Thursday, July 24, 2014

Advice to New Dads (and Maybe Some Moms too) - Part 1

I have a few friends on the verge of becoming new dads, and I started to think of what I could tell them, what advice I might share to help them in their own personal journeys into fatherhood.

Me and 'Lilli Bean', hand-in-hand
At first I thought, ‘Well, I really only have that one good piece of advice… okay, maybe two…’ The next day though, there was another idea, and the day after that another, then another. So this is, now, a pretty long list of ideas, thoughts and suggestions that I’ve jotted down. I hope at least one or two of these ideas becomes a little gem of advice that might help out a soon-to-be-dad and perhaps makes their own life as a dad a little easier, their relationship with their spouse a little tighter, and their own fatherhood skills a little stronger.

Stay Calm and Parent On

I’m going to tell you not to freak out or overreact, but… you will freak out and overreact. Hey, it’s the nature of the beast because you are a parental newbie and it’s always better to err on the side of caution, right? You will, naturally, be the equivalent of a parental freshman, so you’ll tend to overreact a lot. Again, this is just the nature of the beast – and better to overreact, than under-react, right?

I can say these words, that you will overreact on occasion, with some confidence for two reasons:
1. I’ve got two girls who are now 7 and 9 years old, girls I managed to help raise and not kill, die, expire, or otherwise pass away (yet)
Womb for one...
That's a baby in there, and she's on her way!
2. As a new dad, I was probably far worse off than most, having ZERO experience with babies before I had to deal with one – I just didn’t grow up around friends with babies, or little nieces and nephews floppin’ around anywhere around me, so I was even worse off than most in the overreaction department

Now, a new or soon-to-be parent might read the above, get slightly offended and kerfuffled, and say, ‘That’s baloney, that’ not me. I won’t overreact!’ And someday, when your second is a toddler, and you’re at Target with both kids, looking at the new dad with a tiny new baby in a brand new car seat that’s got a sunshade on it, and an umbrella, and a windscreen with windshield wipers, and airbags, and an abacus, and surround sound playing Bach, and he’s putting the ‘sanitary cart liner’ in the shopping cart before he sets down the car seat into it, you’ll chuckle and laugh at him. Then you’ll look back at what I just said and say, ‘Oh yeaaaah… Chesak was riiiight…’

Even having just said that, even after reading the above and nodding intently, that you will over react. It’s natural. And it will be cute when you look back at it all.

What do I mean by all this? Well, you’ll probably be nervous enough that you're suddenly totally in charge of this little, amazing, helpless life that you’ll so utterly err on the side of caution that you’ll generally tend to over-compensate; nothing crazy of course, just little things, like buying too many things you ‘think’ you need, or overtly fretting about the baby having a cough or sneezing.

Beautiful shot from the Idaho Statesman
of Sally and Lillian - who's screaming her
head off here by the way.
I was there in spirit, at least.
One example of this slightly over-the-top reaction: when Sally got Lillian home from the hospital and started nursing, she had trouble remembering which breast she had just nursed from. She started wearing a bracelet on the hand that hadn’t been nursed, and changed it with each nursing. By the time baby #2, Sylvia, was nursing away, Sally and I stumbled upon a video of Sally describing Lillian’s nursing system (a video for me, during my deployment to Iraq). We saw the bracelet and just laughed out loud because Sally had, by then, gotten very used to just grabbing her boobs to check, and plopping Sylvia onto whichever one seemed larger - no bracelet needed.

Regardless, when you start to stress, I want you to remember that absolute idiots have been raising kids for thousands of years and their kids, even caveman’s kids, turned out fine (and when raising kids, ‘fine’ is pretty damned good). And you are no caveman! You’re not even a 1970’s parent! You have cell phones and Internet and all that incredible, valuable advice (and confusing, overabundance of misinformation) at your fingertips! You’ll do absolutely fine. So try to chill out.

