My Baby Advice for Fathers

July 14, 2021

There’s a ton of “what to expect when you’re expecting” stuff out there that I have no intention of repeating. I found there was a lot of stuff I wasn’t prepared for – mentally or logistically – that I want to call out here.

A lot of what I’m going to say is negative. I feel like the negative experience for (some) fathers isn’t discussed very much and that that’s a major disservice to us – and a dangerous one, frankly.

(I’ll be saying “he” a fair bit, since my only child is a boy.)

## The most important thing I have to tell you

…that probably – and hopefully – won’t affect you.

Paternal post-partum depression is a thing. It affects 10%-25% of fathers, and it doesn’t get talked about very much. It can start a month or two before birth, or can start after. It’s fucking horrible.

If you find yourself sinking into a pit of despair and regret, seek outside help. Your partner is (probably) going to be the absolute worst person to seek help from – she’s going to be high on birth hormones and think that everything is wonderful. If you tell her that you wish a meteor would hit the city to erase everything, she’s going to call you a monster and you’ll feel worse.

I’m not saying you need to pre-arrange a shrink, but you do need to:

Monitor yourself for signs of depression. This will be harder than it sounds, because you’ll be sleep-deprived and harried a lot of time. It’ll be difficult to accurately gauge your own state. But try to check in with yourself periodically and see if you’ve been feeling real dark and regretful.

Figure out who you will talk to if you need it. The ideal person to talk to is probably a mental health professional, but it might not need to be, depending on how bad your depression is†. The person needs to be someone who won’t be emotionally tied up in (or in love with) your new baby. They need to be able to listen and not judge. They’ll need to remind you that what you’re feeling is normal (or not abnormal – see above percentages) and that what you’re in now is a phase and will pass. It’s hard to believe that a year (let’s say) isn’t a long time, but you will get out the other side.

But before this freaks you out too much, remember that it doesn’t happen to most people. It’s just that the probability is high enough that it’s worth being aware of and making some amount of (mental) preparation for.

†: Disclaimer: You should always consult a professional and not listen to amateur hacks -- like me -- who suggest otherwise.

## T-8 months

We think that going with a midwife plus a hospital birth is better than obstetrician+hospital or midwife+home birth. You get much more personal care, but the full medical establishment is available if you need it.

When you have an obstetrician, you only see them during their shift at the hospital. Nurses also flit in and out, changing shifts. So there’s very little sense of continuity, and that’s not a great feeling when you’re teetering on the edge of panic after hour 12.

With midwives, you’ll meet the two or three who will be your team at your appointments. As you get into labour at home, they will come to your house to check you out. They’ll be around a fair bit at the hospital as well. And they’ll visit you at home afterwards. (And they’re covered by OHIP.)

I also recommend hiring a doula. I’ll say right now that they’re not cheap – around $1000. They’ll visit you at home before and after and do some training, but they’re basically experienced delivery room support. They’ll stay there as long as you do, and can fetch you food or water or take over for you for a while to help your partner push. They’ll also take photos for you, which I kind of recommend. Erin doesn’t think it was worth it, but I think the doula is a bigger help to the father than the mother.

Sign up for a prenatal course. Your midwife clinic might offer one.

## T-6 months

Everyone has an opinion about names and most of those opinions will conflict with yours. You probably spent a long time agonizing over the name choice, so it’ll piss you off to have people denigrate it. Even worse, it might make you start second-guessing the choice.

So don’t tell anyone what name you’ve chosen. Pick one that you and your partner are satisfied with, and then let everyone cope when you announce it after the birth. (And try your best to ignore the post facto criticisms as well.)

Figure out what daycares you’re interested in and get on their waiting lists. Maybe you’ll get in super early and you won’t understand why I’m saying this, or maybe this isn’t even early enough.

Start meditating. Get a mindfulness meditation app like Headspace or 10% Happier and do it every day. It gives (or helps with) a lot of super powers that you’re going to need and want:

  • Self-awareness. Knowing what state you’re in because more difficult and more important.
  • Reduced anxiety and depression. (Probably. The research is still in its infancy.)
  • Appreciation of the current moment. This might not sound like much, but it’s gold.
  • Calming down quickly from being angry. This sort of falls out of “self-awareness”, but it’s incredibly important as your kid gets older and more infuriating. Also good for your spousal relationship.
  • Compassion. (Eventually you’ll get to metta meditation, which teaches exactly this.)
  • Generally better mental and emotional resiliency.

## T-4 months

Join some Facebook parenting groups. They’re surprisingly good and useful.

Here’s the East Toronto Young Fathers group. Feel free to post questions, requests, or just vent. Everyone is pretty chill and helpful.

