The New Father: Forget About the Plan
We’re very excited to hear from Dr. Pat Owen, functional nutrition and ancestral health specialist. He’s an academic with clinical experience in health promotion, fitness and nutrition. He shares with us a father’s point of view about juggling career and family.
The 4 Rules of Planning
1. Make the plan.
2. Execute the plan.
3. Expect the plan to go off the rails.
4. Throw away the plan.
If the 4 rules of planning are closely followed, then I can assure you that everything is going exactly according to plan. My daughter Charlie Echo Owen - she stuck to the plan and was born exactly on her due date. As I write this, she turns 10 months old. She’s a social, happy, perpetually smiling baby that loves hugging strangers and being outdoors.
As a new father, I’m discovering that children are unpredictable beings with many needs. If parenthood could have been predicted, I could’ve prepared for it, trained for it, planned for it. Instead, I’ve stepped into the unknown. At best, parenthood is an exercise in constant distraction and – this could be a gender thing - I’m terrible at multitasking. If there’s balance to be found between growing my business, staying fit, staying social, and being an involved dad, then I’ll be sticking to the 4 rules of planning until I find it.
The original plan was to become a professional academic and international researcher. I obtained a PhD in Nutrition from McGill University and conducted field studies in Tibet, India, Papua New Guinea, and Northern Canada. I spent so much of my life in school and in the field that by the time I left, I wasn’t in any hurry to get married or have kids.
I met my wife Cindy through a mutual friend shortly before my job at the Cree Health Board required that I move up north to James Bay. I declined and opted to stay in Montreal to focus on my relationship and to start my own business. I’m now a functional health practitioner who uses an evolutionary model of nutrition, sleep, stress management and exercise.
As an academic, I tend to research the hell out something before writing about it. When Le Mat Bar asked me to write an article from a father’s point of view in finding balance between career and parenting, I discovered an incredible body of science that has profoundly affected the way I think about the human experience and how we are all deeply interconnected. In my practice, I treat metabolic disorders as misalignments between genetics and environment. To achieve optimal health, you need to eat, move, play and sleep according to the way your body was designed. Parenting is exactly the same: there’s an evolutionary blueprint that can be easily upset by our modern way of life. In the course of my research, I’ve started applying some of this newfound information to my life and the way I’m raising Charlie. I hope that this same information can be useful to you as well.
I’m passionate about this topic and can talk about it for hours. I invite you to visit my website for information on health and nutrition. I’ll keep it brief: When it comes to nutrition, babies require tons of nutrients for brain growth. Iron requirements skyrocket because of the baby’s growing body and blood volume, so the best source of available iron is from meat and seafood. Fat, especially omega-3 fat is also crucial for brain development.
Make your own meals instead of buying commercial baby food. Meal prepping saves money and gives you full control over the ingredients. Commercial baby foods tend to dilute fruits and vegetables with too much water and often add starchy fillers and sugars..
The benefits of going outside are indisputable for healthy child development and I make sure to take Charlie outside every day, even when it’s cold. Children who spend more time outdoors are less likely to develop myopia (near-sightedness) irrespective of whether their parents are myopic. Sunlight exposure and vitamin D reduces the risk of developing eczema and food allergies and most importantly, natural outdoor play promotes cognitive, physical, social and emotional well-being, offering the necessary conditions for children to thrive and learn.
Last summer, Charlie and I spent a lot of time relaxing in the backyard hammock or pulling dandelions from the lawn. Wintertime is a bit more challenging since babies don’t have the ability to self-regulate their body temperatures like adults. They’re unable to shiver, so I always need to be on the lookout for other cues that Charlie may be cold. Cold hands, feet and torso are sure signs but difficult to monitor when you’re in the middle of a hike or jog. Fussiness for seemingly no reason is the best indicator that she’s starting to get too cold. If a baby becomes still or lethargic, it’s a dangerous sign of hypothermia. So we invested in a high quality snowsuit to keep her toasty because there was no way we would spend winter cooped up indoors.
Roughhousing – Men and women play differently with babies and most women will say men are too wild. That’s why I roughhouse (safely!) with Charlie while Cindy is asleep. I’ll lift her high into the air, bounce her on my knee, tickle her and chase her. She absolutely loves it and shrieks with joy. There are several benefits to roughhousing, including better moral development, likability, emotional intelligence, and physical fitness. But honestly, I do it because we both have tons of fun.
The Career Dilemma
As an entrepreneur, I’m lucky to be able to make my own schedule. I’m thankful to be able to spend most of my mornings with Charlie and let my wife sleep in. However there’s no doubt that having a baby has slowed my entrepreneurial efforts.
Cindy and I need to spend a lot of time on our laptops, phone and social media as part of our work and this creates a dilemma when it comes to raising a child. Multitasking causes us to pay shallow attention to Charlie, meaning that she doesn’t get our full, deep attention. She simply becomes blended with the noise.
