Last week, as I was writing Part 3, Your Village, of the Help After Baby series, the notion popped into my head that I couldn’t close out the series without talking about partners and the extremely critical, yet unique role that our partners play. I tried to interject a paragraph about partners into the “Your Village” article and it just didn’t seem to fit. Our partners are more than just part of our village. They are experiencing this transition right along side us, yet also quickly taking on other roles in the home that perhaps they have not previously needed to do. There are many articles out there on how to support mom, but not many on how to support the partner. So, today’s article is all about the partners, their unique role(s) in the home of a newborn, and how parents can work together to make sure the non-birthing partner feel supported during the early stages of life with a newborn.
Let me bring in the numbers first! I recently asked my Experiences In Motherhood Survey Group the question, “Who helped you, in your home, during the first 2 weeks after your newborn arrived?” You can probably guess…61 of the 102 respondents said “my partner”! And, I suspect that even more than 61 women had support from their partner just didn’t indicate that as an answer due to my wonky way of wording the question and answers. So, mothers here in America absolutely rely on our partners, whether they are prepared and ready for that duty or not!
Partners are a unique type of in-home support
The meat and potatoes of why I wanted to write this article. Partners are different from any other person providing support to families with newborns. They are different from grandparents who come for a visit, have their own experiences/opinions, mindset, and abilities. They are different from aunts and uncles (think “Fun Uncle”) who can help but do not have to stay. They are different from hired support. They are different from everything else we’ve previously discussed in the HAB series. But how? Why? Here are a few general things to consider when thinking about how a partner’s role is different from any other support a family can receive.
- They may have witnessed the birth. And for some, this may have been traumatic. It may be the first time your partner saw you in pain. It may be the first time your partner saw a birth. It may be the first time your partner feels like a parent.
- They feel like a parent. Many partners have disclosed to me that they did not feel like a parent until the baby physically arrived. They mentally prepared, but they did emotionally feel like a parent until the first minutes, hours, days, and weeks with their new baby. This is completely normal, but deserves attention. Birthing partners had 9-ish months to emotionally prepare for being a parent, yet our partners are expected to flip a switch and overnight confront and bear the weight of the emotional side of having a newborn, plus everything else we expect of them around the home.
- They take on household responsibilities. No matter how much support to household duties the non-birthing partner provided before the newborn, that workload will increase. Some partners enjoy this added responsibility but not all look forward to taking over these tasks.
- They are unsure how to meet your needs. If you’re partner previously knew how to meet your needs, that’s probably all changed, leaving your partner feeling a bit confused and a bit discouraged. Plus add your hormones on top of that, leaving them to perhaps walk on eggshells!
- They are unsure how to meet baby’s needs. No matter if this is the first or fifth child, partners also wonder how this is all going to work. Some choose to talk about it more than others, but everyone questions it!
- They think about their job. Whether they want to or not, partners think about their job. And they feel guilty about it. But, there’s nothing wrong with thinking about work.
- They have indirectly become responsible for any other guests/family in the house. This may be challenging if your partner’s relationship with other houseguests is less-than-ideal. Your partner now has to manage the guest’s expectations, plus everything else. Also, the guest and the partner can often find themselves competing for tasks - changing diapers, helping mom, making meals, etc. Without strong communication, this can lead to the partner becoming frustrated and possibly even disengaged.
- They have needs too, similar to the mother, and those needs are critical to the stability and welfare of the family. This is not to diminish a grandparent’s need, but this is to highlight how critical some of the intangibles of parenthood are for partners as well as mothers. Partners are susceptible to postnatal depression and need attention to ensure mental wellbeing. Partners need to be cared for too, yet this is often forgotten or overshadowed by all of the other duties and tasks that fall on his/her shoulders.
Speaking of duty, let me share a quick story.
In the Army, we end all of our emails with a signature block, as do most in the civilian world. The first line of the standard Army signature block is your name, the second line is your rank and military occupational specialty, and the last line is your job title.
I remember when I was a company Executive Officer (abbreviated XO, second in-charge of a company), I participated in an email chain with the other four XOs in the Battalion. One such email chain focused on our own duty descriptions and we ended up poking fun at the “job title” portion of our signature blocks. Instead of including our job title, we wrote out all of the various functions for which we were responsible: Arms Room Officer-In-Charge (OIC), Chemical Defense OIC, Awards OIC, attendance OIC, evaluations OIC, Vehicle Maintenance OIC, Commander’s Good-Idea-Fairy executor, you get the point. The list went on and on. On almost every email we’d send to each other, someone added a new function. It felt like we were responsible for every single thing the company did or failed to do, yet we didn’t get the credit because we weren't in charge. The Commander was in charge.
