PART TWO of how men can support the mother of their child when she has just given birth. Part One was how she feels. Today what she wants/needs/ would like from her man.
We often think of mothers as epitomising selflessness. Here’s an idea though – a good father has to go one step further and show second hand altruism (I’m not sure that’s a term – I just made it up). Not only does he put someone else’s needs ahead of his own (he puts the baby’s needs ahead of his own) but he also puts the needs of the mother of his baby ahead of his own. Why? Because taking care of her means she can take better care of his offspring. It really is quite a sacrifice. Women who have just had a baby can be quite a handful (they have every right to be but it doesn’t make it any easier to live with). They are tired, grumpy, hormonal, hyper sensitive to criticism yet critical of others and over protective.
No one really thinks about the poor old Dad much either. He’s tired too from supporting his woman in labour and being up in the night with a crying baby. He’s been kept pretty busy during his paternity leave and then has to hit the ground running when he’s back at work a few weeks later. He too is upset at being away from his baby all day and then as soon as he walks in the door he’s hit with a barrage of requests, worries and emotions. He may be the first adult his partner has spoken to all day and she has a lot of talking to do. Men often feel overwhelmed with the responsibility of providing for a family and worried about finances. In this day and age, most likely, they are not solely responsible for providing for the family, nonetheless men can be caught off guard by the sudden primal urge to protect and provide. They are still feeling cack handed as they learn how to hold and calm their baby, do baths and change nappies. They might miss having their partner’s attention and worry about their relationship. They are also often still processing the birth experience. It can be very frightening seeing your loved one in pain, and worrying if things don’t go according to plan. Men are very visual and it can be hard to let go of those images.
So, back to supporting Mum:
• Build her up – give her lots of positive feedback on what a great Mum she is and how well she is doing.
• Tell her she’s beautiful. She may think she looks like crap and you don’t fancy her anymore. This is especially important around the three month point as suddenly all the wrinkles which had been hidden by pregnancy hormones til now reappear and her hair may start falling out.
• Protect her and baby from too many visitors and too much stimulation. Don’t wrap her in cotton wool but give her the time and space to find her feet as a mother without too much else going on.
• Feed her if you have to. Babies always want a breastfeed when dinner is ready and Mums get sick of eating cold food. Be careful not to drop hot food on your baby though.
• Don’t mention anything about weight loss, or getting back in shape. The best thing you can do is support her transition to motherhood so that she has the confidence to be a happy Mum with a happy baby. When the baby starts to sleep through, she can worry about weight loss and exercise then. Most of her baby weight will drop off in the first 18 months naturally. The last couple of kilos can be more stubborn and with subsequent babies / normal ageing. If she tries to do too much too soon she’s more likely to have problems with breastfeeding, depression and sleep issues, which will affect her weight far more negatively than having been pregnant. If after 18 months she has a baby who is sleeping okay, eating okay, feels loved and accepted by her partner whether she is 5,10 or 15 kilos heavier than she was before, then she is far more likely to loose weight in her own time and own way than the woman whose self esteem has been destroyed by a critical partner and who is still up multiple times per night with no support. That’s the woman who will comfort eat and talk down to herself.
• She needs more calories when breastfeeding than at any other time in her life. If she wants cake, give the woman cake. That big fat arse is making brain food for your baby so button it. Balance it out with nutrient rich food though. Maybe make her a green smoothie to go with her cake…
• Support breastfeeding if that is what she has chosen to do. She is one who has to do the feeding so it is up to her. Sometimes women can become so upset and stressed by a difficult breastfeeding experience that it’s actually detrimental to her mental health to keep going. Don’t put pressure on her to feed, she will already put enough pressure on herself. Equally, don’t undermine her confidence with constant worries and questions about if the baby is getting enough milk. If your baby is being fed on demand, is wriggly, alert, weeing, pooing and growing out of clothes, then s/he is fine. Babies cry a lot in the afternoon and evening and they can feed up to 12 times per day as newborns. If in doubt get professional help sooner rather than later. It’s easier to prevent problems than fix them and much cheaper to pay for a little help at the begin than pay for a year's worth of formula.
