Before I had my son, the closest experience I had to taking care of an infant was holding my friend's puppy in college. George the Yorkshire Terrier was so terrified of me that he leapt out of my arms and landed on his little puppy head. He was fine but developed a deep hatred for me that led him to follow me around the house and growl, constantly.
When my wife became pregnant I knew I wanted to be an equal partner in caretaking. But without relatable experience, I also knew I was at a disadvantage. I wanted to know more about the tactics of newborn care. How often should I change his diapers? Does he always sleep while wearing that tiny, striped hat? If I drop him will he follow me around and growl at me?
Two years later, I'm my son's primary caretaker. I left my job to start a company, partly due to my desire to work from home and spend more time with him. I've swaddled, cleaned spit up, and changed trillions of diapers of various hues. Of course I love my son, but I also love taking care of my son.
So, how did I get from a clueless dad-to-be to a more confident caretaker? Here are eight things I learned that I hope will help empower other new dads.
1. Spend as much one-on-one time with your infant as possible.
Spending extended alone time with your newborn is, no surprise, the best way to grow your new-parent confidence early. This can be especially difficult for new dads as a result of cultural expectations of gender roles and the lack of widespread paternity leave. But if you can swing it, it's a great way to bond with your baby and develop your own unique soothing techniques. For those new dads who don't have parental leave from work, using vacation or sick time after your partner goes back to work can make a world of difference. Studies have shown this one-on-one time can forge bonds that last years.
2. Discuss your parenting expectations with your partner.
My wife had spent more time taking care of babies than I had and was more skilled than I was. This initially made it easier for her to do tactical things like swaddling and bathing. But it was important to both of us that I shared in the nitty-gritty of parenting. We agreed that I'd frequently take the lead so I could learn (and sometimes fail). This helped me develop skills and my own parenting style.
3. Find some dad friends.
I played pickup basketball with a group of new dads every Saturday afternoon. While we didn't talk parenting during our (not-so) fast breaks, it was beneficial to have a network of new dads who knew exactly what I was going through. Look to join a dads group, which are becoming more common, or, if that's not your thing, try simply saying hello to the fellow new dad you see all the time at the playground.
4. Take personal time to relax.
Being a parent can be emotionally and physically taxing. Think about the new journey as a marathon, not a sprint. New parents—moms and dads both—should try their best to build personal time into their schedules. (Yes, I realize it's easier said than done.) If you have a partner, I recommend holding each other accountable each week. The activity can be even more rewarding if it involves exercise where you can have a mental break, like yoga or running.
5. Prioritize baby activities you enjoy.
A few days into my paternity leave I didn't know what to do with my newborn son, outside of feeding and nap routines. As we were listening to music, it hit me: dancing! Every day after that moment I put on music and danced with my son in my arms. I also started reading to him multiple times a day. Granted I was dancing in the kitchen instead of in the club and reading baby books instead of science fiction novels, but they were still activities I loved. Nearly two years old now, my son has grown to love these things in his own way. Consider modifying your favorite activities for your baby and dad activity time.
6. Master a skill or two.
There are lots of small skills you need to get through a day with a baby. Depending on the parent, some are more enjoyable than others. Me? I miss swaddling. I liked the the semi-dramatic situations when my son needed me to step up. It's 3 am, completely dark and my son's crying because he's not wrapped tightly—I got this! Try finding a go-to skill or two that you can master and own. (Bonus points if it happens to involve a middle-of-the-night task that allows your partner to get extra sleep!)
7. Embrace the goofiness.
In a list of the top 10 weirdest people I've known in my life, eight are babies. They sleep at all the wrong times, they make funny faces that don't match what's happening and they CANNOT DO ANYTHING. But their strangeness can also be fun. I sometimes dressed my son up as a ninja turtle while we were hanging out. He was a spot on Donatello.
I loved being a brand new father but it was the toughest thing I've done. For every decision I got right, it seemed there were 10 I got wrong. To relieve some of the frustration and slow down the frenetic days, I sat and wrote a few times a week. Sometimes they were emails to an old friend or notes to my new son. But having a few minutes to reflect on and document the experience helped me zero in on meaning. Try setting aside 20 minutes before bed once a week to write about a memorable moment.
Andrew Bentley is the owner of Father Figure, a company that creates paternity clothing and accessories for the modern dad. Before Father Figure, Andrew worked on the Social Impact team at Google and co-founded a nonprofit, Global Health Corps.