This week, my son had his first birthday. The last year has changed my life a lot, and I believe I have changed as a person too.
It was important to me from the very beginning that I wouldn’t be just the secondary parent. Although we live in the 21st century, it seems we are stuck in roles that are from the 1950s when it comes to parenting.
If you’d like to be an active father and an equal parent, here are a few things I learned throughout my first year as a father that might help you along your way:
1. Start talking early about the details.
Whenever people give a couple the advice to talk with each other, it seems like such a no-brainer. It seems ridiculous to even mention it. But when it comes to parenting and the question of which role you want to take on (and maybe which one you don’t) it is just so important.
I suggest you start talking really early about your ideas, as specifically as possible.
For example: When my wife and I started to discuss our parental leave while she was still pregnant, we realized that we had quite different ideas of “equal.” Only when we talked about how many months I really wanted to stay at home full-time and how much I wanted to reduce work hours after that did we realize that our ideas diverged.
Let’s just split 50/50 or 60/40 or whatever is still very general. But when you start to think about what that actually means, then you’ll have the important discussions. Suddenly it becomes something like this:
Partner 1: “Let’s do the 50/50 model. That means I’ll start work at 9:00 a.m. and leave at 1:00 p.m. Oh, wait a minute, Thursday I usually have a meeting at 9:00 a.m. and one at 3:00 p.m., which I really can’t miss. So I’ll just stay longer that one day. Ah … and maybe sometimes Monday too.”
Partner 2: “So what does that mean? I just work whenever you choose to be available? How am I supposed to plan that at my work? By the way, I need to be at the office Monday morning as well. And I can’t just always go to work at 2:00 p.m.“
That’s the moment when it gets interesting and when the actual discussions start. So stop making general comments and be specific early on. How? Write a plan, draw a sketch, create a shared calendar. Just be sure to be specific.
2. Take as much time off as you can.
When our son was born I stayed at home with my wife for about two months. Throughout the first year, I took another three months off and reduced my work time to 75%. I was lucky to live in Germany at the time I became a father, where it was technically possible to leave my job for up to 12 months while getting partially paid. Not everyone has that option, but I encourage everyone to get as much time at home with the baby as possible. Even if you can't stay home, dialing back your working hours just a little can make a huge difference.
The first few months, my wife and I were both struggling with the new life, the lack of sleep, and all the new challenges and worries.
When I look at the pictures from those days, I think “Gee, we look terrible.” It is a funny mixture of what seems to be the longest sleepover ever (we were wearing PJs all the time) and the night after a rough party (messy hair, sleepy look…). But besides the fact that this is a time when there is more than enough work for two people, it is also a time that you really don’t want to miss as a father.
During those first weeks, my son and I got to know each other. I learned how to hold him, how to dress him, how to change his nappies (of course), and how to calm him down, etc.
Not everyone has that option, but I encourage everyone to get as much time at home with the baby as possible
I know a lot of fathers who were at home very little during that time or not at all due to work-related travel. In these cases, the learning curve of the mother was just so much steeper than the father’s because the mother was at home all the time.
I’ve met fathers with six-month-old babies who can’t bring their children to bed by themselves, are not able to calm them down during the night, or never stay home alone with them. This is not because fathers are genetically less connected to their child. It is simply the lack of practice that makes fathers feel uncomfortable or that the child has established those routines with the mother alone and gets irritated when suddenly the father tries to do it.
This is the time to create a strong bond between you and your child from day one. It’s not a vacation — there were times when I was tired beyond anything I’d experienced — but it helped me deepen my relationship with my son. Try not to miss that chance!
3. Get organized.
When you really boil it down, your daily routine after your child is born changes because of two major differences: lack of sleep and lack of time. Lack of sleep is something you get used to much quicker than you’d expect. Lack of time is what I found most challenging.
Before our son was born, my wife and I were both very active people. During the day we’d work and meet people for coffee or lunch. In the evening, we’d go out, meet friends, join professional meet-ups, or work on our own projects. Once there is a little human who needs care and attention literally 24 hours a day, your life changes quite dramatically.
I read a really good book that suggested a strict shared calendar for everything. We tried this out and it worked extremely well for us. Our calendar includes work slots, child care slots, and external babysitting. So far so good. What made the real difference is that we added individual free time and couple time as predefined placeholders. We agreed they were equally important to anything else in the calendar. Each of us had one evening per week for ourselves. This allowed us to see friends, go to meet-ups, or whatever. We also made sure to plan in regular date nights for which we would get a babysitter.
Without free time for yourself and for you as a couple, you lose a lot of your life and become dissatisfied. This will eventually have an impact on your relationship and the way you interact with your child.
4. Include your child whenever possible.
It seems a lot of people exit the world they used to live in once they become parents. But contrary to popular belief, you actually don’t change completely as a person the moment you become a parent.
Once you get over the first three months, normal life starts to come back if you allow it to. And you’d be surprised how many events you can actually attend with your child. Before our son turned one, my wife and I went to conferences, birthday parties, weddings, and even business meetings!
What I found much harder than actually bringing my son to these events was the idea of doing it. I was simply scared. However, most people are very supportive and happy when you bring your child.
For some of the events, I found it easier to go there with my wife and take turns if necessary.
Give it a try and see what works best for you. Just don’t decline invitations to all the things you still want to do.
5. Get support and ask for help.
It has always seemed odd to let other people do the things that I could do myself. When I became a parent, this attitude changed — a lot. As I said, your daily routine will change dramatically once the little one arrives. Suddenly, individual and couple time as well as sleep will be your most precious resources. Don’t waste them on things you might as well outsource.
One of the first things we did was to get someone to clean our apartment once a week. This saved us so much stress and arguments that I honestly think it was one of the best value for money investments ever.
But there are other things you can outsource. For example, I became a regular customer of services that send pre-packed recipes to your house.
Besides professional help and services, there is, of course, your family. If your family is around, then you’re lucky.
In the beginning I didn’t like the idea of my mum cooking lunch for me — it felt like going back in time and losing my independence. But when she came over with a delicious meal ready to be eaten, all doubts vanished and I was deeply thankful. Often, the small things matter the most. Like my parents or in-laws coming over and taking our son for a short walk in the park while we take a nap. Or my sister-in-law coming over to babysit while we go on a date.
The thing about help is, it won’t magically appear on your doorstep. Often you’ll need to ask for it. This seems so hard, but once you do, you’ll discover it is worth it. So swallow your pride and ask family and close friends for help.
Believe me, it’s worth it.
The bottom line? Life is a list of priorities.
In my opinion, life is a list of priorities. You can have (pretty much) everything you want — just not everything at the same time. It is easy to find reasons why certain solutions work for others but just not for you. In most of these cases, however, they don’t work for you because you don’t want them bad enough.
Decide what is important to you. If necessary, put these things on a list and prioritize them. Everything on on the list is either more or less important than something else.
Whatever is on top of your list is a conscious choice. And only you are responsible for it.