• Good ways to support breastfeeding are to read up on it beforehand so that you feel more confident yourself. The human race would not have survived and thrived if women’s bodies were not capable of sustaining their babies.
• Provide practical help while she is recovering from the birth and learning to feed – running errands, bringing her drinks and pillows, changing the baby’s nappy, winding, settling to sleep, bathing, hanging washing, loading the dishwasher, taking the baby for walks to give her a break.
• I know you want to be involved and you can’t wait to feed your baby but please don’t make extra work for her by having her express so that you can feed the baby. It’s just adding in extra steps between boob and baby that cuts into her rest/sleep time. This can also stuff up breastfeeding in the early days in myriad ways. After the first few months, it’s not without risk but less likely to cause any problems or stress Mum out, so wait til then if you are really keen to feed with a bottle. If she is returning to work while breastfeeding and the baby will be having a bottle then anyway, then you will get a chance. You can help much more with preparing and feeding solid foods. Your baby will still love you just as much whether you feed him/her or not.
• Try to avoid criticising her AT ALL. This is very hard because often what you mean as a suggestion or a helpful idea she may take as a criticism. Also, tired and defensive people often can’t see what is staring them in the face and won’t always accept other people’s help or solutions. Obviously the statute of limitations does run out on this and once feeding is established and she is getting more than about 4 hours sleep a night you can stop biting your tongue so much.
• If you need to vent, try to vent to family and friends. If you need support then don’t shut her out of how you are feeling but don’t over burden her with your emotions in the first few weeks. Just let her regain her own mental equilibrium a little first.
• Don’t compete for ‘whose life is the hardest’. This is a very common thing in couples with young children. Both think that other doesn’t understand their workload, stresses and the demands that are placed on them. They probably don’t understand each other’s experience, but it is not a competition.
• Don’t panic about how different she is. Your relationship will evolve and you will both change a lot but you are still the same people underneath. She’ll come back to you if you are patient.
• Notice the things that have been done around the house, even if they seem boring and unimportant. First time Mums have usually had a career before having children and it can be hard to go from having tangible achievements each day and a clean and tidy house to living in a hovel in your pyjamas when your only achievement is to have spent 10 hours breastfeeding and changed 9 nappies. You may come home and see a grumpy wife, a crying baby, the sink full of dirty dishes, pooey nappies piled up near the back door and washing strewn all over the sofa, but take a second look…... Is there a load of washing on the line that wasn’t there earlier? Are the dishes in the sink different to the ones that were there last night? Is your baby being lovingly held while s/he cries with a clean nappy and a full tummy? Love is not something you can touch or measure, but ignoring the mess and attending to a child’s emotional needs is laying down pathways in his/her brain for the ability to form healthy relationships, cope with stress and regulate his behaviour for the rest of his life.
• If she’s really out of line, apply the following principles before giving her both barrels: make her something to eat and drink (she may not have done either for hours), take the baby while she has a shower and let her talk herself down. She may realise she is being horrible and apologise. If she doesn’t then let her know how you feel but there is not much to be gained from arguing in the first six weeks. It’s basically like arguing with a toddler and you are probably not much better yourself….
• Don’t laugh at her over protectiveness or minimise her concerns about the baby. We are meant to be protective. It is our job to keep these helpless beings alive. We are attuned to subtle differences in our babies’ cries and body language which warn of us illness. The lives of countless babies have been saved by Mums who seek a second, third, fourth opinion. Sometimes this can be a symptom of anxiety and postnatal depression but ridiculing her concerns will only make her more anxious.
• Always call to see if she needs anything from the shop on your way home from work. Always offer to bring chocolate. Give her realistic ETA’s. If you think you will be home at 6 –tell her you’ll be home at 6.30. Build in room for error.
