Ten things I learned in my first week as a father
Joe Griffin realises that parenthood is a crash course in how to care for a living, growing, mewling human being
Writer, Joe Griffin and his (six day old) daughter Alice, at home in Cabra, Dublin.Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Joe Griffin and his six-day old daughter Alice, at home in Cabra, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
My daughter, Alice, was born on November 22nd in the Rotunda Hospital, weighing a hefty 3.76kg (8lb 4.5 oz) and changing my life forever. A baby is a sponge – an empty vessel waiting to be filled with love, wisdom and nourishment. But ironically, while they have everything to learn, they also teach an awful lot.
Parenthood is a crash course in how to care for a living, growing, mewling human being, and along the way it casually drops crumbs of profound existential information for the eager parents too.
Here are 10 things I learned in my first week of fatherhood:
1 A newborn’s appearance is distinctive within minutes: Before Alice was born, I thought all babies looked pretty much the same – either like a Cabbage Patch doll or a marginally smaller version of RTÉ’s Marty Morrissey. But as soon as I could see Alice clearly, I could spot distinguishing characteristics that could mark her out in a police line-up (in a hypothetical, adorable all-infant remake of The Usual Suspects). Alice has thick, wavy dark hair, big lips and dark, inquisitive eyes that are hooded at the top but wide from side to side.
2 I enjoyed fatherhood from the first second: Don’t get me wrong, I was always optimistic about fatherhood but not about the first few months. Those months, in my mind, would be just an endless drudgery of human waste and sleepless nights; the price you pay for the fun childhood/toddler years that follow. How wrong I was: I found fatherhood intoxicating, surreal and joyous from literally the first second.
3 Babies are phenomenal communicators: While grown-ups live in a world of corporate speak, hundreds of languages, cultural differences, shyness, backhanded compliments, front-handed insults and everything in between, babies articulate their feelings loudly and immediately. Any parent will tell you that their baby can convey their feelings with breathtaking efficiency. Within a couple of days, some babies can even alter their howls to match their complaint, which is usually “I’m hungry”, “I’m tired”, “I pooped” or “my hatred for you right now is greater than the white-hot intensity of a million suns”.
4 Fatherhood changed me instantly: In the weeks leading up to Alice’s birth, I was a different man to the one I am today. I was more neurotic and less focussed; fretting about work, about learning to drive and about the impending cost of Alice’s arrival (so unfair, as she’ll soon tell me, she didn’t ask to be born). The moment I saw her, all of those concerns took a backseat. Seeing that child was like waking from a sleepwalk – my perspective shifted so that the world was now seen through an Alice prism. What will she think of this? How is she doing this very second? What can I do to help this fleshy bundle of innocence negotiate this unjust world?
5 Babies are less fragile than they first seem: If life was fair, Hollywood blockbusters would be about midwives, nurses and doctors instead of superheroes, secret agents and Jedis. Watching a midwife swaddle a baby is something to behold. Imagine prepping a chicken burrito, while the chicken in that burrito is alive, shrieking, kicking, squirming and defecating. Midwives move with a speed and grace of accomplished concert pianists and the way they handle babies made me realise that the little creatures are made of movable flesh and muscle, not wafer-thin antique china
6 Life is measured in the microscopic: Part of the appeal of babies is the endless tiny accessories. Converse runners! Hats! Mittens! That extends to other things too. Feeds are measured in literally fractions of millilitres and documented to the minute. The most incremental changes in appearance and behaviour are pored over and every bowel movement is analysed and examined with forensic passion. The parents’ and child’s sleep is measured now in seconds and minutes instead of hours. My wife slept for five (non-consecutive) hours on a recent night and compared herself to Rip Van Winkle.
7 This includes yardsticks for achievement: Parenting a newborn is a heightened state of existence. As adults we get dressed, prepare for the day and often even arrive at our workplace before we’re fully awake. For babies, however, everything from looking left and right to burping to inhaling and exhaling is seen (rightfully) as an epic milestone. She drank a millilitre! She only spewed half a millilitre! The gratification of seeing my favourite person hungrily – and belatedly – sucking down her first meal is greater than any I’ve ever felt. I have literally never been so excited to stare at someone sleep before or marvelled at a gurgle to such a degree. In fact, it’s fair to say that until recently, gurgles, burps and squelching human noises were (at best) ignored. Who marvels at gurgles? Does that even qualify as achievement?
8 For creatures that have never seen a clock, babies are very passionate about schedules: Obviously a newborn baby hasn’t seen a clock face before. They haven’t been taught how to read the time, let alone set a schedule. But make no mistake, babies are the most passionate creatures on the planet when it comes to timekeeping. They feed at strict intervals, and woe betide any parent who’s trying to feed their child a minute late when hunger panic has set in. I imagine the drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket would see Alice’s zeal for scheduling and think “ah here, that’s a bit much”.
9 My capacity for bias is superhuman: Everyone thinks that they’re objective and even-handed, but on some level we know that we are a collection of biases and peccadilloes. I thought Alice was advanced in nearly every way – a future prodigy who would change the world. So I was disappointed to discover that all parents feel that way. And I was crestfallen when I heard that the word “advanced” is a commonly known running joke for new parents.
10 Parenthood is better than advertised: Prior to Alice’s birth, people took great delight in listing the things that I as a parent would no longer get to enjoy: attending gigs, sleeping, travelling, wearing clean clothes, eating breakfast, oxygenating my lungs . . . But I still do many of those things (a trip to New York might have to wait, alas) and the rest of them don’t compare to what they’re replaced by.
Before she was born, I thought I knew every type and depth of love that I could give. But it turns out there’s a hidden reservoir of love and joy that only gets accessed when a child is born.
TIPS FOR DADS TO BE
Do it sooner rather than later The one regret I have about fatherhood is that I didn’t do it sooner. The difficulties and challenges of parenthood are well documented, but the undiluted bliss generated from holding your own child cannot be overstated. Do it now!
Space out the visits The demand to see Alice is comparable to half-price Glastonbury tickets. Scores of eager relatives and friends are queuing up to bask in the infinite cuteness of Alice. But it’s taken us time to find our feet and we’ve had to say no many times. Space out the visits until you’re good and ready. Don’t feel pressurised. There’s no rush: Your baby will still be a baby for months to come!
Embrace the poo The nappy era is frequently disgusting but you’ll be longing for it one day. Soon enough, your little boy will be impersonating you at parties or your little girl will be bringing home some young man with tattoos on his face and a name like “T-Boz”. When that happens, you’ll be looking back to the poop and pee-soaked days with warm, moist nostalgia.