On Christmas Eve of last year, my son was born. As someone who is slow to react to big, life-changing events, the birth of my son left me mostly stunned and awestruck. For weeks afterward (more like months, if I’m honest), I would often have to remind myself that this tiny new human being was actually my son. Even though I had accompanied my amazing wife through the entire journey of our baby’s birth, it sometimes felt like he had suddenly appeared in our home out of the blue, as if a stork had flown into our backyard one day, deposited him in the grass, and flew away with a smirk.
There were times when I felt a bit intimidated by him. That may sound odd to be scared of a newborn, but occasionally it seemed as if he stared right through me, deeming me an unworthy father. This made me worry that he might not like me, that he might not smile or giggle at my attempts to entertain him, that he might cry at my attempts to soothe him, that he might wriggle away from my touch.
Well, guess what? My worries have proven to be unfounded. In honor of Father’s Day this Sunday, I present the top 10 things I’ve learned about fatherhood since the birth of my firstborn son six months ago.
1. Fatherhood begins before the child is born.
Even when your baby is still in utero, he can still hear and feel your presence as a father. The amazing extent to which unborn babies are able to do this is continuing to be discovered by science. Just as he knows his mother’s voice and can recognize other sounds that he hears repeatedly, so too will he recognize his father’s voice if it is a consistent vocal presence. Praying with, talking, reading, and singing to your unborn child is not only a great way for fathers to feel more involved in their wives’ pregnancies, but this will also help the father bond with and grow in affection for his offspring as he feels the baby kick and squirm in response. I’ll never forget the time that I played a song on guitar and sang directly into my wife’s belly—my unborn son began kicking non-stop with such energy that my wife and I could only gape at each other in amazement.
The more that fathers feel the kicks and the hiccups, the more affection they will begin to feel for their child. There will also be plenty of opportunities to attend periodic ultrasound checkups—be sure to attend as many as possible, as there’s nothing quite like seeing the amazing silhouette and unique movements of your child to begin the bonding process.
2. Feeling a bit distant from your newborn is normal.
It’s no secret that the bond between a mother and her newborn is incomparably powerful. The fact that the mother physically gestated her child for nine months and is her baby’s only source of food makes the relationship beautifully symbiotic. The reality for a new father is that for nine months, he has literally been at a physical distance, and for the first few months after birth, he most likely won’t be able to hold the child as much as his wife because of nursing demands.
So if new fathers find themselves feeling a lack of intimacy with their newborns as a result, it’s important to remember that this is perfectly normal and okay. Just like with any relationship, the love fathers have for their children will deepen as they get to know them better.
This will play out in practical ways. In time, I learned that my son prefers to be bounced to sleep instead of rocked or swayed. He is absolutely transfixed and delighted by the sight of my wife and I washing dishes and eating. He loves to stand (with our support) in high positions and turn his head from side to side to observe all that is below him. He loves to rub my beard as I carry him around, even as he is falling asleep in my arms. He prefers to ride (and sleep) in the bumpy cheap stroller that is falling apart rather than the nice jogging stroller. As fathers learn the unique quirks and mannerisms that every child develops, his love will in turn grow and deepen inextricably.
3. Blaze your own trail to get to know your child.
Every child is unique, and in the same way, there is no one right way to dive in to fatherhood. The important thing is to just dive in. Be okay with your child screaming in your arms, because that’s how you learn to soothe him. Be okay with your baby peeing on you as you attempt to change his diaper, because that’s how you learn the best changing procedure.
Let your own creativity be your guide. Make up a special song for your baby that he will get used to so you can lull him to sleep with it and sing it while you horse around with him during play time. Don’t be afraid to be goofy, dorky, and cheesy with your kid. The ability to be a goof with your child in front of anyone is a great sign that you are getting comfortable in your own skin as a dad. It will also give you bonus points with your wife when you can give her a break by rocking your child to sleep yourself or successfully keep your child calm in the baby carrier.
4. Lean in to the suffering.
Yes, there will be times as a new father when you will feel miserable, tired, frustrated, maybe a bit angry, or experience other unpleasant feelings. It will be when your back is aching from a solid 35 straight minutes of trying to get your baby to sleep, or from changing a diaper at 4 a.m., followed by an hour of inconsolability, knowing that you have to get up for work in an hour.