• Call or text her during the day to check how she’s doing, but make sure she switches her phone to airplane mode when she’s napping, or waking her up will get you in more trouble.
• Be prepared that when you walk through the door she probably can’t wait for you to ‘decompress’ after work as you would have done pre-children. Maybe you like to have a leisurely poo whilst reading a book, get changed into comfy clothes, have a snack and hot drink and check your e mails and the cricket score before re-engaging with your wife. Yes, you may be better able to give her your full attention and support after, but she may have been counting down the minutes til you got home and be just about holding it together. If she is still in her PJs, hasn’t brushed her teeth and has been pacing the floor with a colicky baby and she sees you on CRICINFO, trust me, it is like a red rag to a bull. If you need that time, take it BEFORE you get home and don’t tell her. It’s okay to look after yourself. Don’t work through your lunch break so you can come home earlier. Instead, go for a walk and talk to your colleagues, read the paper, get a nice lunch. Take some time for yourself so you can be there for her when you get home. OR Go to the garage after work, get a coffee and a snack, put your seat back, check your messages and chill for ten minutes. Then go home and be the hero. Take the baby the minute you walk through the door while SHE ‘decompresses’ from her day. One day, not too far from now, there will be someone else waiting for your attention who also isn’t patient and won’t wait for you. The cry of ‘Daddy’s Home!’ is just adorable.
• Dads are often reluctant to read parenting books. This is not always a bad thing. There is so much advice out there now that many Mums become increasingly confused by reading too much conflicting advice. However, if your wife has basically done PhD level research in her (nonexistent) spare time into say – the best age to start solids or potty training, please, don’t be a dick, ignore everything she says and do it your own completely made up way! It’s rude and hurtful. If you want equal say then you need to show equal investment in being prepared to learn. As the father of the baby you have a right to your say in parenting decisions but listen to her knowledge! Did she already try that thing you are suggesting two weeks ago and find it didn’t work? Start as you mean to go on: be involved, know what’s going on with your family, be capable of caring for your baby independently, but respect that her knowledge and experience is greater than yours unless you are a stay at home Dad.
• Don’t mess with her systems. If there is a routine, it will have been tried and tested and she will be the one to wear the consequences for the next few days if you stuff it up. Yes, keeping a baby up for an extra hour will totally wreck that night’s sleep. They sleep worse if they get overtired!
• Finally, a few thoughts on postnatal depression. Sometimes we hear so much about PND that we can become paranoid that it will happen to our family. A woman’s partner is usually the first person to identify that there is a problem and I have Dads alert me to things going downhill rapidly on several occasions. Be aware of the warning signs and risk factors but also remember that often it is just extreme tiredness and bog standard baby blues talking. If in doubt, ask a professional for advice. Postnatal depression is also quite common in new fathers, so keep an eye on your own mental state too.
The use of help cards for children with SM can be controversial as some feel that it is enabling the child to continue avoiding speech. From my perspective I find them very useful in lowering the child's anxiety about things that may happen as a result of their inability to communicate their needs. E.g. not having to worry that they will wet themselves because they can't ask to go to the toilet. Cards are therefore a temporary accomodation. Here's how you use them and as a bridge to speech rather than an enabling thing:
1. For children who can't yet read well- use cards with pictures or symbols on them as well as one simple word. You need things like: toilet, hungry, thirsty, sad, wet pants, tired etc.
2. Make several sets of help cards as they will lose them. They are best off laminated and kept on a ring. You can keep a set in their drawer, in their bag, give one to the teacher, give one to each specialist subject teacher if they have them. Then they can also keep a set in their pocket or on a lanyard if they are comfortable with that. The other option for really little ones who perhaps don't have the patience to leaf through cards is a laminated board with all options on and the child can point to the need or state.
