Papa Tips #5: The Explicit Handoff

Ah, family life.  Just the three of you, gathered together, curtains drawn against the world, building your new little life together.

Being wise parents, you understand the importance of continued personal development.  You make sure that you have time together and apart — even if apart means being in the next room. So while one of you is tickling the baby, the other is tickling the ivories or tackling a novel.

So, let me set the scene:

You’re curled up in your favorite easy chair, finally getting into that thick tome you’ve been eying for the past month.  Your partner is there on the rug with the child, who is contentedly sucking on various appendages.  All is at peace.

You read for a while.  You look up. Baby is still content. Partner has wandered off — maybe a bathroom break.  Time passes.  Baby is happy. You hear the unmistakable clack of the keyboard from the next room — partner has probably been sucked into the Facebook vortex.  But baby is still contentedly contemplating the existence of a cardboard tube, so all is good.

Then baby starts to make some noises. You can see that some fussing is around the corner.

You glance at the doorway where your partner has disappeared. She hears the noises, right?  Is she coming back?

Baby is definitely looking for some attention. I mean, you were right in the  middle of this chapter and she’d been talking about taking care of the baby for a bit so you could start in on this book and where did she go?

Baby is amping up the fuss and is about to break down. With a frustrated glare at the still-empty doorway, you shelve the book and descend to the carpet.

This kind of scenario can happen all-too-easily.  You’re both there, you’re both parents, you’re both responsible.  But everybody needs and deserves time to be their grownup selves again.  In fact, you should work to explicitly give each other the quality non-baby time you need.  But it’s all too easy to wander off when baby is happy, only to find that you’ve burdened the other parent when baby inevitably breaks down.

The solution? The Explicit Handoff.

It’s easy: whenever official responsibility for baby’s care changes hands, acknowledge it.  Something like, “I’m going to go poke the internet for a bit, okay? Can you be on duty?”  This is especially important on weekends, when everyone looks forward to a change from the weekly schedule and fitting in all the relaxation and errands and chores can be a challenge.

Just like Papa Tip #4, this is one of those simple practices that can head off a source of low-level frustration.  Although, unlike the previous Papa Tip, I’m actually serious about this one.

 

Papa Tips #4: Use Your Accent

You’ve had your baby. You’ve gotten through the first week or so, and maybe even a routine is starting to re-emerge from the chaos.  It’s just you and your partner, building a little family in your little home, and all is sweet.

Your partner deserves a little quiet time, so you take babbling baby into the next room.  “Hi baby,” you say, “how’s my little baby? Whatcha looking at? You enjoying being alive? How about those hockey playoffs?”

“What’s that?” Your partner yells in from the next room.

“Nothing,” you reply.  “Just talking to the baby.”

Concentration / Relaxation

Concentration / Relaxation

You’ll hear a disgruntled grunt from the next room as your partner tries to resume the train of concentration/relaxation he or she was previously riding.

This scene will repeat itself over and over. The introduction of these one-sided conversations will lead to a bunch of were-you-talking-to-me-no-I-was-talking-to-the-baby-okay-fine-then exchanges.  They’re mostly harmless, of course, but it’s one of those minor little annoyances that can plague the first few months of parenthood.

Fortunately, there’s a way to get around them: use an accent!

That’s right, adopt an accent while talking to your baby.  French, Cockney, Jersey — the choice is yours. Just be sure to pick something that is clear, distinctive, and consistent; that way your partner will immediately know when your babble is directed at the baby.  Not only will you clear up all this confusion with your partner, but your child will grow up to sound charmingly foreign!

Okay… actually there’s no way around this. You’ll get used to it; I just wanted to warn you.

Papa Tips #3: Asterisk Mode

Okay, your new child is two days old.  You’ve been camped in your bedroom for the past 36 hours, wrapped up in all things baby.  But you’ve run out of bread and milk and coffee and so it’s time to go to the grocery store.

So you leave your partner with the child, throw on some sweats, and head to the store. You wander the aisles, checking off your list, humming along, and in your head you’re thinking to yourself, “Wow.  It’s so nice to be doing something normal again.”

