A few days ago, Penny turned 17 months old. Around the two-year mark, people generally stop denominating baby ages in months and start going with years, so it won’t be long now until we’re in that category. That’s pretty wild for me to think about. We’re solidly into life with a toddler now, and I’ve taken some time to think back over the last two years and how we got through it.
I’m the sort of dude who went out and consulted the literature in preparation for Penny’s arrival. What I found was that the genre of “mother-to-be” books is bulging at the seams, and the vast majority of other “how to baby” books are mostly oriented towards women. The “books for new dads” segment is far smaller, very religiously oriented, and much hokier. I found about 75% of it to be more or less useless.
Most of my friends are now in the process of having or raising kids. A close buddy of mine and his wife are now expecting their first in just a couple of months. I wrote up a few practical things that I thought he should know, and then decided – you know what? Lemme just dump this on the internet. Maybe this could be useful to other soon-to-be dads too. So what follows is a bunch of stuff I wish I’d known before Penny graced us with her presence.
A necessary preface here is that all babies are different, and in different ways. Someone told me once that “every child is born with their own spirit,” which I didn’t really get until Penny arrived and I realized how true it was. Every baby differs in terms of their health, sleeping and feeding preferences, your family/community/religious expectations and their plain old mood. So none of this is meant to be prescriptive. It’s just what worked for us. We’ve been very fortunate that Penny has no serious issues to really complicate matters.
Before s/he arrives home
Get your rest. Build up a good sleep surplus. Take care of your health. With just a few months, you can get yourself into pretty decent shape, so do that now. It is approximately 10,000% easier now than it will be once you have a baby at home.
Baby furniture. You need to take the long view here. (My wife figured this out way before I did.) Good, safe cribs are not terribly expensive – you can buy a perfectly good one for $200. But remember that this is not just a crib you’re buying. It’s a permanent and somewhat prominent piece of furniture that you’re going to have for several years. If it’s convertible to a toddler bed, maybe even longer. That being the case, it might make sense to invest in your crib as a nice piece of furniture, if you can afford it. I’m not saying you need the $2,000 Pottery Barn deluxe special, but a solid, good-looking crib is a smart buy.
Daycare. It might feel too soon to worry about this, but trust me, it is not. If your partner is not planning on transitioning into full-time care for the long-term, then you need to plan. We both work, so arranging infant care once her maternity leave was up was a big consideration. Most daycares won’t take babies less than 3 months old. After that, you’re facing a steep weekly/monthly bill for full-time care. Start figuring out how that’s going to work. Research child care in your area, call them up, get pricing, take tours.
Spend some time with your partner. Go on dates. Enjoy yourself. Don’t commit to any big new projects at work. (I’ll be talking more about work later on.) And hey, relax. Don’t freak out. It’s going to be great.
Personally, I’ve found that nearly half of fatherhood is basically playing quartermaster. Obtaining the stuff you need, when and where you need it. Fortunately, most baby stuff is not super expensive per se – it’s just that there’s a lot of it.
The baby-industrial complex works a lot like the wedding industry does – by manipulating buyers’ feelings of guilt and expectations. You’re told that you need a lot of stuff, and that if you don’t get the exact right kind, then your baby – this perfect, blameless little nugget – will pay the price. This is mostly just bullshit marketing meant to make you feel awful. Get your guard up.
The important thing to remember is that all your baby really needs is a loving family, a safe and calm home, enough to eat and proper vaccines. As long as s/he has that, it doesn’t really matter whether they sleep on banana leaves or 10,000-count Egyptian organic cotton hypoallergenic sheets. More than anything, a baby needs your time, attention and patience. By comparison with anything you can buy in a store, these are sometimes much harder to provide.
Google a fairly basic-looking list of baby stuff in advance and then go out and buy it. Start off conservatively and see what works for you. After you get the basics, buying more and more stuff will not actually make you more “prepared.” Once your baby comes home, if you need to add stuff – more changing pad liners, different swaddle cloths, a new wash tub – then you’ll figure it out pretty quick.
Go get the Amazon Prime Visa card. It’s a good card, but given that babyworld is going to ramp up your household’s use of Amazon pretty significantly, you’re going to get much more value out of this card than almost anything else. (It’s not like you’re going to be using travel rewards anytime soon!) Once baby arrives, easily ordering baby supplies on Amazon is going to make your life tremendously easier. Baby wipes (Amazon’s brand is good), diapers of your choice, baby lotion, diaper cream, formula, etc. – this stuff is all in my “saved for later” Amazon cart, and orderable in a couple of clicks on my phone. Seriously, you just consume so much of this crap that I cannot imagine the Bad Old Days when people carted all this stuff home from the store. You’ll order thousands of dollars of this stuff. The Visa card gets you just a little bit more back.
Next, set up a 529 plan. Your kid is probably going to go to college, or at least have some sort of expensive tertiary educational need way down the road. A 529 account is very easy to set up, tax-deductible in many states, has a really low required deposit and gets the magic engine of compounding started. Set it up to deduct a hundred bucks a month or whatever you can afford and then forget about it. Earlier is better. Baby doesn’t even need to be born to set it up – parents are allowed to set one up in their own name and then transfer the beneficiary later on!