3. How will they get the teacher's attention to show the cards? They may not be brave enough to queue up to show the cards. Ask the child what they would be comfortable with. Maybe a sign or asking a friend to go with them. Hopefully the teacher is sensitive enough to notice and approach the child first. Once that becomes easy you can then continually set and reward new goals e.g. putting up your hand for help, queuing up for help.
4. Each time they take a first big step I find it easier if the parent or support person is there to nudge them along. You can rehearse in advance : 'Ok so today we are going to use your cards with Mrs Wilson. I will go with you and queue up to show her your toilet card when you need to go. Then you will get 4 stickers on your chart and a chocolate frog when I pick you up!'. Then stay and practice the new thing several times, giving a sticker for each repetition. Don't expect them to be able to practice once with you and then that's it. Continue to reward them heavily the first few times they initiate use of the cards themselves. Then 1 sticker for each use. Each time you up the difficulty level, go back to heavy rewards for the first few times.
5. As soon as the child can read well enough, make the cards more complex so that their needs are better met and they can express themselves more fully. We've included things like: 'Someone upset or hurt me' and 'I need a buddy for recess' and then each child's name in the class so they can point to the name. We also put things like 'I can't find my....' and then on the other side a list of things they might have lost. We also put more open ended things on there like 'I am worried about something' so then the teacher can try and draw out what the worry is, whether using a whisper buddy or writing it down or nodding if the teacher guesses correctly. We've also made cards for our daughter to use with her friends that say ' will you go with me to ask for help?' 'thank you' and 'please can I play with you at lunch?'
6. Whenever the child is finding the use of cards easy, make it a little bit harder e.g if the child is already verbal with the teacher when no one else is around, the teacher could take the child into a quiet corner and see if they can repeat one word that is on the card. You can use humour too. E.g. 'Saskia, I can see that you have a help card there. Let's go in the corner and see what it is. Oh, do you need to go to the toilet or do you need to tell me there is a hippo on the oval?' Saying just 'toilet' or 'yes' can then be heavily rewarded. Or even just sounding out the letter T for toilet.
7. Another way of making it harder is instead of responding to what the card says each time is to get the child to whisper what is on the card to a friend. Gradually over time the whispers get louder so the teacher can hear. I prefer not to use just a whisper buddy and no cards because if their buddy is away or they have had a falling out then they are stuck. They can also become too dependent on the buddy. With the cards they are initiating it themselves but can still use a friend for help too.
8. Make sure that the teacher doesn't spring new challenges on the child. It needs to be planned in advance. They might take a quiet moment and say: 'Nathan, you have been doing so well with using your cards all week. Do you think you would be brave enough next week if we go in the reading corner and you could sound out the first letter to me for 4 stickers on your reward chart?' If the child looks really stressed then find another challenge that they think they might be able to do. It could be something as small as sitting closer to the group on the mat instead of hiding away at the back. Or using the cards with a relief teacher.
9. Different children find different things hard. Some might find signs easier than cards, but for most children cards come first then signs, as signs are more expressive and there is also some performance anxiety about doing the sign 'wrong'.
This is an old Facebook post which was one of my most popular ever, so I'm re-running it, but some of our circumstances have changed. I'll add those in a comment at the end.
Living with anxiety is exhausting, especially for young children who are already exhausted after a day at school anyway. The nature of SM means that children rarely show their feelings during the school day, so what is bottled up tends to come tumbling out when they get home.
Dinner is always late in our house because it takes at least an hour and a half before I can even think about making dinner.
Here are a few things that have helped us to cope with the inevitable after school meltdowns. Every child is different so they may not work for your family. I keep saying 'she' and 'her' instead of 'they' because my big one is now fine and transitions smoothly between school and home. My little one also has epilepsy which affects the quality of her sleep, so for her, even though she is over the worst of the SM, I still anticipate having these problems until she (hopefully) grows out of her epilepsy.
* I've given up asking questions or making conversation in the car on the way home. My daughter prefers silence and if I talk to her before she has 'decompressed' it just causes arguments. The bad mood often then starts before we even get home!
