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25 July 2006

5 surprises in store for dads

Vegetables are a bit like the other members of the rock band Bon Jovi: essential, but not glamorous, writes Sean Badenhorst.

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Vegetables are a bit like the other members of the rock band Bon Jovi: essential, but not glamorous. But, if there were to be a vegetable front man, it would have to be the cabbage. I discovered to my astonishment yesterday (Day 4 of being a new dad) that, in the 21st century, a time when science and medicine are at their most advanced, the best way to relieve the sore, swollen, milk-engorged breasts of new mothers is with cabbage.

Yep, that’s what I thought, too. Surely there must be some sort of drug, in tablet form, that can ease the painful pressure and the searing sensation that occurs when milk fills – and overfills – the breasts? Maybe there is, but it probably contains chemicals that pose a danger to the baby. Or maybe, because men have never had to go through the discomfort, it just never made it onto the important-things-to-find-a-cure-for list.

Cabbage can hardly lay any claim to being the most popular veg in the veggie drawer. If restaurant menus are anything to go by, then creamed spinach and butternut are surely the Robbie and Britney of vegetabledom. But curiously, breastfeeding mums don’t eat the cabbage; they just break off two leaves, trim them slightly according to cup size and place one on each breast inside the bra. Incredibly, cabbage leaves are perfectly shaped to cover the breast. No wonder she’s called Mother Nature.

Here’s why
Some chemical contained in cabbage helps reduce milk production. My own extensive research revealed that there’s been little extensive research into what exactly makes cabbage so effective, but there you have it. Just be grateful it works and is cheap enough not to have to add to your medical-aid claims!

Becoming a new mum is a life-changing experience. So, too, is becoming a new dad. But while women discuss this experience regularly, especially during the pregnancy phase, eliminating most potential surprises, it’s a topic seldom covered by men in general conversation. Here are five other childbirth experiences that took me by surprise:

Snoring
I’ve shared a bed with my wife for more than 15 years and never heard her snore. Suddenly I’m not only being woken by the erratic yet bearably rounded tones of newborn baby cries, but also by the rhythmic, raspy breathing of my dearest as she sinks into rare slumber.

Here’s why: The natural weight gain during pregnancy adds pressure to the diaphragm, which can reduce lung capacity and lead to snoring. Because weight loss is gradual after birth, the potential to snore is likely to linger for a while.

Tears
Nope, not the baby’s – his tears I fully expected. I’m talking about my tears! I shed a couple as I watched him take his first few breaths. Covered in gooey fluid and flexing his tiny arms and legs on the examination table, both his perfection and the whole concept of childbirth overwhelmed me for a few seconds and my eyes filled with tears of relief, elation and fascination.

Here’s why: Well, my Google searches, including various combinations of the words newborn/dad/crying/tears/emotions hit a blank. I assume that’s because dads of newborns seldom feel compelled to write or talk about the emotion that overwhelms them in those first few moments of childbirth. Don’t fight it. It’s the best surprise you’ll ever have!

Sisterhood
Men (other than dad, of course) usually show a passing interest in a new baby before returning their attention to whatever sport it is they are watching on TV – and they hardly even notice the new mum.

But all women seem to have an ingrained empathy for new mothers. All women who have had a baby – friends, sisters, grandmothers, even strangers in shopping malls – experience an almost immediate change in emotion when they see a brand new baby. They become all doe-eyed and doting, and quietly anticipate that first opportunity to pick up, cradle and gaze at the tiny face.

Even young women, for whom planned motherhood is years away, are stopped in their emotional tracks by the presence of a newborn. And there is always a knowing back-and-forth conversation between the new mum and any other adult female during this interaction, usually involving descriptions of baby’s birth weight, method of delivery, duration of labour, whether or not breastfeeding is being pursued and a white lie about how good the mother looks, already.

Here’s why: Women will always have a broody gene entrenched in their DNA. They’re designed and equipped to be mothers and will always experience, to varying extents, primal maternal feelings that are stimulated by the presence of a new baby.

Sleep
I’ve never been much of a sleeper. Even as a child, I subconsciously strived to be the last one to go to sleep and the first to wake, just in case I missed something. Until baby’s arrival, seven hours was usually my maximum sleep time, with six hours probably being the average. But those were six or seven hours of solid slumber, allowing me to wake feeling perky and primed for the new day.

Now I’m waking between three and six times a night, sometimes more. Newborn babies need to feed regularly, usually every two or three hours, but of course that’s only in the textbooks. In the past, I’d wake up in the morning and get out of bed immediately. Now, I wake up, feeling like I’ve been to an all-night party – only without the hazy concern for my reputation – and doze off again.

I also find myself sleeping during the day, which in the past, was something I never did unless I was ill. And I’m not even the mother! I have significant, new respect for my wife and all new mothers as they cope with the biggest responsibility there is in a sleep-deprived, emotionally challenged state. I can’t help but wonder how she does it.

Here’s how: New mums are far more adaptable to the sporadic sleep pattern that comes with a new baby than new dads. While their sleep is interrupted often, they are said to be able to reach deep slumber quicker than us, which makes us seem like ninnies – when we’re not! This probably explains why some new dads – OK, all new dads – jump at the opportunity of the deep, uninterrupted sleep that comes with out-of-town business trips.

Crying
This time it’s not the baby or me – it’s my wife. One moment she’ll be cheerily chatting to someone on the phone calling to congratulate us, the next she’ll be sobbing uncontrollably in the kitchen as she trims a cabbage leaf and ponders the passing of her life as she knew it and other seemingly insignificant and/or obvious things. Lots of hugs, listening and reassuring words from me seem to help temporarily, but she’s experiencing a bout of postnatal depression (PND) that’s beyond her – or my – control (See “When Depression Strikes” on p80).

Here’s why: Hormones are the culprits of PND as oestrogen and progesterone levels drop sharply after childbirth. And of course, being the complex gender of our species, a woman’s PND can be aggravated or prolonged by one or more of the following: exhaustion, traumatic birth, frustration of being cooped up in hospital or at home, anxiety about coping – especially if there are other children to care for, loss of individual identity as the attention shifts from the pregnant mum to the new baby and low self-esteem about not looking her best.

...and some survival tactics
As a new dad, you may feel about as useful as a cold Brussels sprout being scraped off a plate into the bin. None of this parenting stuff is instinctive to males, but that doesn’t mean we’re not useful or needed. I strongly suggest you prepare yourself for these five surprises – and expect more! This final bit of advice is soppy, I know, but it helps ease household tension all round: offer to help, often. Listen carefully. Try not to complain about disrupted sleep. Give constant attention and reassurance to the new mum. And make sure there is a good supply of cabbage in the fridge.

Sean Badenhorst is the sleep-deprived editor of Bicyling South Africa, www.bicycling.co.za.

Visit Fit Pregnancy.

 
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