Great guest post from Charlie Swinbourne, dad and editor of online mag The Limping Chicken
Recently I was asked a question by a friend of mine who is about to become a Dad: what changes when a baby arrives?
My initial answers focused on the obvious – the sleepless nights, nappy changing and so on. Then he asked me a very different question.
How does your relationship with your partner change?
That got me back to thinking about those first few months when the cutest, most beautiful little human being you've ever seen arrives in your life and proceeds, through innocent human nature alone, to turn it upside down.
The first thing of course is that as you walk out of that maternity unit at once joyously happy, slightly traumatised and completely shattered, you're now Mum and Dad, instead of just husband and wife.
Forget what you've seen on Channel 4's One Born Every Minute. The credits don't roll after the baby appears. Not unless you bring a projector into the labour room, but that'd be just silly. And you'd get chucked out.
Nope, baby's arrival isn't the end. It's just the start.
Even as you walk into the hospital car park and strap the baby chair into the back seat (hopefully with baby still inside) your focus shifts from each other to your baby.
Your task is now to keep this little boy or girl healthy, clean and fed. And alive.
Our society (and the government's statutory paternity leave) is geared up to Mums being the main carer so, unless you've just won the lottery, in those first few weeks and months you'll find yourselves living out very different day to day lives.
Two weeks after our first child arrived, my paternity leave ended. I remember finding myself on a train back to work, feeling like the only place I wanted to be was back home, sharing in everything again. I was a wreck.
I spent that torturous first day in the office struggling to have an adult conversation, or to do any work. I texted my Wife every five minutes to find out how our baby was. The second day was easier, then as the days and weeks passed, I settled and accepted that my role wasn't going to be at home. And, to my Wife's relief, I started texting a little less.
What's difficult is the way your days are so different. One person spends their day at home dealing with the demands of a child, while the other person deals with the demands of work. Then you get home and share stories from your day, and it can be a struggle to relate.
She might tell you about how the baby screamed the house down half the morning with colic, how she's having discomfort when breastfeeding, and how she's changed a million dirty nappies.
You might want to talk about your demanding boss, how numerous work projects are reaching their deadlines simultaneously, and about your arduously long commute.
You're going to be on different pages, but the key is, I've found, that you cut each other a deal: listen to the other person sympathetically for ten minutes, then stick Corrie on and have a quiet rest for half an hour.
Then talk about how many women Ken Barlow's supposed to have slept with instead.
[A note on the tiredness. It goes. It really does. It's like you're in the sequel to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: you find your memory bank wiped clean of all the vomit, poo and crying, leaving you with memories of only the good things, like the moment your child smiled at you for the first time. This memory-wipe is, in my opinion, the only reason couples have more than one child.]
Perhaps the biggest change in the relationship, for both of you, is how what what one person does now affects the other.
Once, you could both pursue your own interests and activities (even, amazingly, together if you wanted) but now, one of you deciding to do one thing compels the other to look after the baby on their own. It's not a big deal if you make a habit of agreeing plans between the two of you. It's even better if you give your partner (or she gives you) some advance notice.
But it can be a lot more divisive if you forget. Or if you're inconsiderate.
If, for example, your baby's ill, your Wife's been up all night, her day's been even more chaotic and messy, and you decide to text half an hour before you finish work to tell her you're meeting your mate (who happens to be in town for one evening only) that night for a few beers.
Don't do what I did, basically.
It's all about managing expectations. For both of you.
A case in point. A Dad-to-be I met at our prenatal group told me he planned to continue playing football two evenings a week, then again at the weekend, once his baby was born.
Considering he was also working full-time, and the fact that the family shopping, cleaning, washing, and cooking also needed to get done every week, (not to mention obligatory visits to friends and relatives, and some down-time with his wife) that was an ambition that was always going to be a hard one to fulfil.
He still plays football. Once a week. That's pretty good going I think.
Then there's another Dad I met. This one boasted of how little his life had changed since his daughter arrived. Apparently he hadn't changed a nappy in a year and his (knackered) girlfriend did everything. While it seemed like a big joke to him, I couldn't help but wonder how happy his girlfriend was – and how long their relationship might last.
That said, it's not as if you change overnight. A Dad is not born in that labour room, and nor is a Mum. I mean, technically, you are, of course. But you become the Dad or a Mum you are going to be as the days and weeks go on, and you find your way. It's a process. Another boring word. but it's true.
You change, but you're still who you were before as well. You become a mixture of the fun-loving, freewheeling man you were before, and the slightly more responsible man you are now - like some kind of weird, totally unheroic superhero, who aims to save the world in the name of winning one fan, and one fan only. Your kid.
As you change, and your Wife changes, you go through what I would call a renegotiation of your whole relationship.
If that title makes you think of a tense Hollywood thriller starring Samuel L Jackson, then I'm sorry to disappoint you. It's a lot more mundane than that. And there's no popcorn. But if you work hard at it, then it's a lot more satisfying than a trip to the multiplex.
All of this isn't exactly what you think about (joy! happiness! love!) when you consider having a child.
But it's important. It's what happens. It's life.
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