There’s no “right way” to feel when you become a new dad. You can’t know what it will be like until you’re in it. Have a look at this guest post by new dad and therapist, David Sternberg.
Our daughter, Vida, is nearly three months old, and as a first-time parent I’ve experienced some amazing highs and painful lows.
I’ve learned a lot about myself — some have surprised me, others have reinforced things I already knew about myself. I’ve also seen some wonderful changes in my wife. I’m sure as Vida gets older the learning will only continue but I thought it might be helpful for other new dads to hear about my experience so far.
The thing that probably surprised me the most is that I didn’t bond nearly as quickly as I thought I would to the baby. For the first three weeks of Vida’s life, I didn’t feel the deep love and connection that I heard other new parents talk so passionately about — or that I thought I should have.
What I mostly felt was exhausted, irritable and overwhelmed. I thought I knew what tired was before having a baby, but I was way, way off. I kept waiting for all the good feelings to swoop in and overwhelm the bad, but it rarely happened the first few weeks. That’s when some guilt crept in, making matters worse.
So, outwardly, I told friends and family things like “We’re exhausted but doing great.” That was a lie. There were times I found myself angry and resentful towards the baby, something I never would’ve imagined — particularly because my wife and I endured so much to get to this point. (She and I went through three years of failed in vitro fertilization (IVF) treatments and ultimately had to use an egg donor.)
In retrospect, maybe it was naive of me to think that the gratitude and relief I felt for finally having a baby would override any negative feelings about the day-to-day reality of having a baby.
Because the reality is that the first several weeks of fatherhood were a grind — feeding, burping, changing diapers, laundry, cleaning bottles, preparing new bottles. Not to mention being emotionally supportive of my wife and fending off well-meaning friends and family, who wanted to see the baby. And then having to do it all over again the next day. It had a Groundhog Day feel to it.
Several things made it easier: All the fantastic meals that our parents made for us, which eliminated the time and energy my wife and I would have to devote to meal preparation. Another is Vida’s much-improved sleep in the last four weeks. She is now fairly routinely sleeping six or seven continuous hours each night, which means my wife and I are more rested, energetic and happier.
One of the amazing things that happened around the eight week mark was Vida smiling at us, particularly when either me or my wife walked into the room. That, as my wife put it, was a “game changer.” Her recognizing us and interacting with us with that smile was overwhelming. It became like a drug, particularly for my wife, who would playfully ask, “Where’s that smile?”
Something else that surprised me was my lack of patience early on. I’ve always considered myself a fairly laid-back, roll-with-the-punches person but there have been a few moments, mainly due to lack of sleep, that I felt myself starting to “lose it.” Thankfully, I have enough sense to either walk out of the room or hand the baby off to my wife, who has shown way more patience than me.
On a lighter note, probably the biggest thing that’s been reinforced for me is that I am terrible at assembling things. (I really can’t overstate this.) It took me over an hour to put together a Rock n’ Play, which is basically an upright swing. There were three poles that had to be put together. My wife looked on with equal parts amusement and pity as I jammed things together that clearly didn’t fit. A fifth-grader probably could have figured it out in less time than it took me.
There are plenty of things I was noticing about myself but there were some changes in my wife as well. Since Vida was born she has become more assertive and more willing to delegate tasks to me or family members, things she previously had difficulty doing. Seeing her as a more powerful version of herself has made me feel closer to her. Frankly, it’s a turn on.
There have also been some truly touching moments, as when I’ve come home from work and seen my wife and Vida asleep together on the sofa, Vida cradled comfortably in my wife’s arms. I’ve just stared at the beauty of that.
So, a few words of wisdom to new dads or soon-to-be dads: It’s OK if you don’t immediately bond with your baby; the first several weeks are tough and you will often feel like a zombie; plow through and cherish the beautiful moments because those will make it all worthwhile.
David Sternberg, LICSW, is director of DC Talk Therapy, a psychotherapy group practice in Woodley Park.