The first time you bring home a newborn your life changes forever. The police banging on the door, your wife asking ‘whose baby is that?’, the community outrage. It’s a rollercoaster ride.
The first time you bring home your own baby, though, is almost as full-on. Your life as you knew it is over. It’s like you’ve been drafted into a globally insignificant, but personally devastating, war. A war that may deliver you some moments of glory in the future, but for the next few months will be just shell shock.
The best way to cope is as Captain Speirs (a character based on a real-life American bad ass) tells a novice soldier in Steven Spielberg’s WWII TV series Band of Brothers.
“The only hope you have is to accept the fact that you’re already dead.” (If you weren’t following, that novice soldier is pre-parenthood you.) “The sooner you accept that, the sooner you’ll be able to function as a soldier is supposed to function.”
Of course, being a dad won’t actually kill you. You’ll learn the ropes no matter how crap you are at the start.
But as a grizzled veteran of, er, one baby, here’s what I’d like to have understood the first time around — and what I’d change if I could go back.
1. Her body will change. Say absolutely nothing
You’re a funny guy, yeah? Well, here’s a rich seam of comedy gold that only an idiot would be stupid enough to mine.
You might be tempted to make the odd crack about how, say, her pregnant body leaks gas like a torn blimp while she’s asleep.
Worse, you might come up with a few gags to tell your mates about her buxom-but-off-limits chest furniture, or how she’s over-spending on Depends Undergarments, and news of your hilarity finds its way back to her — a very angry woman.
Stupidest of all, you might consider writing a piece in Australia’s most successful dad blog about how she’s fallen foul of all these things and more.
Take my advice: don’t. All are bad options, but the last is the worst.
2. Do reno the house
Don’t do it, they said. You’ve got enough on your plate. And they almost convinced me.
That’s bullshit. In the three months before our kid was born, we bought a new house, moved out of the old house, demolished half the new house, and had several nervous breakdowns.
We also fell off a ladder (me), whinged constantly (her), swore constantly (me), whinged about my swearing (her), shouted “FFS I FELL OFF A F*CKING LADDER” (me). And then moved into an uninhabitable house with half a kitchen (us).
“Everyone does a reno before the kid’s due, it’s almost as bad as people wanting all their work finished before Christmas,” our builder said.
This is stressful. But you’re not going to get another chance.
Put it this way, in the final days before birth, we built our vanishingly small equivalent of the Taj Mahal from scratch. In the year-and-a-half since he’s arrived, I’ve managed to paint one dodgy patch on the ceiling — badly.
Get it done before the sprog arrives or it’ll never happen.
3. Go with her to every obstetrician’s appointment
My wife had several miscarriages, and to say they get easier to deal with is like saying that torture becomes more tolerable over time. Which is to say: maybe true, but not knowledge I’d wish on anyone. Even people who say ‘hubby’ instead of ‘husband’, whom I usually believe should be waterboarded.
Anyway, before the foetus who became a boy finally stuck, I was sure we were on a winner. Two failures under the bridge. Confident for no reason like a work-experience millennial. All signs fantastic. All cosmic set-ups for a fall. All until there were no vital signs at all.
She went to the doc, closing in on the first trimester grace period. I went to work. I missed three calls, in a meeting, in a few minutes, before I noticed the notifications on my phone.
The kid was gone. She was inconsolable and alone, a sour violin sob of grief, and I was standing at a shitty lift in a shitty office block across town, jabbing the elevator button with my heart being crushed between two cold stones. A useless man. It’s not that hard to make it to the obstetrician.
4. Whatever you do, don’t find out the gender
Full disclosure: we didn’t find out the sex before I clapped eyes on the baby, but not because of any well-considered ideology.
We basically tossed a coin and thought, “Eh, let’s not”, largely because if you don’t feel strongly either way, you keep your options open.
In the delivery theatre, however, seeing that … boy? IT’S A BOY! pulled grey and shuddering from a small, neat caesarean incision was not just awe-inspiring, it was maybe the most wonderful surprise of my life. It would still have been if my boy was a girl. Or intersex. Or an Xbox.
I wince when I think how close I came to robbing myself of that mystery, or diminishing that reveal, by finding out ahead of time. How many truly life-warping surprises will you get before you die?
And don’t give me that rubbish about one parent finding out and just keeping it to themselves. It’ll taint every exchange you have until birth as you examine conversations for hidden subtext. Paint the nursery a neutral colour. Don’t mug yourself.
5. Bottle them early, bottle them often
And not in a Begbie sense. Babies make substandard hooligans, even if they’re already toothless.
Feeding your child can be difficult, but we convinced the baby to take the boob without too much trouble, and a minimum of cracked or chafed nipples.
But we didn’t realise that you’re far better off teaching the kid to take a bottle early, in preparation for a time when, a) mum wants to go back to work, or b) you just want to give her a break by doing a few night feeds (whether on formula or expressed breastmilk).
We did manage to get him to take a bottle a couple of times before eight weeks — the golden period when he suckles more instinctively.
But then, because it was harder, and we were apocalyptically tired, once he figured it out, we went back to the source. This was a mistake. Babies are stupid. They forget.
By the time mum was really about to go back to work, we were surprised to have to start again at square one: a deeply stressful, expensive (if he doesn’t like one brand of powdered milk you’re out $25 a tin), and very time-consuming process.
Get your bub on the bottle early, pre-two months, and return him there regularly. It’s a better investment than a 2010 Bitcoin.
6. Babies cry … a lot
Yes, yes, I know: water is wet, bears crap in the woods, Peter Dutton is a lizard person. Babies cry, stupid.
But until you’ve experienced first-hand the gruelling, cosmically joyless fact of a wailing bub screaming blue murder, inches from your face, for two, or three, or five straight hours — after 32 hours awake — it’s impossible to prepare for.
Actually, that’s not true: it’s easy to prepare for, but also futile. As Mike Tyson said, “everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth”.
Now understand this: most of the time, one of Iron Mike’s right-hook/uppercut combos would be preferable to this torture.
“There’s something wrong with him,” I’d say to my wife. “Look at his face! Babe! He is in extreme pain!” But he wasn’t. He was just a baby. Emitting a ceaseless, ear-splitting Dalek wail that you’re genetically programmed to be unable to ignore, like a klaxon made of hate.
I knew the crying would be hard. But I didn’t know know. And there’s a world of difference.