The Fourth Trimester

A Gift to Christian on the Birth of his Daughter

Thank you God.

It's the only thing in my brain. There is not a single other thought. There is no room for love, exhaustion, or amazement. There is only tremendous, humbling gratitude.

Ten minutes ago: I sit in the operating room holding the hand of my wife. The OR is walk-in-freezer cold. It's a giant tiled bathtub designed for the single purpose of being easy to clean. Easy to get blood off the floor. My wife looks at me, petrified, as the near-silent, mechanical physicians pull my son from her tired body with great heaves and violent tugs. I have no enmity towards these doctors and nurses. At this moment -- this exact, narrow, electrically thin moment in time -- I want the humans on the other side of the light-blue paper screen to forget their biological heritage and be nothing but automatons. I want them hardened and finely honed. I would not care what injustice, insensitivity or crime-against-humanity they commit, as long as my wife and my son survive.

I close my eyes. I hold back tears. She needs me to be strong, to be present more than I have ever been before. I pray. From a place inside I did not know held much belief, I pray with truth and honesty. I beg and I promise and I bargain and I plead.

After the wet and pain and cold subside, I am a dad for the second time and my wife breathes in and out with peace. Thank you God.

It was hard. Both births compressed a lifetime of energy, angst, and focus packed into a combined 60 hours of labor and one to-close-for-comfort trip to the the sterile room. An outlier birth story to help the bubble in the the bell curve for the rest of the world's women.

Looking back, I should have saved the depth of my prayer for the 90 days after the event. Human children require a full year of gestation; the last 3 months just happen to be outside the womb. Babies are simply not done yet. They are tomatoes: apparently complete on the outside, but just a nasty mess of confusion below the surface. It may be less intense, but that fourth trimester as a new parent can be more stressful than the intensity of the miracle itself. I don't honestly know where I found the strength to do it that first time. Perhaps deep inside all of us there are parenting ready-reserves called up for the task -- a remnant from our days as cavemen, where intensity-on-demand meant survival in the face of an angry wildebeest.

7 years later, I hardly feel the expert. No Dean of Parenting has lowered a doctoral hood onto my shoulders. There are fathers who have more calm, more cool, more sense of "getting it" than I ever will. But I am where I am. I am unabashedly proud of my kids and my wife, and I believe I have had more good days than bad, and that's all I can hope for.

Since then, I've seen dozens of friends, many much younger, face the wall of the fourth trimester. Last night, another friend, a young mid-20s man of faith and intellect, nervously sired a baby girl. Christian, here's all I can think to give you of any worth -- the one liners and mantras that have guided me through the darker moments. Perhaps one -- just one -- will ring true and help someday. Then I will consider this a worthy gift.

Care and Feeding: You

-- You do not need the advice of every relative and friend. Never listen to anyone unless you want to. They are not "your kids" in the way that that Toyota Prius is "your car." They are your uniquely sacred trust, and to hell with anyone who thinks they can walk a mile in your shoes. Default to ignoring everyone, including me. Extract what wisdom you can, and leave rest in the dustbin where it belongs.

-- You do not need endless reserves. You need to breathe. That's what the well-meaning hippie woman told you in the birth class, but she got the target wrong. Your wife remembered how to breathe, I'm quite sure. You're the one who needs to remember, every moment of every day.

-- You do not need to know what to do. You only ever have to figure this out a single day ahead of your kid. The day you get home, the only thing you need to know is how to protect her, feed her, clean her, clothe her and love her. College and boys (and firearms) are years off. You can figure it out then.

-- You do not need anything you buy from Walmart or Babycenter or anywhere else. You do not need a butt-wipe-warmer. You do not need a swing, a sling, a high chair, a diaper changing table, a fuzzy floor mat, hundreds of cute little pink outfits, a crib, a mobile, a baby bathtub or a night light. You need love and food. Everything else can be improvised, and is often better. By all means, use what works, just don't pretend you need it.

-- You do not need a sense of self. Just this once, subvert your ego. It's all too easy, as a dad with strong will and a quick mind, to build resentment in your heart -- to wish that things could be the way they were. Let it go. Embrace no-mind. You have become a Buddhist, in addition to whatever you were before: Christian, a Jew, an Atheist, or a worshiper of the FSM. Embrace it. Cherish it. Grok the lack-of-self in fullness.

-- You do not need to be "on" all the time. Create time: time for yourself, time to be with your wife, time to play games and sing and dance and pray. Your mother, mother-in-law, best friend -- they are all wired with protective genes. If you love them and trust them, let them be with your child while you remember why you had kids in the first place. Do this from the very first day you get home, every once in a while.

