Dr. John D Rich, Jr. is an educational psychologist, a professor of Psychology at Delaware State University, a husband of Erin the fabulous, and a father of two teenaged boys. Dr. Rich writes about parenting and teaching topics at www.drjohnrich.com, and is author of the book Positive Parenting, which was released this Spring.
As a new dad, you might be thinking, “I don’t feel very helpful. My partner is doing most of the heavy lifting around here, and I’m feeling like a third wheel.” Many men who become new fathers find themselves thinking these same thoughts. New babies are lovable, but tough. Their cooing melts our hearts, but their diapers make a mockery of our messiest bowel movements. Have you yet had to deal with the poop that has mysteriously climbed all the way out of the diaper and smeared itself up the back? That’s fun to clean up, huh? They giggle but they also wail us up out of our deepest sleep. I remember, as a first-time dad, experiencing the heavy delight of getting four straight hours of sleep. What luxury!
Through it all, Mom can seem like she’s doing so much and we’re feeling as useful as an abacus at a calculus competition.
And when your baby cries, it’s anyone’s guess what it means. Is she hungry? Nope. Doesn’t want to eat. Does she have a full diaper? Changed it. Still crying. Maybe she needs to be burped. My eardrums bleed as the crying picks up volume while I bounce her and pat her on the back. Perhaps she’s tired. Driving her around the block seems to have done the trick. Whew! Now, if I could just remember my name…
What’s more, many new dads feel like Mom is doing most of the work. Especially if she is breastfeeding. There is the need to cook, clean, go for walks, feed, clean, talk, sing, read, and make time for naps. Through it all, Mom can seem like she’s doing so much and we’re feeling as useful as an abacus at a calculus competition. We want to help, but we’re not sure how to find our niche and chip in. We want to help our partner, who is struggling from a combination of weariness and sleep deprivation. And we want to help our new baby. He’s finally here, and we aren’t meeting the challenge.
Don’t take it personally, but there’s nothing Mom might want more than to not see you for a few hours.
If you want to be part of the action, but don’t know what to do, the biggest piece of advice I can give is: DO WHATEVER YOU WOULD DO NORMALLY, and take your baby with you while you do it. Need to go to the grocery store? Tell Mom you’re taking the baby with you. And while you’re there shopping, TAKE YOUR TIME! Don’t take it personally, but there’s nothing Mom might want more than to not see you for a few hours. She can sleep, or watch TV, or read a book without any guilt. Perhaps – God forbid – she could even…talk to her friends without being interrupted?
When you were waiting for baby to come, you probably had all sorts of fantasies about what you were going to do with your new baby when he was finally here. You’d throw a football to him, and on the very first throw, he’d dive backwards and catch the ball one handed on his fingertips. Or you’d sit her down and tell her all of your deepest beliefs, and she’d nod her head and tell you to relax and be confident that she espouses everything you have just told her.
All those desires to play and chat are well and good. But in the early days, when the baby still can’t hold his head up straight, you don’t need to do anything fancy. Just be there. Let your son hear your voice and see you look into his eyes, and feel the warmth of your soothing tone. Let your daughter know the feel of your strong hands and broad shoulders. Just making the time for her, speaking to her with the love dripping off your words like honey, is all you need right now.
Don’t overcomplicate things.
While sitting on the floor and playing games, imaginary role play, and intentional discussion are all great, it is often enough to just take the baby with you when you have to go take care of everyday things. Are you working on a project? As long as there’s nothing dangerous around, put the baby in the bouncer, or strap on your BABYBJÖRN, and work on it with him there. Do you want to read the paper? Read it out loud to her.
Don’t overcomplicate things. While you’re doing your everyday activities, keep your baby nearby, and just talk out loud about what you are doing. It doesn’t matter that the baby doesn’t understand your words. What matters is your time and your voice. If the paper talks about a new construction project in your neighborhood, turn to your baby and say, “I hope that doesn’t interfere with my commute to work…I usually take Route 15 to the office, but this here says that they’re going to be closing the roads for the next two weeks…Which way should I go instead?” Tickle him a bit, or get in close and look into his eyes. “What do you think? Should I just take Division Street to Kenton instead?” Wiggle his toes a little. “A bit of a hassle, but that’s probably going to be my best bet…Hope they don’t close the roads for long.”
Being a new dad seems daunting, I know. I was scared to death when it happened to me. Then I realized. I don’t have to be superman. I just have to care, and love, and include. Your child will come to believe in his own worth and potential, as a result of you treating him like he has all the worth and potential in the world. As you get older, you’ll see. Being a great father isn’t about the right words or some specific set of behaviors. Great fathers raise their children by their attitudes and their positive attention. Good luck on this journey you’ve begun. There isn’t anything more demanding, nor more rewarding and life-changing, than living your highest fatherly aspirations.