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12 Lessons I Learned During My First Year of Fatherhood

#9: I Learned That the Baby’s Favorite Toy Is Always Ridiculous

One year ago my wife and I shoved the bags in the back, next to the new car seat, and punched the yoga ball in the trunk. Three days later we drove home with a new member of the family, a newborn daughter who’d change our lives immeasurably.

As my daughter approached her first birthday, I started thinking about all the things I’ve learned in the past year. It’s difficult to sum it up in one paragraph, impossible to do it in a sentence. But I tried. I went month by month and picked out what I thought was the most important lesson I learned in each. Looking back, I still can’t believe it’s been a year. Time has flown by, but the individual lessons are just beginning to make sense.

Month 1: I Learned That This Is The Hardest Time 

It’s weird, but cherish those first few days in the hospital, because nurses are the best people in the world, and every teaching moment is necessary. Especially because when you get home, it’s just you, your wife, and a figurative ball of mush that you have to keep alive.

And in that first month, life is lived in 90-minute windstorms, and all you can do is put your head down and move your legs. You will get frustrated. You will get exhausted. You will, in your sleep-deprived haze, definitely eat something weird from the fridge, convinced it was yesterday’s leftovers. And, worst of all, you will think you’re bad at parenting. You’re not. You’re doing great. Head down. Move your legs.

Month 2:  I Learned That Traveling With an Infant Is Terrifying but Ultimately Fine

Before the three-month milestone, with our pediatrician’s okay, we all hopped on a plane to visit my in-laws in Texas. Were we nervous to bring a colicky, fussy baby on board? Absolutely. Were people generally accommodating and sweet, and did the baby survive the trip? Yes. Was it hard? Of course. But it was fine.

Month 3: I Learned That Being a Compassionate Partner Is Essential

To this day, I can only recall those first several weeks of parent life as if they were blurry iPhone images. My wife and I both existed to keep the baby alive, so the idea that we could live outside that claustrophobic environment was laughable at best. Of course, claustrophobia heightens everyone’s senses, and for me that meant frustration and anxiety, leading to arguments and instability.

So after plenty of talking, my wife and I learned we both needed our own time off, and not just from the baby, but from everyone. So we each took as much time as we wanted, up to a weekend, to be in our own skins, our happy places, and our thoughts. And it helped.

Month 4: I Learned When To Stifle

It had been easy to constantly think about how a newborn was affecting me. Hey, I wasn’t the pregnant one feeling change as it occurred in real time. Hey, one day I’m this and the next I’m that. And that’s hard to grasp. But I had to put my feelings aside. Was it the right move? I don’t know. But it was the one that made sense to me.

The fourth month marked my wife’s return to work. While it didn’t hit me after dropping off my daughter at daycare for the first time, my wife had to — for the first time in one year — separate herself from what she created. I couldn’t understand it, and I never will. All I could do — and had to do — was let her absorb the moment in her way. Sure whatever I felt mattered, but it had to diminish for as long as necessary.

Month 5: I Learned That the “First Date” Feeling Comes Back

The in-laws visited for a long weekend during the fifth month, and since my wife and I hadn’t yet taken a night off from the baby, they demanded we hand her over for a night while we went out for dinner. So we drove 45 minutes away, enjoyed pre-dinner cocktails and ate at a cozy restaurant under dim lighting. We talked about our new world, of course, but we just existed like normal people enjoying a meal, too.

I remember I watched my wife’s eyes more often that night. I remember where we sat in the restaurant and what we talked about with our server. I remember that my wife was already slightly tipsy during cocktails  — and she couldn’t have deserved that more. Images of that evening are still so vivid; it was like our first date.

Month 6: I Learned That Responsibility Never Stops

I’m an enormous baseball fan, so in the sixth month, we bravely brought the baby to a major league night game. In the past, going to a game meant tailgating, drinking up to three more beers in the stadium, and staying for as long as I wanted. But with a baby, I had to prioritize everything over my amusement. That meant sharing one beer with my wife and stopping during the first inning to get the baby to sleep. With patience and two partners working together, we had a sleeping baby in no time, who stayed asleep during our visit. But it certainly reminded me that things were different.

Month 7: I Learned That Little Things Will Become Momentous 

Sometime during the seventh month, my daughter decided a dog was the greatest thing in the world. It’s not really something I learned, but that was the big thing during the seventh month. And I won’t forget it.

Month 8: I Learned That There’s Never Enough Sunblock

We learned the hard way that letting our daughter sit unprotected in the car seat for a quick summer trip is a recipe for sunburn. Never. Again. So we spent the summer slathering her in globs of baby-safe sunscreen. Every time I reached my hand into my pocket that summer, I touched globs of sunblock I rubbed in my pocket after caking it all over baby’s body eight hours earlier.

Month 9: I Learned That The Baby’s Favorite Toy Is Always Ridiculous

“We need to buy more toys for her,” said my wife in the middle of summer, noticing our daughter was starting to tire of even Sophie the Giraffe. So we bought a few things. But then she found her new favorite toy: My wife is a native Texan, and all native Texans are dutifully proud of being native Texans. So three Christmases ago I bought her a gag: A gift-store, pocket-sized copy of the Texas Constitution. What did my daughter prefer to hold onto for the last four months? The gift-store, pocket-sized copy of the Texas Constitution. Toys are stupid.

Month 10: I Learned That The Hurt Is Real

By nine months we were bathing our daughter in the tub, a major “big girl” milestone. It’s also a major “old man” milestone. With each successive night of bending and crouching to play at tub level, I felt my knees trembling just a little more, and my back tightening just a little more. By the end of the tenth month, I realized the gym was my friend now more than ever.

Month 11: I Learned That It Becomes Harder To Be Away From Her

During the eleventh month, I started traveling frequently because of a large work project. It also meant I’d be spending days and nights away from my daughter, who was entering a happy phase where she was perfecting fine motor skills like moving objects from one hand to another and showing multiple new teeth.

Working during the day, it was easy to focus on my tasks. But once I retreated to my hotel room I’d video chat my wife and see my daughter holding spoons and polishing off plates of chicken and vegetables. Then I’d see new photos of her toothy grin and videos of her walking independently between pieces of furniture. I’d smile, then my heart would smack hard against my chest because all I wanted to do was see that toothy grin in person.

I’d been away from her before, but by the eleventh month, she was becoming a complete person, like a television show hitting its stride toward the end of its first season. Watching from my screen far away, I could only wish I was back in that world, even for a scene.

Month 12: I Learned That Everything Is Okay

Recently, our daughter celebrated her first birthday. She walked independently. She sang and laughed and even said a few broken words. She played with toys and showed us every big emotion. At one year old, she’s a hilarious, sweet, fierce, tough, beautiful person with burning red hair and piercing blue eyes. She’s a stick of dynamite. I honestly couldn’t be prouder of how we’ve done this so far. And I wouldn’t change one thing.

There are still wind storms, but they’re squalls. On rare occasions before daycare, she’ll cry hysterically. I try to calm her while packing her bag. But once I open the door she stops and begins to babble again. Maybe she’s tired of the house. Maybe she’s teething. Maybe she’s tired or a little hungry. Whatever it is, she’s fine. That I understand these things? That’s wisdom.