I want to talk about how men can best support their wives/partners when there is a new baby in the house. My job is to support women so maybe this is quite one sided and all about their feelings rather than yours, but I too am a woman and know how it feels from that side of the equation! Today I will cover what your wife / partner wants you to know about how she feels when she has just given birth and next time I will cover what you can DO to support her.
She feels vulnerable. I cannot think of any other time in my life when I felt more vulnerable than when I had just given birth to my first baby. Due to a baby who engaged very deeply, very early, I had been having mild contractions for 10 weeks before my baby was born. I had not slept properly for months, follow that up with 17 hours of labour and almost two hours of pushing and I felt like I had been dragged through a hedge backwards and then hit by a truck. I couldn’t even put my own knickers on! Having been a midwife I was much better prepared in terms of skills and expectations but nothing prepares you for the physical fatigue afterwards. A woman who has just given birth is vulnerable on every level – physically, emotionally, hormonally, intellectually, sexually – everything.
Let’s break it down:
1. Whether it was a vaginal or C- section birth, either way she is sore somewhere or other, she feels like her insides are about to fall out, her boobs have taken on a life of their own and as her vagina squeaks as she walks she is wondering ‘Will I ever be able to have sex again?’ – don’t worry guys and girls, the squeaking will stop and you will have sex again (eventually) and unless something disastrous has happened down there, generally it really won’t be much different to before (eventually, though opportunity and fatigue may be an issue!). She may not even be aware of it on a conscious level, but she is dependent on you as her mate to protect her and your baby because right now she is not physically as strong as normal. Women now are taught to be strong and independent and it can be very hard to realise that we are not quite as strong as we thought we were and to have to rely on someone else for a while.
2. The physical fatigue and soreness makes it hard to do things to begin with – even small trips like a short walk with the baby may be far too much or standing at the sink washing up. She needs practical help.
3. The responsibility for this new life overwhelms her as it does you, but she has the added influence of a more potent cocktail of hormones that are coursing through her body. I know you don’t know what PMT feels like, but take how you feel on a bad day when something has upset you and made you angry at the same time, then add feeling teary and times by about three and that’s probably PMT. Oh I forgot, add in a bit of paranoia and a persecution complex plus the conviction that you are right and not at all illogical. You’ve probably been on the receiving end of this before. Well, the three-day baby blues are like PMT only much worse! They might last a few hours, days or weeks.
4. Whether she’s feeling overwhelmed with an all consuming love and protectiveness for your baby or scared that she doesn’t feel like that just yet – the emotions are huge.
5. She’s replaying the birth over and over in her mind, she needs time to process it – good or bad experience, it still needs to be processed. Giving birth is a watershed for women.
6. She’s getting to know a whole new person who can’t communicate their needs other than by crying/vocalising and body movements, she’s highly attuned to her baby and may seem to be disinterested in everything else. She will come back to the world, but right now this is what needs to happen.
7. She’s scared, anxious, hyper vigilant and hypersensitive. She’s asking herself all sorts of questions and has all sorts of worries: ‘Will I be a good enough Mum?’ “If I fall really deeply asleep, will I wake up if the baby cries?’ ‘Is that rash really just newborn rash?’ ‘He was quite blue when he was born, I hope he wasn’t starved of oxygen….’ ‘I wonder if he’s too cold, but they said not to overheat them because of cot death risk….’ ‘ I hope she’s getting enough milk’ ‘My mother in law thinks I am too overprotective’ ‘ I wonder when he said I should go and have a nap he thought I’m not coping’ ‘ There is so much suffering in the world, I can’t bear that there are babies starving right now’ ‘ What if someone broke in and stole the baby while I was in the shower?’ …….These might sound like extreme examples and if someone was thinking these intrusive thoughts all the time then that could be a warning sign of anxiety and postnatal depression, however in the first few days and weeks there is a massive shift which takes place in a mother’s psyche. It’s almost normal to be abnormal for a short period of time. Our bodies have not yet evolved to automatically override the fight or flight instinct when we are in a safe situation. When we have just given birth we are in a primal brain state and are alert for potential dangers to our offspring like a cavewoman scanning her surroundings for snakes or wolves. It is a matter of survival of the species. There are no snakes or wolves in our homes so our minds run riot over every other potential danger and we have to train ourselves to relax again and not be hyper vigilant.
8. The flip side to this anxiety and hyper vigilance can also be an extreme sense of power and energy, particularly if the birth went very well. Both states may co-exist together making the woman feel even more unstable. When labour has gone smoothly and without drugs, a woman has created her own endorphins to combat pain and she may be on a huge high for days afterwards which can make it hard to sleep and cause her to crash badly into exhaustion a few days later. When you’ve given birth you sometimes marvel at the strength of your mind and body and what it was able to do. You almost feel a bit invincible.
9. The flood of oxytocin and other hormones also brings out MUMMA BEAR. Again, this is natural and ensures survival of the species. Men often ridicule their women for being over protective and feel offended that they aren’t trusted to ‘do things right’. If that persists into later parenthood then it can cause problems within the relationship but it may be best to take it with a pinch of salt in the first few weeks. Even if it’s inappropriately and unfairly directed at the father of the baby for forgetting to put socks on or cutting into baby’s skin with a nappy on too tight (we’re all learning here!) try to remember that accessing her inner rage actually in a weird way helps her bond with her baby. It is this inner rage, power and love that has given women the super human strength to walk for days carrying their children to escape a war zone, fight off an attacker or a wild animal or run into a burning building to search for their child. Within our society it’s more likely she will need to access that part of herself to ask for a second opinion from a doctor, stand up to her in laws when they question her parenting choices or advocate for her child with special needs within the school system but nonetheless it is there and can be tapped into when required.
10. She can’t sleep because of all of the above and every day feels like she has just been on a long haul flight with the jetlag from hell.
11. She probably loves you more than ever. You are now the father of her child, which binds her to you for life more than any marriage vows, promise of commitment or mortgage. She may be horrible to you because she is so tired and not have the time to spend with you or show her appreciation but if you are kind to her now and unselfish in your actions at her most vulnerable time, she will remember that for the rest of your lives together.