Babies Cry for Only Four Reasons (usually)

Remember this, because it’s true, but babies cry because they need one of only four things from you;
1. To be fed
2. To sleep
3. Be changed
4. Be burped
That’s it. If s/he is crying, there is a 99.9% chance that it’s because of one of those four things. So, that’s the good news.

Lillian crashed OUT! Babies little bodies are growing
so fast, they sleep all the time. But new parents don't get
that luxury as there's generally just too much to do!
The bad news is that, in those instances were it is something outside those four things, the baby just can’t tell you what it is, and you – as a freshman dad – are going to have to guess/estimate/reason it out. For example, your baby can’t tell you their gums hurt. You (with help from your relatives, your doctor, websites, etc.) have to figure out that they have teething pain and then take the necessary steps to try to help remedy it. Worse still, if it’s something really serious, you won’t know until you (and your team of relatives, doctor, websites) figure it out. Sylvia had numerous ear infections when she was a baby, for example, and the only reason we figured out that her hours and hours of screaming cries were because of ear pain (which would cease only when the eardrum actually ruptured), was when Sally finally happened, by chance, to see fluid running out of an ear.

Take Care of Momma

For the non-birthing spouse (be it dad or momma #2), your #1 job is to take care of momma. Let her take care of the baby because, for the most part, the baby doesn’t need you too much, as they truly only need the parent who gave birth and is actually nursing them. (And for two dads, this doesn’t necessarily apply so they can divvy up the duties, and the doodies, as they see fit.)

When it comes to taking care of momma, that means not just momma but also the house, the car, the yard, the dog and everything else. Let her do nothing but take care of baby, while you have everything else. It’s an easy, clear, pretty well balanced system (that took us a little too long to figure out).


One specific word on how exactly to 'Take Care of Momma': my biggest, most ignorant mistake as a father and a dad was becoming SO focused on the baby (then babies) that I did not emotionally care for Sally. 
Pregnant Sally. Mind you, she was
at a Board of Directors meeting
for the nonprofit she ran at the time.

While some pregnant/post-partum moms ‘get a glow about them’ most of them are pretty miserable. They feel fat, are retaining water, don’t fit into their clothes, their bodies are out of control and in general they feel gross and vulnerable. Your job is to make your partner feel better, both before and after birth. 

In a nutshell, you need to compliment the crap out of her. Tell her how beautiful she is, how great she looks, etc. She’ll tell you that you are full of shit, but tell her anyway – again and again and again.

Go Easy on the Social

Lots of people have babies. Your baby is amazing to you (as it should be), but it is, in the grand scheme of the rest of the world, just another baby. So don’t hammer the rest of your circles with fuzzy, soft-focus, studio portrait photos of your ‘blessing’, your ‘angel’, your ‘miracle’, etc. Please, I beg of you.

Actually a great idea from my friend Robin is to set up a private social page (on FaceBook, a blog, etc.) that those friends and family that you invite to the page can tune into when they like, rather than get photo-bombed by repeated images of your little pudge-ball’s first spit up.

Your Fun

As the dad, you now come last in the pecking order. Seriously.

Priorty #1 is baby. Priority #2 is momma. And you, well you come last. And I don’t mean you come in #3 in the pecking order, I mean last – like DEAD LAST. Your needs come after baby, momma, the house, the car, the dog, the yard, etc.

That means that your activities, all those fun things you used to do, are now curtailed. They aren’t cut off and aren’t necessarily lost forever, but they are certainly curtailed because, as a dad, you just won't have the time available for you to do your activities like you used to.
Me, taking a break from a party we were hosting
to give Lillian a bath (granted it was her first birthday
and she was covered in cake). 

Now, you may have dad friends who are bragging about going out drinking with their buddies all the time, or still getting in 60 ski days per season, or taking off on long bike/moto rides, but just know that these dads have a name. They are called douchebags. 

