There’s an old saying that my Dad likes to trot out on occasion.
“Opinions are like arseholes. Everyone’s got one.”
Never has this more true than when it comes to parenting advice for new parents. It’s everywhere. Advice for mums. Advice for dads. Advice from family. Advice from colleagues. Advice from books and journals. Advice from complete f*cking strangers that don’t even have any children of their own. Some of it is useful. Most of it is not.
Despite the plethora of opinions and advice thrown my way as I eagerly anticipated becoming a dad for the first time, there was some really bloody important shit out there that all of the “experts” completely forgot to mention.
The “Shit I Wish They’d Told Me” trilogy is a three-part series of posts for new dads, filled with real truths that you will struggle to find in any parenting books. Truths that are based on my own experiences as I embarked on my own dadding journey.
Part 2 – Be a Good Wingman
I don’t remember a lot of specifics about the early days of being a new dad. Like all new parents, I think I was just doing whatever I felt I needed to do from minute to minute in order to make it through another day. To survive without being either murdered by my severely sleep deprived, hormonal wife, or having the child protection people turn up, deem us unfit to raise a child and take the baby away.
What I do recall through this period though, is a general feeling of uselessness. Like my experience in the birthing suite that I described in Part 1, I was still the tits on the proverbial bull. I couldn’t feed the baby because he wouldn’t take a bottle. I struggled to rock him off to sleep, and couldn’t seem to burp him as well as his mother could either. Having no obvious role to play as a father, I felt cheated and useless. After all, this was supposed to be my time to step up. To be a man. To raise a valuable human being that contributes to society in a positive way.
It took a little time. Some would say a little too much time. But eventually I realised that my role in this particular scene of life’s play wasn’t as a father. It was as a supportive partner to my wife, who like all first time mums, was doing it incredibly tough.
I’ve read my fair share of parenting books, including some that are written specifically for dads. They’re full of useful tidbits about how to behave when baby arrives, but no one ever told me this. Newborns don’t need a father straight away. I know right?? They can’t even turn their heads or see more than six inches in front of their face, so there’s really very little need for daddy at this point. The mother however, needs a solid and reliable wingman more than she ever has, or ever will again. She needs someone to take on the peripheral tasks so that she can focus on the extremely important role of keeping that baby alive. Someone to make sure that she, the mother, remains fed, hydrated, and rested wherever possible, so that she can do the same for the newborn.
I’ve learned that there are two essential elements to the art of being a good wingman for your partner, and that both of them need to be on point if you’re going to pull it off.
The first essential element of being a good wingman is the physical support. This is the easy one for us blokes. It’s about being physically present, and then (and this the important part) making your presence count by doing useful things. Get home from work as early as possible. Clean up the kitchen. Do the laundry. Change nappies. Sterilise bottles. Hold the baby while your partner has a shower. Make sure that your partner is fed and always has a (non-alcoholic) drink at her fingertips when she’s feeding the baby. The list goes on, and it doesn’t really matter what you do, as long as you do something.
My favourite was always to load Focker #1 into the pram and then just walk. Sometimes for a quick 20 minute stride out around the block, and sometimes for a solid two hour power walk up and down the hills of the local neighbourhood. Mrs D-E-D could then use this time to sleep, shower, and feel a bit more like a normal human again – whilst texting me every 10 minutes to ask if the baby was ok. Sometimes he would sleep peacefully while we clocked up the kms. Sometimes he would scream solidly for an hour or more and there was nothing much I could do except to just keep on walking. These scream-fests were never very pleasant for me, but I took comfort in the fact that at least Mrs D-E-D was getting a break.
The second essential element is the emotional support. I found this element to be much tougher to get my head around than the physical. Like most blokes, my range of emotions is limited to hungry-horny-sleepy, which makes it very tough to be in tune with my partner’s emotional needs, which are far more complex. For the record, despite the complex list of emotions, don’t expect to find horny on her top 100 list for at least a few more months (you’ll need to come to terms with this too, but that’s probably one for a separate blog post).
Something I wish I’d done more of is to tell my wife that she was doing an amazing job with the baby. Think about it. A number of new mothers have stepped straight out of a typical workplace, where feedback is provided constantly and good performance is duly recognised and rewarded. When they become mums, they’re suddenly solely responsible for the life of a tiny human, with no formal training, and no instruction manual. The feedback, recognition and accolades quickly dry up, and the grind sets in.
I hadn’t fully appreciated the importance of this until one evening I arrived home from work to find Mrs D-E-D on the brink. I quickly slipped into practical bloke mode, and started prattling off a list of things that I could potentially do for her to help out.
“Can I hold the baby while you have a shower?”
“Can I make you a cup of tea?”
“Can I pour you a strong gin and tonic?” (Just kidding about the last one. Alcohol is not the answer at this point mmmkay?).
After exhausting all possibilities, I got frustrated and said something along the lines of, “well what do you want then?”
She looked at me tearfully, sniffed, and said, “I just want someone to tell me that I’m doing a good job…..”
Bang. Lightning bolt moment. I had been completely missing the point. It wasn’t about her physical needs at all. It was the emotional side that was hurting.
Following this lightening bolt moment, things became clearer for me. I was able to better understand when it was that Mrs D-E-D needed me to do something useful like fold the never-ending pile of laundry, and when she instead needed some quiet words of encouragement.
In speaking with some of my mum-friends (and I’ve got quite a few now that I’m part of the SAH sisterhood) about this very matter, the consensus is that it’s at this point that the wheels typically fall off and relationships start to suffer. Most male partners are good at the physical. The emotional – not so much.
Five and a bit years and another child later, I look back on this time in our lives with some fondness. Not much, but some. It’s a really tough period. If I had my time again I’d make damn sure that I was a better wingman for my wife – both physically and emotionally. In doing so, my own ’emotional’ needs might’ve made it back in to her top 100 list a bit sooner as well.
Now this is some shit that I wish they’d told me…..