I’ve tried to write this post like 3 times already, but keep failing, because 1. it’s hard to write, and 2. uh I’ve got this baby
some feelings advice to my past self about the “fourth trimester”
“No one can ever prepare you”, right? well, I’ve been trying to do that, and I’m going to continue with the hardest bit: the … emotional side of things? Phrasing some of this as advice to my Innie, who is still stuck there, and some of it as advice to other people, because “advice” seems a pretty natural tone for a blog.1
Content warning for depression, with hints at su*cide, throughout.
this was the hardest 4 months of my life
let me emphasize a few words:
- 4 months: that’s when it took a radical turn for the better. I’ll explain why later.
- hardest: yes. grad school may have been harder, but because it was longer; ∫(all of grad school) was lower, but ∫(any 4 month period of grad school) was not as low. college and high school had some stressful times, but nothing made me feel quite as awful as this.
- was: hell yes. I have a clear feeling of being on the other side of a phase that has passed. thank god. I’ve got a moment to come up for air, so I’m writing this during this precious time when I both feel ok and am very temporally close to when I definitely did not feel ok.
god newborns are a mess
wait but why nailed this. At 0 months they’re a “fetus that everyone can see”. At 1 month they’re half-fetus, half-baby. He says at 2 months they’re full baby but I think even 3 months is pretty generous. They’re hyperventilating and snorting, they’re scrunching in a ball and flailing their limbs, they’re sleeping not enough and at weird hours, even eating is sometimes a challenge.
you might not like this baby at all
I’ve heard that there’s a pretty wide distribution of how fast dads bond with their kids - some are smitten instantly, some take a long time. Let’s call a dad who is smitten instantly a 10, and a dad who never loves his baby at all 0.
Tim from Wait But Why talks about, in point 5, how he was like “I love my kid, but if he and my wife were falling off a cliff and I could only save one, I’m still saving my wife.” So maybe he was like an 8. I appreciate that he said this, because it seems mildly taboo to admit that you’re not a 10.
I think I was around a 2.
If that doesn’t sound so dire, it’s because you’re not really imagining it. Imagining “I don’t love the baby so much” sounds kind of like “I don’t love the new painting over our fireplace so much”; kind of a bummer, but no big deal. But being a 2/10 on this scale is really bad, because a baby is so much work and pain that is only tolerable if you love them so much.
get used to intense frustration and learn when to tap out
Maybe the worst most acute part was debugging. I called him “the world’s worst printer” for a while, because:
- he’s constantly breaking
- he makes a ton of awful noise and spews fluids everywhere when he does; the noise doesn’t stop until you fix whatever’s wrong
- there’s zero debugging feedback, just a scream that means “something is wrong”
- and yet, you absolutely must debug him, every time
This is so frustrating. I am not the most patient person to begin with, and doing the cycle of “why is he crying” for even an hour would send me to the moon.
I don’t know how to prepare for this. Play really frustrating video games? Set up StickK or Pavlok with some awful stupid goals that page you every 2 hours with real-life consequences for failure?
Maybe there is no preparing. In that case, realize that you’re in a new zone and you might need to tap out sooner than you think. You’re in the Death Zone of Mt. Everest; you might think “I can make it!” but that’s your hypoxia talking. Notice any signs that you’re going downhill: e.g. raising my voice at all is a sign for me. Tap out early and often (give the baby to your partner, or put him down in the crib and go to the other room for a few minutes). Your partner will appreciate it. And eventually you’ll learn to operate in the Everest Death Zone.
(Innie Dan: that’s crazy. I raise my voice, just a little bit, pretty often. Outie Dan: yes, I know. No judgment. You and T will both be happier if you hand her the baby every time.)
get used to loud awful noises
Similar to the above: you’ll hear terrible noises much more often than you think. Baby screams are awful. One common urban legend (maybe true?) is that the CIA plays baby screams as interrogation-torture. They are the noises that are the worst to you; you’ve evolved to hate them. I don’t know how to prepare (start listening to baby screams in your spare time? just don’t be noise sensitive?), but get ready.
