Eight Surprises During My First Year as a Father

By Chris, 07/30/2016, in Everything else

I have a 13-month-old son named Dashiell (pronounced Dash-uhl, and I'm sorry in advance to schoolage Dashiell, whose teachers will all say "Dah-sheel?" on his first day). He's awesome. I mean...I'm not super objective, but even so, he's definitely a good dude. We're going to keep him.

Most of my friends don't yet have kids, so I've been keeping a mental list of things that no one told me, that surprised me in this first year. With one exception, these eight things are all observations, not advice. Back-seat drivers are annoying, but it's nice to have a heads-up if a large bend in the road is coming.

1. The amount of stuff the baby owns trends towards the amount of stuff you own.

A baby is a tiny human being, but with full, adult-sized equipment needs. As a long-time dog owner, my pre-baby mental model was: Baby is size of dog; therefore, baby needs similar amount of stuff as dog. This is not correct.

The amount of stuff for the baby will, over time, trend towards the amount of stuff any other human being owns. After our baby shower, if you looked around our house, it probably appeared that, in utero, he already owned the majority of the household possessions. Books, toys, furniture, bottles, diapers, burp clothes, bouncers, clothes. Get ready for a massive influx of things.

2. You are not going to answer emails at 3am when the baby is up.

Prior to actually having a kid, I thought that during the first few months of life, when the baby is going to be up in the middle of the night, I would use that time productively; working, answering emails, etc. I'd be tired, but I'd at least get some work done. That is a totally insane idea, but one that I've also heard from my pre-child coworkers.

If you are up in the middle of the night with a baby, it is because you are feeding the baby, or attempting to get the baby back to sleep, or thinking "why are you screaming at me at 3am?". There is no scenario where you are up in the middle of the night, peacefully answering emails while, like, the baby coos on the floor next to you. If you are capable of answering emails, you are capable of going to sleep. You will pick sleep.

3. Development and learning are totally different.

Though I sort of knew children 'developed', it took a newborn baby to fully appreciate the difference between development and learning. A baby is not a human that doesn't know things. It is a human that was, only months prior, a loose ball of barely differentiated cells. You cannot teach a ball of cells how to interact with the world. Nor can you teach much to a newborn.

At each stage, there's a true limit to how much a baby (or child, or teenager, or perhaps adult) is able to learn. Babies need development, not knowledge. Newborn babies are literally unable to look at things. They can't focus their eyes. They are helpless. I've now internalized that, though it slows, development continues throughout life, including into adulthood. The only book I'm aware of that acknowledges this fact is the mind-blowing In Over Our Heads by Robert Kegan. Adults develop too!

4. Sleep and schedule is everything.

Warning: Advice! Get the book Babywise, and do what it says. You child will be sleeping through the night at 12 weeks. Babies that sleep are happy babies. Parents that sleep are happy parents. Babies with happy parents are happy, and parents with happy babies are happy. If this confuses you, then perhaps you should be getting more sleep. But none of this virtuous happiness cycle can happen if everyone is tired, and crabby, and arguing about emptying the dishwasher.

Also, somewhat counterintuitively, setting a good schedule is liberating; if you can predict when your kiddo will be asleep, or hungry, you can plan your day. Buy Babywise. Do it. You are welcome.

5. Everyone does it differently, and that's normal

This article from the New York Times is a great read. It describes the book The Anthropology of Childhood as "the only baby book you'll ever need" because, once you realize that children are reared every which-way, with totally contrary practices, all over the world, and that kids turn out fine regardless, you can chill the heck out and not sweat the details of whether you are "doing it right". Thanks to my handy summary here, you don't even need to read the article. And you definitely don't need to read the book; it's fairly academic and boring. But sort of fascinating at the same time.

6. The maturation process.

To some extent at least, I now believe that "maturation" is simply the process of slowly coming to grips with the fact that you are not the center of the universe. Toddlers, for instance, are not mature.

7. The first six months are a little tough for dads.

It's fascinating to hold your newborn offspring and watch the human development process those first few months. I could stare at this baby forever, etc. But, like, not really. Frankly, it's a litttttttllle bit boring hanging out with an infant. They don't actually do a whole lot. After a few minutes of goo-gooing and tickling I was just...kinda bored. Moms seem to have a bit of a deeper bond those first months. That's OK. It gets a heck of a lot more interesting and fun. My one year old is hilarious and it's a blast hanging out with him.

8. You will feel a little weird. Then you won't.

This time last year: Dash is 4 weeks old. I'm out on a walk with him. He is in his bassinet. It's 6pm on Saturday. I see a bunch of guys vaguely my age headed to the bar, getting ready to go out on a warm(-ish) summer night in San Francisco. They glance at me pushing a stroller. I feel very lame and suddenly much older.

Last weekend: Dash is a little over a year old. It's Saturday evening, we're out for a walk. None of the above registers. I still go out with my friends (though somewhat less frequently), and nothing about me having a kid is weird anymore. I feel like a young parent, and my kid is awesome, and I love my wife. We're almost out of whole milk, so I've picked some up, along with some salmon to grill in the back yard. We run into our neighbor, who has an eight month old, and swap a couple of jokes, and promise, for the 10th time, to get together for dinner soon. Life is good and I am happy.

So that's it.

Basically, just relax. People way less competent that you have raised perfectly reasonable, happy kids. Re-read observation #5 when you get nervous, look forward to awesomely fun times as per point #8, and for the love of god do #4. Good luck and I look forward to seeing our children play against each other in the NBA, but still be civil when mingling backstage before their respective TED talks.

first-screen Fig 1. Chubby tiptoes.

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