Notes from Fatherhood: Year One


Parenting advice is basically useless, because the experience of parenting is so wildly diverse. When someone gives you a suggestion for what to do with your kid, you’re not always sure: what’s their parenting ideology? Did they get this advice from a Doctor or a scaremongering commercial? Did it actually work, or are they so, so, so very tired that they didn’t notice that it didn’t?

The same probably applies to me. I’m a year into fatherhood, as of yesterday, and I know I’ve learned a lot, but I’m not sure any of it is useful to anyone but me. My favorite book to read my daughter is a beautiful, short little picture book called Here We Are: Notes for Living on Planet Earth (she, for the record, is more into Baby Beluga). In it, the author, Oliver Jeffers, shows babies around the planet, and says:

From land and sky, to people and time, these notes can be your guide and start you on your journey. And you’ll figure lots of things out for yourself. Just remember to leave notes for everyone else.

So. Consider this a small sampling of my notes from year one. It may be useless to you, but it also may not.

  1. Pregnancy and childbirth could reasonably be called violence against women.

I remember in grad school reading a radical feminist paper that said that childbirth was “violence against women.” I thought that this was a bit much, given that childbirth is a natural process that occurs, often voluntarily, literally millions of times a year. 

But there is at least one way in which it indisputably is true: The process of childbirth is a literal physical trauma. Even with drugs, it is an event of excruciating, acute pain that lasts anywhere from several hours to dozens. 700 American women die each year in childbirth. 50,000 nearly die each year. At least an element of the postpartum depression that 10-20% of women get after having a kid is post traumatic stress. 

Even setting aside the brutality of a fairly par-for-the-course childbirth, pregnancy itself is basically torture for a lot of women. There’s a cliche that pregnant women have some sort of “glow,” and sure, I guess, but that elides the actual reality of pregnancy, which is that it is exhausting, uncomfortable, and often openly painful. “Morning sickness,” for one thing, is not limited to the morning. It would be more accurately called “Always sickness.” Some women get something called hyperemesis gravidarum, which is basically when you puke so much that you become severely dehydrated. This aspect of “glowing” isn’t really talked about (except, of course, by Amy Schumer).

Puking aside: babies, especially kicky babies, kick around in there, and they’re not kicking against nothing. They’re kicking against bladders, lungs, stomachs. They flip around. You know how it feels when your internal organs just decide to shift inside you? No? It’s — I am reporting this secondhand — unpleasant.

Pregnant women also get sciatica, they have to pee constantly, they’re tired all the time but can’t get comfortable while they sleep, they go through hormone spikes that fuck with their emotions and their ability to think clearly, and during all of this people never stop telling them how wonderful it is.

All I got was a designated driver for 10 months (oh yeah: they also can’t do anything fun). And yes: I said 10 months. It’s not 9 months. It’s 10 months.

I have always been a pro-choice guy, but seeing my wife go through the brutality of pregnancy and childbirth has made me gung-ho about abortion. This is not a safe, quick medical procedure (childbirth — abortion is safe and quick), and thinking of it in this context, as prolonged torture ended by acute trauma, might help you recontextualize where women are coming from when they insist on having control over their bodies.

2. Fathers do not get to hold their baby for a very long time.

Your baby is going to be out in the cold, bright air of the world for about an hour before you get to hold her. When she comes out, they wipe her off, make sure she’s breathing, and then immediately place her on the mother’s chest for skin-to-skin. This is exactly what it sounds like, and in the first few days, skin-to-skin keeps the baby calm and helps regulate its heartbeat, breathing, and even its blood sugar.

Then tests. Prods and shots and more thorough cleanings. Weighing her, seeing how long she is, stitches in the mother, who is in a mixture of euphoria from having finally expelled that little parasite from her body, and extreme pain from having finally expelled that little parasite from her body.

Holding her the first time.

Holding her the first time.

Then a first attempt at breastfeeding, which is stressful for mother and baby (and father also, but, as is always the case in this particular hospital visit, father least of all). Then the baby gets get swaddled and they put a little hat on her, and a nurse, with a look that feels like an, “Oh, you’re still here?” hands the baby to you, the father. You have been sitting there on your hands, squirming, wondering when you'll get to actually say hi to the most important person you'll ever meet.

You look at her, you utter something like “Hey sweetheart,” or “Hi Sophie, I’m your dad,” which you will forget later. Your wife, healthy enough to somehow function, will snap a picture of you, and you won’t know what to do, and you’ll see the shock in your eyes when you look at the photo later on. You are tired, you’ve been up for 18 hours, you will not sleep a full night for another two months, and you aren’t sure how you’re supposed to feel until you start crying.

