Prepping for fatherhood is more than reading Dr. Spock, childproofing the electrical outlets, and buying a tiny baseball glove. That’s the easy stuff; the important lessons are those that most first-time dads learn along the way. But you’re in luck: We got fathers and parenting experts from around the country to let us in on some of their secrets so you’ll be ready for fatherhood right from the start. Here’s what they said you need to know.
You will be more important to this baby than you will be to anyone else in the world. That idea can be intimidating — and scary. For me, it hit home one day while my then-pregnant wife and I were crossing the street. She pointed out that my jaywalking habits would have to change when the baby arrived. Well of course, I said. When I had the stroller, I’d cross with the lights. But she meant I couldn’t jaywalk when I was alone either; the baby would depend on my staying alive. Oh.
The point is, your baby needs you, and the quicker you get down to the business of raising her, the better. “It’s on-the-job training — not just for you but for the mother too,” says Glenview, IL, psychologist Robert Frank, Ph.D., author of Parenting Partners. “Fathers are always afraid that they won’t know what to do in that early time. But just jump in there, like you were pulling up a carpet or ripping down a wall. Jump in there and learn. The more you do it, the better you’ll be at it.”
you have instincts
Repeat after me: I am not clueless. I can do this. “Guys always think that Mom’s going to have the corner on instincts,” says Chuck Ault, a national trainer with Boot Camp for New Dads based in Irvine, CA. “But every guy becomes the expert on his baby.” You will find your baby’s most ticklish spots. You’ll figure out how to get him to take a bottle. And, believe it or not, you’ll even uncover secrets to soothing him that your wife will miss.
“My son had a lot of stomach pains when he was about 8 months old,” Frank says, “and I would throw him over my shoulder so his stomach was right on my shoulder, with his head bobbing off my back. It looked dangerous, and my wife never would have done it — but it made him feel better.”
Parenting draws out your animal instincts as well. Just like the beasts of the jungle, you’re hardwired to protect your child from harm. “I had to take my 3-month-old daughter to get some vaccinations,” Ault says, “and in that two-minute period when I was all alone with her, knowing what was coming, my protective instinct kicked in. I really connected with her in a way I hadn’t prior to that. You never know when it’s going to happen.”
Having said that, parenting is a partnership, and while you may be the king of roughhousing and peekaboo, your wife could be the queen of ointment rubbing or baby massaging. Don’t be shy about asking her for guidance when it comes to something you haven’t done before. “If the baby has a diaper rash, maybe she knows how to deal better,” Frank says. “Do what she tells you to do if you feel really lost.” After you do something once, you’ll be able to do it even better the next time.
You Can Do It
you really are an old softie
Many guys wonder if they have the emotional makeup to be a good dad, and they want to know how to tap into their softer side. It’s a simple three-step program: Look at your baby. Feel what you feel. Show it to your child. “Maybe I was a big softie going in, but I had never loved anything so much as that little baby when I first held him,” says Stewart Pharis, a father of two from Cleveland Heights, OH.
But it’s not love at first sight for every dad — or mom. “The night he was born it hit me: Do I want this? Is this a mistake?” says Mike Hintze, a first-time father from Seattle. “You’re afraid to express those feelings, even if they’re fleeting. But it’s normal. I don’t think I’m a weirdo for having had those thoughts. And now it just blows me away how awesome it is, and how happy I am to get up in the middle of the night and hold him.” In fact, now that his son, Nicholas, has started sleeping through the night, Hintze says, “Some days I’m actually disappointed. I almost looked forward to that time that was just for us.”
you can work hard and still be a great dad
Your job is more important than ever now because it’s helping to support a new and shockingly expensive dependent. But you have some decisions to make: Can you keep working until 8 P.M. every night? Can you really leave a giggling baby behind to drag yourself to work on the weekends, even if you need the overtime pay?
“During the week, I feel guilty,” says Lane Buschhorn of Austin, TX, father of 20-month-old Kaylen. “She’s only awake for 35 or 40 minutes in the morning before I leave. I walk in the door at 6 p.m. and feed her. Then she goes to bed by 7, and she likes her 12 hours of sleep. I really don’t see her much during the week — and there’s only 17 years left, then we shove her out the door. Now I understand why my mom was so upset when I went off to college.”
“Work is one way we contribute to our families, but we don’t want it to be our entire contribution,” Ault says — especially when kids are very young. “The only thing they want from you is face time. To give that, you can’t be at work all the time.”
There are some steps you can take toward making more time for your baby. Start by finding out your company’s paid or unpaid paternal leave policies. If your company offers paid leave, don’t be afraid to take it, says James Levine, director of the Fatherhood Project at the Families and Work Institute, in New York City, and author of Working Fathers. It’s important to your family, and, in the long run, it’s not likely to jeopardize your career. “I’ve been looking at this issue almost 30 years,” Levine says. “There is no evidence to suggest that guys who take leave today will be less likely to advance in their job.”
You also may not realize that you don’t have to take your leave all at once, or even start it the day your baby is born. Levine suggests mapping out a schedule with your supervisor months before the baby’s due date. If you have two weeks of leave (or even just saved-up vacation time) coming, maybe you can take it as ten Fridays off, giving your wife a little bit of extra relief, and keeping you from missing a single large block of time at work. Or, if your wife is returning to work after her own leave, start yours after hers.
