Maybe she left a positive pregnancy test by the sink, just waiting for you to find it as you got out of the shower. Or it could be the red tape, home visits, and paperwork of the adoption process finally aligned at just the right time. It could be that it’s taken years and you’d all but given up hope, or maybe you weren’t really trying at all. Regardless, you’re going to be a father. That alone is reason to celebrate. And whether you’ve already scoured Amazon for every fatherhood book you can find or have opted to simply wing it, you’re joining the ranks of countless men who’ve come before you. You’re one of the fathers, now. The dads. It’s time to get used to that title – to being called “dad.” For years to come it will be shouted out in need when bad dreams wake him, and added to rolled eyes when she can’t believe you’re serious about the rules you’ve made. It will preface “watch this” and follow “did you see that?” It’s your official title, an endearment, and the thing that is exclusive to you: you are your child’s father. What could be more meaningful?
With that in mind, it’s time to get ready, and that’s where we come in. Consider this your comprehensive, one-stop-shop for the journey you’re about to begin. It’s equal parts boot camp, pep talk, and fatherhood inside scoop – because all things dad-related is kind of our specialty.
The very first thing you should know (and remind yourself of often), is that fatherhood isn’t a zero-sum game. Your role as the father is critical, and it can’t belong to anyone else but you. However, there are going to be times – plenty of them, in fact – when your child prefers, requests, or just plain needs your partner instead of you. That’s okay. It’s also perfectly normal. Your partner doesn’t “win” and you don’t “lose” when this happens. It’s just life. There will be other times – more than you could ever expect – when that same child is going to demand you hold them, put on their Band-Aid, and read the bedtime story you’ve already memorized word for word. Remembering and accepting this reality will make you a lot less likely to withdraw when you don’t feel as needed, and slower to gloat when they pick you. Both are traps, so watch your step. Stay present physically and emotionally, be available for your child and your partner, and don’t stop showing up. They need you more than you may realize in any given moment.
Parenting Isn’t Always 50/50
With that in mind, and despite whatever expectations you may be holding on to, let’s get this spoiler alert out of the way: parenting isn’t always 50/50. In fact, more often than not, there will be some sort of flexible distribution of responsibilities that is subject to change with little or no notice. You may work full-time and be gone from home the bulk of the day, or your partner may have gone back to work while you stay with the baby. There are more than a few possible configurations. But the idea that every task, small or large, will be evenly divided is unrealistic and unhelpful to the way you see yourself and your partner. What will only make it worse will be to remain laser-focused on what you’re doing or what you’ve done. When that gets out of hand you become a scorekeeper, not a father, and the default arbitrator of right and wrong, good and bad. It’s too easy for resentment to creep in then, and that will create a toxic environment at home before you’ve realized it’s happened. If the first thought on your mind while you’re changing your baby’s diaper is “this is the third time I’ve done this today…is this just my job now?” you’re on a slippery slope. There will be times when you do more and times you do less. If you’re truly feeling overburdened at work or home then communicate that to your partner. There’s a chance they’ve felt the same way at some point since the baby came home.
When in Doubt, Talk About it
Which leads us straight into our third fatherhood guidepost: when in doubt, talk about it. On one hand it’s convenient that something that should already be an active ingredient in your relationship with your partner is also a critical element of what being a dad requires. The problem for a lot of us, though, is that communicating isn’t our first – or maybe even second – instinct. We’re comfortable putting out fires and solving problems independently, and may even be in jobs or industries where our ability to work and think in that way is prized, promoted, and pointed to as the standard. Fatherhood at its best requires something altogether different. Some of those same skills will be valuable, but being a lone ranger will not. None of us parent effectively in a silo. Trying to will only serve to frustrate you and your partner. Fatherhood demands that we engage, collaborate, and ask for help. So when you’re not sure about something, even if it seems like the simplest of issues (or one that you’ve asked about before but you just can’t remember the answer to), say it out loud. “How long are we microwaving this bottle again?” “Is this the way the car seat goes in?” “Does she feel hot to you?” Talk about what you think, how you feel, and ask your partner the same. You’re both learning this little person at the same time, and you’re figuring out who the two of you are together in this new context. None of the answers will come without first asking some questions and sharing your experiences.