3. Being a mother is hard. Being a father is lonely.

It is harder being a mom — the difficulties don’t end with childbirth, as I’ve written elsewhere, and while the father can take some of the load off the mother, for the first few months, the burden lies primarily on the mother. But mothers are pretty good at supporting each other. When my wife has a hard day with the baby, I’ll get home from work and take the baby for the rest of the evening and she’ll go out. She’ll go out with other friends who are moms and vent. 

If I have a hard day with the kid, she’ll come home from work and take the baby, and I’ll go off to the next room to read, play video games, or have a drink. Part of this is that I have a very limited number of father friends in my area, but part of it is that men don’t talk about stuff that’s seriously bothering them as openly as women do, so there’s less venting when we get together. The end result of this is that men tend to keep the difficulties of having a kid to themselves, while women are at least able to get some of it off their chest.

Stay-at-home fathers are (perhaps understandably) sometimes viewed with suspicion by stay-at-home moms, so often the same support just isn’t available to us. This appears to be changing as more men take on this role, but for women, the networks have already been built, they just have to plug in. For men, you have to do a lot more legwork, and you have to overcome the whole, “I’m a man, I’ll hold in my feelings till I die” thing.

This is why it is fair to say: It is much, much harder being a mom, but it much, much lonelier being a dad.

4. The bar is set offensively low for dads.

Seriously. I'm a stay at home dad, and it's crazy how often I get the old lady saying, "It's so nice of you to help out!" or calling me a "babysitter," or something like that. It is remarkable, in some circles, that I know how to change a diaper -- something that an equal parent must do at least 2 times a day (more, if you’re only a month or two in). I am a pretty competent dad, but I could really coast and still get all sorts of credit.

My wife, on the other hand, works an insanely important and difficult job, volunteers around our town, and still manages to be an active and engaged parent. She still goes to every doctor's appointment and keeps an enormous amount of parenting information inside her insanely organized head. 

Need how many mils of acetaminophen Soph can have every 4 hours? Ask Steph. 

Need the number of 200 back-up babysitters? Steph's got it. 

If Sophie's crying, most people look to her to stand up and help, not to me. She's the emotional support for more people than I even talk to on a regular basis, including people she works for as a public servant, people who don't know her but who need someone to talk to. The amount she carries on her back is staggering. And it's just not remarked upon that this is impressive. It is expected of her.

This dynamic plays out for me (and most men) across pretty much every area of my life, but with parenting especially, there is something dehumanizing about being thought so little of that it's expected of me to do so little as a partner. I just wish that my failings were seen as exceptions to be improved upon and not as par-for-the-course. 

I wish I was held to as high a standard as my wife, because, well, if it made her who she is, it could make me better, too.

5. People are incredibly weird about policing the gender of infants.

“Oh who’s this beautiful little boy?”

(My daughter, in her stroller, is wearing a white onesie that says, “The Future is Female” in blue letters. An older lady sees her and says this, obviously not seeing the onesie. It’s no big deal, we’ve done nothing else to telegraph her gender. We don’t put a bow on her because she’s bald, and we also don’t care if strangers know what type of genitals she has.)

“This is my daughter, Sophie!” I say.

The woman stops and looks up. “This is a girl? Really?

“Yep!” I say, thinking, “I’ve fucking checked.”

Sophie spits out her pacifier and smiles at the lady, because she’s the sweetest.

“Ohhh,” the woman says, “Now that I see her lips I can see she’s a girl.” My daughter, for the record, was not wearing lipstick.

This is the type of nonsense I hear every time I leave the home. When I’ve struggled to snap her into a high chair, I’ve been told it’s because “Men have bigger hands, so this is harder for them.” When I place her in the baby carrier facing outward, it’s because I’m a man (mothers have them facing in, supposedly). When she’s had a rough night, it’s because she’s a girl. When she’s had an easy night, it’s because she’s a girl. Walking early? Girl. Smiling a lot? Girl.

The things that are attributed to her gender and not her person are so wildly diverse and contradictory that they are basically noise, but the lesson that she’ll internalize from all of it is clear: boys and girls are different and this difference is important.

Beyond policing their differences, people love to foist weird sexualized roles onto her and myself. “Daddy’s little girl” is a creepy fucking narrative, by the way. My love for her is not gender contingent. Also, don’t say this to a 6-month-old:

“Oh, the boys are going to be chasing after her!”

After hearing this a few too many times, we started gently correcting: “Or the girls are going to be chasing after her.”

When this got old: “Or the girls are going to be chasing after him.”

And when that got old: “Stop sexualizing my 6-month-old.”