by John Hoffman
As I continue to wind down to the end of my blogging days for Dad Central Ontario, I revisit another one of the constant themes of my writing for fathers over the years. That’s the importance of dads sharing, tuning into, and supporting their partner’s experience in the early weeks of motherhood.
Obviously I hope all parenting partners, including people in same-sex couples, support each other as much as possible at all times. But there is something unique about the support that mothers need after a baby is born. And in today’s world, in contemporary Western cultures at least, fathers need to step up.
In the past, the care and feeding of new moms was done almost exclusively by women: grandmothers, sisters, friends and neighbours. And women still do a lot of it. But women are less available now because so many of them have full-time jobs and because families tend to live further apart from each other. So we need fathers to “lean in” to ensure new moms are supported and taken care of.
Here are five things dads can do.
Take paternity leave
How much time you can take off around the birth of a baby will depend on the type of work you do and how enlightened your employer is. But take as much time as you can. Sure, mothers can cope on their own when they need to. But new moms are vulnerable. They need people around them, helping and supporting them, particularly in the early days.
Do the grunt work (cooking, cleaning etc.)
Show initiative. Don’t wait for her to tell you what to do. Tune in to what’s going on so you can learn to see what needs to be done, and do it without being asked or told. However, this can be tricky because it usually involves a man treading into his partner’s territory. There’s no perfect science to this. It’s more a question of balance. When a father shows too little initiative and waits around to be asked to do things, it can be frustrating and energy draining for mothers. However, when he takes the initiative and does things, he may get “corrected” sometimes. Frankly, as my wife once said, “She doesn’t want to have to tell you what to do and when. She wants you to guess. And she wants you to guess right!”
So, like I said, it’s tricky. The best you can do is take initiative, learn from your mistakes, and talk about it with your partner.
Try to up your emotional support game
Pay attention to the experience she’s having and try to understand it. Her experience is not the same as yours. As much as new fatherhood can be overwhelming for men, new motherhood is even more overwhelming and more emotionally taxing. Don’t underestimate her need for support, even if she seems to be so on top of things that you are in awe of her mothering skills.
And when she’s upset, don’t over rely on words. Supportive words can be helpful, but they can also backfire with stressed out, emotionally fragile people. Sometimes what your partner needs more than anything else is your steady, reassuring companionship and interest. (More about this in point #4)
Accept that you won’t always do things right and that you can’t fix everything that goes wrong
Unless you’re some kind of new dad Superman, I don’t think there is any way you can get involved in the care of a new mom and always do things exactly the way she’d like you to. Your partner might get frustrated at times. And that’s OK. Neither of you are doing anything wrong. You’re being a new dad and she’s being a new mom. Emotional ups and downs—including some that seem unreasonable to guys at times—are normal. Don’t take it personally.
And remember, you can’t fix everything. We men often approach emotional crises by trying to fix the practical problem that we see as the cause of the negative emotion. We’re like, “I did the laundry, cooked dinner and picked up the mess. Why are you still sad? ” New moms don’t need a “valid” reason to be upset. And sometimes what they need most is not for us to scurry around trying to fix everything. As my wife once said to me, “I just need you to be nice to me while I cry.”
Ask people to help and support you.
Yes, dads have an important role to play in supporting new moms. But that doesn’t mean you can do it all yourself. Traditionally, new moms were supported by groups of women, not just one person. Once we found some old letters my wife’s grandparents had kept. Some of them included lists of people who came to help in the days after the birth of a baby. It was impressive. There was the mother, sister or aunt who came to stay for a month. The neighbours who brought meals. The girl next door who came every day to clean. It takes a village…
So it’s a pretty tall order for men, with much less of a socially embedded history of supporting new mothers, to take on this work all by themselves. It’s only natural that these fathers need support too. So ask your sister, your mother-in-law, your mother, your partner’s best friends. Hire a doula if you can afford it. They can help you be the great support your partner needs at this really big moment in her life and motherhood.
And if you get it right—well, let’s say half right—your partner will remember what you did for her for a long time. And your kids will be better off too. Supported moms are good moms.