And the equivalent mothers group. However, tell your partner stay out of the politics. It gets incredibly bad. The utility is well worth it, though (I’m told). It’ll give links to other buy/sell/trade groups which are also great.

Get an Audible subscription, so you can build up some credits. And/or get acquainted with the Libby app, and put some holds on a bunch of books (you can defer checking them out if they become available before you need them). You’re probably going to spend a lot of time pushing a stroller for hours so the kid can sleep. And doing other boring stuff that doesn’t allow you to have free hands, but does allow you to listen to something. Podcasts are okay too, but nothing too heavy – you won’t be in the mood.

And get headphones to listen to them on.

Get earplugs. I like these ones. And a sleep eye mask. I like this one.

## T-3 months

Get your partner to start researching postnatal physiotherapy. Whole important swathes of her body (like her pelvic floor) are probably going to be in bad shape after delivery. Maybe this isn’t so important for caesarean births? I don’t know.

Start dropping hints to everyone who idly offers assistance that they should bring you food after the baby is born. And only food. You will never want to cook and will always be hungry.

Order a bunch of Soylent. Seriously. Sometimes you just need some reasonably healthy calories to keep you alive and going. (Don’t order too much of the chocolate, so you’re less tempted to drink more than you need just because it’s sweet and delicious. Also be careful about overdoing the caffeinated ones.) [Edit: Start with buying a small amount of Soylent. Some people don’t seem to get along with it. If you live near me, I’ll give you a couple bottles to try.]

Get familiar with ordering groceries for delivery. Find some not-super-unhealthy, not-super-challenging delivery restaurants.

Make sure you have infant disposable diapers at home. Even if you’re going with a cloth diaper (service) later, you’re going to want fast-and-easy to start with.

If you’re a light sleeper, consider getting an inflatable bed or something to set up in the basement. If you’re not on baby duty, you need get decent rest.

## T-2 months

Think about T-2 months as T-1, because you might get an early surprise. Don’t leave delivery-room prep to the last minute.

In your oh-shit-labor-time go-bag, pack some pre-mixed formula. The staff Michael Garron Hospital (in 2014) are zealously against formula, and other places might be as well. (Which seems to be a pendulum-too-far-the-other-way response to previous formula-pushing, and is misguided.) But when your partner is anemic from birth-bleeding and can’t get the milk going and the kid is losing weight and the nurses are basically threatening to keep you there forever until the milk flows… you’ll want the goddamn formula.

Prearrange with some trusted people to be on speed-dial for bringing stuff to you in the hospital. Grandparents are okay, but not ideal – they can get emotional and irrational and become their own kind of problem for you.

Pack a notebook, and consider installing a voice recorder on your phone. You’re going to need to record events and their times post-recovery and it’s likely your brain will be absolute garbage and not be able to remember anything. Nurses can be weirdly terrible about recording things on the chart or checking the chart or something. Like, “When did you take your last iron pill?”… “Why are you asking me? Didn’t someone write it down? I don’t even know what day it is!” Plus feedings and everything else.

Seriously, you might not have slept in 24+ hours and just gone through the most stressful time of your life. Things that you normally rely on your brain for should be supplemented where possible.

Install your car seat now. If you don’t have a car (like us, at the time), practice installing and uninstalling it in someone else’s car. When you need to rush to the hospital or when you need to bring baby home are not the times to be struggling with it.

Arrange more than 2 weeks leave. I don’t know how much, since I only took 2, but it wasn’t enough. And don’t tell work that you’ll be “available”. Treat it as if you’re going away with just a cell phone and mediocre wi-fi. Prepare accordingly.

## T-0: delivery

The range of possible experiences is absolutely huge, and you can read about them anywhere, so I’m not going to try to “prepare” you. Power through.

Your kid will come out ugly. They all do. No one else in the room will seem to notice, but they’re either tired and high on mothering hormones or they’ve seen a million ugly babies and are too polite to mention it. Later on you’ll both look back at newborn pictures and say “man, that kid was ugly”. Don’t worry: how they look when they first get squeezed out has nothing to do with how they’ll look later.

In that moment you might find yourself… not overjoyed. You’re deadly tired and your wife is bleeding too much and you have your shirt off holding your ugly kid watching the doctors patch her up (hopefully). And you realize that you don’t instantly feel anything for the lump of now-well-differentiated cells in your arms. You just want your wife to be okay and you want to sleep, and you don’t particularly care about this baby thing anymore. This is to be expected. Again, you don’t have the same hormones that the mother has and you’re in physical and mental collapse. Play the role you need to in that moment and you will get through it.

## T+2 days: back at home

Hang a baby blanket or a diaper in your window or on your front porch. This is a somewhat-recognized signal that you’re home. Maybe people will start bringing you food.