They are also called dads that will be absent from their kids lives, until the kids turn 14 and those dads suddenly think that they can hang out and do ‘cool stuff together’. And those dads are wrong, because it’s too late for them. They were out drinking, skiing, riding, whatever and the window to be a real dad, and really connect with your child when they need you the most, is gone – and it ain’t comin’ back.

So, be a dad and not a douche-dad. Fatherhood is a sacrifice, a fantastic one. And the first thing to go is, both sadly and yet frankly, your fun. 

'You Time'

That being said though, you have to try (TRY) to maintain your sanity and find what time you can for you. Just know that this time is short. It may be taking a half hour to read a book, or getting in a quick run, or just sitting by a brook and reflecting (or, most likely, napping), but take time to get away and clear your head.

But generally, in the list of priorities, ‘dad time’ is now something like number 764th on the list.

Sally getting ready for a date night.

'You Two Time'

As challenging as it will be, you also need to find a way to get some ‘you two’ time in. Find a trusted sitter (no small task with any kid, but particularly with babies), lean on a family member, or find some way to get out of the house and have a lunch, chat over coffee, go for a hike/walk/stroll, or go out for a movie (well, maybe not a movie as you might fall asleep). 

Better still, get baby out of the house and head back to the bedroom for some intimate time. And by ‘intimate time’ I don’t even necessarily mean sex, but even just touching, cuddling, maybe trade massages, etc. But, hopefully also sex – for both your sanity.

Use Clear Communication – and Then Communicate Some More

Due to time constraints, the nonstop and never-ending daily demands put upon you and your spouse, and delirium caused by lack of sleep, you’ll have to get used to being really pretty explicit in your communications with your partner. Don’t leave things hanging – make them definitive. And once you’re done, wrap up the conversation you just had.

Sally and I had to start completing our conversations and closing the loop on all of them, almost like you might do in a business meeting. For example, one of us might say something like, “Okay, we just talked about changing our nightly schedule and we’re now going to alternate putting her down so the other one can get some ‘me time’, right? And we said that you’d have [these nights], and I’d have [those] nights, correct? And we’re starting this tomorrow night, is that what we just agreed on?”

A critical communication element to get used to is confirming who has/is watching the baby. Let’s say you’ve appropriately prioritized your new baby-centric home and you want some ‘you time’. You might say, “Well, I just changed her, fed her, put her to bed, cut the grass, changed the oil on the truck, cleaned the chicken coop, did our taxes, and did seven loads of laundry. So I’m going to take about half an hour and just chill out, okay? So, you’ve got her if she gets up, right?”

And when you ask those questions, ensure that you get a ‘yes’ answer before moving out.

The Grind Will Get You

Generally, no single day with a baby is that hard (unless that baby is sick – then it’s pretty much a total bitch). What is hard is everyday with a baby. The constant grind of doing the same things over and over again, day after day is what wears you down: feed baby, burp baby, change baby, walk around/play with baby, feed baby, burp baby, change baby, put baby down, feed baby…

And you may feel like your brain has turned to mush because you’re just not using it at a very deep level, an issue that’s especially challenging for career-focused individuals. I once met a new mom who was a well-regarded psychiatrist who was used to working 14-hour days and just crushing her job. Suddenly she was a slave to the mundane baby cycle of bed ‘em, feed ‘em, change ‘em, burp ‘em, bed ‘em, etc. She felt like she was suddenly no one special because she had so identified herself as that hotshot psychiatrist for so long and now she felt like ‘just a mom’.
Sleep... precious, precious sleep... 

Of course being ‘just a mom’, is a huge deal, a magnificent sacrifice, and will be so very, very worth it in numerous ways down the road. But when baby is young, and all those rewards are years away, you can start to feel pretty bummed out sometimes about that finely-tuned brain of yours, honed by decades of work and study, which is suddenly not being used at the same depth as it was previously.

This is why finding some time for yourself and you and your partner is so critical.

