12 Thoughts: Three Weeks into Fatherhood
by Elias Blum
1. So far, it’s been tough, but not as bad as I was expecting. I’ve had worse periods of three weeks. I’ve probably had a more chilled and relaxing time in the last few weeks – with more downtime – than when I was working in Kiev and Yangon, for example. But I am aware of the relentlessness – I need to keep this up for an indeterminately large number of months, not just a few weeks. So pacing oneself is the key.
2. My wife and I instigated a watchkeeping routine which is – so far – working well. Sticking to it rigorously means that, barring emergencies, we can each get about eight hours sleep in 24, albeit in the form of one 5-6 hour sleep and one 2-3 hour nap. This sanity-saving watch routine is only possible because my employer gives me four months of paternity leave – which I think is wonderful and should be the norm for everyone.
3. It is tedious. It’s not boring, exactly, because there’s a learning curve, but a lot of the actual tasks when you are on-watch with the baby are, in themselves, dull and repetitive. So far, fatherhood is mostly a set of simple mental puzzles and fiddly practical tasks. Like a really dull version of The Crystal Maze.
4. I expected having a child to be, in the words of Benjamin Franklin, ‘chargeable and inconvenient’. I expected it to be tedious and tiring. It is too early to say whether my expectations in those areas have been met (so far it has been much easier and less unpleasant than I had thought it would be, but I am aware it is still very early days). I was not expecting, however, to be bowled over by a wee critter who is so cute and adorable. I’ve never really liked babies, but I like this one a lot. Maybe nature works after all! The baby is actually quite cute. And she smells nice. There’s definitely a sort of ‘oh look, it’s my own flesh and blood’ connection.
5. I didn’t have any problem with poo or vomit. I thought I might. I’m the sort of person who likes to keep his hands clean and I’ve always shied away from alien bodily fluids. But it’s true what they say – you really don’t mind when it’s your own child.
6. I have nothing but praise for the Dutch maternity care system. After leaving the hospital ward, we spent two days in a supervised training environment (‘Birth hotel’ with a nurse on 24 hr call) where they went through all the basics with us. They put us through an intensive parenting boot-camp, but it instilled a certain degree of initial confidence. So far I haven’t had a situation that I felt I wasn’t able to handle, because I’d already been shown what to do by a nurse. Feeding, changing, how to put her to sleep, how to use hot water bottles – they teach you and drill you in everything you need to know to get through the first few weeks. And then when they sent us home, our home was taken over by the Kraamzorg (cradle care) nurse, who supervises us and assists us in the home, especially with feeding.
7. On the subject of feeding, the most precious commodity in our household right now is breast milk. Every drop of it has to be carefully harvested, stored and deployed to maximum effect. It’s like liquid gold. Because me wife is excused from night feeds owing to the watch system, I have to have enough pumped breast milk to cover the nights. That means furious pumping during her on-watch and standby periods.
8. The most stressful part so far was losing a folder containing my passport, me wife’s passport, our marriage certificate, and our Dutch residence documents, on the way from the hospital to register the birth at the City Hall. Thankfully, it was handed in without incident. I was able to obtain a Birth Certificate on the fourth attempt.
9. My wife has taken to motherhood well. She is as thorough, conscientious and committed to this as she is with everything that she does. She does nothing by halves. There have been one or two moments of discouragement (mainly involving the infernal breast pump that is now such a central feature of our lives), but these have been swiftly overcome. And, so far, she’s thriving on the watchkeeping routine, which gives her clearly demarcated on-time and off-time.
10. I feel really sorry for anyone doing this in worse circumstances – on their own, or with little money. Having a child has, if anything, increased the intensity of my left-wing economic convictions. I want a world in which no child has to do without, and no parent has to suffer through lack of support and resources. The idea of a cradle to grave welfare state in which we each contribute according to our ability and each take according to our need is now, for me, more valuable than ever. The living wage, full employment, guaranteed holiday time, parental leave etc – all these are more important than ever when a child is brought into the mix. They are no longer luxuries, but necessities if we are to have a flourishing, dignified and humane existence. Likewise when it comes to refugees, the homeless etc, people in jail: everyone is some mother’s kid, and should be treated with a certain degree of care and compassion.
11. Much as I moaned griped about the Navy, much as I wanted to leave and had had enough when I left, it taught me a lot. I wasn’t a particularly gifted or natural naval officer, but I learned a lot about leadership, teamwork and organisation that has served me well since – and especially in the last week. Running the household like a ship in defence watches has meant that instead of the baby’s care being a constant burden to us both, it only an intermittent set of activities to be completed. It’s like rounds, fridge temperature checks and tank dips. There is an order and a routine to it that continues calmly, no matter who is on watch. No matter how bad things get, you know that in at most six hours time it will be over, and you can get your head down and not worry about it (unless we have to go to action stations, but so far that’s only happened once).
12. I was a bit worried that having a baby would diminish our sex life. But without being too blunt about it, a good quickie takes no more than twenty minutes, and a longer more involved session doesn’t take more than forty minutes. So you can have sex on a regular twice-a-week schedule and it still only takes an hour of your time. A good healthy sex life is important for the maintenance of morale and for sustaining the connection on which the working relationship and the emotional relationship between us. We agreed from the outset that for the sake of an hour a week – less time, probably, than one spends mindlessly browsing the internet in a day – it can be made a priority. Actual penetration is off-limits for the first six weeks, but we’ve been able to maintain a healthy sexual connection from the first week after the birth. All it takes is a little dedication and imagination!
Now I’d better go. I have an hour and a half of potential stand-down before the next set of feeding drills has to be completed