-- You do not need pink, yellow, baby blue or lavender anything. Eschew color. Every child I know that is surrounded by clean white blankets, clean white towels, clean white clothes and leftover shirts from dad's old-clothes pile is a happier baby. Plus, they look better in pictures.

-- You do not need all those toys. If it's plastic, and it takes batteries, throw it away.

-- Embrace pornography.

-- Only one of you has to be the man in the yellow hat at a time. The other one can be the monkey. Takes turns.

-- Go into the corner, alone, and just cry sometimes.

-- Only play games when your wife is asleep. Of course you should be sleeping too.

-- You can play a game with a child on your lap, or even better, strapped into a chest pack. This is a good time not to play Gears of War and Counter-Strike, but perhaps something tamer with pretty colors. Like Magic or Brettspielwelt.

-- Your in laws are now your very best friends in the world. Your daughter has given you phenomenal leverage with them for these 90 days. Use it.

-- If you're not careful, you will throw your back out getting the infant car seat in and out of the back seat. This will happen precisely between 4 and 6 months from now. Your wife will have built up her back-strength doing this movement many times a day. Help her out, start progressive weight training (babies get bigger!) keep yourself healthy.

-- If it all gets too much -- if there are no words that matter, no prayers that bring the peace with passes understanding, nothing that will make the tension ease -- just walk away. Give everyone a breather. Put her in the crib, send your wife to the basement and you go sit in the attic. There's rarely a reason to panic, and the panic will only make bad things happen.

Care and Feeding: Momma

-- If Momma's happy, everyone's happy.

-- Breast feeding is hard. Very hard. One bottle a night, so that Mom can sleep, will not do any harm, and it will do a lot of good for your wife.

-- If breast feeding is not to be, by choice or biology, understand that there will be guilt, acknowledged or not. Let it go. What works for you and your family is what is right. Period. End of story. There will be others out there who feel it's their duty to berate her for this choice. She is entitled by law, and required in some states, to punch them in the side of the head. Repeatedly.

-- Post partum depression is very real. She is not crazy. This is especially true if she's not breast feeding, as the intimacy that comes with breast feeding every 11 minutes is missing. I've never figured out anything you can actually do about it other than be on your toes and love the crap out of her and the baby. See note about becoming a Buddhist.

-- As soon as possible, encourage her to join the cult of new moms. My wife established a rotation of having coffee, knitting circles, play groups, grocery shopping with friends, etc. This is doubly important if this is the first time shes taken a bunch of time off work. If she has no friends with babies, find some. Long distance runners got nothin' on new moms when it comes to feeling lonely.

Care and Feeding: Baby

-- Like dogs and horses, babies smell fear.

-- She doesn't know what to do with her body. When you strap her into a chest carrier, or a sling, or an improvised bed-sheet-salvaged child-holding toga, you are bringing her close and holding her the way she remembers being held for 9 months. When you wrap her tightly like a psychiatric patient in swaddling clothes, you are quieting these spastic-flesh-puppets called limbs that she doesn't understand, and allowing her to simply be. This is not cruel. It is a gift.

-- Stimulation is a fickle beast. Her little neural network just doesn't know how to process the data yet. A little stimulation -- one sense at a time, is a good thing. Lots of stimulation can be a convenient overload-and-shutdown mechanism. In the middle lies madness.

-- Start her musical education today. My children think that the Clash and the Sleater-Kinney are lullabies. I don't know a single adult that actually enjoys those "nap time CDs."

-- Listen to Elysium for he is wise. Babies cannot be reasoned with. They are selfish. And attempting to save your back by transferring your sleeping child into her crib is like "rubbing your body in bacon grease and playing with feral wolves."

-- The umbilical cord stump and the first 5 diapers are the most disgusting part of being a parent.

-- The next 90 days are not the time to become an environmentalist. is much more important than

In Xanadu did Kubla Kahn his Stately Pleasure Dome Decree: (aka Sleep)

-- Your child will sleep. They will stop crying. But very often there is nothing you can do to make them stop. That's OK. Crying is exercise for babies. Invest in extremely good earplugs, then put headphones over them. Then love your child. Exodus contains no commandment that "thou shalt make the baby stop crying." Just stare at them from your induced cone of silence and ooze love into her little heart. It's all you can ever really do.

-- Do not drive your child around at night to get them to sleep. You will join the ranks of dads who crashed their cars at 3AM.