Today, everyone is aware of why it’s a problem to use computers, phones and TVs as babysitters. We know it impacts sleep, that it’s a factor in childhood obesity, and that it is associated with delayed language development in babies and delayed social skills development in children and teens. The root of the problem is us, the parents. If Charlie sees us spending a lot of our time in front of screens, it becomes a classic case of “do as I say, not as I do” when it’ll come time to set limits to her own screen time. According to the U.S. Board of Labor Statistics, the average American parent spends less than 2 hour a day in child-related activity, with mothers characteristically spending more time than fathers. I find this unacceptable. Whether we like it or not, parents today have the highest form of responsibility because kids learn by having role models in their lives. As parents, we have a choice: shut out other things and focus on our kid, or multitask and compromise them.
One strategy that Cindy and I use when we’re both at home is to tag team our parenting duties. In intervals of 2 hours, we alternate between active parenting and work. Still, I find it difficult to avoid looking at my phone for an entire 2 hours. I can understand why tech addict expert Dr. Nicholas Kardas once stated “I’ve worked with hundreds of heroin addicts and crystal meth addicts, and what I can say is that it’s easier to treat a heroine addict than a true screen addict.”
My New Biology
My earnest attempts at balancing parenthood and career have awakened something new in how I perceive my world and my role in it. I can easily become frustrated that I have less time to work on my business, less time to workout, less time to read books or watch TV. But I have a new source of inspiration and motivation to be a role model. It’s important for me to be an involved father, knowing full well this means a slowdown in other aspects of my life. Sure, there are times when I panic about the growth of my business or unforeseen expenses, but I’ll compensate with spurts of productivity or late nights working.
My new mindset can be attributed to the fact that I have a new biological blueprint. The act of parenting has changed me physiologically, hormonally, and neurologically. Oxytocin, the hormone involved in labour, contractions, breast milk production and bonding, also increases in fathers. Recent studies show that surprisingly, fathers have similar baseline oxytocin levels as mothers, even in the early weeks of breastfeeding. The increase in oxytocin occurs via different pathways. In fathers, it happens during actual parenting and not pregnancy and childbirth. The affects of oxytocin manifest differently during parenting. Mothers’ oxytocin is linked to maternal affectionate contact, mutual gazing and talking in “Motherese” while fathers’ oxytocin is linked to roughhousing, joint exploration, and stimulatory contact.
Apparently, my oxytocin levels affect everyone else’s oxytocin levels in the family. Research shows that when fathers are under the influence of oxytocin, the infant’s oxytocin levels become significantly higher and this increases their social orientation and social behaviour. And when dad’s oxytocin levels are high, they can raise oxytocin levels in moms’ as well, which can have important implications for mothers who experience post-partum depression.
This ability to affect the physiology of others is called limbic resonance, meaning that humans are an open loop system, constantly transmitting and receiving signals that affect hormones, relaxation and stress responses, and immune system functioning. From an evolutionary standpoint, bonding with others offered a survival advantage over fending for one’s self. Interacting and bonding with others is necessary for full emotional and physical well-being. This is why we, as adults, become depressed and anxious without limbic resonance in our lives. As newborns, we may die without it.
Another parenting hormone that increases in mothers and fathers is prolactin. Its main function is to produce breast milk, but it also messes up fat metabolism, causing difficulties for some moms and dads to lose weight after having a baby. Worse, it decreases the parents’ libidos. It’s nature’s sneaky way of taking us off the playing field by making us fat and undersexed and keeping us at home to raise a child.
My new brain, transformed by oxytocin and prolactin, is a brain meant for parenting, not for running a business. Add in a sprinkle of cortisol from stress and inconsistent sleep, and you have a hormonal cocktail that essentially pushes my testosterone levels down. Considering that testosterone is associated with an entrepreneurial drive, it’s not surprising that I’m unable to find an effective family/work balance. I have to let nature take the wheel on this and accept the fate of my plummeting T. On average, testosterone drops by up to 34% after men have children and it probably never bounces back to pre-baby levels. This would be something to worry about if I wasn’t a dad, but since it was pushed down by the parenting hormone prolactin, the results are actually pretty beneficial.
Researchers found that new fathers who had larger declines in testosterone have reported being more engaged with their infants and more supportive of their spouses. Also, possibly through limbic resonance, a father’s low testosterone affects women by lessening their symptoms of depression 9 to 15 months after birth. Conversely, high testosterone levels in men increased the risk of experiencing stress from parenting and associated with a higher risk of men showing emotional, verbal or physical aggression towards their partners.
The Pursuit of Happiness
Parenthood can be a huge blow to your way of life. If we accept that we’re not physiologically the same person, then how can we expect to return to business as usual when we go back to work? If you own your own business, then you have a certain degree of flexibility in your involvement and direction. But the same can’t be said for employees and contractual workers.