Another note about your brain and your work: if you will be a working parent, get used to half-assing both work and being a parent. You can only do one really well if you’re not doing the other. So if you are doing both, just know that you won’t be able to be the dedicated, go-get-‘em worker bee you once were due to the demands of parenthood. And know too that you won’t be the ultimate uber parent that you always thought you could be, because you’ll still have to work 40+ hours a week. Accept this, move on, and just do the very best you can for both work and family.  

Shop Used

Contrary to popular belief (First World belief at least), babies do not have to be that expensive. Yes, you need some things, but you don’t need that much, honestly. Clothes yes, and bottles, and all those little things – but remember that people all over the world raise children without bottle warmers, nursing chairs, crib cams, and baby monitors and all that STUFF that you’ll see in Babys-r-Us gift registries and some of those awful parenting magazines (and most are totally awful as they are very negative, extremely reactionary and filled with headlines like – ‘47 Suffocating Dangers Lurking in Your Baby Room RIGHT NOW!’).

The girls checking out some books, and toys,
at a consignment store.
Plus, baby stuff is big business, so that means that there is plenty of it out there. So shop consignment stores, ask your friends with slightly older kids for hand-me-downs, and check Craigslist because there is plenty of baby stuff out there to be had for cheap. I would even bet that you could get a kid from age zero to two years old without having to buy anything brand new, not a single thing, and do it relatively easily too.

To this end, and to get very specific for a moment; don’t buy too many onesies. You’ll think, ‘Well, we can’t have too many!’ but… you actually can, because all your friends and family are thinking exactly the same thing. They will buy you some and you will get them as gifts and presents from friends that drop by and say, ‘It was SO CUTE, I just HAD TO GET IT.’ 

And before you know it… you have a huge stack of onesies that you don’t know what to do with. You’ll have ones that say ‘My Aunt is a Firefighter!’ and ‘Go Spartans!’ and ‘Grampa Loves Me!’ and ‘Whoopsie!’ and ‘Stanford Class of ‘36’ and all sorts of cute, cute, crap. And then you will eventually start to find brand new 6M onesies at the bottom of the stack (the one that says, ‘Don’t look at me – that smell is coming from my daddy!’) – when your baby is now nine months old.  I can't even tell you how many times we passed along to parent friends some brand spakin' new kids clothes, simply because they got pushed down to the bottom of a pile of other ones.


That being said, I think it’s inevitable that, as a First World parent, you’ll be deluged with STUFF (please note; all the stuff will seem manageable up to about six months, starts to get annoying and exasperating at about a year, and becomes just insane by the time you get to baby #2).
Lillian, with an early batch of 'stuff'.
More, so much more, would come later.

You see, your parents will want to buy things for the baby, you will get many things during a baby shower, excited friends will want to pitch in and buy cute things (like… more onesies), you’ll nervously overcompensate and buy too much yourself, etc. So, you’ll need some storage for this stuff, especially if you plan on having more kids down the line.

At one point, between babies, I had storage bins that went from our garage floor literally to the ceiling. I had bins for Sally’s various stages of pregnancy clothes, her post-partum clothes, clothes and things for 0-6 month, 7-12 month, 1T, 2T, etc. So buy your bins big, and make sure they’re stackable.

Weight Gain

I think most dads gain weight when they have babies. Why is this? 

Well, you’re tired all the time, so it’s easy to order out for dinners more than you used to (going out to restaurants is not easy, as it’s now far more logistically complicated with a baby in tow, but you’ll probably go out more often too, since you’ll want to get out of the house).

You’ll also be less able to workout and will be less active (BTW, if you are ever looking for good, hard, super quick in-home workouts that don’t need equipment, search on ‘Hotel WOD’ and check out a variety of in-home ‘Workouts Of the Day’ that might take no longer than 20 minutes with a warm up). I think I hit about 235, and I’m normally about 220 – and still trying to ‘get back down to 215’.


Booze was also a challenge and something that I started taking advantage of a little too much, especially with baby #2. Consider that I was working for a start-up, traveling a lot, in the Army National Guard (good bye one quarter of all weekends!), my wife traveled a fair amount with her job, it was baby #2 (more on that later), and we lived far from any family support. That alone might explain why I started drinking more. But it also became something of a crutch.

