At some point not long after the baby is born, just about every new father gets hit with a sharp jolt of reality: he's a father—with new responsibilities, new pressures, new expectations to live up to. For some of us, this seemingly basic little epiphany comes early, before we leave the hospital. But for others, reality may not hit for a few days. Sooner or later, though, we all come to realize that our lives have changed forever. Sometimes the changes are subtle, sometimes not so subtle. But they're almost always surprising.
If there's one thing that sets the first few months of fatherhood apart from the next few years it's the confusing and often conflicting emotions you may feel. On the one hand there's the virility, power, and pride at having created a new life. On the other, the feelings of helplessness when you can't satisfy (or sometimes even understand) your baby's needs.
There's no comparing the all-consuming love you'll have for your child with the love you have for any other person. Maurice Sendak may have captured the feeling better than any other writer in a scene from Where the Wild Things Are where the monsters plead with Max not to leave them: "Please don't go," they say. "We'll eat you up we love you so."
One day, completely out of the blue, you'll look at your baby and realize that the intense passion you felt just the day before has been replaced by a numb, hollow feeling. Do you know this child? Do you care? You'll feel like bagging this whole dad thing and starting a new life somewhere else. Chances are the very next thing you'll feel is incredible guilt at having had these feelings in the first place. After all, if you aren't head-over-heels in love your child 100% of the time you're not a good father, right? Wrong. Ambivalence is a perfectly normal part of being a dad and you're going to have the same feelings dozens of times over the next 50 years. So get used to it now.
Yep, it's true. Even though most people think that postpartum blues are a women's thing, plenty of guys get depressed after their babies are born. Our blues, though, aren't hormonally based like our partners', but may, in fact, have more to do with returning to reality. When you were an expectant and brand new dad, people paid more attention to you and probably cut you a little slack. But after a few weeks it's back to the grind at work, plus you've got to deal with all the bills, the sleep interruption, and the extra laundry at home. That's enough to depress anyone.
The first few months of fatherhood are simply littered with fears: that you won't be able to live up to your expectations of what it means to be a father; that you might not be able to protect your child or your family from harm, that you won't be able to adequately provide for your family, that you don't know what to do with your child, that you'll be too much -- or not enough -- like your own father, that you've made a horrible mistake. These fears and many others are a completely normal part of making the transition from man and husband to father. Some will go away as your skills increase; others will go away with time. But sooner or later they almost all go away.
Before you become parents, you and your partner spend a lot of time together, nurturing each other and making your relationship stronger. But once your baby shows up, everything changes: now the focus of just about every thing you do is on your baby. You barely have time to sleep let alone do the things that brought you and your partner together in the first place. If at all possible, try to carve out some time, even if it's only a few minutes a day, to spend talking with your partner -- about something other than the baby.
For the first six to eight weeks of life, your baby probably won't give you much feedback about how you're doing as a father: no smiles, no laughing, not much response in any way at all. In fact, just about all he'll do is cry. It's very easy to take your baby's lack of enthusiasm as some kind of referendum on your worth as a dad. Don't. If you back off, your baby will too. So hang in there for a little longer -- it's well worth the wait.
Over the next few months, as you learn to master your baby's cues and meet his needs, your baby will learn to love you -- and to express that love in the most amazing ways. And the first time that your baby coos as you or hugs you or falls asleep on your chest absentmindedly stroking your shoulder you'll discover the true meaning of life.
Before you became a parent getting ready to leave the house meant grabbing your wallet and car keys and making sure the oven was off. But now, going on a trip to the grocery store with your baby in two takes as much planning as an expedition to Mt. Everest. That's assuming that your baby doesn't fill her diaper two or three times just as you're walking out the door.
If someone would have told you a year ago that you'd be willingly participating in long discussions with your friends about projectile vomit, leaky breasts, episiotomies, and the color and consistency of the contents of a diaper, you'd have laughed yourself silly. But you're doing it, right? And you're loving it too.
Armin Brott is the author of The New Father: A Dad's Guide to the First Year, Father for Life, The Expectant Father: Facts, Tips, and Advice for Dads-to-Be, A Dad's Guide to the Toddler Years, Throwaway Dads, and The Single Father: A Dad's Guide to Parenting without a Partner.