When my wife was pregnant in 2015, we turned to our friends and colleagues who already had kids for advice. We were both total novices. We asked about everything hospitals, labour, useful books to read, good classes to go to, what prams and car seats to buy.
With all these questions came lots of solicited and unsolicited advice. I’m going to mention the best and worst advice I got on fatherhood.
The Worst Advice
“Mate, there is nothing you as a dad can do in the first six months of a baby’s life. All they want is to be with mum. So just wait out those first six months and then you can be more involved”.
The moment I heard that it jarred with me. How could I start being a parent if I sat on the bench, waiting out the clock!? It also ran completely contradictory to the gender equal relationship my wife and I had built.
The Best Advice
I best piece of advice I ever got on parenting was from a friend who simply told me to “Get stuck in!”, from the moment my daughter was born.
It might sound banal, but it was serious and superb advice. This friend told me to literally roll up my sleeves and as soon as possible do all the tasks that parenting demands: bottle feeds in the middle of the night, changing nappies, settling, cuddling, bathing. And he was right.
Getting stuck in is by far the best way to approach parenting. I learnt by doing, my confidence grew, and within only a couple of weeks, I felt very assured that I could tackle whatever challenge came next. Having this foundational self-belief was so important in those first few months in particular. My wife was recovering from a hard labour and she got mastitis twice. There were multiple times when I needed to just pick up a bunch of parenting tasks and handle them while my wife recuperated. And I never doubted myself that I could handle it because I had been getting stuck in since day one.
And during these first months, I came to realise something, that I think is the best piece of advice I can ever pass on to new dads…
As a parent you can do everything required of a mum or dad except breastfeed.
Apart from breastfeeding, there is not a single thing a dad can’t do equally as well, or better than a mum. You have just as much reserve talent, instinct, potential and right to parental leave as your partner, and do not let anyone else tell you otherwise. And this advice is applicable from the moment your awesome kid is born.
Dads are meant to be co-pilots on the journey of parenthood. They’re not ‘secondary caregivers’ despite what government, workplace or parental leave policy might say. They’re not there to help the mother as some sort of support act. They are there to do as much caring and nurturing of a child as a mum.
This notion that the best thing a dad can do is work a lot and earn money kicked in during the industrial revolution. This is when dads started to leave the family home (which was also the workplace) and head somewhere else to labour. We’ve had almost 300 years of society pushing us to become earners and not parents. And it’s from this origin the conventional wisdom emerged has emerged that argues that mums are innately, naturally better at raising kids. That’s bullshit.
My wife and I had zero knowledge of raising kids before our daughter was born. The two of us together knew nothing. We went on a joint journey to seek advice and knowledge, and then we both did all the parenting tasks in order to both gain skill and experience. Two and a bit years later, neither of us know more or excel more, than the other. We do all the tasks the same and can pick up the slack if something happens to the other one. That’s how it can be for you, and all the dads in your life. And when you’ve got tricky challenges on your hands, as your kids go through their developmental milestones, you can discuss together from a place of mutual knowledge and understanding, and arrive at the solution that works for your family.
To be a great co-pilot, dads need to take extended parental leave.
As a community, we’ve got a long way to go to encourage dads to be co-pilots, and to help them care more and work less. I took three months extended leave when my daughter was 9 months old and became her full-time carer while my wife went back to work. It was an amazing and richly rewarding time. This was made easier because I had done all the various tasks of parenting, so felt I had a decent handle on things.
A couple of weeks with a newborn is insufficient. Asking for time off work to care for children is still a tough conversation for most men and workplace policies on paid parental leave have a long way to go. But we’re in a new era of more flexible work arrangements in most industries. I promise you, taking care of your kids full time for a while is awesome and will not only make you the best co-pilot you can be, you’ll go back to work more productive than ever. If you want more proof, check out this Parental Leave exhibit for more stories from dads who did the same.
From that first unforgettable moment in the maternity suite, embrace fatherhood and your own ability to be an amazing co-pilot. You won’t regret it.
Rob Sturrock is an author and has written for Fairfax, Huffington Post, Women’s Agenda, Mamamia and Circle In.