silly standing there with a notebook taking notes over your breastfeeding partner. Do it anyway.

Write down every tip and trick — you won’t use them all, but you need to know what doesn’t work as much as you do what does. There is so much involved in successful breastfeeding — exponentially more than it seems going in. When this is something your partner is going to have to do every two to four hours for the foreseeable future, starting off with rough experiences can invoke despair in your partner’s mind. You do not get to check out here.

Maybe your kiddo will be a champ and latch right on with no issue — if so, you’re blessed. If not, though, your partner will need help assessing latch quality, adjusting baby’s jaw, flipping baby’s lips out to improve the seal, and a host of other things. And if your partner is pumping breast milk, be understanding; there’s a known phenomenon of being on the pump (especially, but milk let-down in general) engendering negative emotion ranging from anxiety to rage.


Baby at Home

“What do you mean, we have to go now? We don’t know what we’re doing!”

Start with basics and branch out

Standing in the baby aisle (or, shudder, the baby store) will be an overwhelming and confronting process. Color-coded rubber duck bath thermometers? Sixteen-thousand thread count Atlantean cotton cloth diapers? Ionized fusion-powered wipe warmers? Motorized bottle brush with a Hemi in it? They make light-up LA Gear sneakers for babies?!?

Stop. Take a breath.

In terms of getting your baby home, break it down to a Maslow’s hierarchy level. You’ll have a different list… that’s okay. You’ll want more than this in time, for sure — but if this is what you make it home with, you’ll likely be fine:

  • Food and water: Breastfeeding supplies (pump, pads, bottles), formula, or some combination thereof.
  • Clothing: Diapers, sleep sack/swaddles, warm sleep hat to control heat loss, a onesie or three.
  • Health: Any supplement or medication recommended by your medical provider, zinc oxide cream for skin issues, petroleum jelly for babies (or another ointment that’s appropriate for the diaper area), car seat.
  • Comfort: Pacifier, gentle baby wash, some means of having a safe, standing height diaper change station (you’ll be there seemingly all day sometimes and you’ll murder your back and knees if it’s on an ottoman or something).
  • Shelter: You could put a bassinet mattress in a cardboard box and be okay.

If someone offers to help, the answer is yes

There will be exceptions — maybe you’ll want to decline if your twitchy neighbor offers to hold your baby for a while. But if friends or family are wanting to bring groceries over, cook you a meal, run an errand for you, yes yes yes.

You won’t want to be a bother. Say yes anyway.

You won’t want to seem needy. Say yes anyway.

We live in a small community and almost declined a meal train (where a different person bringing a hot supper every night for a couple of weeks) because we didn’t want to impose. Several days in and we were horrified we almost threw it away — it was amazing knowing a nutritious meal was coming to balance out the paltry pantry picking that invariably characterized our bleary days.

People wouldn’t offer if they didn’t want to help — and if they did but they didn’t, tee hee, the joke’s on them. You’ll often find it’s people who are thrilled to repay the kindnesses they were shown when they were new parents. Let them.

Beware the breast zealots

One of the first areas in which a new mother gets shame grenades lobbed at her is with breastfeeding. While I’d encourage you, short a medical contraindication, to at least try breastfeeding for the clear health benefits, also keep in mind that Fed is Best. You’ll see any number of people, especially online, throwing shade on anybody who uses formula or tops up with it in addition to breast milk — I’ve even seen it referred to as “the F word.” Ignore them.

It can sometimes take several days to a week for even a keen breastfeeding mom’s milk to come in, and good formula can be a tool to bridge from one phase to another. Underfeeding can lead to postnatal jaundice, dehydration, and all manner of other nastiness. It’s no different than in later stages of life — feed your baby a sufficient amount of the best food you can.

Beware the other breast zealots

People can get weird about seeing breastfeeding, and their weirdness may require you to intervene for your partner.

It is legal to breastfeed in public spaces nationwide in both the United States and Canada. In the United States, if your partner is an hourly employee, she almost certainly is entitled to protected time and space to pump breast milk. A business owner or manager can likely force you to leave an establishment, but they’re in effect claiming you’re trespassing by staying and feeding your baby, and I’d personally go straight to local media with that hopefully rare buffoonery. Citing your rights chapter and verse — especially from physical documentation — will go a lot further with approaching prudes than saying “Nuh uh, yes we can.”

Drop dime to save time

Identify places where spending a little money can reduce headaches. For us, the best example was a stretchy full onesie with magnet closures. At forty dollars, it’s way too expensive for us to have a drawer full of them, but that thing is a godsend on travel days — when you’re trying to change a squirmy infant on a tailgate or an airplane changing table, being able to stretch fabric and throw it closed is sweet relief.

You’ll find your own examples if you’re mindful of where you’re spending the most time and encountering the most frustration.

Write off the next few to several weeks for anything else

Every day will try to snuff out your torch — the one word we kept hearing over and over, from baby doc to nurses to lactation consultants to couples with young kids, was “survival.”

The first few weeks especially, you do what you need to in order to survive. Get the best sleep you can, eat the best food you can, minimize all the stress you can, but know that you’ll need to compromise in places. It’ll settle out — you’ll get your patterns and routines down — but it’ll take a few weeks. Be kind to yourselves.

Thou art King Theoden

Depending on your social circles, you may have to turn your residence into Helms Deep, defending from the hordes of orcs (otherwise known as ‘friends and family’) who want to paw at your precious baby with their foul fingers.

Decide in advance with your partner who’s allowed in and for how long, and be willing to be That Jerk who denies or defers a visit request.

People lose their damn minds around babies, and some need a firm boundary to bump into or they’ll all but move in. Maybe visits are revitalizing to your partner — if so, have at it. They weren’t for mine, so gatekeeping was essential.