Keeping this analogy in mind, let’s transition to the family. If I were to say that immediate families have a Commander and an XO, that would imply that both partners are not equal. That’s not what I’m saying at all. Both partners are equal! Absolutely! However, both partners bring different skills and qualities to the parenting table. So, for the sake of this article, I’m going to continue with the Commander/XO analogy. In fact, I’m going to go so far as to call the birthing partner the Commander and the non-birthing partner the XO. Here’s why. The birthing partner is going to call the shots for a while - she may be more physically restricted and makes the decisions on what she physically can/cannot do, she may be breastfeeding and physically/emotionally restricted. She is the one who can best answer for herself and, therefore, ends up being the deciding factor on many family decisions in the fourth trimester. For families with two non-birthing partners, evaluate this Commander/XO analogy between yourselves. Think about which role you often find yourself in and also think about your experience with newborns. Often the roles will reverse during the early stages, especially if one partner is more experienced with newborns.
The assumed roles our partner take when there’s a newborn in the house: chef, housecleaner, mother’s mother, servant, diaper-changer, psychologist, laundry manager, physical assistance provider, swaddler, burper, snack-grabber, newborn care giver, pharmacist, reproductive and digestive system assistant, photographer, masseuse, third-shift worker, vet tech (if you have pets), journalist, etc. These are roles that our partners fill on a daily basis, but fulfilling these roles with a newborn in the house adds a tinge of stress and pressure, making the tasks just a bit more challenging and tense for everyone.
Ways to help your partner feel supported
In the Commander/XO scenario, the Commander is almost always supported. Yet, who supports the XO? I pose that the Commander supports the XO!
1. Mentorship and peer support. When I was an XO and, years later, when I was a mom of a newborn, I heavily valued mentorship and peer support. As a company XO, there was a BN XO who provided guidance, answered questions, helped me solved problems, and truly wanted the best for me. As a mom with a newborn, I attended support groups hosted by postpartum doulas and I relied on my mom and mother-in-law for mom mentoring. I also really relied on my peers. I saw them almost everyday! They helped me through it. Those mentors and peers shaped my experiences as an XO and as a mother of a newborn.
This hold true for our partners too. They might need to actually leave the house and grab a beer with a friend. They might need to step out on the back deck and phone-a-friend in privacy. And the partner needs to be allowed to do this free-of-guilt. This social connection and mentorship may not look the same for each person, but our partners need some sort of social outlet in order to maintain their wellbeing and continue to care for us and the family.
Encourage your partner to nurture these relationships!
2. Everyone needs me-time. Partners included. This will absolutely mean different things for everyone. Me? Well, I love a good, trip to Wegmans. Seriously. Walking the isles with my coffee, small cart (you know, the cart with no place for a child to sit!), and my list…man does that recharge my batteries. But for others, a good game of Call Of Duty may hit the spot. And for someone else, it might be a group class at the gym, a walk around the block, or a chapter in a book. Either way, both partners need this and again, need to be allowed to execute their me-time free of guilt.
This me-time allows us to clear our heads, focus on something besides the immediate need, and reset our headspace and timing so that we’re able to be our best possible self (given the circumstances). Me-time makes us better the next time we interact or need to help out. It’s also helps put problems into perspective and helps us realize that the diaper blowout situation that made us cry for 20 minutes, well, it’s actually pretty hysterical!
3. Write lists. We are big list fans in our house. Having lists can help clear your memory of the things that need to be completed (which can reduce stress and allow you to focus on bigger problems), but it also provides that feeling of accomplishment, a feeling that is sometimes in short supply in homes with newborns! Take a look at last week’s article, HAB Part 3 - Your Village, for an example of a list of ways to help after baby. These lists are also non-vernal ways of communicating needs to each other and can be great ways of making sure both partners feel supported. Sometimes it’s easier for our partners to see a task that starts with a verb, so keep that in mind when writing your list!
4. Take it easy and have grace with each other. Back to my Army scenario again. When we change jobs, whether in the military or not, it takes some time to learn the duties, the routine, the people we will work with, etc. The Army typically says to give it 30 days of assessing before making any significant changes (with a few exceptions). But, this job of parenting a newborn is different. You have to literally jump right in and make big decisions your first day on the job! Both of you are doing that at the same time. Then, if you’re a first-time parent, you’re also essentially meeting your spouse again in a new light - as a parent. It’s like a lateral promotion at work and now there’s this strange dynamic between two people who used to work side-by-side.
