Becoming a father for the first time brings joy, hopefulness, anxiety, and sadness, sometimes within ten minutes of each other. Fears associated with the coronavirus only intensify every one of them. When talking to someone who just became a new dad, you want to offer some words, and you want them to stand out, be memorable, and really help your buddy with what’s about to come.
“Congratulations!” is always a good. “How’s everyone doing?” is usually appreciated. After that, it’s not as clear because you have no idea which version of New Dad you’ll be getting.
“Expect a range of conflicting emotions,” says Dr. Joshua Sparrow, child psychiatrist and director of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. But here’s a safe guess. There’s uncertainty that comes with the responsibility for a new life, since, “You can’t replicate it until you do it. You can’t truly practice for it,” says Michael Thompson, child psychologist and co-author of It’s a Boy!, who adds that the dad is handling a shift of, “I used to be a good person. Now will I be a good person as a father?”
One helpful element is that his body is playing along. When men are physically present with a new baby, their neurohormonal balance changes – testosterone goes down, prolactin goes up. His mind is on being a father, not making another. “It’s biology’s way of gearing fathers to nurturing and care-taking and reducing the urgency to getting back to reproducing,” Sparrow says.
Some supportive words would still be useful. Keep his ever-changing mindset as your lens, and you’ll find the right ones.
The Sentiment: “Wherever you are, whatever you’re feeling, I’m here with you.”
What to Say to a New Dad
When talking to a new dad, assume nothing. His answers could range from, “This is the greatest thing ever,” or “I hate seeing 3 a.m. on the clock and the kid who does it.”
The best route, then, is to ask open-ended questions, nothing more intricate than, “How’s it going?” Then it’s on you to feel your way through the conversation. Find context clues. Act accordingly. Be attuned to his mood, delivery, eyes, body language, “listening to his music behind his words,” Sparrow says.
If you hear something positive, reflect that back. If you sense fear or stress, be a cheerleader and say, “You’ll do awesome,” says Quentin Hafner, a couples therapist in Orange County, California. The new dad might not believe it, so then ask, “What was your dad like?” It’ll get him talking about what he did and didn’t admire about his role model. He’ll realize that he knows something, even if it’s what to avoid. “It’s a starting point. He’s not staring at a blank page,” Thompson says.
What NOT to Say to a New Dad
“You gotta …”
“In six weeks, it’s gonna get better.”
“It’ll be fine.”
“Your life is so over.”
“How’s the kid sleeping?”
There’s the great tendency to guess or to be funny. It could work, but it’s a high fail rate, and it’s more likely dismissive. Any comment that sounds like unwanted advice is just that. The word “gotta” increases the stress by turning advice into truth – often around getting the baby to sleep – when there is little of that with parenting. The underlying message is that he’s not getting it and never will. You might as well have said, “How have you not figured that out yet?”
Giving any kind of short timeline might seem like offering hope, but it’s a close cousin of “gotta”. When the relief doesn’t appear as promised, there’s a mix of resentment (at you) and defeat by not being able to do what apparently everyone else has mastered (when they haven’t.) It might be helpful to remind him that parenting is a process of trial and error and to be wary of anyone who says differently.
“They’re full of shit,” Thompson says. “Don’t be afraid to experiment. If you feel like there’s only one right way and someone else knows it, you’ll be paralyzed.”
The new dad’s life most likely has less sleep, more spending/financial pressure, and less time with his partner. Check back in with, “How’s it going?” in the most open and curious way. You can also ask, “What’s been good?” or, even better, “What’s the baby’s latest trick?”
“Let them be the expert,” Hafner says. Thompson adds that in talking, the dad hears what he’s already learned, even if it’s only been two weeks. “We’re the foremost authority on ourselves,” he says. “We get it when we hear ourselves speak. If you hear yourself telling a positive story, it’s a positive story.”
If it feels right, ask if he and his spouse are spending any time together. It’s probably no, so then say that it’s a process and that you hope that you both can get a few moments, if just to plant the idea and show empathy. On a more practical level, get the parents food. “That’s a real friend,” Sparrow says. They’re scrambling and mostly likely not eating well. Colic also can hit, starting at Week 3, lasting until 12, making for an unhappy house. The baby will calm down when being walked or held, but as soon as you put him or her down, the crying resumes. “It’s exhausting and makes parents feel like they’re failing,” he says.
In an ideal world, without the need to social distance, this is when you come over with takeout and tell them, “You eat and I’ll hold the baby.” Parents like when other people connect with their child. And they get to eat. “The simple concrete stuff matters,” he says. Even if the conversations are all by phone or text, the bigger thing is that your friend knows that you come with no judgments, only understanding. With any feeling, even the real and fleeting “I hate this kid and being a dad,” you’re the safe harbor that he will always need. Says Thompson, “You’re someone to go to, a resource.”