Most new dads – whether their baby has been born yet or not – want to be amazing in their new role. More engaged and educated about childcare than any generation before them, they go into fatherhood with a vision of how they’ll parent. But life, work, world events and social pressures can quickly derail their great intentions. The mixed messages new dads get make things harder and more confusing than they have to be. But, there are four critical roles you can play as a new father to make a positive, lasting impact on your family: the expert, the gatekeeper, the advocate, and the example.
Become an expert at something
We are sisters who grew up with an amazing, hands-on father. Not surprisingly, our own husbands have many of the traits we saw modeled when we were kids: they’re hard workers, affectionate, handy and confident. So, it was surprising to us that they were so worried about finding their “thing” when our first babies were born. As moms-to-be, we were reading all the books and sharing the latest research. Our husbands wondered where exactly they fit in.
Dads, pick one or two “baby skills” and become your family’s expert. Whether it’s babywearing, sleep, tracking schedules or something else, dive in. Do the research, read the articles, and watch YouTube videos until you’re a pro. Our husbands became the go-to guys for things like swaddling and baby bathing. Baby and child care is about more than just being hands-on; it’s about weighing your options and making the right call for your family. Share some of your partner’s mental load and find an area where you can teach them something new.
Your baby needs you, not some vision of the father you thought you’d be.
Act as the gatekeeper
No matter how your baby becomes a part of your family, you and your partner will ride a wild roller coaster of emotions in those early days and months. Our clients are often taken aback when they realize that their family and friends also have a lot of feelings and expectations about how that early postpartum period will go.
Right now, boundaries are more important (and more hotly debated!) than ever. Will you have visitors? Will they need to take extra hygiene measures? When and how will your family and friends meet the baby? There’s no way to make everyone happy, and that’s where you come in.
Act as the gatekeeper for your family. Sometimes in our consulting business, we call this role the enforcer. Decide with your partner what your little family’s priorities will be. Then, take on the role of sharing those boundaries with friends and family. Take the hit when your family pushes back against the fact the baby needs to nap instead of being featured on another FaceTime call. When your best friend wants to bring their sniffling toddler over to meet the baby, politely say no, so that your partner does not get drawn into a debate about this boundary. When you do the emotional heavy lifting, you remove a major burden from your co-parent.
Advocate for your family
It’s a sad reality that the medical community is just as affected by racism, sexism and other social ills as any other system. Consider these statistics:
- Women are more likely than men to have complaints about pain and mental health dismissed (read more at: https://www.today.com/health/gender-bias-health-care-may-be-harming-women-s-health-t133583)
- Black, American Indian, and Alaskan Native women are two to three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women – and this disparity increases with age, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report
- 56% of LGBTQ individuals have confronted discrimination while seeking medical treatment - The National LGBTQ Task Force
In addition, our healthcare providers are under-resourced at the best of times; right now, we are in a crisis that has affected their ability to connect patients with the care they need. Even if you have chosen empathetic, educated providers, it’s essential for you to advocate for your family in a medical setting.
Keep your eyes and ears open and be the voice for your family. Learn about what is expected from a physical and mental health perspective during the postpartum time period. This goes for your partner, your baby, and yourself (yes, your mental and physical health is a consideration too). The range of what’s “normal” is vast, but the first step in being an advocate is knowing generally what to expect.
Even if things seem fine on the outside, go with your gut. Does something feel wrong? Is there something you don’t understand? Press for answers, whether that’s from the NICU nurse, your pediatrician, or the care providers taking care of your partner.
Learn about the markers for perinatal mood disorders (PMADs). They often look very different than you’d expect. From OCD to anxiety, there is much more to PMADs than depression. These issues don’t just affect people that have physically given birth! You and your partner can be affected no matter how or when your baby joined your family. There are amazing resources, support groups and therapists available for new parents of all kinds.
You know yourself and your partner best! We observe our clients closely; even if they are doing and saying things that society says are normal for a new parent, if a particular behavior is not typical for the individual, we assist them in seeking help. You can do the same for yourself and your family.
Be an example by being yourself
You can teach your kids to embrace their unique gifts by simply being yourself, from the beginning. We know a dad who didn’t have a lot of experience with – or confidence about – caring for a brand new baby. However, he wanted to have a ritual that was special for him and his child. His routine became taking the baby out for a walk every day when he came home from work. Being outside with his son was comfortable for him, it gave his partner a break, and it gave him time to get to know his baby one-on-one. As his confidence level increased, he found himself more comfortable being solo with the baby and looking forward to their time alone together.
Your baby needs you, not some vision of the father you thought you’d be. Whether your strength is your ability to be silly, your baby soothing skills, or your night-owl tendencies, you’re bringing something unique to the table. Embrace what you love about fatherhood, and start introducing your true self to your child as soon as possible. An easy way to bond is just by chatting with your son or daughter. A baby doesn’t care whether you’re talking about your garden or your favorite video game, or talking about work – they just want to be with you, snuggled in your arms, safe with dad.
Be prepared to be surprised at the kind of parent you actually are! You may have worried you’d be super anxious about every detail, or that you’d lack the patience you need. Some dads even think they won’t enjoy their baby until he or she is old enough to talk! But we find that the vast majority of our clients end up surprising themselves. Be open to the fact that fatherhood may be very different than you imagined, and allow yourself to enjoy the process of becoming a dad.