Do you have life insurance? You might, through your employer, but maybe not. It’s unlikely, but you need to think about what would happen to your partner and baby if you were to get hit by a truck tomorrow. How long would they have somewhere to live? How will your partner support life with your child? Assuming you’re in reasonably good health, a million dollars in life insurance isn’t very expensive. Think seriously about investing in a policy. It won’t bring you back, but it would cushion the blow.
If you’re lucky enough to get paternity leave, take it. All of it. I took 75% of mine all at once, and then did 3-day work weeks for a while until it was all spent. Something a lot of people notice is that, while you may feel eager to get out of the house and back among civilized society towards the end of your leave, you also wouldn’t trade that time for anything. Those first few days and weeks of baby bonding are really special. You’re getting to know a whole new human, and you’re one of the most important people in the universe to him or her.
As a father, I found that it was useful to commit early and strongly to a care routine. Obviously, what works for your situation with your partner is completely you-dependent, and it’s critical to remain flexible. But by setting up a routine, my wife and I were able to plan our lives around it. Because we were mostly on formula, I was able to do nearly all of our late night feedings. I was able to do this because Penny was a relatively good sleeper early on, but it also took some of the burden off my wife. No matter what you do, your wife is going to be carrying a very heavy portion of the baby burden, so digging deep to take on whatever you possibly can is important. Taking on all mornings is another idea. Taking care of just one kid (let alone multiple) is a tag-team sport that requires teamwork and naturally leads to stress. Talk about how you’ll deal with that in advance. Come up with a plan. Your plan won’t really work out the way you hope, but it’s at least a starting place.
The bottom line is that your time is no longer your own. Looking back, it’s completely crazy to me now how much free time I had pre-Penny. It certainly didn’t feel that way then, but it’s true! You’re going to get way more intentional with how you spend your time. Good planning becomes paramount. If you’re already good at time management, then you’re already ahead. If you’re not, well… get better at it. You can absolutely still pursue interests and hobbies and be good at your job with a baby at home. It just increases the difficulty level a little bit. (Protip: since reading books becomes impossible, Audible is your new best friend.)
The stereotypes about new parents not getting enough sleep are mostly true. Depending on how light a sleeper your baby is, you may need to take the saying literally: when s/he sleeps, you sleep. Particularly once you go back to work, caffeine is going to be a more important tool than ever. We invested in a basic espresso machine and I developed a straight-shot early morning habit, in addition to my rather large tumbler of coffee. I also became a mid-afternoon coffee drinker. I strongly endorse GoCubes as a tasty caffeine delivery mechanism too. I buy them by the case.
If you’re worried about developing caffeine resistance, you can always rachet down your intake later. Or you can try the cold turkey method, which is supported by science, if you hate yourself.
More broadly, you need to do some serious long-term thinking about how the addition of a kiddo is going to affect other big areas of your life – financially, professionally and the kinds of expectations you set. Children are expensive everywhere, but far more so in ultra-high cost-of-living metros. I don’t just mean daycare, either. Unless you’re a gazillionaire, I honestly don’t see how the economics of raising kids in a big coastal metro like NYC or SF work. Consider moving somewhere more reasonable and family-friendly. We moved from NYC to an exurb in North Carolina filled with 30-somethings raising young kids. Daycare is 5 minutes away and grandparents are 10. The difference it makes cannot be exaggerated.
Likewise, if you once were at the office until 6 or 7PM, that just doesn’t work with a young child. Either you’re going to hire help (which is yet more expensive) or you must have a very accommodating partner. If you’re a two-career household, you need to think seriously about the kinds of professional expectations you can realistically set at work. Someone is going to need to pick up your kiddo from daycare by 6 every day (at the latest). They’ll need dinner. There’s a bedtime routine. Maybe you can get back to hustling on your email after that – that much is up to you. Personally, hustle in that direction isn’t worth it to me. I set limits on work and abide by them as much as possible. If you’re trying to make the C-suite, at least the first couple of years with a kid is going to slow you down unless your partner is willing to pick up your slack, or you spend a lot of money for help. Be honest with yourself (and your partner) about all of this.
I have no idea how to prepare yourself emotionally to become a dad.
I’ll say this much: having a kid rewires your brain. Raising children is an activity that’s literally as old as our species, and what you’ll be doing is essentially the same as what your ancestor 250,000 years ago did. I find that pretty amazing. When presented with your offspring, the human brain undergoes a hard change. Stuff that sort of disgusts you now, you’ll shrug at later. Stuff you don’t see any appeal in, you’ll delight at later. I was never personally all that taken with very young children before, but now I think Penny is just about the most fascinating thing ever.
Kids are hard and personally challenging in a way you’ve probably never experienced before. But they’re also the best thing you’ll ever do. Trust me. Good luck.