The benefit of knowing someone who has experience of something you’re about to go through is usually a fantastic thing. They can answer all your questions and reassure you it’ll be fine if you try to do this or avoid that. But a recent trip to catch up with some friends – including a couple who recently found out they were pregnant – brought to the fore one experience it’s near damned impossible to fully articulate – fatherhood.
My friend wanted to know what it was like being a father. I started with the obvious changes to your lifestyle. Unbridled spontaneity goes out the window as it’s a bit difficult to decide to rush down to the cinema to catch the 8 o’clock film at your nearby multiplex once you’ve got a baby. But this is hardly a surprise and rightly wasn’t registered by my friend as particularly revelatory.
What he – and whoever’s asking this question – really wants to know is ‘what’s it actually like’. They want to know how you cope, which bits are hardest, do you get any sleep, when does your offspring start acknowledging your existence and start to become a little personality in their own right, has it impacted your work, how do you baby-proof your home, how does it change you and when do you feel like you know what you’re doing.
I’d like to say I have the answer but I don’t. I have my answer but it is specific to me, my circumstances, my wife and, most importantly of all, my child. Some of it may turn out to be useful and relevant but this will depend almost entirely on who you bring into the world.
It’s impossible to know who they are until they’ve arrived and like us, each one is an individual. They might take to feeding easily (which ours soon did) or it might be more difficult. They might sleep well or they might despise looking at the back of their eyelids (ours was definitely in this category). They could suffer from colic, be susceptible to nappy rash, be easily settled by an inanimate object like the washing machine or hoover, could enjoy being rocked, or take to new skills such as crawling, walking or talking sooner than expected. How each of these variables goes will have an impact on your resulting ability to cope with them and so, to some extent, answer those questions.
But the biggie as a father – and one which my friend directly brought up – was how can I, as a dad, be useful in those early days, weeks and months when the mother has a limpet constantly attached to her breasts. It’s likely a major concern of many a dad-to-be out there. My answer is simple to say but potentially strenuous to do and possibly emotionally challenging to maintain.
In short, you need to be supportive.
This comes in several forms. Telling your partner they’re doing a great job is tremendously important. Making sure you’re available to take the baby when your wife is in need of a break is key – regardless of how your day at work went. Doing lots of house work is fundamental. Giving their hand a squeeze when they’ve got back into bed having fed the little one for the fourth time that night shows you acknowledge the effort they’re putting in. Even if you’re sharing the feeding by using bottles for some – still acknowledge the effort your partner is having to generate as being regularly woken is no picnic.
That might not sound like much but it can be challenging. You just need to remember the challenges simply make the rewards even sweeter. I promise.