The Perils and Joys of Fatherhood, and a Few Practical Tips

This is the first time have I tried blogging with one hand – my left arm has been holding on to my boy Will for the last 5+ hours.

In my last couple of posts I’ve shared some of my reflections on the birth of our baby boy, Will. I’ve written about the roller-coaster of emotions that came with his birth and my approach to managing the practical reality of having a new baby. I know that by stressing the more resourceful responses we’ve had I might create the impression that it’s all super under-control. Though we are doing really well by any standard, this would be the wrong impression. Indeed, I think the biggest challenge of this whole experience is letting go of the need to control what is inherently beyond our control.

Even before Will was born there were a couple of weeks where I was particularly afraid that he would be born with a disability or that something might happen to Ophelia during childbirth. After the first birthing class I became especially anxious about whether I would cope during the birth – how good would I be  in supporting Ophelia through the labour, especially the first stage which is usually the longest and which we would most likely be at home for?

After we returned home, I noticed myself becoming very anxious again, this time about whether I would be a be a good dad. This was, I think, precipitated by the exhaustion (both physical and emotional) and stress from the first week after Will’s birth which we spent in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. Still, it concerned me enough to take effective steps, including challenging my thoughts by acknowledging how well I was already doing, drinking more water and getting outside for short walks and exercise. Talking with other friends with children and especially other fathers-to-be has been one of the best things to do in these times, mostly because you realise how normal these fears are.

Alongside the unimaginable and indescribable bliss, as I wrote about in the last post, on same days I have started to feel a little overwhelmed and stressed by the mundane things. Let’s face it, there’s a lot of it. Breastfeeding and the nights of interrupted sleep make it extra tough for Ophelia, and some days the feeding, and making up for much-needed sleep, makes it virtually impossible for her to do anything else.

Being so focussed on our baby and the practical things has also meant that we have to make a special effort to take a few moments here and there just to spend with each other. While only small, a simple hug is essential and revitalising.

Now, a few other practical things.

Our Will is on the most part a very content and quiet baby. He’s very communicative but he cries very little. In part, I think this is helped by our responsiveness. At least one of us, if not both, are with him most of the time. We notice his changes and respond to them as quickly as we can. We have learned to recognise Will’s hunger and when to expect it.

On the occasion that he is unsettled I’ve already developed a repertoire to respond, mostly involving contact, touch, movement, voice, external stimulation and play. This can consist of just walking around the house or the garden taking Will up to new objects; I can see him looking intently at them. During the night we have found that he is generally more settled sleeping with us. However, sometimes, I put him on my chest and this calms him almost immediately. It doesn’t work every time, especially if it turns out he just needs to be fed. With a baby as young as Will, who is still less than a month old, it’s really clear that the most important thing is contact. He basically wants to be close to us. We can be doing other things, I can be carrying him around while I’m doing things around the work and he’ll be absolutely fine.

The great thing is that these are all things I can do. Unlike what many first-time dads think, we can play a major role even in these early days. Really, it’s only feeding that we can’t do. From the first days, I took responsibility for nappy changing and bathing. While I find it very hard waking up at different times during the night to change a nappy, it’s something that I actually enjoy, mainly because it’s an opportunity to interact. I wasn’t expecting it, but I consider it to be a special time. Similarly, I’ve made giving him his vitamin D drops part of my morning ritual along with my coffee. At first it seemed like a chore, but it needs to be done, and I can make it easier for him by giving it to him gradually and talking him through.

On nappies. We’ve got several options at the moment. At hospital we were using both cloth and ordinary disposables. Given the quantity we go through in an average day, the burden of washing 10 to 15 nappies every couple of days doesn’t seem worth it. Instead, we’ve gone for a fully disposable biodegradable and organic nappy and Eenees which use a compostable pad inside a reusable plastic pocket and cloth shorts. At first I had all kinds of problems with leakages, but I pretty quickly worked out that this was due to my poor fitting.

A note on breastfeeding. OK, this isn’t my area. But what I will say is that I quickly learned that this is something that has to be mastered. Some have a very easy go, but this is not the norm. One of the main benefits of staying in hospital for a longer time was that my wife had unlimited access to assistance day and night for the whole time so that by the time we came home she had really gotten on top of it. Dealing with the problems that did arise would have been much much harder had we been at home and would have created much more stress, and required late night trips to Emergency rather than just taking a lift.

There are very real ups and downs. While the downs can be very tough, they are offset a thousand times over by the ups that are a major part of every day – holding my son in my arms, rejoicing in every little step in his growth and just marvelling at his cuteness! Gradually we’re getting into a kind of rhythm, though not of a clockwork kind. Rather, we respond to our baby’s needs, his internal clock, rather than trying to make him fit with any artificial schedule.

If you’re starting a family yourself, I hope some of this has been of use. Feel free to share your own comments or tips below.

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