-- Babies, and really children of all ages, thrive on structure and routine. From the very first night, we established a simple bedtime ritual, and the idea that the darkness was the safe place in which you slept. It may take some time before these routines and structures seem to matter, but they will.

-- Babies have no circadian rhythm. They do not know that night is night and day is day. While your child may not care to sleep, establishing a pattern where it is dark and quiet from 7PM-7AM sets you up for success.

-- If you wait until she makes two little snuffling noises on your shoulder, she's down for two hours. Drop the tike on the carpet and rejoice (quietly).

-- There is no perfect solution to getting your baby to sleep through the night. That said, letting the kid spend 7 hours trying is not necessarily a bad thing. Eventually they figure it out. She will not suffer a life of expensive therapy bills because you let her learn how to go to sleep without a hand on their back for 5 hours a night. See note about earplugs and headphones.

-- There's rarely a need for both parents to be on call at night. Make a simple schedule: one of you gets earplugs and possibly a bed on a separate floor. The other one takes the duty. There should be no guilt in this for either party.

That's it. That's all I know about this 3 month window. It's not much of a gift, but it's the best I can do. Nobody can teach you how to be a dad. There's no manual. There's no degree. There's not even an Indian company you can outsource it to. But it will all be OK. In two years, you will have forgotten the stress and anxiety, and you will revel in the miracle that is your child. You will know the unquestioning love that only a child can give. You will be the single most important person in another human's life, and no matter what you think, this is true of nobody but you kids.

It's a cliche to say it's all worth it. When I was in that fourth trimester for the first time, people told me and I didn't believe them. It was plain God-damned hard. I had moments of resentment and anger and anxiety and bile and despair. More than once, in the endless night, I felt I could not go on.

But I did. And you will too.

P.S. - Don't forget the earplugs and headphones.


Podunk wrote:
Elysium wrote:



True that.

dongyrn wrote:

Sigh. And then they grow up so fast... I feel the need to head home early and give my girls a hug...

Double True.

What everyone else said. It will test you to your limits, but it's all worth it.

One other important thing that rabbit missed here and I think most of the parents here would agree with is one's understanding of free time.
My personal time line and lack of free time:
1. College - Lots of work, I'm always busy, tired and I have no free time.
2. Post Graduation/first jobs - Boy I had a lot of free time in college I didn't realize I had.
3. Fast forward to Married, rent/own a house, wife pregnant and a full time job - Man I have no time to mow the lawn much less game.
4. Birth of Child #1 (7 years ago today for me) - Wow, I had a lot of wasted time in my life. But now there is none. This beautiful baby has taken it all. I mean that in a good way. Its amazing, you don't care that you have no time, sleep or as others have said sex (at least for the first 3 months )
5. Birth of child #2 (4.5 years ago) - Wow there was a little wasted time still in my life. I can't believe it. But now that's gone too.

Overall, I think I have found the remaining free time that I have, although I think the next 5 years the kids will take some more of it. Also, a third child which we aren't going to have is where I believe the law of diminishing returns really starts and you are truly out of time.

So to sum up. You have more time then you think to help the baby, your wife and yourself. You just need to be more efficient with the rest of your life. Good luck Oh new gamer dad and look at the bright side, all those of us giving you advice have survived and you will too.

Dude, that was fantastic. I am so printing this.

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Sounds like what Cannibal is suggesting would be a low outlier (or outlet), if I recall from previous conversations.

EDIT: Quoting this screwed it up, but you get the joke.

Joke gotten.

And on the free time front: a critical decision my wife and I made (YMMV) is that we locked off 7-7. Kids go in their rooms at 7, they stay in them till 7. Most parents I know think that's a little whacked, but at this point, my daughter (7) rebels if we try to get her out of her room before 7, because she's either asleep or playing some complex game by herself. And we hardly ever have any issues getting them down because they're completely brainwashed.

Now they may not SLEEP 12 hours, but they know it's expected of them. Sure, there have been plenty of long nights along the way -- angry standoffs where I had to invoke the quaker in me. But it made a substantial amount of time for my wife and I to be together alone. Not that we sit around eating bonbons but enough that we stay connected. And I have from 8-11 most nights to do SOMETHING. Sometimes its gaming, most of the time its writing, occasionally its watching TV.

...and I have trouble finding time to get the oil changed in my car.

rabbit wrote:

Kids go in their rooms at 7, they stay in them till 7.

What are the acceptable activity options and/or expectations (other then to not venture out of their rooms, of course) for those 12 hours?