Creating this kind of open, safe space for you and your partner will be the primary thing that strengthens and maintains the bond you share with each other. If your partner has given birth there’s a chance she’ll develop postpartum depression within a few days of delivery. The truth is, most moms do, and it typically manifests in tears (sometimes unexplained and uncontrollable), anxiety, change in mood, irritability and a hard time sleeping. That last one may often be the case for both of you, but we’ll get to that later. While some of these symptoms can be attributed to feeling overwhelmed (don’t forget, you’ve just brought a baby home and now it’s your responsibility to keep it alive), others may be linked to a drop in hormones post-childbirth. Estrogen and progesterone levels are at an all-time high during pregnancy. It’s estrogen that’s responsible for aiding in the formation of blood vessels to the placenta, transferring nutrients, and allowing the baby to develop. Progesterone is the key hormone in charge of expanding the size of your partner’s uterus. Over the course of approximately nine months it’s going to grow from something roughly the size of a pear to become big enough to accommodate a human life. For all of the things to happen, your partner’s body is going to be working overtime for a little under a year. And then one day, on the day your baby is born, it all stops. Those hormones that were surging no longer have the same responsibilities. And it isn’t just childbirth that can cause PPD. In the case of many adoptive parents, countless hours, weeks, months, and maybe years have been spent getting (and staying) ready for that one phone call. It’s not easy to shift gears after all that time and energy has been spent. Add to this the fear that you, your partner, and your baby may have a hard time bonding, and is it really any wonder that depression and the other symptoms we mentioned earlier may develop? As the father you may not necessarily understand it, you may wonder if you’ve lost the partner you knew before, and it’s possible that you’ll feel some of these same emotions yourself. The most important thing, though, is that you remain. Just be there. Be there for the tears, the doubts, the worry and the confusion. Walk through it knowing that other couples have done, and are doing, the very same thing. Avoid pointing fingers, blaming, or dismissing. Don’t take any of it personally. This is a brief chapter in the story of your new life as a family. Typically it doesn’t last longer than a few weeks. If there are bigger concerns, and certainly if there are more extreme symptoms, it’s important for you and your partner to speak with a doctor. But in the meantime you have one job: just love.
You and Your Partner Will Have Sex Again
If there’s one topic you may be hesitant to approach or communicate about it’s probably sex. We understand. You may feel like you’re walking a tightrope where even the smallest misstep will send you hurtling into the unknown. But the reality is that you and your partner will have sex again. If your partner had a vaginal birth or a c-section, there’s going to be a period of healing required before they can engage in most types of physical activity. This includes sex. And although each couple is different, and while there isn’t a pre-determined waiting period, there’s absolutely no reason to rush anything either. Between actual pain and discomfort, the hormonal changes we mentioned earlier, and a significant lack of sleep (we’re getting into that next), your partner may not feel like having sex for awhile. Not to be insensitive or overly blunt, but deal with it. You will be okay, and you’ll do a much better job expressing your care and appreciation for your partner if you practice patience, understanding, and an acknowledgement of what their body has been through and is recovering from. Find as many other ways to be romantic as you can. Buy some good lotion (preferably something unscented and paraben-free) and become a foot massage master. Make dinner even if that means following a step-by-step recipe you found on Pinterest or picking up Papa John’s. Load and unload the dishwasher with as much frequency as necessary and don’t hesitate to empty the trash and the Diaper Genie. This may sound like a chore list but it’s really a love language. Learn to speak it fluently, and not with an ulterior motive. Don’t mistake this for a list of techniques for reigniting your sex life post-baby. This is all part of what a healthy relationship looks like, and fatherhood is a wonderful excuse to practice it.
You’re Going to Need All the Sleep You Can Get
Okay, that was all a little heavy. But fatherhood isn’t a low-intensity workout. This isn’t mall-walking and you don’t get to stop just because you’re tired. This is lifetime-long CrossFit WOD designed to test your mental, emotional, and physical limitations. But instead of pounding a tire with a sledgehammer or doing burpees, you’ll be waking up for 3:00AM feedings and the kind of diaper changes that may require a bath and a fresh set of clothes – for both of you. So, when you have a chance to rest, even if it’s a thirty minute nap, take it. You’re going to need all the sleep you can get. You may have worked odd hours before; third-shift or something like that. And you might have pulled a few all-nighters cramming for an exam. This is different. Any adrenaline that you bring home with the baby, and there will be some, will be depleted before you realize it. There will be no warning light and the only way to effectively get that needle off empty is to sleep. Our human bodies are amazingly resilient, but they suffer most when we don’t get two main things: sleep and water. Take care of yourself and help your partner do the same. Frequently that will require sleeping when the baby sleeps, especially early on. Creating, and sticking to, a schedule is important for all three of you. Babies love a routine. They eat at this time, poop at that time, sleep when they’re tired, and then repeat. You’ll be doing yourself, and your baby, a huge favor to establish the routine early on. It’s going to take several weeks, maybe even a few months, of consistency. But that regularity will pay off.
