First-time dads, do you (or did you) ever feel like you’re unsure of what you’re supposed to even do in those first few weeks after bringing baby home?
Do you (or did you) feel like you don’t even exist or that there’s not much reason for you to be around because the baby needs mom and mom is doing it all?
Every new parent will tell you that those first few weeks after baby comes home are rough.
We as a culture often focus on mom’s struggle during this transition. Even I spend a lot of time talking about it in my work, and there’s no doubt about it--moms or birthing persons have things particularly rough for a little while, if for no other reason than that, biologically, they are going through a lot of physical healing and chemical changes. But, they’re not the only ones who struggle.
It is not uncommon for dads to tell me that they are struggling to find their role in caring for their new baby, especially when in the early months mom is typically doing the majority of the feeding. And, let’s be honest, that can take up a large amount of time. It might even feel like it’s all she ever does. (Trust me, she’s probably feeling the same way!)
I mean, it makes sense. Those first weeks or months of new parenthood is a stressful time. But I want to call attention to dad’s experience in particular right now. Because it matters.
Some new or intensified stressors that might come up for dads during this phase are:
new and unending responsibilities
Less quality time with your partner
A decrease or complete absence of sex in your relationship
Increased financial strain
Little to no paternity leave
Postpartum depression experienced by either partner (Yes, dads can experience PPD too).
Do any of these resonate?
If so, know that many (many!) other dads feel the same way. Just ask around if you don’t believe me.
I get it. The baby literally, physically needs mom. Seemingly all the time. She is her source of comfort and nourishment. In fact, it can feel like mom is feeding the baby is the only thing mom does all day (and night) long. But what does baby need from dad?
According to a post on The Gottman Institute’s website, “Slowly but surely, even for couples who are fiercely opposed to traditional gender roles in their relationship, we find ourselves in gender specific roles during the first few years of parenthood that can remain in place into adolescence.”
If you’re feeling like you’re not needed or how you feel about this period in your family’s life doesn’t matter, I want to stop you right here.
Dads matter from Day One. Dads, you matter because you’re in this family too. You’re in this relationship with your partner and with your baby. You matter because your baby will learn things from you that they won’t learn from mom (sorry, moms--it’s true!). You also matter because your relationship with mom will build their sense of trust and security.
But those things are mostly about the baby, right? What the baby will get out of it. I also want you to understand that your experience--what you feel and how connected you are to your baby matters for YOU too.
Because don’t you want to feel that joy and connection and love too?
When it comes to giving advice to dads, we often talk about ways you can help mom out with the workload around the house--and, don’t get me wrong, that’s important! I promise you, she needs it and she’ll be so grateful. But, that kind of task management is not necessarily going to make you feel closer to your baby or your partner, is it?
So, I want to talk practically to you about how you can start forming the right habits right now to bond with your baby and connect with your partner:
#1. Bonding with your baby
Find a task you are going to do--maybe just one to start with. It could be diaper changes, bathtime, or reading a story to the baby every day (and no it is not too early to start reading to your child).
If your partner has decided to bottle-feed, then doing one of those feedings per day from Day One can be a great way to connect with your baby while helping your partner out. If your partner has chosen to breastfeed, you might want to contact her lactation consultant or your baby’s pediatrician to find out when you can safely introduce bottle-feeding without influencing the baby’s preferences. And then, you can start doing one feeding per day too.
(There are actually benefits for your partner in doing this because then she will feel OK with leaving the baby with someone so that she can get some solo time. But you don’t want to introduce a bottle too early or your baby might start favoring the bottle and it could cause your baby to wean early.)
You can even find ways to play with them. Yes, you can play with an infant! Maybe you mimic their coos and gurgles. Maybe you move their arms and legs around to gently make them dance a bit. Or you can strap them into a baby carrier and dance around yourself or narrate your activities to them.
It’s OK for this to feel weird or ridiculous in the beginning, or like you don’t know what the heck you’re doing. It’s important for you to find your own style and techniques that work for you.
I know of one dad that drew a mustache on his baby’s face when his partner wasn’t looking. At the time, his partner wasn’t thrilled (I promise the baby was not harmed in any way by the drawing utensil!), but she said that later she was able to laugh about it and realized that it was his way of figuring out how to be himself around his new baby.
I’m not necessarily encouraging you to start doodling on your child here, but hopefully you get what I mean: Don’t take things so seriously and don’t stop being you!
(Moms, realize now that they are not going to do it the same way you do. Do not stand over them and critique. Let them get in their groove. I've had many dads and partners tell me that they never feel like they do things right when moms hover or get critical, and so they stop participating. No one wants this to happen.)
Need more reason to value dad’s role with baby? Consider the science behind play: Research tends to show that dads play with their children in very different ways than moms do. Moms might play quieter intellectual games with their children, but dads tend to play more viscerally and physically. This teaches children emotion regulation in intense situations and also builds trust and a sense of independence. (Want more? Check out this post from The Gottman Institute).
#2. Connecting with your partner
In the early months when mom is feeding All. The. Time., don't hesitate to sit with her and talk. It can sometimes feel lonely as a mom when it’s just you and your baby all day.
Ask her how things are going. Ask her what’s on her mind. Ask her what she needs.
Does she need a snack? Some water? (Breastfeeding moms especially need to make sure they are drinking plenty of water.) Maybe a foot or shoulder massage?
And what about you, dad? Talk to her about what’s been on your mind lately.
(But also be forgiving of each other if one of you is so tired or distracted that really listening is a challenge.)
Speaking of, if money stress is something that has been on your or your partner’s mind, be proactive by seeking advice from a financial advisor. Then, chat with your partner about what you learned.
If sex (or lack thereof) is an issue, talk about what that feels like and where you both stand on it (here’s another blog post I wrote on this topic).
These suggestions might all seem really light and obvious, but truly, communication is key in any relationship. And when you’re going through a big transition like new parenthood, it can be easy to lose touch with each other.
And you definitely don’t want to lose touch with each other. Why? Because it’s so much bigger than the current frustrations you might be in. These things ripple outward.
According to the Gottman Institute’s research, dads who pull away from their partners also tend to pull away from their babies. It probably isn’t even intentional. It’s just generally hard to turn off that frustration with one person in the household when you’re feeling it toward another.
I often say that your relationship with your partner is your parenting foundation….because it’s true. A shift in that partnership will shift not only the way you parent, but also your connection with your child.
So now, it’s your turn! Experienced dads, what was one of the first things you did to bond with your baby? New or expecting dads, what’s one thing you’ll start with right away to connect with your baby or partner? Leave a comment below.