Well, at night we do bedtimes and the lights go out. To be fair, at 3 and 7, we tend to start at 7 and really lights dont get out until 730, and when the worlds a mess, later, but the default is 7, and on a normal night, 7 it is. We tried at one point letting our daughter read with a flashlight but it resulted in grumpy morning madness.

In the morning, honestly, I don't really know or care all THAT much what she's doing in her room. I'm pretty certain I know the inventory, and there's just not that much to get in trouble with. Now that she's older, it's not like we put a lock on her door or anything, she goes downstairs and makes breakfast if she's hungry, but she knows she doesn't wake us up until 7!!!

When she was younger (and with our youngest) the rule stays pretty staidfast. He's still in his crib (just you TRY and pry him out of it) and chooses not to jump out of it (he's more than capable of it). When he outgrows it (soon, or he's gonna break the damn thing) I imagine we'll go through an ugly reeducation process about what 7 looks like on the clock, and we'll do a few weeks of walking him back to his room in the middle of the night.

We have a plan there too though. When someone wakes us up at 6AM, we simply walk them back to their rooms. No comments, no questions, no conversation. We are simply unresponsive herders until 7AM. It seems ridiculous until you try it. If you're not interesting enough, they get tired of coming and getting you.

I'm sure this all makes us sound like strict draconian parents, but really, I don't feel like we are. If anything I worry we're way to loosy goosey about a lot of things. I'll preview a future article on toddlers someday. The best advice i've heard on dealing with sentient children (as opposed to the 4th trimester newts) is:

Pick your battles wisely and sparingly. But when you pick one, win without error, wavering, or contest.

I have found this to be very wise. I try not to argue and have opinions about sh*t that I really don't care about (socks matching, various out-of-site messes, whether she buys gum with her allowance, the fact that I can't get her to watch Star Wars) and when I pick something to have a contentious opinion about (no, you can't have ice cream right before bed because you don't sleep for hours afterwards) I try and never, ever give in to any amount of pleading, begging, or cajolling, and I make it clear verbally that I always win.

This has, on rare occasions, led to ridiculously protracted stalemates. There have been occasions where the pleading, then the tears, than the full on tantrums have gone on for half an hour, and I've tried to always remain as calm as I can (admittedly failing at times) and not lose.

The real problem is when you pick a battle only to realize it was a stupid one to pick.

"No, you can't take three animals to bed with you."


That's not a good one to have a throw down about. But over time, I feel like there's become a quiet unspoken understanding that no means no, maybe means probably not, and yes means yes. And I try to say yes at every possible chance.

I'm going to print this and put it on my wall. It's that damn good.

I don't consider that strict at all. We did the same thing - except with our family schedule it was 7:30 and I was up at 5am anyways getting my ex to work. Little kids need lots more sleep than you and I. They recommend 10 hours a night all the way up through high school if you can swing it.

Hell's true fury is not a woman scorned. It's an over-tired, cranky toddler when you have someplace you need to get to or something you have to get done.

When school started bedtime moved to 8:30 for elementary school due to homework/etc but they got to sleep in until 7:30. Jr high made it 9pm, and until you graduate it's 9:30 on a school night.

I know it sounds early, but they have to be up and out the door by 6am and that means they have to be vertical by 5am. 9:30 pm to 5am is only 7 1/2 hours.

When they were little, it gave us time to have Game Night once a week and for me to finish college. Now it gives me time for the second job I have to have to make ends meet and what little gaming time I get.

And a bedtime is a necessary skill for them to learn. It may seem like it's never going to come, but you're looking down the barrel of school. And later, jobs and stuff. They have to learn to manage a life, and you're not rolling in time to teach them.

It just feels like they're babies forever.

My girlfriend is a school teacher (almost graduated) and a pretty strict one at that. With every class she gets, the children say she is way more strict then there previous teacher, and how they don't like that. And after the school year, all of the children will say she was the best teacher they ever had.

What I mean to say is that I think children like strictness, or at least, like you being clear. They need to know what is always wrong, and what is good, having one big gray area doesn't work well. Not for them, and not for you. Off course you can overdo it.

Not to get link happy, but Bill (Harris) has some excellent follow on thoughts over here.

A lot of people confuse being "strict" with structured and being consistent. You don't have to run their entire lives with jackboots. But you have to do what you say, say what you mean, and when they do something wrong they have to have consequences that make sense so they can learn what to do and what not to do. Lather, rinse, repeat for about 20 years or so.

