Simon Day shares some lessons from his first three months as a dad.
When my twin boys were born on Boxing Day 2019, Corona was still just a beer.
The first 12 weeks with our boys felt like a lifetime, and after seven weeks of lockdown, those first 12 weeks now feel like a lifetime ago. But the scars are still raw, so I wanted to share what I learned.
When your sleep is reduced to three-hour windows and you spend the days in a haze of exhaustion, you really get to experience all of the day’s 24 hours. When a global pandemic unfolds in synchronicity with your sons’ lives, you wonder what sort of world you’ve brought them into.
At the same time, those 12 weeks passed in a blur and it’s incredible how much the boys changed in that period. Time vanishes before your eyes in the early weeks of your new baby’s life. One day you’ll wake up and realise you’ve watched six seasons of Downton Abbey (and the movie too) and your baby has doubled their weight.
Shit gets pretty weird. At 3am you’ll have arguments in the nursery conducted entirely in whispers about how many layers the babies should be wearing. You’ll find yourself living off donated frozen lasagna. You’ll put on a brave face for visitors and cry once they’re gone, grateful to have had human interaction but drained from two hours of pretending you’re fine.
There’s no manual for raising a child, yet there’s more information available on parenting than possibly any other endeavour you’ll undertake in your life. But no matter how much you read or how often strangers on the street offer their unsolicited advice, it’s impossible to know what babies actually want. Some days they’ll refuse to eat and scream in your face for hours. The next they’ll be calm angels sent to open a part of your heart you didn’t know existed.
The best advice I’ve received was from our Plunket nurse: do what you’ve got to do, they are your children.
The following ten tips are metaphysical lessons I’ve learned about how to survive the first few months with your brand new child (or children). Now that lockdown is over – kia kaha to all the new parents that welcomed children during the last seven weeks – I wanted to share my personal insight on how to maintain a bit of sanity and clarity as you stumble around in the dark with this bizarre experience of keeping a baby alive.
1. Look after yourself
The days seem to disappear in a fog of milk and shit and suddenly it’s 10 pm and you’ve barely eaten, let alone had a shower. But if you don’t eat good food and drink lots of water, you’ll fall apart. These first weeks are a physical and mental test and you need to stay fuelled.
Learn to make an omelette. Once mastered it can take less than a minute from cracking eggs to a steaming plate full of essential energy that works as breakfast, lunch or dinner.
Buy instant coffee. I don’t care how weird your coffee kink is, basic is best in these dark hours. Forget your Chemex, it’s just not worth the time. Taste is irrelevant as long as there’s caffeine. But if you really insist on being posh Coffee Supreme does surprisingly delicious instant sachets.
Find time for a shower. Finishing each day with a long, four-minute hot shower is revitalising and the closest thing to eight hours sleep you’ll get when the baby is waking up every three hours for a feed.
But if one day you find yourself unwashed having only eaten peanut M&Ms for 24 hours, know that you’re not alone and tomorrow is a new day.
2. Look after each other
The only person who really knows the extent of joy and the depths of pain in this experience is your partner. They’re also the easiest to become an outlet for your exhaustion, frustration and fear. Remember: you’re a team. Celebrate the small victories together and look after each other when you’re sleep-deprived and emotional.
Apologise if you’re a dick by mistake. It’s a hectic time and you’ll be forgiven faster than ever. Hug lots.
No one tells you how much pressure having a child puts on your relationship. Make sure that amid all the chaos you find time for each other. Within the first ten weeks, try and find a way to go out to lunch or dinner, just the two of you. Try your best to talk about things other than the kids – it’ll be hard.
If you’re one of those brave people doing parenting on your own I have supreme respect for you. Send me an email and I’ll send you some baking.
Look after all the people who are with you on this journey, whether it’s your partner, sister, best friend, mum, dad, or brother. We need to support all types of family units.
3. Ask for help
Don’t be too proud to seek help. Ask the people you trust about the smallest things that are worrying you, at any time; that’s what they’re there for. Ask your friends to babysit for a couple of hours so you can have some time to yourself, or have a proper nap without the fear they’re going to start crying the moment you close your eyes. Ask people to take your dog for a few days. This is what friends and family are about.
And don’t be afraid to cancel on visitors. Some days just descend into chaos for no explicable reason, some days you’re just really fucking tired. You’re under no obligation to entertain people on those days. Your friends will understand.
4. Accept help
We were initially too shy –or maybe too proud – to accept people’s offers to help. Perhaps we didn’t want to force our unpredictable two boys on anyone else.
In the very first days, my sister-in-law offered to take a night shift or two. It took nine weeks and deep desperation for a full night’s sleep for us to finally accept that offer. After that first trial, we moved her and the grandparents onto a weekly roster to stay the night at our house to allow one of us to get seven hours of sleep in a row once a week. It was a game-changer.
