My First Year As A Dad
Some dads experience postpartum depression after the birth of their child. Here’s what I did.
Audrey strapped Sam into his car seat and covered him with a blue, cellular cotton blanket. I carried him from the hospital door to a waiting yellow jeep in the hospital car park.
“I’ve the car warmed up.” His newly-commissioned grandmother tapped the heating dial.
I was twelve driving lessons into getting my licence, enough experience to get to the shops and back. Navigating rush-hour traffic with a newborn baby was a different matter.
“I’m glad you’re here,” I said.
“Where else would I be?” she said.
“I’ll strap Sam in,” said Audrey. “Quick, it’s raining. Give me the seat before he gets cold.”
I didn’t argue. I’d no idea how all of this baby paraphernalia worked. The instruction manual was vague at best.
Audrey’s mother brought the three of us back to her house, half an hour from the hospital. She’d already made up the crib in the spare room and left out a stack of nappies and baby wipes.
Audrey settled him in.
That first night, after the well-wishers had left, Sam clasped onto the baby blanket with tiny pink fingers. He didn’t open his eyes much except to feed. But, every now and then, he made a faint whistling sound while breathing through his nose.
All I could think was, How am I responsible for another human being?Thank God for his mum. She’ll know what to do.
“I love him already,” my partner said.
I couldn’t compete with her experiences. She’d spent nine months physically connected to the growing life inside of her, whereas I watched like a bystander at a football match.
“He’s some man alright,” I said.
“He needs a bottle,” she said. “You’re up.”
I got to work.
Before Sam was born, I worried about dropping the baby or accidentally hurting him through a moment of clumsy foolishness. Listening to him suck on his milk, I knew I wouldn’t drop him, but not much else.
“He looks like you, Bryan,” his grandmother said one morning over tea. With a large forehead and a crinkled brow, perhaps he did. Many newborns look like their fathers. It’s nature’s way of encouraging new dads to stop hunting in the wild and start providing for their family.
Waiting to move into a house of our own, everything about those early weeks was fresh, like the smell of our son’s head. All the time, my confidence grew through holding, changing and washing him under the supervision of Audrey and his grandmother. And when friends and family came to visit. I wanted to show them what I’d learnt. Most of our friends were childless and were curious to see how we were getting on. I would plop Sam into their laps and say, “Don’t worry, babies are sturdier than you think.”
One of our friends, in her mid-twenties, handed Sam straight back. “I don’t want him to get sick on me.”
I went out one Saturday night to the pub to wet his head and somewhat smugly told my mates, “I feel sorry for people who can’t have kids.” As if I’d somehow collected a lifetime’s parenting experiences in a few short weeks with a newborn.
On good days, I wanted to share everything: becoming a parent was teaching me about milestones and navigating the world. On bad days, I wanted to tell my friends, “I don’t have a clue what I’m doing.”
When we finally moved into our own house, their generosity filled the place with balloons, baby clothes (including receipts), teddies and flowers.
The first few months with Sam at home involved many routines and rituals, and repetition built a type of quiet competency.
During a typical working week, my partner usually went to bed early, exhausted from feeding, changing and taking care of him all day. I sterilised and prepared the following morning’s bottles and then would sit up by his cot, reading.
As a dad-to-be, I’d freaked out at the prospects of changing a dirty nappy. Three months in, I thought nothing of raising Sam into the air and inhaling deeply to see if it was changing time.
During those first few months, we lived life in blocks of four hours. Feed baby, wind baby, change baby, (try to) put baby to sleep, comfort baby, repeat. I use the word “we” liberally here, as I broke out of this cycle each day for work.
A few months in, a friend asked if I could go out one Friday night to a big house party. I was all set. Shirt ironed. Shoes polished.
Then, Audrey announced she was meeting her friends for drinks.
“You’re on daddy duty.”
Her declaration was my first taste of the give and take every new parent goes through with their partner after a child is born. On a good day, it was a partnership. On a bad day, it was more like scorekeeping at a rowdy match.
“I got up early with him this morning, so that means you’re up tomorrow.”
“Well, I changed the last nappy, so now it’s your turn.”
“I cooked dinner. What you have done around here lately?”
The problem with this type of scorekeeping is nobody wins, something I didn’t figure out until much later.
“How are you getting on with the young lad, anyway?” my friend asked over a text message.
I took a picture of a bottle of milk next to a book and a bottle of beer. “This parenting gig isn’t so bad,” I replied. But left alone with Sam, the prospect of so much responsibility stretching long into adulthood weighed on me. Despite my beer-fuelled declarations, I sometimes arrived home from work, saw the navy fold-out pram sitting in the hall and wondered, Why do we own one of those?
Like most new parents, I got by on broken sleep. Even if Audrey got up, I’d lie in bed listening to her feeding him and watch the clock marching towards time for work.
Ageing Five Years
It wasn’t all late-night angst. Playing the role of a new dad offered a subtle rush. When I took Sam out in his buggy around the town, women stopped me in the street and said things like, “How old is he?” and “He’s gorgeous, he’s so small.”
A few added, “You’re young to be a dad.”
I really wanted to say, Send help fast. And can you tell me why he makes this odd sound while asleep?