I've gotten a lot of flack over the years from people. One memorable exchange about physical discipline pegged me a monster on another board. One guy called me a nutjob because I require my kids to finish activities they sign up for and limit the number of activities so things are managable. Oh, and also having media limits on both time and content, chores, bedtimes for teenagers, making them check in frequently, requiring all the computers in the house be out in the public areas in plain sight and running monitoring software on them. I do a host of other things that seem to be unpopular with certain people.

That's why I was so glad to see that part about ignoring other people's advice (and yes, I get the irony that I then proceeded to add several hundred words of advice to it ). Otherwise they'll drive you around in circles until you're gnawing on the small of your own back.

I'm not raising houseplants. I'm trying to raise functional adult humans. I guess I am wicked, mean, evil, bad, and nasty. I'm okay with that. It's my job.

Seven weeks old tomorrow. Yup.

Which reminds me - I need to buy Ann another pair of headphones.

Fantastic article and followup. My contribution is probably best described as advice for the seventh or eighth trimester, but it's fresh in my mind, so...

I have discovered, what with my son turning 18 months old a few days ago, that it is of critical import to not lose a battle of wills with anyone who's age is discussed in months. He has been described as "the best behaved kid I've ever seen" by the vast majority of the people who meet him and even so, he will pounce on an opportunity to stretch a rule as far as he can. If you say something, mean it. This is actually an incentive to be damn careful about what you say, more than a cry for stern discipline.

Having said that, my son says (signs) please and thank you at appropriate times, without prompting. Not always, but it's astonishing to see it happen just once. I think my second favorite part about teaching him sign is that he's at least aware of what polite behavior is, long before he has any real need to make use of it. My favorite part, of course, is him being able to tell us what he thinks he needs to make him feel better... be it food, a diaper change or a book.

And I think I've got another one on the way, but since it's ludicrously early, I'm telling a bunch of relative strangers (but well respected ones!) before we get our family wound up over it. As frightened as I was of figuring out how to handle one child, I'm almost completely unhinged by trying to figure out how to make two kids work. So thanks once again, rabbit and company!

I occasionally enjoy reminding (in a jocular manner) my fellow parents that they had/have it easy... I never knew what it was like to have just one.

It's such a gift your teaching your kid sign, esp. if it's a second language. We're challenged just to manage the simple things, much less bilinguality. We have several friends with bilingual kids, and it makes me phenomenally jealous.

I'd love to teach him something he might actually use in life (second language-wise), but other than Baby Einstein vids, I don't have a good handle on anything but English. One of my wife's sisters is deaf and so she has a pretty useful vocabulary. Honestly, though, what I did was go get an ASL dictionary and whenever something came up, I'd flip through and spend the day teaching him that sign. Or a reasonably close proximity. As you might expect, he doesn't have the dexterity required to do them all well.

As a bizarre aside, while flipping through the first ASL dictionary I got, I ran across the word "kike." Yeah, they have a sign for a derogatory term for a Jew. I flipped through, looking for other such insanity, but that was the only one I found. I still can't come up with a non-moronic reason they would include that particular sign, but I went and got a different dictionary. I will say, I was most disappointed they didn't have a sign for "cracker" because I thought it would be amusing to teach him to greet family members that way. Alas.

Wounder wrote:

I will say, I was most disappointed they didn't have a sign for "cracker" because I thought it would be amusing to teach him to greet family members that way. Alas.

Just have this image of a little toddler signing "Was'up Crackers?" to everyone he meets.

I'm late to the party but just wanted to say what a great piece this is. And so true.

I can think of no better testament to the incredible awesomeness of being a parent than the fact that parenthood puts you through all this (and more) and is still absolutely worth it. More than I can express.

Rabbit - I'll likely be a father within the next few years, and I have friends who will get there sooner than I. This piece is brilliant, and I'll be sharing it with all of them.

Thanks Symbiotic, glad it rung a bell.

I love reviving old threads. Especially when it is to share that we're currently at T-Minus 6 weeks until D-Day (Daddy Day). Still one of my favorite GWJ articles. Thanks, Rabbit.

Woohoo!!! Your first??

Yup - our first. It's a girl. Will come back and post a full report in a few months.

Wow, I'm not sure how I stumbled on this, but it's very timely. We're due with our first [we're not finding out] in March. Rabbit, my wife doesn't generally get too involved with my chosen hobby, but she consistently enjoys your more family-oriented articles. Thanks.

Thanks Lex, that means a lot!

I'll be referring to this article myself, soon. Our first is due in May, and your words of advice are very welcome here. Let the games begin!

Congratulations, jonny! Get your fill of sleeping, gaming, and going out now!