How to be a good father
Words by Rob Chilton
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As his daughter turns one, first-time father Rob Chilton casts a sleep-deprived eye over what he’s learnt
If there's a baby on the way, try a few of these tips, starting with those ubiquitous baby books.
Prospective fathers, you will read lots of baby books before the birth. You will fold over corners on important pages, you will scribble notes in the margin and highlight key passages in orange. You will study those paragraphs like you have an exam coming up. Then, when your baby arrives you will never look at those books again and instead use them as footstools when you’re on the sofa holding your snoozing baby.
Your first attempt to fasten a baby onesie or change a nappy will take several infuriating minutes as you fumble like a polar bear trying to tie his shoelaces. But after a few practice runs your fingers will achieve new levels of dexterity as they dance up and down those tabs and poppers like a pianist playing Rachmaninoff.
Next time you go to the gym, grab a 5kg kettle bell, raise it to your chest and cradle it in both arms. Now sway from left foot to right foot. Sounds easy, right? After 45 seconds, your lats, traps, delts, biceps, wrists and triceps will start to burn. Now imagine doing the same exercise for eight minutes but, instead of a kettle bell, you’re holding your precious baby and making shushing noises at 3am. After two weeks you’ll have a crippling case of Dad Back. This is not a joke, fellas. Google ‘new dad back pain’ and you’ll find plenty of advice on how to combat it. Having a baby means you’ll be lunging, squatting and dead lifting all day – fatherhood a solid workout.
After becoming a father you will realise that whoever wrote nursery rhymes was a songwriting genius on par with Lennon and McCartney. These ear worms enter your brain and never leave. You’ll be in the office, ready to give a presentation when Three Blind Mice jangles around your head.
Having a baby is bad news for minimalists, but great news if you’re a hoarder. Be prepared to drown under a tidal wave of stuff. Muslin cloths will be draped over every armchair, sofa and cupboard handle. Breast pads (Google them) will be scattered all over your house; you’ll be tempted to use them as coasters – do not use them as coasters. Baby bottles, lids and teats will dominate your kitchen drawers. You’ll need an entire wardrobe for onesies. Your bathroom shelf will be overtaken with baby toiletries. And no matter how carefully you manoeuvre the pushchair at home, you’ll stub your toe on it at least three times a week and crash into walls, leaving black marks everywhere.
You think you drank a lot of coffee before you became a father? Wait ‘til you have a baby. The soothing black elixir will become your best mate, your confidante, your crutch. Ask for an extra shot – you’re going to need it.
After becoming a father weekends mutate into a blink-and-you-miss-it 48-hour blur. Between Thursday evening and Sunday morning you’ll feel like you’re in a pinball machine, bouncing around at home looking after your baby, helping your wife, emptying the dishwasher and sterilising things in saucepans of boiling water. Lazy afternoons spent in the cinema? Brunch? Tennis with the lads? Those days are over, pal.
Post-natal anxiety for fathers is a thing – and it’s horrible. You worry about your baby. You worry about your wife. Are they happy? Are they healthy? If your wife is at home with your child, is she going nuts with sleep deprivation, stress and boredom? You also worry about your role in your new family. Are you being a good dad? Are you performing at work? How will you get everything done at home and in the office? It’s a constant, draining worry. A study by the National Childbirth Trust found that 38 per cent of new fathers were concerned about their mental health, while research from Notre Dame University reported that testosterone in dads can drop by a third over a five-year period. Findings from University College London, meanwhile, says that one in five fathers experience depression. And you thought fatherhood was all about looking cool while pushing a pram in the park.
When it comes to newborn babies, the star of the show is the mother. At best, the father is a co-star hoping for a Best Supporting Actor nomination. In those first few weeks your baby will want their mum all the time. Your job is to help your wife: grab a towel, fetch a glass of water, run to the supermarket to buy emergency nappies (don’t EVER run out of nappies). When you hold your baby in the early days, it will probably cry – sorry. Hand your precious cargo back to mum and – voila – instant silence. Don’t get frustrated, that’s how babies operate. They instinctively recognise the heartbeat, voice and smell of their mum. After all, mothers have had a ten-month head start over fathers with bonding time. Don’t take it personally. Eventually, maybe after week three, your baby will be comfortable in your arms – it’s a feeling worth waiting for.
Before baby, your clothes were carefully-selected pieces of coordinated menswear. Post-baby, clothes are merely garments to cover your body when you go outside. Those ratty old jogging bottoms that you only ever wore on Saturday afternoons when you had man flu or were watching football on the sofa with a pizza box balanced on your chest are now perfectly acceptable attire to wear on a walk around the block with your new baby. Racing to the mini-mart for cotton wool balls at 11pm wearing a Darth Vader t-shirt, pink swim shorts and a pair of hotel slippers will seem absolutely fine and won’t produce a flicker of embarrassment.
Dad bod? Hmm, I’m not sure. Studies show that the BMI of a six-feet tall father can rise by 2.6 per cent (that’s equivalent to 2kg) whereas a childless man’s BMI will drop by 0.6kg. Other research says that, on average, a man with children weighs 6kg more than a man without children. Sorry Mr Scientist, but I disagree. I lost weight after becoming a father. You might do the same. Why? Because you’ll be so busy and distracted looking after a baby that you will forget to eat. Eventually, when you have a spare 12 seconds to collect your thoughts – enjoy that precious time, mate – you will realise that you haven’t eaten in six hours. With plummeting blood sugar, you stumble to the fridge and yank open the door but there’ll be nothing inside because you haven’t had time to go grocery shopping and even if you had been to Choithram’s you haven’t the time or energy to cook anything. Have you ever tried to make a sandwich while holding a baby? It’s tricky. Grabbing a cracker, half a black banana or a three-day-old roast potato is the best you can do.
In pre-baby times you might have spent an hour in the bathroom, showering, moisturising, shaving, maybe even applying a face mask – oh, the decadence. Post-baby, you’ll be lucky if you have time to even look in the mirror at your bushy hair that needed a cut two weeks ago. Your grooming regime has now been reduced to a 45-second shower. Tip: use de-puffing eye cream every night.
Freaked out by fatherhood? Don’t be, we’ve been doing this for millenia. Yes, becoming a dad is an assault on your mind and body and throws every facet of your life up in the air. You’ll be forced to make sacrifices; you’ll be tired, grumpy and anxious – it’s a difficult adjustment. But that moment when your baby looks at you and giggles for the first time... you’ll be knocked sideways by a rush of endorphins, love and happiness so powerful you won’t even notice your back pain.
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