A common theme that I see with postpartum couples in my counseling practice is mutual frustration and exhaustion. Mom is often struggling to figure out breastfeeding and baby soothing. Dad is struggling to figure out how and when to step in and support Mom. They’re both new at their co-parenting roles, and they aren’t sure how to navigate the fourth trimester as a team.
It is not surprising that new dads often feel perplexed and overwhelmed. Welcoming men into the perinatal experience is a relatively new phenomenon. Historically, men were not encouraged to be present for the birth of their child. A perfect example of this is illustrated in the historical fiction novel, The Red Tent, in which women retreated to a private tent to give birth and be cared for postpartum. Pregnancy, childbirth, and baby care were considered a woman’s domain and men were not embraced, nor educated on how to participate.
Things began to shift in the twentieth century as women entered the workforce and gender equality and feminism became mainstream ideas. Suddenly men were expected to participate more, and the vast majority of them wanted to. But they were given very little guidance on how to adapt to these new roles. Most men learned by trial and error. Some received advice from their peers, even if it was misguided advice. Fifty years later, things have not changed much. Dads and parenting partners often feel like they are figuring out things as they go.
In our work with couples, my coauthor Brian Salmon and I find that the key to postpartum ease is to prepare both mom and dad for the “fourth trimester” prior to the birth. Instead of waiting until after baby’s arrival to figure things out, Dads can get a jump on preparations during the pregnancy. Here are the five ways that we encourage fathers to figuratively fill their co-parenting toolbox during their partner’s pregnancy:
Read, research, and listen: Sure, most dads go to childbirth or Lamaze classes with their partner. We encourage partners to step it up a notch in the info-gathering department. Sign up for the “how big is your baby” notifications or emails. Choose different childbirth topics and research them thoroughly. Read up on baby soothing and breastfeeding. Talk to other new dads about what they have learned along the way. We are most certainly biased, but Brian and I recommend that dads read our new book, The Birth Guy’s Go-to Guide for New Dads. We go beyond trite warnings about sleep deprivation and delve in to the mechanics of breastfeeding and postpartum recovery.
Cater to the individual, not to clichés or societal norms: Every pregnancy is different, every baby is different, and every new mom is different. Brian and I encourage dads to tune into their partner and look to them for cues on how to be supportive. So many partners that I work with aren’t sure exactly how to help mom, so they quietly sit on the sidelines through much of the fourth trimester. I coach dads on how to ask detailed questions about how Mom is feeling and what support she is specifically needing. This can begin during the pregnancy and continue well into the postpartum period. Begin a practice of taking a few minutes every day to have a team meeting and evaluate how Mom is feeling and where she can use more support.
Gather a supportive village: As fathers were welcomed into the birth and postpartum experience, the mother’s “village” was gently ushered out. For centuries, a new mother was cared for by her own mother or by a group of nurturing women. She was expected to “lie in” for several weeks or months and get to know her newborn baby. Breastfeeding was a community effort—new mothers were given guidance, support, and even milk from other nursing mothers. This community support has lessened as fathers have become more involved. In addition, couples often live a distance from extended family. The result is an unprecedented pressure on Dad to be a birth coach, postpartum helper, parenting partner, and breastfeeding cheerleader. It doesn’t have to all fall on Dad’s shoulders. Brian and I encourage dads to work with Mom to begin building a village early during the pregnancy. This support team can include a birth doula, a postpartum doula, and/or a breastfeeding professional. Make a list of friends or family members who might be helpful after the birth, and be very specific when asking for postpartum support.
Keep in mind that perinatal mental health is not just a woman’s issue: Although postpartum depression is usually associated with mothers, research from the National Institute of Health (NIH) indicates that anywhere from four to twenty-five percent of new fathers experience mood disorders following the birth of their child. I see this quite frequently in my counseling practice. Just like new moms, dads also experience sleep deprivation and feelings of overwhelm. If the birth was traumatic, Dad might still be reeling from the experience. Finally, if Dad has a history of depression or anxiety or if Mom is experiencing any perinatal mood and anxiety disorders (PMAD), Dad is more likely to struggle emotionally. I encourage Dads to monitor their own emotional health during the pregnancy and after the birth. Seeking out support from a mental health professional is a key component for both Mom and Dad’s postpartum recovery.
Care for yourself so that you can care for Mom and baby: Self-care is a topic that comes up in every counseling session that I have with new mothers. I also make a point of encouraging dads to think about how they are nurturing themselves throughout the pregnancy and postpartum period. Movement, nourishing food, support from peers, restful sleep—the more that dads can take care of themselves, the more bandwidth they will have for Mom and baby. Social media would have us believe that new parents should snap back to full speed within days after the birth. This simply isn’t the case for most couples. I tell new dads and moms to move slowly and be gentle with themselves so that they can savor the fourth trimester and truly enjoy their new baby.
Kirsten Brunner, MA, LPC, is a perinatal mental health and relationship expert with over twenty years of clinical experience. She is cofounder of the website and workshop series, Baby Proofed Parents, and coauthor of the recently released book, The Birth Guy’s Go-To Guide for New Dads.