Hintze took a month of leave that started at the tail end of his wife’s. “Now I wish I had taken even more time,” he says. “As a father, being the prime caretaker even for just a brief period of time was an extremely important experience.”
And now, more than ever, staying at home full-time is a viable option for a father. Pharis was working as an attorney five years ago when his first son was born. After a few months, he says, “We realized we were not happy with both of us working.” He and his wife decided he was the better choice to stay at home. “I probably have the longer fuse of the two of us,” he says. “I’m glad we’re living in a time when you can do whatever works for you as a couple.”
Of course, some families don’t have the luxury of leaving one parent at home. And while most workers at companies with at least 50 employees are entitled to 12 weeks of unpaid leave under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, many can’t afford the lost pay. One suggestion Ault offers: If your child’s happiest, most active time is early in the morning, when you’re supposed to leave for work, find out if you can start coming in and leaving a little later or if you can switch your regular shift altogether. “A little time can go a long way,” Ault says. “You don’t have to give up everything to get some balance.”
Your Life is Not Over
you will sleep with your wife again
The physical ups and downs of your wife’s pregnancy should be preparing you for a near future of inconsistent intimacy. You may also have to adjust to your wife putting the baby first sometimes, and you may have to suspend some of the activities that you’d enjoyed as a couple. But your marriage can survive having a baby — this is one of the reasons you got together in the first place. You just need to work at it in ways you didn’t before.
“In general, dads notice changes in the levels of intimacy sooner than moms,” Ault says. “I hear so many fathers say, ‘She’s so tired, nothing’s happening.'” He suggests this intimacy-restoring idea: Take the baby all day on a Saturday while your wife relaxes and recharges. Then, hire a sitter and have a Saturday night date. “You’ve got a refreshed, well-rested mom up for anything.”
And yes, it’s true: Your wife may look a little, well, softer after giving birth. But if you’re like most couples, the change probably bothers her more than you. “It’s stupid to lie to your wife and tell her you haven’t noticed she’s gained weight,” says New York City-based marriage counselor Sharyn Wolf, C.S.W. “You can tell her the pounds don’t matter to you. But the important point is they do matter to her. What you should say is, ‘I love you, whether you lose the weight or not.'”
Reassure your wife in very specific ways, Ault advises: “I know one father who would start at the top of his wife’s head and go all the way down to her feet, telling her everything he loved about her body. When he came to her stretch marks, he said, ‘I love those because they remind me of the beautiful child we created together.'”
you can have a baby — and your old friends
“We never used to understand why it was so hard to do things with our friends after they had kids,” Buschhorn says. “But after you have a kid you finally get it. You’d really just rather spend time with them. Or, Friday night, when the kid goes to bed, you’d rather spend time with your wife.”
Having a baby will change your old friendships, especially with “the guys.” You may become a less reliable poker or pickup basketball player, but you don’t have to let those relationships die. “I never think that having a baby is a death sentence for anything you want to do,” Ault says. Negotiate with your wife to restore some guy time by taking the baby off her hands on a Saturday or Sunday in exchange for a Thursday or Friday guy night. “A lot of couples make that work,” Ault says. “But you can’t go overboard. The point is not getting back the life you had. We have to give up some things we like to embrace other things we like differently.”
you can’t prepare for everything
Before your baby arrives, there’s a lot you can do to get ready. But there are a few things for which you just can’t prepare: the pure joy you’ll feel when your child smiles at you, the sheer happiness that will overwhelm you when he gives you his first hug, and the tear-jerking love you’ll feel when you watch him asleep in his crib. “I find myself sitting there for 15 minutes staring at him sleeping,” Hintze says. “There’s nothing else that I could stare at for 15 minutes and still have a stupid grin on my face.”
Even with all the work, all the sleepless nights, the payoff is truly incredible. “We can imagine what it’s like to lose guy time and to work less,” Ault says. “But we cannot imagine how much fun we’re going to have — and how much we’re going to love our children.”
One of the first nights I really felt that joy was when my 2-week-old fell asleep on my chest as we watched the original film version of Planet of the Apes. Now tell me, how can you top that?
10 Things They Don’t Tell New Dads
You’ll gain “sympathy weight” with your pregnant wife, so you can help each other with exercise and a healthy diet after the baby is born.
You’ll miss your favorite team’s games. The sooner you come to grips with that, the better, because you’ll find no sympathy at home.
Keep your chest hair covered. Your baby will mercilessly pull it out.
There’s almost nothing that can’t be solved with a game of peekaboo.
Surprise! Your mother-in-law is about to come in handy. Really.
You’re going to have less sex. (No, wait. They probably told you that already, didn’t they?)
Other parents will relish telling you how having a baby will take all of the fun out of your life. Ignore them. They’re having a second one, so there must be something to it.
No one will take your newborn away from you if you sit him on your lap and watch Rocky III. Maybe someone should, but they won’t.
If your wife is breastfeeding, she’ll be dehydrated, so think of yourself as a waiter: Your job, every few minutes, is to come by and refill her water glass.
You may have seen the sun rise over the Grand Canyon. You may have honeymooned at Niagara Falls. No matter. You will never see anything more beautiful in your travels — there may never have been anything more beautiful — than your wife asleep in bed with your baby resting beside her.
Gary Drevitch is a writer who contributes frequently to parenting and family magazines and websites. He is also the Senior Editor and Social Media Director of Psychology Today and PsychologyToday.com. He lives in New York City with his wife and three children.