Paternity leave in America means wildly different things depending on circumstance. However, whichever side of the spectrum you’re on, from four months paid to one week of pieced-together sick time and unpaid leave, there are some basic things to keep in mind.
On June 20th, I had my second son. Like with my first, I fit together three weeks of paternity leave. But this time around, something was different. As I’ve found things rarely do in life, it went according to plan. It was exactly what it was intended to be: a protected time to bond with our new little miracle. My first was different. Aside from the normal new parent anxieties (support the head! Is he eating enough?! Is that poop color normal!?!), we hurt ourselves with some rookie mistakes. Here’s how to do better than we did:
1. Say no. Paternity leave is all about you, your partner, and your new baby. It’s about discovering a new identity as a family. It is a deeply personal experience. You are recalibrating your entire existence in a way that happens very rarely in life.
Despite all of this, there is a very real force that will be pulling you outward. Family will want to visit, obligations will arise, and you will be tempted to do things for others rather than your family.
So plan. Have time limits. Be the bad guy. Work out with your partner how long a visit should be, and then thank your visitors for coming and show them the door. It’s so easy to have a quick pop-by turn into a full evening of hosting. You’re excited! You want to show off! I get it, but there will be more than enough time for that later. Until then, say no.
2. Say yes. There will be a special few (or many!) who will offer to help. Maybe this is bringing a meal or cleaning up your bathroom. Say yes. If you’re anything like me, the idea of a friend or family member scrubbing around your toilet is deeply uncomfortable. Get over it. Now’s the time to accept these favors. Say yes.
3. This isn’t your time. Paternity leave is about your family. It isn’t free time to come up with a new business idea or use some of that extra wood in the garage. Trust me, your partner doesn’t want another so-so homemade bench. What they want is for you to take the baby so they can sleep, take out the trash, or take on the stack of baby announcements that need to be addressed and stamped. So, do those things. This isn’t your time—it’s your family’s time.
4. Buy a Kindle. Or download HBO Go or Netflix onto your phone. There are going to be many hours where you are stuck in a chair with a little baby breathing contentedly on your chest. Intense awe tops out at 30 minutes. 45, tops, if you’re really in touch with your feelings. After that you’ll want something to watch or read, but be sure it only takes one hand. Trying to turn pages without disturbing a sleeping baby is next to impossible. So buy a Kindle.
5. Take photos. There’s a close to worn-out cliché that life with a baby is the longest shortest time. But clichés become clichés for a reason. Never will a day go by as slowly as when you are learning life with a newborn. Also never will a collection of days—say a paternity leave—go by more quickly than when you are learning life with a newborn. You’ll want something to look back on. So go ahead. Embrace the annoying dad role. Take photos.
6. Go out. Look, it’s hard having a newborn. Obviously. But that doesn’t mean it’s all poop and crying (well, it is a lot poop and crying). Newborns also sleep insanely well once they’re down. As they get older, you will develop a sanctified routine involving noise machines, pacifiers, and ballet-quality tiptoeing. Now, though, when they are this young, take advantage. So, if it feels right, go out. Depending on your situation, your partner has gone without a drink for close to a year. Hit up the pub, get a booth, and lay baby down on the bench seat. You both get some adult time, she gets a drink, and you get to blow the waiter’s mind.
7. Don’t expect much of your friends. Look, I hope I’m wrong on this one. I hope you have friends who totally get it and are there for you, every step of the way. But, especially if you are one of the first in your group to have a baby, I’m not wrong. To many of your friends, having a kid will seem more or less the same, commitment-wise, as getting a new puppy. A wiggly little prop that photographs well and can still be put away somewhere when it’s time to have fun. Look, they’re not bad people, they just don’t know any better. So, keep expectations low.
8. Write down your birth story. Try and do this within a few days of the birth. Be as detailed as you can. No, a Facebook post doesn’t count. Write it somewhere where you feel safe. In a journal, on your computer, anywhere private where you can express all of those embarrassing details, fears, irrational and not, and the unexpected jolts of joy that make it hard to think back on without crying. It’s crazy how much will get lost in the months and years to come, and this record, which might feel like homework in the moment, will become a priceless relic. Also, when you read what your partner wrote, it will unveil so many more layers to the experience and make it that much richer.
BONUS TIP: Have lots of sex—not really. She just gave birth, man, lay off. Instead of thinking about your physical needs, ask how you can help her, tell her she’s doing a good job, and rub her feet.
Timothy S. Lane lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife and two sons. His first novel, Rules for Becoming A Legend was published last year by Penguin Random House and can be bought wherever books are sold. This post first appeared at lovechildmag.com.