Confused about your role as a new father? Cathi and Dan advise.
For the best advice on sex, love, dating and relationships we ask two experts with personal experience. Cathi Hanauer is the author, most recently, of Sweet Ruin, a novel about love, marriage, and adultery. Daniel Jones is the editor of both the “Modern Love” column for The New York Times, and Modern Love, an anthology derived from the column. They’ve been married for 15 years, and together they provide a his and hers take on relationship questions. This round: fatherhood responsibilities.
Question: As I lie here at 3:42 a.m. thinking about my breastfeeding wife down the hall losing sleep, I wonder: Do I have any real responsibility to help my crying baby at night when human physiology has not yet provided me with the ability to breastfeed? – R.M., Reno, Nev.
Cathi: Sorry, but yes. Or at least you have a responsibility to help your wife as she helps the crying baby, especially in those first few weeks, when she’s probably sore, exhausted, overwhelmed, and not a little stressed out. Haul your butt out of bed and bring the screaming baby to your wife; that alone is huge. If your wife needs a cold drink, a nursing pillow, a hot compress–you’re the man for the task. It’s also nice if you offer to burp/change/soothe the baby between switching breasts, or after it’s fed.
In other words, snoring for eight hours straight with your earplugs crammed in while your wife staggers through four feedings won’t earn you many brownie points (brownie points being what you’ll need a lot of if you ever want to have sex with her again). Ditto for, say, watching The Apprentice while she scrapes the breakfast dishes between nursings, or arriving home from work at 8:45 when she’s just put the baby down. (No, this is not the month to “grab a couple of drinks” with your new assistant.)
Instead, try skidding in at, oh, 5:34, with a bag of steaming take-out and an offer to clean up, return phone calls, and take care of Chubbins while your wife eats and takes a nap. (Hint: Baby carriers are a great way to hold the baby and get your household chores done!) By the time she wakes up, your wife will be so grateful she might even volunteer to do the marathon solo tonight, especially if you’re the main earner or she’s home on maternity leave and you’re back to work. Because, really, we wives and mothers only want everyone to be happy: you, ourselves, and the baby. Just not necessarily in that order.
Dan: As a fellow non-lactating male, I see your point. A man can’t nurse the baby, so why should he get up in the night just to deliver the little bugger to his wife (and maybe return it to the crib after)? When you’re both already overloaded and stressed out, it would be far more efficient for Dad to conserve his energy for the big workday ahead and try to isolate the exhaustion to the milk-producing side of the marriage. Right?
Wrong. Maintaining a happy, balanced marriage is more art than science, and often appearances count more than rationale.
In short: Get up anyway. Go fetch the squawking, open-mouthed, bundle of wonder. Act happy about it. Be grateful for this relatively painless opportunity to share your wife’s pain. After all, you couldn’t experience the joy of contractions, ripped skin in your genital region, and, perhaps, major surgery. Sure, you coached and consoled and are justifiably
proud of the gold star on your forehead. But your support doesn’t end there. Presumably you’re in it for the long haul, so you’d better do whatever you can to generate a few scraps of appreciation from your wife early on.
Because you know what will exhaust you more than all of the sleeplessness, grocery shopping, and diaper-changing in the world? A resentful spouse.
(P.S. If you, like many men, are somehow biologically incapable of hearing your own baby cry at night, and your wife has to pinch your nose and mouth shut to wake you up, and even then you’re not conscious enough to be trusted with a human life, you’ll need to make up for it with extra duty during daylight hours. In other words, prepare to get intimate with your Diaper Genie.)