Becoming a dad is a life changing experience, but one of the hardest parts of this change is to know how to best support your partner. There is no doubt that for new mothers out there, it is a dramatic change for them to go through. Physically they have had to carry a baby and endure those body changes, they have had to give birth and endure the recovery post birth (whether it be a C-section or natural birth), and then for many they now become the primary carer looking after baby more days than not. And for the dad’s (or the non-primary caregiver), it’s trying to navigate your own experience and making sense of it all, trying to take care of this little human and then supporting your partner with the changes that they themselves are going through. This can be an overwhelming sense of responsibility, and lots of dad’s (myself included) find themselves asking how to be a supportive husband or spouse in the best way possible.
Get Your Own Thoughts Sorted
Every person and every dad is different, but in my experience working with people, one thing is clear. People are great at avoiding their own thoughts, worries and fears. And dads are really good at it. I’m really good at it! And that’s OK, because there is too much to deal with at times and so it’s healthy to avoid certain issues…for a period of time. Where it becomes a problem is when we avoid something for too long, it turns the problem or issue, into something much bigger. And if our minds are consumed with worry, and our energy is being spent avoiding our thoughts, then we aren’t going to be able to support our partner or be the best dad we can be.
So what sort of thoughts are we likely to avoid? I don’t know your specific thoughts, and your life experience will lead to different thoughts to what I had. But these are the types of thoughts I had:
- Am I going to be a good father? A broad category of thoughts fall under this one, but many soon to be dads worry about how they will be as a parent. Avoiding this thought may mean we fall into patterns that make us feel like we are bad dads.
- Am I ready for this change? Probably a big thought that many dads have, and one that I still ask myself now (almost 1 year into fatherhood). But avoiding thoughts about change and not preparing ourselves for the lifestyle change, means that when baby comes and responsibilities kick in, we now have to figure it out in the deep end.
- How can I help out my wife? Yes I wrote this post to answer this question, but it is a big question that many new dads have in their head.
Other thoughts that are likely to pop up may relate to personal worries, anxiety, financial stress, family problems or relationship concerns. Whatever your thoughts are, if we continue to avoid them they will eventually catch up and impact on how you parent and support your partner. So if you can, write down your thoughts and begin to problem solve. If you need help, talk to someone. This could be a close friend, a family member, your partner or even a Psychologist or other health professionals. There are even some great apps out there that you could use too. Pick something that is going to work for you, but whatever it is just make sure you aren’t avoiding your problems!
Start With The Practical
Most guys like practical tasks. They make sense, there’s a start and a finish, and you can see the outcome of your work. I like practical work, because it makes me feel accomplished. I don’t enjoy doing the dishes or cleaning the house, but when I do it, I can see that I have a clean house, I can see that my wife appreciates it, and so it makes me feel good. So I recommend that if you are ever stuck on how to help out, then start with the practical because it will make sense.
The practical will look different for every couple, but some surefire ideas that any partner will appreciate:
Around the House
- General cleaning. The house gets messy with a baby, and caring for a baby is a full time job. If you can help out with some cleaning, then you’ll be taking a massive pressure off your partner. Plus, a clean house will make both of you feel better.
- Cooking. OK, I didn’t do this one admittedly (I prefer to clean everything up rather than cook), but if you are able to help out with cooking and your partner is happy for you to cook, then this can go a long way.
- Unfinished tasks around the home. Still need to finish the nursery? Have some photos or shelves that you still need to put up? Get these tasks done so the house feels complete.
- Grocery shop. If you can do some groceries, this will take off a lot of pressure from your partner.
- Nappy changes. Own that shit…literally. Nappy changes aren’t glamorous, but they are a rite of passage for any dad. So own it, because that nappy change won’t only give your partner a few minutes to themselves, but you might even end up with some funny poop stories to tell.
- Bath time. After you’ve shared this experience together with your partner, take the leap to do bath time on your own with bub. You want to get your bonding opportunities up, and bath time can be a good chance for you to bond with baby, and take the pressure off your partner.
- Settling baby. This is a tough one, because generally most newborns will settle better with mum. But if you can persevere the first few times and get baby to settle with you, then it won’t take as long later on for baby to settle. And if you can get baby to settle, then your partner will appreciate being able to share the load.
- If you decide to bottle-feed baby, then take the opportunity to share this job. My wife and I took shifts in feeding when we decided to bottle-feed, and it meant we could get a good couple of hours break/sleep between feeds.
- If you can and have prepped yourself, take baby for a few hours (admittedly this would only be possible if you are using bottles to feed in the early few weeks). I remember my first time taking my daughter for half the day while my wife went out for a break. She literally cried for most of the time and needed to be rocked and held the entire time (my baby that is). It was stressful, but I felt accomplished getting through that moment and felt glad that my wife actually got in some self care time.
Listen, Then Talk
At some point, you’re going to need to talk with your partner and actually ask what they need help with. Ideally, you should do this from the very beginning, but it is honestly never too late to start. Now, the main feedback I hear from dads is that they ask their partners what they need help with, but either don’t get a clear answer, don’t get enough specific details or get told that they don’t need any additional help – and then get frustrated about the lack of help later. Most likely, these issues will probably relate to understanding your partners emotions (which we will deal with soon!), but before you start dealing with emotions, you want to start by really learning to listen. You see there’s listening, and then there is listening.
Now even as a psychologist and all my training in being able to listen to and understand what people mean, I still stuff this up. I can get so focused on what my wife is saying, that I don’t listen to what she means. And on a good day we can forget to do this, but when you have a newborn it is very easy to forget to do this! So what can we do about it? Well…
- