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The new dad learning curve

By Kelly Wallace, CNN
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Thu August 22, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Dads from across the country talk about their first days of parenting
  • Modern dads like Prince William are more involved in parenting than ever
  • One of the biggest fears, dads say, is knowing how to handle a baby
  • Fathers take issue with the bumbling and clueless dad stereotype

Editor's note: Kelly Wallace is CNN's digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. She's a mom of two girls and lives in Manhattan. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter.

(CNN) -- How has life changed for new dad Marc Lesser? Well, for one, he hasn't slept more than two to three consecutive hours since his son, Sam, arrived a month ago. Lesser gets up with his wife for overnight feedings.

"I'm the baby passer," he told me during an interview when he could have been sleeping instead.

When the baby wakes up, Lesser passes him from the crib to his wife, Pauline, then takes a cat-nap before burping and rocking the baby to sleep when feeding time is over.

OK, moms, how many of you are jealous right now?

"I don't want to make myself sound better than I am because there are certain feedings that after I pass him off, I pass out," he joked.

Fatherhood has clearly changed from when I grew up and dads were about as likely to wake during the night as they were to actually give birth. As even Prince William demonstrated in a recent interview with CNN, his first since the birth of his son George, modern dads are more and more involved and wouldn't have it any other way.

CNN's Max Foster: Tired, elated Prince William could be any new dad

But there's a huge learning curve for first-time dads, which can make them feel clueless even as they jump up to help with the diaper changes and bottle feedings. I asked dads to share what surprised, delighted and woke them up in a cold sweat during their first days of parenting.

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The fears

In conversations with fathers across the country, a common fear -- during those earliest days -- emerged: How exactly do you handle a newborn?

Mike Little, a father of identical twin boys in Birmingham, Michigan, said he had never changed a diaper before his kids were born. "I just thought I don't know if I am going to be any good at this," he said in between yawns. (His kids are just 6 months old!)

"It comes to you pretty quick. I was changing diapers with no problem," he said.

Lesser, worried his son might stop breathing, did something I actually still do (even though my kids are 5 and 7!): He checked the baby's chest to make sure he was still breathing.

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Now that he's tackled that anxiety, and considers himself a "master swaddler," he can focus on what he calls his "future fears." The founder of a video production company called Lucky Tiger Productions (we worked together previously during my time at iVillage.com), Lesser said the pressure of providing for a new family can be overwhelming and lead to lots of questions.

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"Like will I remain gainfully employed and take care of this family?" he said with a laugh. "And then the other, I guess, is just I hope I don't pass on all my neuroses."

Some new fathers are a bit more freewheeling.

Peter Shankman, a successful New York entrepreneur and proud father of 13-week-old Jessa, recently spent five days alone with his daughter while his wife was overseas for work.

"I was thrilled to tell her ... that the kid has all her fingers, all her toes," he said, describing his phone conversation with his wife. "She's been in a new outfit every day."

Shankman said he wasn't worried at all about going solo, and bases his confidence on the logic that kids have been surviving for years without their parents' sterilizing bottles and everything else.

"You don't have to Purell your life away," he joked.

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Go-to gadgets for dads

To keep tabs on their little ones, some of the dads I talked with have come up with some, let's say, unusual approaches.

Shankman reached out to friends in the security industry, and installed a device on his daughter's crib, which sends an alert to his phone when there is any motion above the height of the crib.

"There is something to be said for having a dad who is a complete geek," he joked.

Lesser is resorting to some more traditional devices, calling the "pee-pee teepee," which covers the boy's penis during diaper changes, his "savior."

"I've learned the hard way because definitely at 5 o'clock in the morning, there'd be a couple of times where I forget to put it on and the next thing I know I feel something warm on my shirt," he said.

Modern fathers face new expectations

Work-life balance

While we often talk about the "work-life balance" issue as mainly a working mom phenomenon, the dads I spoke with made it clear it's very much a working father issue as well.

Cody Mathers of Houston, Minnesota, whose little girl Willow is about to be 3 months old, said the biggest stressor of being a dad is "finding that way to balance career and fatherhood."

Certain times of the year, he said, his job as an operations manager for a company providing online curriculums to schools requires a 70+ hour workweek.

"Traditionally, the father is the provider, but also now, you couple that with the additional societal expectation that they're more involved in the child-rearing, so what's going to give?" he wondered.

Photos: Bored dads at One Direction concert

Dads: Forgotten piece of the puzzle?

Every father I spoke with said he did more of the child care -- and the housework -- than his dad and his grandfather did.

"My dad never changed my diaper, I don't think, and never really did much of the housework to help Mom out," said Mathers. "I'm doing those things ... and I don't think I'm unusual in that respect, either."

Lesser said that when older family friends come to visit, he thinks they're probably a bit surprised. "Because I am the one changing the diapers and burping the baby and I know it's totally different for them," he said. "It's evolution in a very good way."

With everything dads are doing now, I wondered if we give them enough credit -- we being society in general, moms, media, etc.

No more dumb old dad: Changing the bumbling dad stereotype

Shankman said he gets frustrated at the portrayal of dads as clueless and uninvolved. He said he once received what he called a "dad-proof onesie" complete with instructions on the clothing for where the arms and feet go. "Are you freakin' kidding me?" he said.

Little said people often focus on how the baby is doing and how the mom is, and said while that makes sense physically, the emotional effects of parenthood on dads might get overlooked.

"I had a friend of mine who told me when these babies are born, no one is going to ask you how you're doing, so I'm going to make sure that I do," he said as he fought another yawn. "And he's right, because I do think that happens a bit."

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How life has changed

In his interview with CNN, Prince William said a lot of things affect him differently now that he's a dad, and all the fathers I spoke with could completely relate.

"The babies have given me sort of a sense there is something bigger than work," said Little, who works long hours as an attorney in a big law firm. "When I come home and I'm stressed and you see those two and you see the faces, you realize that it's just work, so I do think it changes everything."

It changes everything, indeed, including how little time you now have for each other, said Mathers. He and his wife used to enjoy a date night every Friday but that went away when Willow was born.

"That's an adjustment, but the reward is better," he said.

Follow Kelly Wallace on Twitter and like CNN Living on Facebook.

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