Making the most of your parental leave
For dads in particular who may not have the equivalent support of mothers groups and the like, parental leave can be incredibly isolating and, like for mothers, incredibly monotonous. It can be easy to fall into the trap of staying at home each day (after all there is always a mess to clean up and never-ending chores to be done) and creating bad habits for yourself and for your child (like forming a dependence on Youtube clips to get through the day). On one had, the days can seem long and monotonous and you will very quickly lose all sense of what day or date it is. Yet at the same time, the days and months also fly by, so be sure not to waste the precious time you have off.
Here are some tips to help you make the most of the first year:
During their first year, babies are in a constant cycle of growth- the biggest phase of development they will go through in their entire life. Their patterns, behaviours and even responses to you as their parent change frequently, even weekly. If you are having trouble interacting with your child, then you actually need to more involved with them to learn how to respond to them in their newest phase. Don't use the excuse, 'He/She only responds to mum' - get back in the game so they get used to responding to you. I found The Wonder Weeks app our midwife recommended to be incredibly helpful in seeing things through a more scientific lense.
Parenting is a team effort. Particularly in the first few weeks and months when your partner is recovering from the birth. During your secondary carer leave when bub is born, you will need to serve her more than ever before. If you return to work during this time, don't think that your job is done when you leave the office. Raising a baby is also a fulltime job and your partner has been working day shifts and night shifts since the baby was born! Work out what roles you both need to fulfill in order to get through each day alive and with your relationship intact. Likewise if you take primary carer leave, work out the new roles you will take while you are on leave. Help each other out and communicate, communicate, COMMUNICATE!!!
Being the primary carer really means keeping bub alive and maintaining the home while your partner returns to work. If you're not competent at cooking, cleaning, washing and scrubbing, then now is the time to learn for your own peace of mind and for the sake of your relationship! Babies generate an incredible amount of mess for such small beings. Unless you enjoy living in a dump, you will need to stay on top of this for your own sanity!
Being a primary carer dad can quickly become incredibly isolating and lonely if you don't get connected with other mums and dads. If you have friends or family who are also on parental leave, try to book regular play dates. Consider connecting into your partner's mothers' (or 'parents') group so your child can continue meeting with other bubs their age and give you a chance to have regular adult conversations! Being able to hear and share stories with other parents is a also great way to learn tips and tricks for looking after your own baby. Even setting up a Facebook group with other parents for asking questions and sharing information about parenting can be incredibly helpful. Also look into activities for toddlers and parents that may be held at your local at your local public library, community centre or church hall. These can also be good for your child's learning and development, as well as getting you out of the house! Getting out into the fresh air and sunshine is good for your own health and wellbeing and can help decrease the risk of anxiety, insomnia and depression.
Babies need to sleep. Regularly! Having a routine that you stick to daily helps them get the sleep they need. While all babies are different, if your baby has established a routine by the time you take primary carer leave, do all that you can to maintain it! Their routine is more important than yours! A happy, well rested baby is going to be much easier and more fun to look after each day than one that is tired and cranky. If you can, a great way to learn your baby's routine is to take either annual leave or taking your 8 weeks of (unpaid) concurrent leave with your partner before commencing primary carer leave. This will act like a handover period, giving you a chance to learn all you need to know before you go it alone when your partner returns to work.
Chances are, by the time you are able to take primary carer leave yourself, you are going to be pretty exhausted from the early months sleepless nights while spending long hard days in the office. At the beginning of your leave, do all you can to 'sleep when the baby sleeps' so you can get your energy back and be well rested for getting on with being a great dad! If your baby is also not sleeping properly (e.g. waking numerous times every night and has trouble settling), then get professional help. Assistance can range from calling a hotline to having a doctor's referral to a children's sleep clinic.
Chances are that your wife/partner has already been taking thousands of photos. The reality is, no one has ever regretted taking too many photos of their kids! These moments are so precious and will be such a joy for you to look back on in years to come. Sending daily photos and videos to your partner during the day may actually help them adjust to being back at work as well, making the distance during the day feel shorter. However check first to make sure this won't cause the opposite effect!
Outside of keeping your child's schedule, try to find regular time out for yourself where you can relax, get into a good head space and clear away the stresses of raising a child. This might incorporate exercise or a hobby that you need to coordinate with your partner, or perhaps something you can enjoy when your child is around during the day like listening to music or watching sport while you work through the household chores. Fathers also experience weight gain, increased stress and sleep deprivation during their partner's pre and post pregnancy period. Parental leave is also a chance for you to get your overall physical and mental health back on track.
Most nappy bags you see on the market, like most baby products, are marketed to mothers. You make like to re purpose your bag that is a little more masculine or designed to your own tastes, but either way you will need a bag for carrying all your child's key needs wherever you go. Consider this bag your 'swiss army knife' equivalent for looking after a child, caring all the essential items you need to be prepared for any scenario (or nappy explosion) your baby throws at you when out in public.
If you can (and if your child allows you to), travel! If you plan extensive time away from home, you may need to use other forms of leave such as annual leave of concurrent leave due to the restrictions typically placed on taking primary carer leave. Whether short local trips or longer holidays abroad, seeing the world with a baby is an incredible experience. Try to keep your baby's nap schedule wherever you go to make the most of those windows when they are awake! Introducing your baby to new surroundings may also help them be more flexible to new surroundings during everyday life when you are back at home.