Friday, 23 August 2013

For the Father-to-be from the Mother-that's-been

Although this is addressed to fathers to be in general, this is written for a guy I know online expecting his first child—because I’m sure that by this point of his wife’s pregnancy, there is nothing he wants more than more advice.

There is a lot of advice out there on babies and new parenthood, yet most of it flows between members of the same gender. Fathers counsel fathers and mothers counsel each other—often with a surprising lack of sympathy for their partners. So here is a mother’s take on what the new father should be prepared for. (Based on the entirely anecdotal evidence of five years of conversations with male friends—which makes it definitive!)

The Baby
I’m going to assume that you’ve done your research here and have a good idea of what to expect from your newborn. You’ve also probably heard numerous times that you can’t really know what it’s like until you experience it for yourself. It’s not that anything’s going to happen that you don’t expect (maybe), it’s more that you can’t know how you will deal with it 24/7.

To put it another way, before the birth you’re saying: “OK, so babies cry and they make a mess.” After the birth, you’re saying: “OH MY GOD! BABIES CRY AND THEY MAKE A MESS!” The good news is that you do go back to: “OK, so babies cry and they make a mess.” It just might take a couple of months.

The biggest transition here is adjusting from being a couple to being a family—knowing that your priorities will have to change doesn’t make the shift easy. However, the best encouragement I ever received came from a father friend: “It just keeps getting better.” From the first smile around eight weeks to the first time you successfully soothe their tears away to their first light sabre battle… Babies bloom into pure awesome.

The Emotions

May I refer you to a phrase coined by Glumbunny’s sister-in-law? You will be FUCKING DEPRESSED.

It’s not necessarily postpartum depression, which is its own animal, but wild bouts of despair are a normal state for a new parent. Mothers do have it worse, what with the hormones, physical recovery, lactation and body-image issues, but that doesn’t mean that Dads don’t get totally miserable too. Both parents are sleep deprived, stressed and suffering from a lack of confidence.

Perhaps the least expected parental emotion is guilt. Guilt over not filling your baby’s every waking hour with stimulation during this vital infancy stage. Guilt that you are doing the things you swore you would never do before having the child. Guilt that you never even thought of doing all the cool kid-friendly activities that appear in photographs on your Facebook feed. Guilt that you are neglecting your career, hobbies and loved ones for the baby. (Get ready for that self-loathing moment when your faithful pet nudges you for attention, and you push it away because you can’t cater to the demands of yet another living thing.)

Fathers feel an added layer of helplessness since the baby is more likely to calm down for Mum—if nothing else men lack naturally occurring pacifiers on their chests. Also, when it comes down to it, it’s Dad who’s got to suck it up and support the mother as she deals with those extra elements. And that extra responsibility means extra stress, which might just be the final straw on some days. In other words, have a backup support system ready.

I’m not trying to give you prepartum depression, but I don’t want to sugarcoat this either. This is the most wonderful thing that’s ever happened to you—and it’s going to be agonisingly difficult. People will remind you to enjoy every moment because it goes by so fast, but it’s both normal and OK to have days where you just can’t.

On the plus side, this is what’s going to make you into the man you’ll be a year from now.

That was my attempt at inspiration. Moving on...

There will also be days where you get this fatherhood thing down.

The Relationship

I remember before the birth of my first child, I swore to myself that I would not be the kind of woman who neglects her husband for her child. After the birth, my husband and I both had a bitter laugh over that one.

The view of mothers neglecting fathers once the baby comes along is a male-driven one. From the maternal perspective, I deeply resented the fact that I never came first: I felt like I was spending all my time caring for the baby, cats, husband, and nobody took the time to care for me. This perception may have been mildly influenced by sleep deprivation...

Meanwhile, my husband had to deal with my hormonal urges—not the good (sexy) kind, but the kind where if the baby cried, I had to be the in the same room. It didn’t matter if I knew my husband was taking him in order to give me a break, it didn’t matter that I believed my husband was perfectly capable, it didn’t even matter that I wanted to stay in bed. All that mattered was that, as the mother, I felt morally obliged to be present for my child’s misery. You can imagine how this helped my husband's paternal self-esteem.

Chances are, you and the mother have talked about how you will balance the workload (for both baby and house) after the birth. Try and revisit that every couple of weeks, maybe even more frequently, with both of you being completely honest about what's hitting you hardest. There isn’t going to be a perfect balance, but you will improve. (Pro-tip: if I was doing the first baby over again, I’d ask my husband to make sure I ate breakfast every day—I often found that it was lunchtime and I still hadn’t eaten anything.)

