I've got an entire site about being a dad. I better tell you about the birth of my son, right? Fair enough!
My son, Elliott, was born a month ahead of schedule. The night before Mother’s Day 2013, I was up late applying wall decals and finishing touches to his ocean-themed nursery.
My wife, Sara, was going to help, but she was just not feeling it. She went to bed early, and I kept plowing through.
I go to bed around 11 pm. An hour later, Sara taps me on the shoulder and lets me know she thinks she’s having contractions eight minutes apart. As if that’s something you tap someone on the shoulder about.
You tap someone on the shoulder to say, “Hey, did you leave the light on downstairs?” You don’t tap if you want to say, “I think a baby may be exiting my vagina rather quickly.” Smack me in the face.
I can see her, calmly sitting with an iPhone app, timing things out. She’s not sure yet if it’s a false alarm. I, on the other hand, freak out.
I start throwing things in a bag. We had planned to put together an overnight bag that very Sunday, figuring a month ahead ought to do it. Nope.
“I’m not going to be the a-hole husband who sits around while his wife is going into labor!” I said excitedly, trying to get things ready.
Fortunately, my zen-like wife made me realize that even if this was the real deal, we were far from having to go to the hospital (You may hear in a birth class about waiting until contractions are about five minutes apart, lasting a minute long, as a good indicator it’s time to go. If a baby pops out... you waited too long.)
We stayed up all night watching Mad Men and the Cosby Show. In hindsight, questionable show choice. Thanks, dirty Bill Cosby.
Around 7 a.m., we went to the hospital. Just before pulling away from the house, I looked at Sara and said, “Let’s pause for a moment just in case this is the last time it’s ever just the two of us.”
While I’ll get into the delivery details another day, I’ll just say our son was born at six pounds, five ounces - not bad considering he had a month to go!
Officially, that timeline meant he was “late preterm.” Not an official premie (he avoided the NICU), but not quite ready for showtime.
Why was this important?
If you ever want a reminder that your girlfriend/wife is a miracle worker, watch her breastfeed. It doesn’t even make SENSE.
There is milk coming out of her body! Food! Just, right there! Where you used to hang out!
The thing is, although we were extremely into the idea of breastfeeding our son, late preterms don’t have the mouth size and skills yet to be great at latching.
And that’s when, just days into fatherhood, I had my first serious case of “I want to help with the baby, but I don’t know how’s”.
The good news is that our hospital had incredibly helpful lactation consultants. (Insurance covers this, by the way, in many cases).
The bad news is that doesn’t mean our son magically became great at latching on.
His weight was dropping, partially because he wasn’t getting enough through breastfeeding. He was down under 6 pounds, and he was jaundiced.
We had done everything we were supposed to do ahead of time. We went to a breastfeeding class. We read up on the subject, and had the Boppy pillow. Turns out, you can only be so ready.
Parenting is a series of realities that harshly, rudely knock down expectations.
Elliott didn’t care if we had talked to experts. He just wanted food.
Not long after we had left the hospital, we had an appointment to see the lactation consultant.
We were exhausted. We were bewildered. We were so happy to have Elliott there, and yet so baffled about what he needed and wanted.
The way the appointments are set up, Elliott was weighed at the start, then my wife would nurse him until he was done, and then he would get weighed again to see the difference in weight. When you’re a late preterm, weight is basically everything.
Yes, they could tell when it’s a matter of ounces. I hope to God it’s not like that after I eat Chipotle burritos.
Elliott, with a tinge of yellow on his skin, was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen at that point, and all I wanted to do was take care of him like my dad took care of me or like all the dads in the TGIF lineup took care of their sitcom kids, at least.
And yet here we were, sitting in a tiny office, with a consultant looking at a scale and then telling us that our son wasn’t gaining enough weight.
Sara became emotional, as you might expect. I felt tears in my eyes looking at my wife, who I loved so much for so many different reasons, feeling helpless, like she wasn’t going to be a good mom because she “couldn’t do the thing moms are designed to do,” as she and others often put it during breastfeeding struggles.
But here’s the thing.
Parenting, you find out quickly, isn’t about having all the right answers. It’s about adapting. You are going to be so good at adapting that your Xbox games will work on a Playstation. Except swap a diaper change for Xbox and a mechanic's bathroom for a Playstation.
We got a plan from the consultant. A plan that, looking back, I can’t believe we actually pulled off. A plan that I can now say not only helped me get super involved right away, but also gave me confidence that yeah, sure, I can do this dad thing.
Here was our new breastfeeding schedule:
- Sara would nurse Elliott as long as she could. This would take anywhere from 10-20 minutes. And he wouldn’t get much, cause his mouth just wasn't big enough.
- When she was done, she’d continue pumping as much as she could.
- Meanwhile, I would take a plastic syringe and fill it with an ounce of breast milk. I’d attach a thin plastic tube to one end, and tape the other end to my index finger. Then, holding Elliott, I’d slowly feed him by putting the tubed finger in his mouth – giving him something to suck on – while pressing down on the syringe. We’re talking ultra slow on this. I’d take 20 minutes to get him to take maybe half an ounce. It was hard for him to keep up, and some days he wouldn’t really take anything and we’d feel like crying again because we just wanted him to grow and be healthy. On a side note, this kid now eats two cups of yogurt, two bananas, guacamole, rice, and beans, and fig bars in one sitting like it’s nothing now. I am glad I don’t need to push guacamole through a tube.
- Someone would clean up the pumping supplies and the syringe to be ready for the next feeding, while the other would change him.
Did you add up the time? About 15 minutes for the first part, plus about 20 minutes for the second, and another 10 for cleaning equals 45 minutes. We were supposed to feed him upward of 12 times a day. So about 45 minutes out of every two hours was taken up with nothing but the feeding process.
The other hour was taken up trying to get him to sleep - he slept in 15-20 minute chunks in the early weeks - or trying to eat something ourselves or maybe get something else done as our very helpful in-laws were on hand to keep up with housework so we didn’t end up on “Hoarders.”
When you add all that up, there was quite literally no time to do anything. I remember being so tired I couldn’t speak complete sentences.
“Man, Andy,” you’re thinking. “This doesn’t sound like a pep talk.”
It's the reality of one newborn baby. My newborn baby. Today, my son is one of the biggest toddlers around, at the 90+ percentile for height and weight after being at the opposite end of that spectrum at the start. All of that breastfeeding struggle early on? We can see the results as he started gaining a pound a week at one point and became a nursing pro for the next year.*
Yours might end up being entirely different! You may breastfeed, or use formula, or have a premie, or have a full-term baby. So many factors. So many babies.
Just know that when I talk about the newborn experience, I'm not coming from a "everything was puppies and rainbows" background where I'm being unrealistic about what you can expect. I've been through some things - a little harder than some, a little easier than others.
And you know what? I got an awesome, awesome kid out of it. Like, my favorite person. But you can't get to that point - the part where he's playing games with me and saying funny things and being adorable - unless you go through the hard early stuff. You gotta earn your stripes.
I'd love to hear what your first month was like! Not there yet? Let me know what you're worried about.
* Not every baby picks up breastfeeding. It can be a problem that never really meets a solution for some parents. The good news is there are other options. Don't let people make you feel bad about what you need to do to keep your baby healthy. Breastfeeding worked out for us. Another option might be better for you. Trust me - you'll hear a lot from either side!