Instead of just stomaching these hardships until they’re over, lean in to these moments when you know you are suffering, and turn it into a prayer offering and sacrifice. Empathize with your baby’s screams instead of letting your frustration level rise, and offer up a word of praise and pleading to the Lord. Babies have an uncanny ability to sense when you are getting stressed, and their stress level will usually rise in conjunction with yours. Your calmness and humble acceptance of the situation will generally pay off. If it doesn’t, and your wife has to save the day, it’s important not to feel discouraged because you know you gave it your best.
5. The more you give, the more you will receive.
The nature of fatherhood is to sacrifice one’s self for one’s child. This may make fatherhood sound like a dreary slog, but my experience has been very much the opposite. Giving of yourself can take a multitude of forms, both large and small.
One (seemingly) small way that fathers give is simply by interacting with their babies as much as possible. Make eye contact and be as facially expressive as you can be—your child will imitate you and respond accordingly. Just as your baby has a symbiotic relationship with its mother through nursing, you as a father can have a symbiotic relationship with your child through interaction. Since your baby has its own unique personality and you have yours, the interaction you receive from your child will literally change your brain chemistry, and vice versa. This mutual gift of self is a beautiful image of the Holy Trinity—the Father gives all that He is and has to the Son, who gives Himself back completely to the Father, resulting in the fruit and bond of their shared love—the Holy Spirt.
6. Kiss your wife in front of your baby.
Don’t be shy about showing physical affection in front of your wide-eyed baby. Children thrive on seeing a physical reminder of the union of their parents and the love they share. This display of unity can take many other forms besides showing PDA. Sharing meals together as a family, with your baby seated between you and your wife or in one of your laps, is another great way to show your child that you cherish your family unit. When a child sees the physical union present between his parents, he will feel whole and secure, because he is the physical incarnation of the union of you and your wife.
7. Your role in your child’s sense of self is vital.
As we’ve discussed, the first month or two of a baby’s life is mostly characterized by the intense bond that the mother and child share through the symbiosis of gestation and nursing. It goes without saying that this is vital to the health and well-being of mother and child, but equally vital is the father’s role in helping to nurture the baby’s independence apart from the mother. When you physically separate your baby from your wife by taking him outside the house for a walk, engaging in rough & tumble play in a separate room, coaxing him to say “dada,” giving him his first bits of grilled hamburger, or presenting him to family, friends, and your church community, you are helping your baby become a distinct entity apart from mom, which aids in the development of his own unique identity and sense of self.
8. Don’t sweat it when you fail.
There will be times when you will feel like a failure as a new father. For me, I have felt most like a failure (and still do) when I spend what feels like hours trying to coax my son to sleep, but to no avail. After a dozen different methods of cradling, patting, singing, bouncing, rocking, murmuring, and massaging have failed, unexpectedly strong feelings of anger and frustration will sometimes bubble up inside me, and after my wife takes over and I walk out of the bedroom still smarting from such a chastening experience, I sometimes fume inwardly that my own child, bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh, was not comforted by his father’s best efforts. These are the times when it’s important to remember that babies are constantly growing and changing from one day to the next. The rough patches that every baby goes through are just stages in an amazingly fast developmental process. So don’t sweat it, and be patient—your baby will soon outgrow whatever exasperating behavior you failed to overcome.
9. You image God the Father to your child.
I say this at the risk of sounding overly dramatic, but it’s true. As touched on previously, fathers have in their nature a unique way of introducing their child to the wider world beyond the home, while at the same time showing the child unconditional love. A child needs to have total and complete trust in his father and feel absolutely secure, just as we are all called to trust completely in Abba (“daddy”), our Heavenly Father. Fathers carry their babies to new environments and introduce, teach, and show their babies new sights, sounds, and smells in the backyard or in the neighborhood, just as God the Father did with Adam in the Garden of Eden. They help their babies develop new motor skills and strengthen their muscles by flying them through the air and letting them stand on their own two legs for as long as possible, just as God the Father challenges us to spiritually grow and mature.
Parents are the images of God to their children. The baby’s first experience of God is through the love shown to him by his parents. Therefore, God the Father is revealed to a child through their father in a way that is totally distinct and unique from their mother.
10. Take this advice with a grain of salt.
As you will find out, when it comes to parenthood, everyone on God’s green earth has an opinion about how to do it best, this blog post notwithstanding. It can all be a bit overwhelming. So, with that said, take my words of wisdom one last time: when there’s an opportunity for a nap, take it, and when there’s an opportunity for a beer, drink it. Happy Father’s Day!o;s Day!