A study from Germany showed that a new baby in a person’s life is devastatingly bad – worse than divorce, worse than unemployment, and worse than the death of a partner. The effect is stronger in parents who are older than 30 and with higher education (my wife and I fall into these categories!). It may explain why fertility rates are so low in developed countries and why so many parents stop having children after their first one. According to the study, health was a major factor. Mothers often felt that physical pain and nausea conflicted with their desire to work and fathers expressed concerns about their partner’s medical issues. Exhaustion due to trouble breast-feeding, sleep deprivation, depression, domestic isolation and relationship breakdown are even bigger factors that can negatively affect your happiness. How can you expect your career path to continue as it did before if your happiness levels have plummeted?
My Advice to New Parents
My advice to parents returning to work is to accept that things are different because fundamentally, you are different. For better or for worse, nature has transformed you into a caretaker. Nature doesn’t care about your employment, your career path or your entrepreneurial ventures. It doesn’t care about your efforts to lose weight. It doesn’t care about your sex life, your social life, or your party life. It only cares about your ability to raise a healthy, social, intelligent human baby. Once you deal with that reality, you can start finding strategies to improve and maintain your own health, business and relationships.
Do Whatever it Takes to Sleep – There’s no way to avoid it: the first few months are devastating on your sleep. I was able to take naps here and there, but the best way to handle it was to share the burden with my partner: I take the early mornings and Cindy takes the late nights.
When it came to sleep training, Brigitte Langevin’s Le Sommeil du Nourrisson provided miraculous results. By 4 months of age, Charlie was sleeping ten solid hours.
If you had sleep problems in the past, then you’ll need to prioritize it now. A critical bio-hack to improve sleep is blocking out blue light after sundown. Try using nightshift on your smartphone and you’ll notice that your screen turns orange – the complimentary colour of blue. It’s exactly the same reason why we see the sunrise and sunset as orange. Blue is a short wavelength that is easily scattered in Earth’s atmosphere, which is why we see a blue sky. When the sun rises higher into the sky, blue is able to penetrate the atmosphere and we perceive a white sun. This exposure to blue light is the main evolutionary force that tells us to get out of bed and start the day. Its gradual disappearance during sunset tells our brains that it’s time to get ready for bed. But these signals get lost when we expose ourselves to artificial lights from indoor lighting and electronic devices. This fools the brain into thinking that the sun is still up and that we need to stay awake, leading to chronic sleep disturbances.
Make sure to automatically enable Nightshift on your phone and tablet and download Flux from www.justgetflux.com on your laptop and smart TV. Better yet, get yourself a pair of blue-light blocking glasses to wear around the house past sunset. They’ve been proven to improve sleep, increase energy, ameliorate mood and reduce anxiety.
Figure Out How to Reduce Stress – Without restful sleep, your cortisol levels will be higher than usual and you won’t be able to handle everyday stresses like you used to. I tried a few tricks to keep my cortisol levels low - some worked and some didn’t. Try a few and see what works for you.
1. Meditation. The research is pretty solid on this but I had a hard time sticking to it.
2. Cold showers – By introducing an acute stress, it re-sensitizes the stress circuit pathway, reducing chronic stress. I highly recommend this. The benefits are incredible and I have a hard time starting the day without one.
3. Exercise – Careful here. If you’re consistently not sleeping well, intense exercise might worsen things. Reduce the intensity and frequency of your workouts but make sure to stay active. Try to train in the morning when your cortisol levels are already naturally high. You need to accept that this isn’t the best time to start a body transformation program.
4. Supplements – I recommend magnesium to all my clients - it’s a mild sedative that you can take before bedtime. It’s completely safe to take during pregnancy and breastfeeding. If you’re willing to try herbal extracts, I recommend Rhodiola, Ashwagandha, or Relora. I wouldn’t recommend them during pregnancy simply because there hasn’t been enough research done, however they seem to be fine to take during breastfeeding. Just make sure you follow the recommended dosages.
Get Some Social Support – The support of your partner is crucial during these challenging times but they can’t equate the support of friends, especially for women. Women and men respond to stress very differently. Men tend to respond to stress by fighting back, escaping, or bottling up our emotions (yup, guilty). But women are hardwired to seek out friendships with other women (tend and befriend). I’m thankful that Cindy has a core group of girlfriends that she chats with everyday to give her that much needed support.
Everything is Going According to Plan
I’m falling way behind on work, business has stagnated, I feel exhausted, I’m way more forgetful, I’m not as fit as I’d like to be, and I’d like to spend more time with my wife. If I’m ever going to find balance, it won’t be between career and parenting. It will be between my plan and nature’s plan. I can put more focus and energy into my career, but what consequences will that have on my relationship with Charlie? I must concede to nature’s plan and frame any strategy to improve my health, my business, and my social life according to its rules. In so doing, nature will reward me with the best things that define the human experience: love, happiness, courage, gratitude, and the honour of being a father.