PEPS asked me, “What advice do you have for dads in terms of “self care” after the baby comes?” What a tricky question.
I don’t mind telling you…I got a vasectomy a few weeks ago. As far as major medical procedures go, it was actually pretty simple. I was in and out of my appointment in about 20 minutes. But I was uncomfortable for a whole week. A whole week.
I threw myself a pity party or two, and asked my wife and close friends to do the same, but it dawned on me (probably too late) that whatever I was experiencing was nothing compared to the discomfort and disorientation of carrying a human being inside my body for 36+ weeks and then pushing that human through my genital region – or worse, through a surgical incision in my gut – only to have someone ask “How can dad make sure to take care of himself.”
I get it. And I hope you do too…the idea of self-care for dads after the trauma and beauty of birth is a little bit absurd. Still, your baby needs two healthy parents and dads have a unique (to them) responsibility with it comes to the care and feeding of a newborn.
That was my experience. Other dads may be supporting a new family that has welcomed a baby from adoption, or a dad who is one of two dads raising their newborn. But I think as dads we all are going to need to care for ourselves as we care for our new families.
If dads are going to take care of themselves, their family, and their baby, they should focus on three main things:
Stay Involved With Your Family
I’m sure that seems like a no-brainer. But is it? Research suggests that about 67% of couples report a decline in relationship satisfaction after the baby comes. For women that decline shows up at around six months. For men, it’s at about nine months. What happens at nine months for men, I wonder?
Pay attention. If you’re like most men, you’ll begin to withdraw, even if only to turn your attention toward worthy and noble causes. For many of us, our identity as “provider” kicks in and we turn our parenting energy toward work, or the yard, or fantasy football, and somehow, we call that parenting.
The problem is that when we turn toward another priority (and therefore away from our families) it creates a distance that is ultimately harmful to our relationships and to ourselves. Stay connected to your partner and your baby. You can take care of yourself by taking care of them.
Define DAD For Yourself
Think for a minute about the typical sitcom dad. What’s he like? He’s an idiot, right? Homer Simpson and Ted Bundy are the archetypes here, and while they’re certainly dated, these are the examples that many of us had if we grew up in the 80s and 90s.
The other archetype, of course, is your own dad. He might have been awesome. He might have been a disappointment. In either case, it’s hard to separate the idea of “dad” from the example he set. (I’d argue it’s harder to separate from the lousy dad than the father of the year.) Whatever your dad was, he’s not you. And you’re not him.
If you’re interested in taking care of yourself, start by crafting your own definition of “dad”. It doesn’t do any good to measure yourself against a fiction, or even a (perceived) reality. Think for a minute about the dad you want to be. Write it down. There’s no reason you can’t write your own story about what “dad” will be in 2015. And then update it as you learn more and grow as a parent.
Sleep and Exercise
Again, maybe this seems like a no-brainer, but is it? Often babies force moms and dads into unhealthy habits for eating, sleeping, and exercise. But your body needs to stay healthy. The best thing you can do for your body is to make it a priority. (Note: I’m not suggesting it should be the priority, but certainly it needs your attention and intention.)
Did you know that you can survive longer without food or water than you can without sleep? You must make sure you’re getting the rest you need. And I hope it goes without saying, you should make sure your partner is getting the rest they need as well. This will require some creative thinking. But consider that exercise for the brain.
Speaking of exercise, it’s important that you take care of your body. Parenting is a long and difficult journey and you need to make sure that you’re fit for the challenge. It’s enough to take a daily walk or even to be a weekend warrior. You may not be able to maintain your pre-baby routine, but do not let the stress and strain of your new baby keep you from moving. And, one way to stay involved with your family, is to get you all moving together. Studies consistently show that regular sleep and exercise are directly correlated to positive mental health and happiness.
Me. I’m done having kids. But I’m not done with self-care. I can tell you that my best strategy for staying healthy is to stay connected to my kids and my wife, to continually reshape and redefine my idea of what it means to be a dad, and to take care of my body through movement and rest and movement again. When that seems overwhelming, the only other tactic I have is to ask for help.
If you’re struggling to stay connected, engaged, and satisfied, don’t be afraid to seek help from your PEPS group, or a friend, or a therapist. Feel free to shoot me a note…I’ll do what I can to help. Parenting is difficult, but worthy. And the best way for you to take care of your children is to take care of their parents. (That includes you.)
About the Author
Zach is a couples therapist in Seattle, WA and author of the best-selling relationship guide The Relationship Alphabet. He has been happily married for 17 out of 18 years. He and his wife own two children, a mini-van, and most of the silverware they got as wedding presents.
Zach Brittle (firstname.lastname@example.org)