If I managed to escape at the weekend, all this responsibility made for interesting anecdotes at the bar. Friends gawked at the photos and said, “I don’t know how you do it.”
I enjoyed playing the novelty act within my social circle.
“There’s Bryan. Did you know he has a kid now? And he’s only twenty-five!”
“I know, I can’t believe it either!”
As the months passed, the newborn smell faded. Sam woke up after dark, curling his legs up into his chest and howling into the night.
“What’s wrong with him?” Audrey wanted to know.
But not from me. She called her mam and mined a more experienced parent for advice.
“…probably trapped wind…”
“What do I do about it, Mam?”
“…draw his legs up to his chest…”
I listened on.
Like most guys, I craved a sense of autonomy, but I was helpless and hopeless with a newborn. Who could I ask for help or advice?
After a few months, I wanted out from the middle-of-the-night feeds, early morning starts, and a routine that consumed all my free time after work and every weekend. I knew how to change a nappy, but that didn’t mean I wanted to.
The same friends who’d helped me wet the baby’s head left Ireland for a year in Australia, whereas I lay in bed totalling up if we’d enough to pay for a mortgage and if it was my turn to get up with the baby in the morning. How will we pay for the next eighteen weeks, let alone the next eighteen years? Do babies really need their mothers more than their fathers and, if so, where does that leave me?
I’d swapped the light spontaneity of my mid-twenties for responsibilities I couldn’t or didn’t want to carry.
I got sick of insomnia. Some nights, after Audrey went to bed and if Sam was asleep, I’d sit up to the early hours playing Fallout and Call of Duty on my Xbox 360. I drank beer, smoked joints and told myself: Bryan, you’ve got this parenting gig figured out. I got pretty good at beating fourteen-year-old Americans in Call of Duty, but not much else. Babies have a way of starting the day early and often before I wanted to get up.
When Audrey’s maternity leave ended, I worked extra shifts to reduce the enormous childcare costs. Some mornings, after she left for work, it took me ten to fifteen minutes to peel my groggy head off the pillow. I’d little patience or energy to feed and change Sam, get ready for work and drop him at the childminder.
I often arrived at my dead-end job stressed, late and behind. More than once, I nodded off in the bathroom in the middle of the morning.
For a while, I drank coffee all day until I couldn’t stand it anymore; and it was time to swap caffeine for alcohol or video games. And repeat.
I created a nighttime routine with a hint of my old life because I couldn’t accept my new one. I resented working in a job I hated to cover the cost of childcare. I was holding onto old ideas about what my life should look like. I wanted to seek out exciting risks instead of facing up to my responsibilities.
One morning at work, I was sitting on the sofa tired and a little hungover. A friendly mam in her mid-forties said to me, “Bryan, what happened?”
“What do you mean?” I said.
She pointed at my face and fell quiet.
I went to the bathroom and locked the door. Inside, I examined two large black circles around my eyes. Sam’s first birthday was coming up, and I looked like I’d aged five years.
The first few days at home with a newborn is intoxicating, kind of like the baby’s head. You’ve spent months waiting (and worrying) about this moment, and they’re here… hungry, with wind and a dirty nappy. Friends and family want to call up and hear about the birth, see and hold the baby. They mean well, but too many visitors are overwhelming for the baby, your partner and even for you.
Remember those bars and clubs you couldn’t get into because of some surly bouncer… the ones you’ll have less time for now? During the first few weeks with a newborn, you can play that role at home.
“If your name isn’t on the list, you’re not getting in.”
“Back of the line, buddy!”
After a few months, it’s normal to wonder what happened to your old life, particularly if you weren’t quite ready for the world of sterilisers, pacifiers and Sudocrem.
Remember, you’re not alone. Your partner or the baby’s mum is dealing with all of this too and recovering from pregnancy and childbirth. She’s also getting a lot less sleep than you, especially if she’s breastfeeding.
Ah, sleep — the elusive, golden chalice of all new parents.
It’s unhelpful for mum and dad to be on duty when a newborn baby is awake during the night or suffer through prolonged crying episodes. Tag teaming and taking short breaks mean both of you can care for your infant more effectively.
Think of it like working in shifts. If you’re patient and can work with your partner, the midnight feeds, early mornings and nappy runs will give way to a comfortable routine that works for everyone.
If you catch yourself pacing the halls at three a.m., covered in baby puke, bleary-eyed and wondering what’s the end-game, take heart. Chances are some of your friends are finding year one with a newborn challenging too.
Tips for Surviving Year One
Systematise as many baby tasks as possible. For example, prepare for the following day by sterilising and washing bottles in bulk instead of waiting for your baby to start crying after dark.
New mums often descend with buggies and baby bags to each other’s homes. Guys try and figure out things alone, but meeting other dads is a good way of decompressing, spending time with your newborn… and giving your partner a break.
It’s easy enough to bring a tiny baby out to a restaurant during the day as they spend a lot of time sleeping. Take advantage if possible because once they’re toddlers, you’ll spend most of your time running after them instead of enjoying your meal.
Want more? This is an extract from my new book I Can't Believe I’m A Dad. Follow along here. Or pre-order now.