The general consensus seems to be that having a baby is a huge strain on the relationship, with the trite assurance that you’ll come out stronger for it. I can't swear to that, but when it comes down to it, remember you’re both on the same side here, comrades in the trenches. The real enemy is the little sod screaming from the crib at 3am.

The Mother

So how will your beloved partner change physically after the birth? It depends on a lot of variables: scars, size and continence are all going to vary hugely from woman to woman and birth to birth.

The most immediate mystery is the post-partum belly which is round and soft: it deflates with the uterus over the course of a week or so, but the added flesh and stretch marks remain—and wrinkles of loose skin may join them. Those wrinkles, which appeared after my second birth, are the feature of my maternal body that most bothers me, and it took me a long time to look at them in the mirror without wincing.

There’s a lot of fuss about getting back into shape after the birth, and clearly it’s the healthy thing to do, but conventional mother wisdom says that it took nine months for the body to get that way—allow at least nine months to get it back (really a year, since she can’t do much about it straight after the birth). And some elements of her body will never be the same. (That might be breasts, tummy, ribcage, genitals… it’s life’s least savoury roulette wheel.)

Part of the adjustment for both you and your partner will be in accepting the flaws of the maternal body. Check out Jade Beall's Beautiful Body Project, which seeks to demystify the postpartum body.  Different women place different priorities on regaining their old figures, but at least in the short term, they’re going to be very changed from pre-pregnancy.

Her new body really shouldn’t bother you, but if it does, bear in mind she’s probably more upset about it than you are. Relax and embrace it… literally. Getting back in shape is good, but rediscovering her sexiness is vital, and that's something you can definitely help her with.

From A Beautiful Body Project

The Sex

It might strike you as a clichéd stereotype that a guide for fathers should talk about sex, but as with the postpartum body, I feel that this is something that needs to be talked about more openly. There is not enough information on what sex is like after childbirth out there—all I had was a few private warnings from a friend who was a month ahead of me in postpartum recovery.

Current American medical advice for vaginal deliveries is no intercourse for six weeks after the birth to allow time for everything to heal. This does not mean that after six weeks, everything is going to be back to normal down there. The area around the vagina is still tender and (especially if your partner is breastfeeding) very dry. Use lubricant, go gently and be aware that she’ll be sore afterwards.

The bad news is that this will be the status quo for months. Breast-feeding hormones are not conducive to good sex—but do not be that guy who encourages his wife to quit breastfeeding to better his sex life. Even after the tenderness goes away, there are still going to be sore points wherever she has stitches—fortunately, this isn’t likely to be enough pain to detract from the sexual experience and this should also disappear within a year.

Will you feel any changes? OK… I’m not really in a position to debunk the theory that after popping out a baby, a woman’s vagina is somehow ‘loose’. Funnily enough, this isn’t something the men of my acquaintance talk about (to me). However, from the limited discussion I have heard on this topic, it seems you needn’t worry. It’s not like you can do a direct before and after comparison anyway, but chances are you won’t notice a difference. (And of course, that kind of thing doesn’t really matter to you, does it?)

The big elephant in the room is the frequency of the sex… and that’s where I don’t have good news. Your average new mother is not feeling a lot of interest in sex in the first place—and not particularly enjoying it when she has it. It does, I am sorry to say, become just another thing on an overwhelming To Do List, and that leaves you at the mercy of her priorities.

I’ve known several women who just stopped having sex after the birth of their child, with this state of affairs lasting for a year or more. I was always of the school of thought that my husband and I needed that intimate bonding moment, that it was worth finding time for… yet my lack of enthusiasm for the actual act caused its own strain between us.

It’s tough on the father, not just because your hormones are still focused on conception, but because it’s tough to see that your sexual partner has effectively lost interest in you. That’s a crisis of self-confidence to rival the mother’s body-image struggles. And like that, it’s something that both partners are going to have to understand and work through together. It will improve, but it’s definitely a long-term project.

Oh, and one last thing… Have you ever felt that the beauty of a long-term relationship is that you have memorised the map of your partner’s particular turn-ons? Yeah, those might change after the birth too. Think of it as Mother Nature’s unnecessarily vicious little joke.

Don't forget all the obstacles between the two of you and alone-time.

So that is the cold hard truth of new fatherhood. That is what you need to brace yourself for. Now relax, because there is also plenty of exultation ahead and incredible amounts of love, but I’ll let you discover that for yourself. (We're going spoiler-free on the good stuff!) Good luck to you for the next few months and congratulations for the rest of your life… This is, hands down, the best thing you’ve ever done.


  1. I love that picture of you, the baby, and the cat. Very sweet.

    1. That about sums up my life in the months following my daughter's birth! It's definitely one of my favourite motherhood pics though.

  2. This is amazing! I wish it weren't too late for my husband to read it. It's really...accurate! And comprehensive!