Lesson 1: She experiences a bigger life change than you
For most women, early mothering is an all-encompassing experience — mentally, emotionally and, of course, physically.
Most mothers have a powerful sense of the baby’s dependence. For Sarah Latilia, this was heightened because her baby, Tommi, was colicky and hard to comfort, so she felt like she could never leave him for long. “Even now I have a four-hour window where I can leave Tommi at home and do something on my own. And that’s if he hasn’t been fussy, has nursed right before I leave, and isn’t upset when I call to check in,” she explains. “I know that life has changed for Mika too. But at times it feels like everything has changed for me, but not that much has changed for him.”
Harris has noticed that it’s easier for him than Naomi to take off his “parent hat” — to think and act more or less as he did before he was a parent. “Mothers don’t seem to feel as free to take time away from the baby,” he says. “I’m always saying ‘Take the time, I can handle things,’ but Naomi feels she has this primary responsibility that she can’t neglect.”
Message for dads: You may not understand why she thinks the baby needs to be bathed right now, but go with it. She may be looking ahead to how she’s going to fit in a nap and shower before company arrives. Second, be aware that problem solving is not always what a mom needs. “When I get overwhelmed, I don’t always want suggestions,” says Marsala Philpot. “Sometimes I just want someone to tell me I’m doing a good job and why don’t I go out for dinner with my girlfriends later in the week.”
Lesson 2: Don’t underestimate her need for support
Some call the first three months after birth the “fourth trimester” of pregnancy, a period of recovery from childbirth. She’s physically uncomfortable and her hormones are working overtime. She’s also learning like mad, mastering how to care for the helpless little being you helped her create. And she’s tired — always — not just from lack of sleep, but from the sheer “overwhelmingness” of new motherhood.
In other words, new moms need to be looked after. Traditionally, this was done by female relatives, friends and neighbours. But now most women are at work, and her mother and sisters may live far away. Therefore, your support is vital. So take care of your partner, feed her, do the cleaning, do the shopping. She needs you now like never before.
In the early days of parenthood, Horne took on the task of meal prep. “I like to cook, so I decided ‘Claire’s feeding the baby; I’ll feed Claire,’” he says. “That kept Claire healthy and gave her one less thing to worry about. And it really helped me feel like I was important. I was picking up on one thing that needed to be done.”
And, lads, your partner’s need for support does not magically end at six weeks or even three months. Philpot remembers a day when Simon, now one, was about four months old. “I felt really drained and I told my husband I needed more support from him. His reply was essentially, ‘Huh? The baby is sleeping through the night now. Why do you need support?’”
Philpot now realizes that to Steve, things seemed to be going really well and, in some ways, they were, but…“the novelty of a new baby was over,” Philpot recalls. “People had stopped coming around. I was getting lonely. Now the enormity of the task was setting in, and I was exhausted. The pressure I felt was crazy.”
Message for dads: Moms sometimes try to “protect” their partners from the stresses of baby care. Let her know if you need more time and space with the baby, so you can build your own baby care skills.
Lesson 3: She doesn’t know everything, but she does know quite a bit. Learn from her.
Mothers usually learn caregiving skills more quickly than fathers and so Mom becomes the “expert” who can do baby care tasks quickly and efficiently. Dad is often in awe of this skill, and rightly so. But you don’t want to slip into a pattern where the expert does everything because that’s most efficient. Part of the solution is for you to just get in there and do it, as Horne says. But you can also use your partner’s greater experience and knowledge.
One way Horne did this was by following his wife’s systems. “Claire would set up the system, for diaper changing, say — where equipment went, what we did with the dirty diapers — and I’d follow the system.” That helped Horne see exactly what he had to do, and also helped him build his skills and confidence.
Mothers often feel caught between wanting to instruct and feeling they should let you find your own way of doing things. So if you could use some tips, speak up! Latilia understood her partner’s difficulty comforting colicky little Tommi. What frustrated her was that he would never ask her for pointers. “I think I could have helped him, but I didn’t want to jump in and sound bossy telling him what to do all the time. But he didn’t ask.”
Message for dads: You might not feel comfortable in your new role as dad at first, but wade in anyway. There’s no better teacher than hands-on experience.
This article was originally published in December 2011.