It is no secret that, often, a man does not fully sense his own irrelevance until the moment the woman carrying his child gives birth. Actually, that timing may be wrong—for me, it was like four or five months into my wife’s first pregnancy, when it became clear she was building this baby on her own, in her own little workshop in the dark, where I was not invited and couldn’t go even if I were. Hey, wait, aren’t I part of this? What are you guys doing? Are you hanging out without me?
But after the birth, it was even more clear. At least during pregnancy there had been the sense of the two of us conspiring as idiot parents-to-be to figure out what was going to happen on this crazy ride called childbirth together, like the Thelma and Louise of reading about nipple chafing. But when the kid is born? We were never on any journey, I realized. I just helped pack a suitcase and drove her to the metaphorical airport. Okay bye? I don’t have a ticket? Am I not coming? That we’re disappointed to find out we don’t have a more central role in this endeavor is instructive about a man’s narcissism. Should it really come as a surprise that childbearing is not going to be about us? It should not.
This is a letter to those of us men who do not know how to be a breastfeeding assistant and, in not knowing, can seem kind of dicky. An entreaty: Hey, there are some things you can do to help your significant other while she’s in the lactation business. This is for those in my male cohort who lie in bed in the middle of the night wondering what to do while the mother of their child is out there in one of those weird sliding rocking-chair things that people buy to nurse in and then later throw away as soon as possible because it feels at once overly medical-device-y and overly grandmotherly. And the first thing to do is get up.
If it’s the middle of the night, she’ll probably send you back to bed. But if, before she does that, you deliver a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice (which you made earlier in the day), or lemonade, or just water, she’s going to feel better. Because she knows she’s not in this alone. And also she will be incredibly and unrelentingly thirsty, since some adorable vampire is taking all the fluid from her body. And you’re going to feel better, too. Because you will have been of service. Any observer of humankind, whether it’s a shrink or a priest, will tell you that being of service is one of the few things in life that bring you any sense of peace.
Okay, so you’re with me so far. It’s not about me. I am merely of service. I am an altar boy in the Church of the Engorged Boob. But like, what should I actually do? Good question. The answer is make this quinoa salad. It’s good and super easy. Quinoa is high in protein, and the salad can be stored for several days for moments when your breastfeeder-in-chief experiences one of her bouts of ravenousness. Or this vegetarian chili (we’re vegetarian in my house; you can find a nonvegetarian one if you want), because then she can just heat it up if you have to be at work while she’s home nursing. Basically, what I’m saying is: Cook. If you suck at cooking, cook anyway. Cooking isn’t hard—just use a recipe and make something easy.
The next thing to do is hang out and be entertaining. Sitting with your baby while they leach nutrients from your body can be, according to my wife, an intensely joyful and beautiful form of bonding. But it also gets boring. So sit with her and talk. And if you’re not great at coming up with fascinating anecdotes (or she is tired of all your stories) read a book to her. This is going to sound obnoxious, but I read my wife Moby Dick. Because neither of us had ever read it, we both wanted to read it, and when else would we have twenty-seven uninterrupted hours to do it? (Moby Dick, I’m apparently the last one to realize, is a really fun book. It’s not homework. It’s like a very bloody episode of Star Trek except near Nantucket instead of aboard the starship Enterprise.) It became this significant, totemic book. We can’t see the words “Moby Dick” without being transported back to those first months of our daughter’s life.
A lot of the other stuff you can do to be of service is stuff you may already know. Protect the home from intruders: People mean well, but it’s stressful to have people over, and it’s also stressful to have to turn them away. So get good at the graceful pass, and do it proactively. (This goes for phone calls, too.)
Be the nursing sous chef: There’s a ton of equipment to keep clean, dry, sanitized, and at the ready. Wash the bottles and put them away until you need them. That way when she’s done pumping, it’s all ready for her.
And for god’s sake, attend to all of the many details of modern life that can make us feel overwhelmed. Be on top of the pediatrician appointments (don’t just know when they are; make them and put them in the calendar), do the medical insurance paperwork and the bills, and figure out what to do when the internet goes out, without being asked. And the laundry. The easy part is turning on the machine. The part that matters is putting it all away in its right place, folded.
The last thing to know is that most of this shit is as much for you as it is for the mother of your child. Sure, it helps her to have a fresh glass of orange juice, or a perfectly drawn Guinness stout (the single alcoholic beverage our midwife permitted during breastfeeding as it tends to make milk production more robust), but this is a salve for your sense of irrelevance.
And instead of mourning the fact that you’re not always the central figure in the drama of your family, you can feel a sense of alleviation. It’s great practice for being a parent. There’s nothing more beautiful than to love something with your whole heart, and to give that thing whatever you have to give, and to expect nothing in return.
But even if you can do absolutely nothing, that’s okay. It’s okay if you’re not a savior. It’s okay if you’re kind of an extra in the scene. It’s okay if you’re just kind of there. But you absolutely need to be there, in the room. Because you don’t want to miss it.
Look, having a kid made me realize that life is short. That’s a cliché, I know. But I’m never going to see my child as a baby again. Every time I look at my kids, I see them as babies in some way. But that’s nostalgia. There’s something so intense about those first few months. When nothing exists except your family. When you meet them. When you realize your heart has been ripped open to accommodate their existence. The first inkling of what it would be like to care about something else more than yourself. The terror of realizing that you’ve unwittingly taken the most reckless gamble—to fall in love with something that you could never afford to lose, to welcome something into your life that could destroy you.
Those first few months are otherworldly. All I remember is the dim glow from the lamp in our nursery in Chelsea. It was always night, my wife was always nursing, the world outside had completely receded, didn’t exist, was a billion miles away. We were a planet of three, and time had completely disappeared.. Eventually the seal would be broken, and our Google calendars would rush back into the vacuum. But that time? Sorry, it’s never coming back. We’ll never be on that planet again. Maybe that’s tragic, but it’s a beautiful planet, so warm and nocturnal and scented with vitamin A&D cream. So don’t miss it. Don’t let the fact that you’re the valet ruin it for you. Who cares? It’s not about you anyway.