Now a father of four, writer and director Richard Curtis shares the pearls of wisdom he wishes he had known before the arrival of his first child
It’s now been quite a long time since we had a baby in the house – the first one was born in 1995 and the last one in 2003 and I’m clearly about to become an unreliable witness. So very quickly, before I forget everything except living with football boots, the sound of Nu-metal from behind locked doors, mobile phones hidden under pillows at 2am and other teenagerabilia, here is a little advice I can give about first-time fatherhood. If you’re already knee-deep in parenthood, read no further – this is entry-level stuff. But with luck there may be something slightly useful here if you’re going to be a first time father this year, and you’re feeling under-briefed or terrified.
As you Prepare
Try to think about what happens after the birth. I spent an enormous amount of time in classes talking about waters breaking and deep breathing and contractions – and much less time talking about breastfeeding and changing nappies. The birth only lasts for a matter of hours – the aftermath goes on a lifetime. It’s like war: the invasion is very quick but the occupation, that lasts forever.
Now really pay attention to that stuff – it’s the main source of life, and sometimes grief, for the first few months. I remember my partner Emma being plunged into despair twice by the difficulties of something she’d assumed would be a doddle. If everything is going wrong, there are breastfeeding counsellors who can come to your house for an hour (and a fee) and make everything work again. We were rescued by Clare Byam-Cook, who arrived, assessed and repositioned the whole caboodle. If you can’t find Clare, find her book… it’s also excellent.
Most trauma post-birth happens on or around nappy changing. It’s a messy business – it needs equipment. And it’s a vicious circle. When you’ve rushed to change a nasty nappy and you’re missing something to do so, you start to call for help just when the baby is screaming so loudly your partner can’t hear your cries, and then they start shouting, asking why there’s all the shouting. Armageddon in 30 seconds. So having one – and if possible two – changing stations, which have all the equipment, means the moment there’s a nappy to be changed, you’ve got somewhere safe to go.
On that Changing Table
Make sure you’ve got lots of wet wipes. The cotton-wool and lukewarm water thing is something everyone does with their first child, but no one ever bothers about with their second. Wet wipes are a perfect modern invention and do the job like nothing else.
Don’t give your child your second favourite name as their second name, because you might need it later. I wanted to call our son Daniel – Emma wanted Jake. We called him Jake Daniel. But then we had another son and Daniel was already gone. I never got the Dan of my dreams.
The 40-Minute Rule
No matter how wonderful or important or close any visitor is – in the days after the birth no mother wants someone to talk to them for longer that 40 minutes. I’m talking best friends, I’m talking grandmothers, I’m talking Harry Styles and Beyoncé on a surprise joint visit – 40 minutes max for all of them. When you’ve had a baby, that’s all that matters in your world, and all you want to matter. People from the outside can remind you there’s a world elsewhere which bores or confuses you, or makes you feel that you’ll never return to the world of parties, friends and normal humans eating pizza and watching The Crown. So, give your visitors time to talk about the baby and the birth and then the moment they say, “Oh, I went to a brilliant movie last night” throw the baggages out.
This is the most important one of all. Everyone is entitled to two weeks off – but only 40% of men take it. And that has a bad knock-on effect for everyone. Do everything you can to be as free as you can for at least two weeks after the baby is born. There are lots of reasons: because it’s great, because you’re needed, but most of all, because that’s the time you learn what a child is. The thing about babies – and children – is that they’re interesting in all their details, in all their activity and non-activity. But if you think, “I’ll just be there for the important bits,” you’ll find it hard to build up the right emotional muscles, and risk missing the message entirely. It’s the texture of life with a baby that matters; it’s every little meaningless moment, its joys and its boredoms, and the continuing feeling of shared responsibility. Also, if the father isn’t there in those first weeks, there’s a danger it sets up a pattern of non-attendance, and “it’s really the mother’s job” for the whole of life. So even if your work is hugely important – your other, new job is even more important. Paternity leave is the crucial training for a job that lasts a lifetime. Good luck, guys. It’s going to be so groovy…