Friday, 6 July 2012

Becoming a Father: One Year On - Part 2

This is the second part of my retrospective on my first year as a new father. To view all the parts, please click on one of the links below:

Part 1 - The Beginning
Part 3 - Getting the hang of things
Part 4 - The Accident

This post focuses on...

The First Two Weeks

The day after my son was born I woke up bleary eyed and called my parents and in-laws - now forever know as "the grandparents" - to tell them the good news; they had been calling all night but I was a little tied up at the time. I had breakfast, a quick shave and headed back to the hospital to pick up my wife and son.

My wife was fortunate enough to get a single room for the night - usually you can get at least 6 new mothers and their babies in a ward room. Even so my wife didn't get that much rest due to my son needing regular feeding and nurses popping in and out constantly to check on mother and child. So I think she was glad to be getting out of there and back home, plus it seemed the hospital kind of wanted the room back; it was never said, just implied since this is the NHS we're talking about, always under strain. On a side note at least she wouldn't have had to eat the lunch I saw them bring in; the NHS is a great institution but they never have got the hang of meals anyone would willingly eat.

So, new baby in his new car seat and me carrying a metric ton of samples of various baby related paraphernalia, I managed to finally get everyone in the car and get them home. And then the realisation dawned on me and my wife: what the hell do we do now? Because you spend a lot of time thinking about how it will be and reading a lot of books to learn how to look after a baby, but nothing says "trial by fire" more than bringing home your first-born and having to figure out everything you need to do to look after them by pure guesswork.


Breastfeeding in particular stressed my wife out a lot. You would assume, maybe from seeing people doing it or just the general impression that the idea gives, that it would be an act that both mother and child instinctively know how to do, like they are hard-wired to "just do it". Nothing can be further from the truth. Of course a newborn baby does have a natural suckling instinct, just no way of knowing where to apply it. And it's no easier for the mother - it's very easy to get the baby up to the breast but it's not easy to see whether they are latched on correctly due to the positioning of everything, with no idea how much milk they have drunk, if any. Add to that the pressure of midwives always telling you that "breast is best" and my wife refusing to try any other way, it resulted in a very stressful time.

That first day I don't think my son got much milk down him due to both our inexperience, my wife getting very upset by the end of the day. In the end he did sleep almost through the night - which helped my wife who was still exhausted from childbirth - but we were still worried he wasn't actually getting any milk. Fortunately the midwife who came to visit on the second day explained to us that a) you can express breastmilk and give it to him in a bottle and b) give him formula milk at the same time whilst learning the breastfeeding technique. So we resolved to go out to the supermarket and get some formula milk - our first trip out so it probably did us all good.


Babies change everything. Suddenly all your little routines that govern your life are thrown out of the window and you are forced to re-learn everything. So apart from having to know how to change nappies, how to feed them, how to burp them, how to dress them and a thousand other little things that you never thought about before, you also have to try and find order within the chaos that a newborn brings into your life. As a programmer, who relishes procedures, order and routines, I found this very hard.

Take, for example, the night feeds - because your job as a parent doesn't end when the sun goes down, no siree! Every 3 hours my son needed feeding - and I mean every 3 hours, morning and night. Before he was born I insisted to myself that I would do my share of everything - nappy changing, cleaning him, the works - and since my wife was starting to express milk it also meant I could help with feeding him. This also meant getting used to a new sleep routine (or lack of it). As a result, we both basically went to bed at around 8pm for nearly 3 months because we were too exhausted to stay up any later!

There was also the night of the third day when he just would not sleep and cried and cried all night. We tried everything we could think off and were getting to our wits end when we realised that letting him suck our finger helped, but take it away and he would start crying again. It got to around midnight, when I was sitting up in bed with him sucking my finger and not being able to get to sleep like this, when I declared to my wife "I'm going to buy some dummies. Now".

Another thing you learn as new parents is to let go of all your pre-conceptions. My wife had many ideas that she thought would be good for our son such as breastfeeding, no dummies ("too unsightful") leading all the way up to baby-led weaning. We reluctantly learned the hard way that a baby doesn't care one bit what you think is best for them, it will do exactly what it likes and there is nothing you can do about it but adapt to them. So I had to drive to the midnight supermarket to get some emergency dummies, which let him at least suck on something while he slept in his crib and gave me my fingers back.

I Don't Like You

Perhaps the thing I personally and emotionally found hardest to accept in my two weeks off work was the fact that my own son seemed to hate me. Well, perhaps "hate" is too strong a word but he definitely did not like me. No matter how I held him or cuddled him he would just cry and cry at me, only stopping once his mother took hold of him; he was inside my wife for nine months, knew her like the back of his hand, whilst he only met me a few days ago and did not like what he saw.

This is a very hard thing to take, the fact that your own child does not seem to like you. I had an idea that it would be tough but I also imagined that he would at least just lie in my arms looking all cute and all, but there was none of that. I even looked after him for a whole afternoon on my own while my wife went to get a haircut; I insisted to her that some time alone for her would do her some good. It also meant that I had an entire afternoon of him crying at me, pretty much non-stop. Add on top of that the sleepless nights, trying to keep the house in order (though I soon gave up on that notion) and keeping up a repetitive 3-hour cycle of the same tasks - feed, burp, change nappy, prepare the next feed - I have to admit it almost broke me.

But It Gets Better

So far I'm making fatherhood sound like hell on earth, but overall it isn't. What people reading this who don't have children of their own must understand is that the shock of changing your life from free-and-easy to instant parent is incredibly severe. Everyone says that raising children is tough but my words alone cannot convey just how tough it is, the only true way of understanding is to experience it for yourself.

And yes the first two weeks of my son's life were incredibly tough, for me and my wife, I cannot lie about that. But every parent would also tell you that things get easier. At the time, when you haven't slept all night and every minute drags on forever, you can't see the end but it is there. And things did (very slowly) start to get better; towards the end of my paternity leave my son was starting to get a bit more used to me, partly by me realising that he wanted to be moving at all times - that meant rocking him in my arms non-stop, which wore me out physically but at least he wasn't crying! And once you start to see a pattern in his routine - such as when he appears to sleep, when he last had his feed so you can gauge when the next one should be - then you can get into the swing of things.

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