* Even though I'm desperate to know how her day went I usually save the questions until after dinner as she seems to have recovered by then. I also ask questions in a round about way so it's not obvious that I am anxious about her anxiety!
* The first thing we do when we get in is sit down and snuggle together while she eats anything that is left in her lunch box. I usually put in more than she needs so that it is right there ready and then we don't have to wait for me to make a snack.
* Protein & fat will stabilise blood sugar and mood after school much better than carbohydrates.
* I make sure she's drunk all of her water from her water bottle and then refill.
* Going to the toilet is not optional after school. I enforce a 5 minute sit at least. Then another one after dinner. This is because SM kids often won't poo at school, some won't even wee and/or have accidents. You don't need constipation as well as everything else.
* I find that going in the bath before dinner seems to wake her up and snap her out of her funk. Mood can change instantly after a bath it seems. If she is having a meltdown where we can't even manage a cuddle & snack then it's straight into the bath and eat in the bath!
*Once she is in her PJs, depending on mood - she might play outside or read or watch TV. If I'm expecting her to do any kind of chores like unpacking her bag, putting her shoes away, putting her school uniform in the wash basket and feeding the pets, then I don't allow any TV until those are done.
* That takes us though to dinner, shortly followed by bed.
* If we are having difficult behaviour even after getting into PJs then I might encourage a quiet time in her room listening to an audio book or meditation, more snuggling with me, more snacks or just ignoring her.
* If things are really bad then I initiate a 'Code Blue' which is get ready for bed immediately upon coming home from school, scrambled egg or beans on toast for tea, a long story and wind down with Mum, then in bed by 6.30/45 pm
* The only thing that has speeded up our evening routine is I have made a laminated list of after school jobs and I expect her to do all or some of it on the days when she is not too tired. Then I can get on with dinner sooner. More often than not she is too tired to do much. I know for most kids it's pretty basic to at least unpack your school bag but I don't worry too much if she doesn't do it, as long as she knows how to be independent on the good days.
* Young kids with SM will probably be too anxious to be picked up at the gate (kiss n drop - or whatever it's called at your school) but if Yr 1s and above are able to work up to it, if you have a drive by pick up area at your school, then oddly this has worked really well for us. My little one is not anxious about it because her big sister picks up her up from her class and walks her over to the gate. I used to find that the walk from the classroom to the car (which is quite long and busy at our school) was the time when the worst meltdowns began. The heat (or rain), the crowds, the noise, the heavy bag and the chance to push back against Mum were just too much for her. Walking to the gate is way less stressful for her and she gets to decompress in the shade with her sister & friends for 15 minutes after school. Obviously as a parent of an SM child you can't do that every day as you want to keep an open line of communication with the teacher, but I find that only going in when I have a meeting reduces my frustration too at the amount of time I spend at school ( which is a lot with mornings, meetings and facilitating her support work).
Hope that helps some people!
Update: 02 May 2017 - after school behaviour is much improved in our house, but there are still bad days, weeks and months! Completion of the after school list is gradually improving. We now have a puppy and I try whenever possible to bring him on the school run with me. Having him sitting next to her in the car definitely lowers my daughter's anxiety / overwhelm before and after school. In the winter I find that it is waking up which is more problematic than after school. During terms 2 & 3 we get up half an hour earlier and the girls have their bath then. The bath is already run and the fire is on with their school uniform laid out in front of it before I wake them up. It's a much nicer way to ease into a winter morning and seems to reduce the amount of GET READY shouting from me!
Today I’m going to use weighing up the pros and cons of babies having what are known as ‘transitional objects’ (or we might call them security blankets, blankies, or loveys) as an example of how we can over intellectualise parenting choices.
I believe that parenting is often about reaching a compromise between what we would like to do in an ideal world, and what we can realistically provide in the long term within our emotional, physical and financial constraints. It’s about weighing up what is best for the whole family and taking an overview approach rather than getting bogged down with minutiae. I’m a big believer in the concept of the ‘good-enough’ parent rather than the quest for perfection.
