How a month of paternity leave turned me into a competent dad

At the end of my wife’s maternity leave, I would take over. For a whole month, I was going on paternity leave. And I was starting to question my decision.

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Like many dads, I didn’t start out with the most nurturing, or patient, approach to fatherhood. From day one, I loved the tiny person crying in my arms, but try as I might, I couldn’t please her. And the frustration of struggling at parenting was suffocating. In time, I found myself talking to her less like my child and more like the belligerent patron at a crowded bar.

Have you figured out what you want yet?
No?
Ma’am, there’s no need to shout.

My wife, on the other hand, had the opposite parenting experience. From the get-go, she knew exactly what needed to be done in almost every situation ⏤ from feeding, to soothing, to sleeping. In fact, she was so much better at getting our little girl to sleep that it became her gig. And that set a terrible precedent. Whenever something became too hard in those early days, I let my wife pick up the slack. Clearly, she had some sort of evolutionary knack for all of this, so if I couldn’t solve the problem, “Aw shucks, here ya go mom!

I’ve talked to a lot of fathers who admit they fell into this same trap. Many dads are still in it. They figure, “Hey, I mow the lawn and make sure the right batteries are in all of the remotes; I pull my weight around here.” It’s a nice bit of delusion that’s only exacerbated by a sleep-deprived brain. I embraced this faulty logic for a solid two months. I took the backseat every opportunity I got. And while the guilt of not helping clawed at me, the extra bit of sleep helped.

But it was all temporary. See, I’d made an important commitment long before I knew how hard it would be to care for a newborn. I had filed all of the paperwork and cleared my appointments. At the end of my wife’s maternity leave, I would take over. For a whole month, I was going on paternity leave. And I was definitely starting to question my decision.

The week before we made the switch I was a wreck. I looked at my now 15-pound baby girl like she was a ticking time bomb. I knew she was just waiting to go off and, of course, would do so on my watch. An infected cat scratch? An unforeseen formula allergy? Her first bout of colic? A cold? Pneumonia? I was wholly unprepared for any one of these events but had enough sense to keep the fear to myself. As useless as I’d been up to that point, I couldn’t also be seen as a whiner.

The day came and the door shut behind my wife. My baby and I were alone. And almost immediately she began to cry. The hairs on my neck stood at attention. My heart rate doubled. I’m sure there was a look of panic on my face. But I stayed cool and soothed my little girl, and before I knew it there was calm. For days, it went like this; moments of abject horror followed by total, glorious, quiet. It was a whole lot of hell… and a little bit of heaven. Then slightly less hell. And even less…

As we rolled into our second week, my little belligerent bar patron was becoming more like a high-tipping regular. The lows were still very low … but the highs were more than enough to make up for the trouble. When my wife returned home from work in the evenings, suddenly I wasn’t so quick to hand over our little one. Just the opposite. “You can go upstairs and change, I’ve got her,” I would say without hesitation. (Statements like this, by the way, may have actually saved me from having my personal effects thrown out on the curb.)

By the time my paternity leave ended (too soon, I might add), I was starting to feel like an old pro. I could swaddle with the best of them. I knew, down to the second, how long the bottles needed to be heated. I had learned parenting tricks that even my wife didn’t know. It felt good. And I was beginning to register that the clichés were true ⏤ my daughter really was growing up before my eyes.

She was noticeably different from when we started our month together. So was I. And I’d determined over the course of the month that the back seat was no place for me when it came to raising her. The view was far better up front.

Alex Moschina is a Baltimore-based writer who enjoys spending time outdoors with his wife and daughter.

This article first appeared on Fatherly.