Letter to a New Father

Um, right. So this letter is not about Judaism or Israel. But, it is a letter to Josep “from the archives,” and I think The Internets may find it useful.

To clarify, I am not posting this in honor of any particular event. It’s just that a recent conversation with someone reminded me that I had written this, and when I told her about it, she encouraged me to post it. So here it is. I wrote it to Josep shortly after his son was born.

Dear Josep,

Yup. There it is: the sleep-deprived, elated new father look. The one that says “OMG I have a baby! What on earth just happened?!… And where is my bed?” Ahh, I know it well.

Welcome to Planet Parenthood.

This is, indeed, a strange new world with strange new rules. And in order to survive, you will need to familiarize yourself with them. We will work through them slowly and carefully.

Rule #1: If Mama Ain’t Happy, Ain’t Nobody Happy

Look. I’m not gonna lie. The first few months are going to test everything. Your sanity, your stamina, your marriage, your commitments, your limits, and your ability to sleep sitting up with a little person on your chest. (I hope you have a reclining chair. We don’t!) But for your wife, this period is especially challenging. Her body is still recovering from a crazy ordeal. Her hormones are out of control. Whether she is breastfeeding or not, she could be experiencing pain and swelling, and many first-time mothers and babies have some difficulty getting the hang of it. All this on the very interrupted sleep and the same feeling of clueless, bleary-eyed, exhausted helplessness that you are dealing with. To top it off, she is very likely to experience the beginning throes of something that deserves its own subtitle: mommy guilt. We’ll get to that later.

Her instinct is going to be to take care of the baby. Many mothers forget that they need to take care of themselves, too. That’s where you come in.

So first and foremost, she needs her basic needs met. This includes the following:

1) Food. If you thought her appetite increased when she was pregnant, wait ’til you see how much a breastfeeding mother can eat. Even if she isn’t breastfeeding, she still has a lot of physical recovery to do, not only from the birth, but from the pregnancy. In the first few weeks she should not be expected to do any housework or cooking. Do your best to make sure the fridge is full when you leave for work in the morning. It needs to be the kind of food she can grab, throw in the microwave, and eat with one hand. (Standing up. While bouncing.) Keep a stash of granola bars on you at all times and throw them at her when she starts to get cranky. Trust me, this is for your own good!

2) Rest. I’ve already sent you this video, but it bears rewatching.

Study it very, very carefully. There is more truth to it than I’d rather admit! Both of you should do everything in your power to sleep whenever possible. I don’t care if it’s eleven in the morning, three in the afternoon, or six in the evening. I don’t care if you’re in your pajamas or a business suit. I don’t care if your mother-in-law just arrived or you just made lunch. Microwave it later. When that baby is asleep, you sleep! Take turns staying up with him; there’s no reason both of you should be awake when one of you could be sleeping.

3) Time to be a human. Whenever you get the chance, take the kid and tell her to go shower, nap, or whatever “luxury” she craves. If you aren’t going to be available, make sure she has a sister, mother, or friend to give her some baby-free time, and if you can’t even do that–pay for a babysitter. This is also for your own good, because many mothers who are home on maternity leave end up resenting their husbands for being able to “escape” to work. (Yes. Work can sometimes feel like a vacation compared to being at the mercy of a tiny creature who dictates every single minute of your day.) If you make sure she has some time to herself every day, this is a lot less likely to happen.

Now, we shall address the dreaded:

Mommy Guilt

There are two emotions that are born within each parent along with the baby. The first one, as you probably know, is a fierce, unconditional, overwhelming love for this tiny helpless being in your arms. The second one is a deep, paralyzing fear of something bad happening to him. Both of these emotions have a depth and scale which you have never known before. In the father, the fear often manifests itself in a feeling of protectiveness. My father-in-law says that he considered himself a pacifist until the moment he held his oldest daughter. At that moment, he said, he realized that he would not hesitate to kill anyone who tried to hurt her.

In the mother, this fear can often manifest itself in a sense of guilt. That she’s not doing it “right.” This sense is reinforced by the “helpful” souls who don’t hesitate to point out everything she is doing “wrong”… or by the medical system, when it is more concerned with charts and statistics than with the individual baby.

It’s a universal and unfortunate phenomenon. Here are some ways you can help stave it off (and strengthen your marriage in the process):

1) Don’t be part of the problem. Do not tell her she is doing it “wrong.” Ever. Barring a situation where the baby is in acute danger, it’s usually better to keep your mouth shut. He’s a baby. His needs are extremely basic. It will not kill him if his shirt is on backwards or, God forbid, his feet are cold. (Contrary to what your mothers may believe.) If you think something needs to be done differently, either do it yourself without a word to her or be very careful and respectful with your suggestion. There’s a reason you chose her to be the mother of your children. Trust her. The more you believe in her, the more she will believe in herself. You are a team. Work together.

2) Do your best to strengthen her against the onslaught of “advice.” Your job is to be on her side no matter what. Help her trust herself and learn to filter out the advice that suits you, and toss the rest in the garbage where it belongs.

3) Tell her what a wonderful mother she is. Every single day. Bonus points for pointing out specific accomplishments she achieved that day. Even if it’s “You didn’t throw him out the window!” (…Trust me. There will be times.)