I’d finish work everyday, and come dinnertime I would just become absolutely useless – pretty much ready to pass out and go to bed right then and there at 6PM. But, as tired as I was, it was also one of the busiest times of the day (in contrast to Life Before Kids, when that time is for fun or relaxing). So it was easy to start drinking beer, which I found gave me a little mental pick-up, while also imbuing me with lots of good carby energy. Soon I was drinking 4-6 beers (if not more) a night. But, an important caveat here, this was with baby #2 – and I’ll get to that more in a later post.

Breast-Feeding and Sleeping

Sally nursing Lilli Bean on a camping trip.
I think these are two of the biggest decisions new parents have to figure out: are you going to commit to breast-feeding and all the benefits therein, and what will be the sleeping situation for your baby.

I won’t get into the breastfeeding debate here as it’s just too personal an issue, but will say that Sally and I were both committed to this for our kids. To us, it just made too much sense. After all, that is what breasts are actually FOR. Further, it was much nicer for late-night feedings to have Sally simply rollover and give a baby her breast than it would be to get up, heat up a bottle, etc. The same goes for feeding a hungry baby on a plane, in a taxi, in the mall, etc. It’s also less stuff to have to deal with too. It’s what breasts were made for, and how babies were made to feed. It’s also probably about 10-12 times more efficient than formula, when you consider all the time spend buying and mixing formula, washing bottles and nipples, etc.

For sleeping, you have to figure out where your baby will sleep. If you are committed to putting the baby in their own room in a crib, then you’ll have to suffer through a couple of nights of ‘cry it out’, whereby you leave the baby in there (screaming) all night long until s/he starts sleeping on his own. Sally and I decided to not go this route and instead just had the baby in the bed with us (or in a co-sleeper attached to our bed). For us, this was just physically easier to have the baby right there next to us (especially for nursing), but there are people who feel strongly each way. And the down side of our method was that we always had a kid in our bed for a long, long time…  

Part 2...

Me, settling into daddy-hood with 11-month Lillian.
The rule of thumb of blog posts is that they should be no longer than 700 words. Well, this post is approaching 4,000. What can I say but that it turns out that I had a lot to share, hopefully some of which might be of help to some dad or mom out there someday.

And as if this weren’t long enough, there’s still more yet. I’ll follow this up soon with a quick (well, relatively quick – certainly not 4,000 words) list of little ‘pro tips’ to offer up as well. So, stay tuned future dads…

Thursday, May 1, 2014

A Parenting Mistake from 1987

As a young person, I always knew I wanted to have kids. Thus, I often envisaged how I’d parent my kids and, at the ripe old age of 17, I made up my mind to never lie to them, ever.

Even at that young age I’d already seen too many adults afraid to share the real truth with their kids, afraid that the truth would be too much and scare or hurt them. So, they told half-truths, or little white lies, or skirted the issue. It always burned my ass that they just didn’t come clean and fess up with their kids, sharing all the honest, even painful truths that they’d learned after so many decades of experience. If they were just upfront from the get-go, I surmised, they wouldn’t have to expend all that energy reinforcing lies, coming up with excuses, sidestepping repeated requests to understand, and – ultimately – avoid the painful moment when a kid confronts you with not only the real truth, but their disbelief that the adult either didn’t know it, or wouldn’t share that information. No topic would be taboo, I thought: drinking, sex, politics, war, even – perhaps most dangerous of all – Santa Claus.
Lillian's letter to Santa from 2012

Since I had it all figured out at the ripe and wizened ole’ age of 17, I thought that even when it came to Santa Claus I would never lie. After all, your child WILL find out eventually, right? Why then lie to them and continue to foment a myth, one that they’ll someday be crushed to find the truth about? Santa Claus, Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, I was going to be straight up about all of them.

