“Your Official Paternity Leave Survival Guide” originally appeared on The Good Men Project and was reprinted with permission.
Yes, it’s been difficult. Yes, I’m deprived of sleep and currently caked in dried spit-up. But spending a few weeks at home taking care of my baby girl has been an invaluable experience.
As my wife transitioned from recovery and maternity leave back to her job, I took a few weeks off to care for the baby before we shifted to daycare. Like many American fathers and mothers, we didn’t get any paid leave for childcare. As a country, we’re pathetic when it comes to this issue, and it’s way past time we mandated paid maternity and paternity leave.
But leaving that argument aside, if you do get some paid time, take it. If you need to use some vacation time, do it. If you don’t have any leave but are in a sound financial position that allows you to take some unpaid F.M.L.A. leave, go for it.
Spending time (lots of it) alone with your baby is so important in creating a lasting bond and a healthy family. Plus, I owed it to my wife. She had gone through more than I, as a guy, could ever understand. She needed time to get back into her work routine, time to recover on her own, or, frankly, time to do whatever she wanted without having to worry about our baby girl (a.k.a. Li’l Biscuit).
My wife grew the baby, delivered the baby, fed the baby and then spent three months caring for the baby. I tried to do my best, but she still took the lion’s share of the burden. So I was happy to be able to spend a few weeks taking charge.
I’m by no means an expert on this baby-raising stuff, but expert distributors of baby advice seem to contradict each other on every conceivable issue. I’ve learned a few lessons during my time with Li’l Biscuit, and I thought I’d share some tips, some tools to add to your paternity leave belt.
Get out of the house!
You’re going to be busy and stressed around the house — that’s inevitable. Sometimes exhaustion and inertia will conspire to keep you indoors. But if the weather is solid, head out for a little trip. Nothing too far away or crazy, because car meltdowns are something you definitely want to minimize.
But I’ve had a lot of fun bringing Li’l Biscuit to the park, a coffeehouse, the library, the grocery store. She seems entranced by people, places and things, and this kind of outdoor social stimulation tends to get her nice and drowsy for a good nap.
There are all sorts of blogs and message boards dissecting the minutiae of every baby carrier ever made. Good luck with that. Decide on one, though, because they are crucial.
Wrap that baby up and wear her and you can actually accomplish some tasks, like shopping for groceries without placing your baby in a precarious shopping cart situation. You can even stroll to the mailbox or type up a blog post while the baby is hanging on your chest.
Baby carriers also good for getting fussers to sleep. Somewhere someone will tell you that it’s bad for babies to sleep in carriers, but that’s par for the parenting course.
Pick up your baby child, sit on an exercise ball and get bouncing. You know exercise balls, those things you used to do sit ups on back when you went to the gym? Well, now they’re for baby bouncing.
If the baby’s gassy, holding the baby upright and bouncing will coax out some burps. And when the baby’s cranky and tired, I’ve found nothing works like a good bouncing session. This is the only sure bet to get Li’l Biscuit to sleep when she’s reached maximum fuss level.
I need exercise to keep in shape and keep some level of sanity. Maybe you’re generally a couch potato and hanging around all day without getting exercise is the norm. But if you’re usually active, chilling with a baby full-time can do a number on your workout regimen.
I’ve been able to get about a combined 30-minute workout while on baby duty, but it’s not easy. The ball (see above) can help. Going for walks is good for light exercise. Ditto if you have one of those expensive running strollers and a good trail nearby.
But body weight exercises like push-ups, planks, and dips are all doable at home. I also keep some barbells and other simple equipment around (out of reach of the baby, of course). Even if it’s just 15 minutes while the baby is hanging out in the nearby crib, I’ve found moderate levels of exercise helps me feel good between diaper changes and barf cleanup.
Beer and/or wine
I know I just talked about staying in shape while you’re on paternity leave, but having some adult beverages around is also a solid idea.
Obvious disclaimer: You shouldn’t be getting wasted while caring for a baby.
But there’s a time and place for a cold brew or a nice glass of wine to celebrate getting that baby down for an afternoon nap. Don’t bother with cheap generic booze though — these times call for nerdy beers and non-factory-churned wine. At the end of the day, sipping something delicious yet contemplative is a reward you deserve.
Because you’re so focused on the baby’s needs, it’s amazing how hours can fly by before you realize you’re hangry. Keep lots of your favorite foods around the house, but make sure they’re easy to prepare. I love cooking, but I can barely find time to fry a few eggs when I’m on baby duty.
Sandwiches, microwavable burritos, oven pizzas (not when you’re wearing the baby, though), raw veggies, snack foods, whatever you like, just make sure it’s easily accessible. Running out to grab a sub is no longer a simple task, and your baby may flat out disallow it.
Oh, yeah, and hydrate like a boss. I find myself forgetting to drink water for hours at a time while taking care of the baby, and you’ll start to feel even more sluggish if you don’t pound enough water.
During the first few days, I figured it was impossible to sneak a nap. But sleep deprivation makes you get creative. When Li’l Biscuit is sleeping in the bassinet next to the bed, I try to catch some shut-eye.
It’s not easy, because when I finally have a few minutes of silence, my brain switches into overdrive. Thoughts pop up all over the place. (What was Social Distortion’s opening song the last time I saw them play? Did I leave the coffee machine on? Did Stephen Colbert start that new late night gig yet? Am I still sane?)
Even if you don’t sleep, resting with your eyes closed helps you recover a bit. But by the second time I tried co-napping, I was able to get about 20 minutes of sleep while she got 45. When the baby wakes up, don’t worry, evolution flips the daddy alert switch and you’re awake, too.
You’re not going to have two uninterrupted hours to sit down and watch a movie. But you’ll have bits of time here and there when the baby is asleep or happily kicking away in a little rocker or similar contraption.
This can be a great time to knock some selections off the DVR. Spoil yourself and order the new Mad Max: Fury Road, because you deserve a kick-ass post-apocalyptic flick. If the baby’s super cranky, let her watch a few minutes of an action sequence. Screens are bad for babies, they say, but Li’l Biscuit loved watching a few minutes and, so far, she doesn’t seem to be damaged for life.
Also, keep a book around that you can read with one hand, something uncomplicated that you can pick up and put down when you have a few minutes to spare.
Seriously, don’t utter a single complaint, no matter how shitty you feel. When the Mama or your partner comes home, do yourself a favor and don’t whine about how exhausted you are or how stressful the day was. Share the poop blowout stories, sure, and tell her about the struggles, but always stay positive.
Remember: You’re not a saint for enduring this chaos, you’re just a decent dad. No one wants to hear “Woe is me!” from someone who’s simply doing their job.
As with everything baby-related, it all comes down to doing what’s best for you and your baby. Raising a baby is a relationship, not a rule-book.
Now, let’s figure out how to get all parents some paid child care leave in this crazy country.
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