Transitional objects are so called because they act as an emotional bridge between the baby/child and the world, which reminds him of his mother, or makes him feel as if he has part of her with him when he is temporarily separated from her. Studies have shown (and I’m sorry I don’t have a reference for you here, I can’t find where I read it) that when exposed to stressful situations children with security blankets have lower saliva cortisol (the stress hormone) levels than those without.
Some children select a blankie themselves without encouragement, some children never attach to a blankie, but many will attach if you encourage them to do so. All you need to do is place the blanket in their hand whenever you are breast or bottle feeding them, whenever you are having snuggles or story, whenever they are tired or upset and when they are old enough to do so safely, place it in their sleeping place. Blankies should be small to reduce the risk of overheating should the baby place it over his head (which they seem to like to do, just to worry you!). What worked for us was having two blankies either side of the cot safety pinned under the mattress so that our babies could access a blankie whichever way they rolled and pull it up to their faces but couldn’t pull it right over their heads. The ability to form an attachment to an inanimate object begins somewhere between about 5 and 9 months.
Some people believe that children shouldn’t have blankies because it signifies an unmet need in them, that if they are securely attached to their mother and parented responsively then they would have no need to attach to anything but mother. Aletha Solter is a particular proponent of this school of thought. Aletha Solter is a psychologist who has written several influential books on parenting. Her work is very interesting and do I agree with much of what she says, but I believe in taking the best bits from each person’s philosophy and fitting it to your own life. Following any one person’s advice rigidly usually results in confusion and stress. To me, this is a prime example of the over intellectualisation of parenting. Aletha Solter is an academic so it’s her job to study this stuff, but you can literally find online parenting forums where people are passionately arguing about such trivia. It’s wonderful that people put thought into their parenting choices, but it can go too far! There are people starving in the world you know!
It’s been my experience that of the babies and toddlers I work with and know in my personal life, the ones who are attachment parented are indeed less likely to develop an attachment to an inanimate object, however they are also the children who tend to cope poorly when separated from their mother under the age of 4 or 5 (after the age of 5 they may well cope better and be more confident). I’m not holding up being able to cope well without Mum as a good thing. I think we push mothers and children into separating far too early these days and over value independence in children. However, if your child has to be away from you, wouldn’t you rather they had something that helped them cope?
It’s my personal belief that encouraging an attachment to a blankie is a positive thing, whatever your style of parenting. You might be a hard-core attachment parent, but when you start out on your parenting journey, you have no idea how things might change. Financial, relationship and health status can suddenly change. You can’t possibly guarantee that you are going to be able to be present with your child day and night until they are four or five years old. You may find yourself suddenly divorced and needing to use childcare for work when you thought you would be a stay at home mum. You may end up in hospital with an inconsolable child at home without you. If your child has a blankie that they adore, even if you plan not to be separated from them at all, at least it is there for them if they need it. Also, a current trend I see is families choosing to attachment parent when at home AND have their child in childcare several days per week. This makes the culture shock even greater for the child so a blankie may be especially beneficial for those children.
My children still adore their blankies at age 8 & 10 (only at night!) and their blankies have helped them in the transition to preschool/kindy and with stressful events like having an X-ray or a blood test. I do think if I had allowed them to co-sleep with us indefinitely that they may not have wanted a blankie. I feel a bit sad about that, as it is not a natural thing for a small child to sleep separately from his or her parents. However, I had to take an overview of the whole situation and I know that as a light sleeper and with babies who were light sleepers, we all would have got much less sleep if we had had a family bed. This is an example not letting my philosophy get in the way of adapting to my circumstances. I feel that being against babies having blankies is quite over the top. When you approach parenting from such a strong intellectual and philosophical standpoint, sometimes common sense can go out the window.
Posts coming soon....