Embrace One-On-One Moments
It isn’t unusual in families who’ve just welcomed a baby into their lives to have one parent return to work shortly after and another stay home. For a number of reasons it’s predominately fathers who go back to the office first, and because of that it may be easy for us to get lost in our own routines and forget about what’s happening at home. You might leave in the morning and come back at night largely unaware of everything your partner has felt, feared, and laughed out loud at while you were gone. It’s your responsibility to find out. And they may not feel like talking the minute you walk in the door. The likelihood that they’ll still be in their pajamas and hand you the baby on their way to the shower is high. Embrace one-on-one moments. Your partner has had hours of uninterrupted, unrestricted time with your baby in the course of the day. Now it’s your turn! Unlike your boss and your colleagues, your baby doesn’t care about profits, client-retention or whether or not the sales goal was met. They just want your time (and maybe a bottle). If you’re working forty or more hours a week, nights and weekends are your golden opportunities to strengthen your fatherhood muscles. Trust us: you do not get this time back. Just like the gym, you’ll get out of fatherhood what you put in. You may catch yourself looking at the bond your partner and baby share and thinking “how do I get that?” There’s only one answer: togetherness. So make it happen. Lay down on the floor with your baby. Feed him when he’s hungry. Let her fall asleep on your chest after a big meal and a few good burps. Know what goes in the diaper bag, how the car seat works, and what kind of diapers to buy at Target. Then the two of you take a little field trip together while your partner sits in the tub, meets friends for lunch, or gets a few hours of sleep that isn’t broken by the crackle of the baby monitor. You may get some pats on the back. There may be brownie points earned. But that’s only because so few people expect dads to step up and do the real work of fatherhood. Not you, though. You’re willing to do whatever it takes – otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this.
Your Relationship with Your Father Does Not Determine Your Relationship with Your Child
One more thing: few of us enter into fatherhood having had perfect relationships with our own fathers. You may not have known yours or you may have had a dad that you saw daily but was always lost in his work, a hobby, or an addiction. Divorce, remarriage, differences in values, personalities or sexual orientation may have left you feeling distant or even ostracized. All of this and more may be true and it doesn’t change the fact that your relationship with your father does not determine your relationship with your child. No, your father-son or father-daughter relationship doesn’t have to follow the same trajectory. The script is what you make it. If this guide has reinforced anything, it’s that fatherhood requires you to be intentional. When we’re young it’s easy to think “when I’m a parent I’ll never do this to my kid,” or even “I’ll never be like him.” The context we miss as children, the back-story that influences our experiences in ways we couldn’t imagine, always provides some color, and maybe even a bit of empathy. Not all of our fathers had a particularly close relationship with their own dads. There’s a good chance their role models were less than ideal. Maybe your dad’s attempts at fatherhood failed not for lack of desire but simply because he didn’t know any better. None of it changes the fact that here you are, staring fatherhood in the eyes. So if you want to be different than your father, if there is a life, a vitality, a sense of humor, a playfulness, a depth you want to embody, do it. Change the way the limbs of your family tree grow. Water its roots. Give it sun and soil rich enough to produce the fruit you’re after. And if you don’t know how, if you’re not even sure where to start, join the club. Few of us are. We might know where we want to end up, but we may not know how to get there. That’s okay. That just makes you a human being. And that alone means you’re in the game. Showing up is the first step and it’s one we take each day. Step two is finding mentors who are the kind of man, the kind of father, you want to be. If it’s not your own father, who is it? Do you know them? Can you spend time with them? If so, tell them your struggle. Admit that your life as a kid was hard, maybe really hard at times, and you don’t know what being a dad really takes. Maybe it’s an uncle, a grandparent, an in-law, or an older co-worker. Take them to lunch, buy them a coffee, and pick their brain. Then keep doing it. If there’s no one in your circle of friends and family that fits this description then you’ll have to get a little more creative. Find a book, a podcast, or some YouTube videos you connect with. Read blogs that understand what fatherhood is all about (we can recommend one). Look for groups on Facebook, or an account on Instagram, that inspires you, allows you to connect with other dads, and promotes a healthy view of fatherhood. Find different perspectives, new opinions, and let those inform the ones you make for yourself. The toolbox of fatherhood is as big as you make it. But you can’t pick it up preassembled at Lowe’s or Home Depot. This is one you have to make yourself.
Anyone who’s parented for more than a few years says the same thing: enjoy these early stages and phases. They grow up so quickly. And it’s true. It happens right in front of your eyes. One day they desperately need for you to guide food into their mouths and the next their telling you they hate broccoli and don’t know why you’d ever suggest they eat it. And something similar will happen to you. As much as you may have hated changing diapers, and celebrated the day you no longer lived in fear of a Pampers explosion in the seat of a shopping cart, one day you’ll see a baby and think “where the hell did the time go?” So as much as you prepare now, as often as you feel stress in the day-to-day, don’t lose sight of that truth, and enjoy this moment. Welcome to fatherhood. We’re so glad you’re here.
[Updated December 21st, 2020]