“Wow, you are an expert at that,” says the man at my side watching me effortlessly swaddle his newborn in a blanket. “Yeah, I’ve had practice,” I reply. After years of swaddling my own three children and thousands of newborns I had better be an “expert” swaddler. But his comment isn’t about me. It is about this new father’s anxiety and the voice in his head that keeps telling him that he isn’t ready. As another father half seriously asked me hours after his first child’s birth, “Where is the instruction manual?”
One of the greatest privileges of being a pediatrician is welcoming a new father to the “daddy club” and showing him the ropes: how to swaddle, how to burp, how to handle a baby and how to change the first of one thousand plus dirty diapers in the child’s future. Changing a new daughter’s diaper can be especially anxiety provoking for a dad. When I show them how to wipe front to back they think I am a genius.
I explain that things are going to be different. For new moms, there is a well-known phenomenon called “mommy brain”, a condition of motherhood that involves a form of anterograde amnesia where even the most brilliant thoughts seemingly disappear in seconds. The brain which was once a limitless sponge is now a sieve. While I don’t have a research study to back it up, I am convinced that there is a comparable “daddy brain”. It is a disorder of fatherhood that comes from lack of sleep and the prolonged hyper alert state trying to comfort a partner through uncharted territory while coming to acceptance that they are responsible for a helpless new being. To cope with this condition I tell fathers to write everything down. Document the baby’s poops and pees. If you have a question about how to care for your child, write it down. If your partner has a question for the doctor, write that down too.
After examining the baby I end the visit with a few suggestions from one father to another, “Pick your battles: with yourself, the baby, and your partner. Even during the most frustrating and fatigued times pause and enjoy the moment.” After gazing at the baby he turns to me nearly in tears with pride, “She is beautiful”. “Yes she is,” I reply, “welcome to the club.”