(oh wait, I do know one way to prepare: buy really good earplugs or noise canceling headphones. They help a little bit.)
hire night doulas; they don’t solve everything
“sleep deprivation is the worst part”, I heard, so we threw as much money as possible at the problem to get more sleep. It is a bad part. But night doulas are kind of like buying a thick coat because the cold is the worst part of climbing Everest. The rest of you will still be freezing, and you’ll still be out of oxygen and tired and cramped and hungry.
have a baby in the spring
it sucks when it’s winter and you have a newborn and you can’t really go outside much and it gets dark at 5pm. So many days went like this:
Previous night until about 6am: Dan watches baby
6am to around 9am: T watches baby, Dan tries to sleep more (or flip our roles, depending on the night)
9am to 11am: muddle through shower/breakfast/etc while baby intermittently screams
11:30am: “ok shit we both have to get outside today or we will be sad. what’s our plan to do that?”
12-2pm, one of us goes outside, maybe to do something exciting like grocery shopping (I called this our “prison yard recreation time2"); 2:30-4:30 the other one does; then it’s dark.
you can’t even vent to your wife
Being a hetero married man is nice3: if your job sucks, you can commiserate with your wife! When your parent dies, she’ll give you as much love and attention as you need! When you’re having a hard time with your baby, she… well, she will probably not share your feelings. She carried this thing for 9 months; he is like a part of her. So if you say you don’t like him, it’s like saying you don’t like her. Obviously, this is not pleasant for either of you.
Find external support people! Get in touch with your parents or siblings and call them often! Join a dads group if you can find one. (join my dads discord! ask me about it.) Vent to all of them, and not her! This sucks because you’ll invariably screw it up sometimes, and it’s just hard to have less support than you’re used to!
don’t make life-altering changes
(details redacted; thoughts too grim to blog)
If you’re the kind of person who’s pretty good at limping along through days despite feeling pretty hopeless, keep doing that. If there’s some little joy that keeps you going through your day, go for that now. I’m sorry, Innie Dan. It’s not forever.
at least there’s food
thank god. give yourself a blank check to order the best fucking delivery food your heart/stomach/tongue desire. eat some fucking ice cream to quell the roaring emptiness inside you. buy a $45 bag of coffee. don’t drink alcohol (you’ll feel worse very quickly) but weed will actually help you. try kava - drink twice as much as you ever have before and finally you’ll understand what people see in it. this whole paragraph is advice to Innie Dan; it may not apply (and may be harmful) to others! more broadly: try to find little luxuries that make you feel good. do not, in any way, skimp on this right now.
there is a step-change improvement, I’m not sure when
Other people: oh it gets so much better after the first year and a half
Innie Dan (with newborn baby): the fuck you think I can make it to a year and a half.
Outie Dan (current): don’t listen to them, it’s not that bad. I noticed a big improvement at about 3-4 months.
Innie Dan: the fuck you think I can make it to 3-4 months.
So… I don’t know. Best advice I can give is that your life happiness falls off a cliff immediately, then starts climbing back slowly and unpredictably. So 2 weeks is better than 1 week, 1 month is better than 2 weeks, 2 months is better than 1 month.
go back to work if you can
One big step change improvement happened when I started working again. Being in a different physical place, doing a different thing, all day just really helped my mental state. I got 4 months of leave, and I took it all at once, but I wish I had taken 2 now and 2 later.
Also don’t plan to do any big work changes soon after baby! Don’t change companies! Don’t take on a big new project! You won’t have energy!
“cute” is love. maximize it
If you start off with very little love for this creature, you might wonder “how is this relationship ever going to grow?” And after a couple months when he starts smiling, you might go “well, that’s cute, but so what?”
No! Stop, Innie Dan! That is it. Pay attention to that “cute”, because that’s the seed starting to grow. That might be all you get, but that is something and you better fucking water that seed. “Cute” is (at least the first stages of) love.
(Innie Dan: But I see cute animals all the time on the internet; are you telling me that I am feeling actual love for every little puppy? Outie Dan: yes.)
though, this makes me sad. Talking about my experience in the same tone of voice as “buy this stroller, not that one!” makes my Innie sad… but it’s relatively easy to write, and never getting this post out there would make him sadder. ↩︎
I know how insensitive this is to actual prisoners. Sorry. Listen, this whole post is “I did a thing that most people love and I hated it”, of course it’s self-indulgent! ↩︎
I mean, being married is nice in general, no matter your and their gender. But this segment is rather particular to being a dad in a straight couple. ↩︎
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