So go easy on each other. Use your “mom brain” for good and forget about the little things your partner does wrong! Forgive him/her for the rest. Heck, we’re all wingin’ it, really!
5. Talk about work. Thoughts and feelings regarding work will come up, and may come up daily. Sometimes partners are excited and want to go back to work because work is a known commodity. They know their roles, they know what’s expected, they know their schedule; all of which is comforting in times of change. Others may have the exact opposite feeling and dread heading back to work. Do everyone a favor and talk about it. Talk about it every time it comes up.
6. Ask how your partner is doing. Partners are also susceptible to postpartum depression (termed Paternal Postnatal Depression or PPND for dads). In fact, 1 out of 4 to 1 out of 10 dads can experience some form of PPND. An article later in the year will discuss this further, but the point here is to truly talk to your partner and hear what s/he is saying and how s/he says it. This is a tough time for everyone.
**These next two boarder on the lines of my psychology education. Or maybe it’s just my experience oozing out. Or, more likely, it’s because of the podcast series I’m obsessed with called Hidden Brain. Hot dog, I can’t get enough of it! The latest episode was actually all about miscommunication and, in my opinion, totally relevant to how we can make sure each parter is supported during the newborn phase. If you have a chance, check out Hidden Brain, the episode titled “Alan Alda Wants Us To Have Better Conversations” wherever you listen to podcasts.
7. Communicate clearly. Use common language. Use “I” statements (I need, I want, I feel). Do not assume. Remember heavy, heavy hormones and emotions are involved during these nearly months and they get a vote. So, the more everyone communicates, the better chance there is to make sure everyone feels supported. I know this is easier said than done and communication could be a whole separate blog on its own. So, consider this just a reminder about how important clear communication is for both partners.
My partner likes to solve problems. Sometimes I catch him hardly listening to what I’m saying because he’s already decided what the solution is and he’s just “patiently” waiting for me to pause long enough so he can tell me the answer. But, sometimes, I don’t want a solution, I just want a conversation or, dare I say it, his feelings! So, before a big topic, I have started to preface the conversation - “I want your help with an answer” or “I just want you to listen to me and feel sorry for me” or “I want to know how this makes you feel.” I know, it sounds very Big Bang Theory-ish, but it’s worked for us!
I give you this story now because a lot of those early conversations are emotion-ridden. Our partners don’t like to see us upset, so they naturally want to helps us be happy. This quickly triggers problem-solving-mode instead of listening mode. So, be prepared to clearly communicate your needs - physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, and social!
8. Attempt for empathy but settle at mindfulness. This can be so hard to do with a newborn in the house. You already have so many other things to do and think about that putting yourself in your partner’s shoes seems like, not only should it be low on the list, but maybe it shouldn’t even be ON the list. Well, I think it should be. The stress and pressure we put on our partners to “handle everything else” while we recover and tend to our newborn needs to be acknowledged and respected. Partners are expected to bond with baby, help mom, be involved in taking care of baby, keep up with housework, stay sane, do laundry, and the list goes on. If both partners are able to really see each other during this time, that can do wonders for enhancing the feeling of support. See your partner’s eyes, their face. See the joy in his eyes when he gets a great swaddle. See the slouched shoulders when the latch hurts. Hear (or make) the laughter when poop literally sprays all over the place. Empathy might be a step too far right now, but do your best to be mindful of each other.
9. Say thank you every day. I’ll leave you with one easy task. Find something to genuinely thank you partner for every day. Whether it’s burping the baby (and thereby getting spit on a favorite shirt), or making a great meal, or hanging out with baby while you showered, say thank you! A simple thank you can change and lift your spirits as well as your partner’s. You have to hunt the good, believe it in your heart, then get your mind and voice right to properly deliver that “thank you.” This is good for your soul! And shoot, who doesn’t like to be appreciated, so you know it’s good for your partner!
I hope today’s article does justice to the truly unique role our partners have on the parenting journey. No matter who’s the commander and who’s the XO, I salute you all!
It’ll be a couple of weeks now until I close out the HAB series. I hope you’ve enjoyed it thus far. Thanks so much for all of the love, support, and feedback you’ve provided. Keep it coming!
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