But in your heart all you want to do is race down to checkstand 3 and grab the microphone from the cashier and yell, “WHY ARE YOU PEOPLE ACTING SO NORMAL?  CAN’T YOU SEE — I JUST HAD A BABY!”

You could swear it’s obvious, like there’s a big asterisk stamped right on your forehead.  All your normal routine little things — things you used to do automatically, reflexively, suddenly have this grandiose context wrapped around them.  It’s no longer “getting coffee”; now it’s “getting coffee/just had a baby”. “Paying the bills/just had a baby”.

Of course, nobody can see this asterisk —  but that doesn’t mean it’s not real.  And don’t worry, eventually it goes away.  Well, actually, it doesn’t: instead that asterisk becomes the new normal, and you wonder how you ever managed to pay the bills without it there to keep you company.

Papa Tips #2: Take Time Off

This one is probably obvious to most people, although the reasoning behind it might be a surprise. The days after your baby are born are amazing, energetic, frantic, sleepy, exhausting, exhilarating times. You don’t want to miss a second of it. It’s a no-brainer that you’ll want to take a week or so off work to be there for the first days of your child’s life.

But don’t stop at one week!  You need to take all the vacation, sick leave, and paternity leave that you can.  Because after a week or so, things start to settle down a bit.  Life starts to feel a little bit normal.  But when that “normal” returns, it isn’t the same normal as before.  There are new rhythms and details and unspoken little habits that emerge and become part of your own private culture of parenting.  If you’re not there to understand and help shape those details, then you’ll be playing catch-up for the next 12 months.

Two weeks’ leave is a minimum.  Four weeks should get you well on your way.  The optimum is 6 weeks (best described as “42 nights”).  Or, you can do what I did and make stay-at-home fatherhood your full-time vocation.  Whatever you choose, rest assured that time spent at home in the first few weeks is time well invested.

Papa Tips #1: Be There For The Birth

Now is a great time to become a father.  Never before has our culture granted men such leniency in defining the role they wish to play as parents.  You can be more engaged in all aspects of your children’s live.  And there’s no better place to start than at the birth.

Among many little joys and terrors, two things about the birth really stand out to me.

The first is the gift of being beside your partner as she undertakes an incredibly difficult and inspiring journey.  You’ll see her experience physical and emotional stresses unlike anything either of you have experienced before.  Just to watch, let alone participate as a birth partner, is wonderful.

Ruby’s birth was quick, intense and went fairly smoothly except for one complication: the umbilical cord was wrapped around her neck.  This was a dangerous situation; paramedics were called to the birth center as a precaution.  Kate was giving birth naturally and drug free, and she was barely lucid from hyperventilation and the intensity of her pain.  As things became more critical with Ruby’s condition, we had to make some important decisions about how the birth was to progress.  We were about to go down a less-than-desirable course when Kate took matters into her own hands.  She was exhausted and weak from labor, but she told us to wait.  She gathered her energy, focused, and in three quick contractions Ruby was born.  It was an incredible moment of determination and focus and resolve.  In terms of scale, it was unlike anything I’d witnessed before.  It was an honor to be there with her and watch her plumb the depths of her own strength.

The second gift is to be there when your child takes her first quick breath, tastes the sweaty, musty world we live in — and announces herself.  I’m not much for metaphysical spirituality, but when I heard that noise, of Ruby telling us she had arrived, I lost touch with this world.  I wept.  For the duration of that cry, I floated in the sound.  During those moments a piece of my soul was removed and placed into her, and I felt it happen.  It was a moment of pure, sweet joy to match the intensity of everything we’d experienced in the preceeding hours.

You can’t have one gift without the other — they’re a matching set, with the intensity of labour setting you up for the sweet release of a new life.  Be there, and you get them both.

Papa Tips

Maybe it’s just the age we are, or the age of our generation, but it seems like everywhere I look, people I know are having babies.  There are four babies due in 2009 just at work, and another handful scattered among my social network.  Since most of these parents are first timers, I thought I’d put together some tips to help see them through the next few years of their lives.  And although many will work for both parents, I’ll mostly be writing with the new fathers in mind.