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.