Think of crying as a foreign language

If someone walked up to you and asked for directions using a language unfamiliar to you, it’s not likely you’d think them unreasonable — you’d realize it’s just a matter of your own lack of understanding and start looking for context clues so you could be of assistance.

Similarly, crying is your baby’s initial language. It can be frustrating when it’s seemingly undifferentiated, but be patient and look for other cues (for instance, hunger shown by crying in conjunction with tongue thrusts or pulling on facial features). You’ll learn the language eventually. One huge exception is the period of “PURPLE” crying; I’ll spare you here, but please research it and save yourself a possible truckload of angst.

Don’t use incredulity as a guide

There will be points where your disbelief starts to guide your thinking. Surely he can’t be hungry again — he just got a full feed under an hour ago! Surely she can’t have a wet diaper — I just pulled a saturated one off of her! Your baby will confound you over and over again…. presume nothing.

A bottle isn’t a bottle

I came in thinking baby bottles were only really different from one another aesthetically. Hoo boy, was I wrong. There are differences in materials, nipple design, flow rates, interchangeability, compatibility with pumping systems, and a hundred other things. You may want to get a few different types; over time our daughter has fed brilliantly and poorly and back again with the same systems.

The plane truth

Changing table availability on aircraft varies by carrier and, sometimes, by particular planes within a carrier’s fleet. Inquire in advance of booking about them, because changing on a plane is a difficult process even with one.

Also, don’t just ask about availability — ask where one is on a given plane. On our first travel experience with our daughter, I had to change her diaper nine times on a five-hour flight (she’s incredibly intolerant of a wet diaper). Unfortunately, we’d booked the front row not knowing any better, and the only changing table was in the rear bathroom, forcing me to traverse the length of the plane every time. The poor people on the aisle were kind, but it was not a pleasant experience for anyone.

Work an algorithm

Babies are fairly standardized and uncomplicated in the end. Here’s the basic flow I use when I’m faced with fussiness, not necessarily in this order:

  • Hunger? I’ve found this to be the most likely culprit.
  • Soiled diaper? Don’t cheap out or get lazy — leaving them in a nasty diaper will break their skin down.
  • Gassy? Try burping, even far removed from a feed. Also, sometimes working a baby’s legs in a bicycling motion can work gas out. It’s often been the case that my daughter acts like an old man — wakes up grumpy, doesn’t say why, rips a big fart, goes back to sleep.
  • Too hot/too cold? Sometimes a clothing change or a hat is all they need.
  • Bad positioning? I found putting her on her tummy for a bit can distract and reset her.
  • Need a pacifier? Sometimes it’s like she just needs to work off some nervous energy.
  • Need a cuddle? Try getting then down to a diaper and cradling your baby on your bare forearm.
  • Some kind of irritant? Check for stray objects in the diaper, check their mouth, check for random things like an eyelash of yours in their eye or a hair wrapped around a finger or toe.
  • Breathing issue? Newborns are obligate nasal breathers, so a couple of crusty boogers in tiny nostrils can make them fussy fast.

Be aware of your mental health as a couple

Be aware of your partner’s mental health. Expect baby blues — they hit the vast majority of postpartum women. Be kind, and realize she’s not ‘being difficult’ or simply overthinking things. Remember that for a lot of women, everything is connected — so where, say, a discrete breastfeeding issue might be just that to you, something to diagnose and fix, to her it may issue more general commentary on how she’s doing as a mother. So don’t dismiss the small stuff.

Further, watch out for true postpartum depression, which can hamper your partner’s ability to care for Baby. Your partner might be trying to cope with extremely distressing symptoms, so it will help if you can take the initiative to openly and compassionately discuss feelings. And be aware of, but not paranoid about, a rare psychiatric emergency called postpartum psychosis, in which a previously well woman can become suicidal or have ideations about harming the baby.

Finally, remember too that partners can have postpartum too — don’t get huffy if your partner comes to you about something she’s seeing in you.

Be patient with your sex life

Hopefully, you didn’t need the tip-off, but things in the bedroom are going to be on ice for a while. Maybe literally.

Follow your healthcare provider’s recommendations for the resumption of sexual activity, which will likely be four to six weeks even in the best of circumstances — and realize that it might be much longer than that before your partner is ready for it.

Be deferential here. She’ll be plagued by enough stressors without feeling like she’s on the clock. Sex is supposed to be mutually affirming, and pouting about its delay is the antithesis of that — besides being impossibly juvenile and petty.

Find and participate in a tribe

In ancient times, new parents would have been surrounded by the council of elders who would have guided and assisted them in their journey. We’ve largely lost this dynamic in our day — but find a small way to replicate it. That might be with an extended but close-knit family, a cadre of plugged-in friends, a religious community, a new parents’ group of some sort, or fill in the blank. We weren’t meant to do this alone.


You’ve Got This

You’re going to question yourself at every point in this process. What didn’t I put in the go bag? Did I level the car seat base? Am I even cut out to be a parent?

Listen, if you’ve gotten to this point, you’ve read thousands of words written by a sleep-deprived stranger with scant credential to tell you how to do anything. You’re obviously patient and inquisitive, and that’s 90% of it.

You’re not going to be a bad parent. I used to be a police officer. I’ve seen bad parents. I’ve seen the fear and sorrow on the faces of their children. I’m satisfied you’re not in their league.

But that said, make sure your tray table is in its upright and locked position…because it’s gonna be one hell of a ride.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

R. Justin Freeman

Written by

American ex-pat in Yukon Territory, starting small farm as a SaH dad. Founded a nonprofit. Former police officer (not that kind). Former pastor (not that kind).

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

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