When Lillian first started to emerge out of baby-dom and start to get a sense of the world around her, Sally and I never even brought up Santa. We didn’t have to. Soon Lillian was coming home from daycare with joyous glee in her eyes, talking about how Santa comes to our house and brings toys on Christmas! Sally and I just looked at each other knowing, I think, in that moment, that we were going to have to let the Santa thing ride.

And let it ride we did.

Lillian (and eventually Sylvia too) became just frenetic as the build up to Christmas came. They both rambled on about Santa and the joy and excitement in their eyes was just amazing. It was truly magical, and their belief brought abundant joy to our home. Suddenly we had special, hidden wrapping paper for the ‘presents from Santa’. We helped them put out cookies and carrots on Christmas Eve. We started to even leverage their belief in Santa, telling the girls to behave because ‘Santa was watching’.

Oh, and it wasn’t just Jolly Old St. Nick, no sir. When the Tooth Fairy came, we sprinkled glitter from the window to their pillow, a trace of the fairy dust she’d left behind when she flittered in the night before.  We prepped them with reminders of the Easter Bunny coming, and how they should behave/get to bed/whatever. And, stealing an idea from one of their teachers, we even celebrated the arrival of ‘Wee Mr. McMurphy’, a leprechaun who snuck in the house on St. Patrick’s Day.

Sylvia celebrating the visit of
Wee Mr. McMurphy
Oh Mr. McMurphy was a blast. He’d pee green in the toilet (food coloring) and leave behind some green milk (food coloring). He’d play tricks on the girls, tying their shoes together, turning clothes inside-out, switching their backpacks and books around. And, perhaps best of all, the tricks took on a life of their own, as the girls started to imagine things that Mr. McMurphy had done, things that I hadn’t touched;

“Dad, Mr. McMurphy moved the tv!”

“Uh, sure. Yes he did!”

“Dad, the couch pillows are all different, he moved all the couch pillows!”

“Wow! Yeah, he did!”

But then, just a few months ago, we came to a crossroads. Sylvia started to ask if Santa was really real (while Lillian kept on beleivin’). She started to ask straight out if he was real because she had heard from some friends in school that he wasn’t. So, we skirted the issue; “Honey, Santa’s spirit is very much real.”

That worked for about two days, as you could see the soft little gears in Sylvia’s brain pondering what the hell we’d just said. So, a few days later, as she lay in her bed just before lights out, she asked again. I repeated the line about Santa's spirit, hoping it might stick. But she said pointedly, “What does that mean, his spirit is real?”

It was time. Time to uphold my pledge from 1987. I told Sylvia the truth. Then, like a cascading wall of old bricks, it all came tumbling down as she asked about the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, and even Wee Mr. McMurphy. I explained that none of them were real.

Lillian mailing a letter to Santa
I left her bedroom feeling proud that I’d been truthful and had upheld my pledge of integrity. But then, as I settled into bed, the nagging feeling started. At first I couldn’t figure out what was bugging me about what had just happened, but over the days a feeling of loss and emptiness started to build.

Eventually, I realized what I’d just lost: no longer would they believe that Christmas was truly magical. No longer would benevolent spirts in bunny and fairy form come to their home with gifts and candy and glitter and Peeps in the middle of the night. And Wee Mr. McMurphy was just ‘dad’. No more wailing with glee to discover Santa’s presents. No more inspecting the fairy dust left behind by fairies. No more racing around the house in absolute joy, looking for more evidence of leprechauns. We had lost the magic. And there was no getting it back.

I started to become truly depressed, and deeply regretted my decision. But it was too late, the truthful cat, that boring, ragged old black cat of reality, the one completely devoid of holiday magic, was out of the bag.

Every parent makes mistakes, of course, and I'm certainly no exception. But this one, this one I might regret the most.

First, in 1987, I should have realized I didn’t know a damn thing when it came to how I would eventually parent my kids.

Second, in 2014, I should have lied my ass off.