Accept that help. It meant we could claw back some sleep, get some shit done and remember what life was like without the boys for a few hours.
5. Back yourself
There’s a cacophony of advice about parenting and it can quickly overwhelm you as you try and do what you think is best for your child. From the darkest depths of the internet to the constant contradiction of advice we received at the hospital, the relentless input of others into what you’re supposed to be doing is overwhelming. And it’s mostly unhelpful.
One minute a midwife would tell us that loose swaddling allows your baby to express themselves, while the next midwife would tell us a tight swaddle is the only way to keep them asleep. One day in hospital we were told to use pacifiers to soothe the boys when they cried. The next day a paediatrician said not to use dummies until they’re much older. While some of our friends live and die by a strict routine, others have told us babies need to be left to find their own rhythm.
You need to filter through the noise and extract the bits that are best for you, then stand by your decisions and don’t let anyone tell you what you’re doing is wrong. Choose a cabinet of trusted advisors, friends and family whose approach to parenting you admire and respect and seek their counsel. We’ve been lucky to have four couples of friends with twins who have offered us invaluable insight on what it’s like to have two at once.
Find professionals you trust and believe in. We’ve been blessed with a Plunket nurse who is completely supportive of everything we do – “they’re your children” – and has become a vital confidant and guide.
Lean on them for support and guidance. Then trust your instincts, go with what works best for you and your family. Ignore everyone else.
6. Don’t compare yourself to others
Your experience is unique. No one else’s journey is like yours. There’s little value in comparing your circumstances with anyone else.
This is especially true of sleep. Our boys are pretty damn good and mostly only wake up once a night. But after weeks and weeks of constantly interrupted sleep, I started to get jealous of friends’ new babies who were sleeping through the night. It made me resent these little boys.
Remember, your brand new baby is incapable of being bad. Even if they only sleep an hour at a time, they’re still a beautiful, wonderful new human finding their way in the world. Hang in there, you’re a good parent. Ask for help. Sleep will come one day.
But if you are lucky enough to have a baby that sleeps through the night, be careful how you celebrate it. Other families are living in a state of severe sleep deprivation and knowing you’re getting eight hours sleep every night can fertilise the delirium.
7. Convenience is king
The sacrifices of making your life easier need to be viewed with perspective. Material goods seem insignificant to surviving the first weeks of keeping a child alive.
Surrender your carpet to spew. Who gives a fuck about your furniture? You will get poo on your work clothes.
Our once-beloved off white L-shaped couch is already covered in at least three different forms of baby discharge (and then there’s the four-year-old nephew’s artwork too). But fuck it, it’s really not worth worrying about. Sometimes it’s just easier to change a nappy on there – it’s definitely more comfortable to feed squished into a mountain of pillows. And a bit of freeballing in the sun is great for curing nappy rash. Each comes with a degree of risk for the couch.
Raising a child is a true achievement. Owning nice things less so. So don’t worry if they spew, piss and shit on your furniture. It really doesn’t matter. Making your life slightly more convenient and comfortable goes a long way.
And if you have a $10,000 couch that’s actually worth worrying about, then it sounds like you can afford to buy another one in a year.
8. Hang in there
There was a moment at around eight weeks when I was truly exhausted and the light at the end of the tunnel felt like a pinhole. I wasn’t sure how much longer I could continue in this state. Then they started smiling. Not just a gentle smirk, but a full beaming grin that spread across their faces and into their eyes. All the work over the previous two months felt validated. Their smiles felt like a giant thank you. Next, they started laughing and it sounded like the song of angels.
Soon they’ll start talking and you’ll long for these days again.
9. Vaccinate your children
My single piece of practical and moral advice is don’t be a dumbass – vaccinate your kids. It just makes sense. The achievement of vaccination to eradicate horrific and deadly diseases from large parts of the world is a way bigger scientific achievement than putting a man on the moon.
If you don’t vaccinate your children, you’re a selfish freeloader embracing the benefits of herd immunity while putting all the risk of maintaining that social bond on other families. Vaccination is like taxes: it hurts a little at the time, but its part of being a good citizen in a functioning society. The communal reward is greater than the individual sacrifice.
10. Bonus tip for non-parents: don’t forget about us
We suddenly realised with a bit of embarrassment and shame how little we’d supported our friends when they had children. We’d always done some baking and provided frozen meals, but we’d never truly asked “are you ok?” or “what can I do for you?”
We were so lucky in the way we were supported by friends and family during those first few months, and we really noticed when we were cut off during lockdown. But it all came back again as soon as level two started.
I think twins might come with added sympathy and extra assistance. It’s made our lives so much easier. And we’ve felt wrapped with love in the process. Knowing there’s a village waiting to step in when we need them makes us feel safe and confident.