Having (useful) friends or (useful) relatives around can be good at this point. Your partner will need help with a million things. And since she has to feed every three hours, she’ll need help day and night. If someone other than you can handle some of that, great.

But beware of friends or family who are going to sit on your couch and expect tea and biscuits and a lovely chat. They can fuck off for a few months.

Get sleep whenever you can, for as long as you can. If someone is around to help your partner, put in earplugs and sleep in the basement, any change you get, any time of the day. You’re probably starting out sleep-deprived and it’ll get worse.

At some point you will stop feeling so tired-shitty. It’s important to remember that this is just a feeling and that you’re still sleep-deprived – your cognitive and physical function is no less impaired. (There is research demonstrating this.) You haven’t evolved beyond sleep. You still need it. You need it more than anything.

Start doing laundry pretty immediately. Your partner probably doesn’t have multiple days worth of what she needs. You’re going to be doing laundry every day. That’s fine – it’ll be the easiest job you have.

## T+2 weeks –> 1 year

I have talked to some fathers who just instantly love being a parent. They immediately know that it’s the best thing they’ve ever done, they love their kid and their role and their new lifestyle and everything. Maybe that’ll be you, too!

Or maybe not.

Maybe you feel (and by “feel” I mean “realize the actuality”) that your baby is a barely human lump. That you love your cats more than the baby. That you’ve never been so interminably bored in your whole life (once the hectic phase is over). That you deeply mourn the hobbies you used to enjoy and might not get back for years.

Maybe that counts as “postpartum depression”, but it also seems like a fairly rational response to the whole thing. Either way, it’s hard to get through.

One important tip that I (thankfully) read somewhere was to fake-it-till-you-make-it love for your child. Say the words, go through the motions of affection. Maybe it won’t look or feel entirely natural, but: a) it’s better than nothing, and, most importantly, b) it will lead you to feel it properly. It will also serve you very well for years to come, when you’re super angry with your kid, but you know that showing love and support is the right move.

It might take a long time before you fully care about your child. For me it was probably 10 months before he felt like an actual human, with a personality, who could be interacted with something other than boredom.

That’s a long time!

But the time will pass. Eventually a day will come that you realize you legitimately love the kid, and that you’re happy to see him, and to interact with him (up to a point – your kid’s capacity for dumb, boring crap will be higher than yours for a long, long time). And that you’d rescue him before the cat if the house was on fire.

## T+1 year –> ∞

One thing that’s always hard to keep in mind is how undeveloped your kid’s brain is. At his best moments, he’ll seem intelligent and mature and self-possessed, but: you can’t demand his best behaviour to be the norm. You may wish it, but you can’t expect it, and you certainly can’t enforce it.

The brain’s prefrontal cortex is the seat of self-control and executive function. It doesn’t fully develop until you’re in your 20s. You can count your kid’s prefrontal neurons on one hand (whatever, science). You just cannot expect them to behave rationally most of the time.

You know how sometimes you’re tired and in a bad mood and you snap at people, especially your partner? Now imagine you had way, way less brain-matter to help you keep that shit in check most of the time. Imagine it didn’t require “tired and bad mood” to make you snappy and shitty. Imagine didn’t just snap at your spouse (with whom you naturally let your guard down), but did around everyone. This is what it’s like to be a kid! Plus, they don’t know how the world works! Plus, they have very little autonomy and it grates them! Plus, they’re tired and hungry a lot!

Being a little kid is super hard. When you see them behaving really well, try to only interpret it as a wonderful blip – maybe as a preview of the future. The rest of the time, try to be really patient and loving even when they’re being absolutely shitty.

When I look back on pictures of my son at age 3 (say), I can have trouble understanding how I could have expected so much and gotten so angry. He’s so little! But I did. In the moment you don’t have that hindsight. Try your best.

A couple books I recommend are Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn and, if you have a boy, It’s a Boy! Understanding Your Son’s Development from Birth to Age 18 by Michael Thompson. I would say they’re basically essential reading to get some outside direction in compassion and understanding. There’s a lot of good stuff in those books that relieves me of having to write it here.

Consider Montessori schools. Most/many start at about age 3 (“casa”, they call it at that age), and they can be very hard to get into later, so start applying. I’m finding the public school system to be basically garbage, and I wish we had gone that route (or gone that route earlier – every year I call to stay on a waiting list, and still nothing). Who knows if it would actually make a difference, though.

Last thing, maybe: Remember that (almost) everything is a phase. Just because your kid is hitting and kicking a lot (or whatever) – for months! – doesn’t mean that he’s a psychopath or otherwise permanently broken. Try to be patient and loving. Your child will grow up and get through each phase and the only lasting harm that can be done is by you and your reaction to it. And then the next shitty phase will come along. (This is also true for nice phases, sadly.)