Baby Blues vs. Postpartum Depression

A majority of women experience a period of sadness and frustration after the birth, usually starting around the third day (coinciding with the milk coming in) and ending after a couple of weeks. It’s partly circumstantial (dealing with the change) and partly hormonal. Prolactin, the hormone responsible for triggering milk production, is also a stress hormone that our bodies naturally regulate by shedding tears. This means she might just start crying and not know why. Don’t be alarmed by this. Just let her cry. It will pass.

The “baby blues” usually lift after a couple of weeks. If they don’t, or if you notice that she is especially sad, to the point of neglecting herself and/or the baby, or talking about harming herself–it’s time to call a professional. Postpartum depression is pretty common and it is treatable. Aside from psychotherapy, there are antidepressants that are safe to take while breastfeeding.

Rule #2: Babyproof Your Marriage

The transition from couple to family is huge. Once upon a time, you could leave the house whenever you wanted, go wherever you pleased, and have a decent amount of quality time alone together. That is no longer the case. Your marriage will have to evolve to adapt to this change, and it can be a serious challenge.

Moreover, each parent approaches parenting from a different past and background, each with their own ideas about the right way to do things, and their own baggage from their own childhoods. These can cause a lot of conflict.

There are two ways to counter this:

1) Carve out “together time.” Go out on a date–just the two of you–at least once a month. Sit down for a coffee together while the baby is napping or contentedly staring at a mobile. Your time together is limited more than ever now, and it is sacred. Make it a priority.

2) Communicate frequently and effectively. Make a point of checking in with each other several times a day, whether you are together or apart. If you have not read John Gray’s Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus yet, stop whatever you’re doing and go buy it right now. (Here it is in Catalan.) I mean it. Trust me. You’ll thank me.

Rule #3: Do What Works

One of the blessings and curses of being a parent in this day and age is that there is so much information. Hundreds of parenting books, dozens of “parenting methods,” blogs, articles and forums online, and of course, the ever-present “helpful souls” who are very eager to tell you exactly how to properly raise children.

Here’s the thing: in parenting, there is very rarely a “right” answer. There are no formulas for success. Don’t let anyone fool you: not a single one of us has any idea what we’re doing. 😛 If anyone claims otherwise, s/he is not the one you want to be taking advice from. True, some of us are more experienced than others, and that’s why I’m sending you this e-mail, right? But everybody’s different and different approaches work for different people. You just have to trust your instincts and believe that there’s a reason God chose you for this job.

Mothers in particular do better when they have a support network of other moms who share their values and outlook and most importantly, who aren’t judgmental about other people’s parenting. You can commiserate together, share experiences and advice, and laugh with each other about the difficulties. Surround yourselves with people like that, and don’t be shy about asking for help. We’re all figuring this out as we go. Might as well figure it out together. And now that I mention it…

Rule #4: Get Help

You aren’t supposed to do this alone. There’s a saying, it takes a village to raise a child. I’ll say it a thousand times: do not hesitate to ask for help–and don’t wait until you’re desperate. Do it right away. And I don’t just mean someone to sweep the floors or watch the baby for an hour so you can nap. (Though that is highly recommended!) Real issues might come up and you should know that there are professionals out there whose job it is to solve these problems. For example, if there are issues with breastfeeding, call a lactation consultant. Most breastfeeding issues can be resolved pretty easily if they are properly dealt with early, and there are women who are highly trained in this area and will be able to diagnose the problem and offer effective solutions. Sleep issues? There are sleep consultants who can help get your baby sleeping through the night at 4-6 months of age. Yes, these things may cost money, but as my mother always says, better to pay for this now than for the psychologist later…

Rule #5: This Too Shall Pass

I know better than anyone that sometimes it feels like whatever you’re going through is never going to end. And sometimes the periods of difficulty will be prolonged enough to stretch your sanity to its very limit. But it really is true… you blink, and it’s over. Before you know it your oldest is starting kindergarten next week. (…What?! Me?! My son?! How did this happen?!) A month from now you will look at pictures of him when he was just born and not believe he was ever that small. A year from now you’ll look at that picture I love of you holding him right after he was born, and be amazed at how much things have changed.

And you will learn quickly. Eitan says that he feels bad for parents who only have one kid, because they never get to feel competent! It was only when I had R1 that I realized how much harder caring for H had been.

People will tell you to enjoy every minute. Problem is, parenting is the hardest job in the universe. It is kind of hard to “enjoy” when he is crying and you have no idea why, you haven’t slept in what feels like a decade, your wife just burned dinner and is having an emotional breakdown over it, and all you really want to do is curl up in a ball on the floor and cry right along with both of them. (Go right ahead. I won’t judge! 😛 ) So I don’t advise trying to enjoy every minute. But just as parenting is the hardest job in the universe, it is also the best! There will be many, many, many moments of joy and satisfaction and pride and love that you can hold onto during the difficult times. These days it’s so easy to keep a video or picture of him being adorable and happy and study it carefully in moments of crisis, reminding yourself that somehow, some way, it’s going to be all right eventually. Not just all right. It will be amazing. I promise.



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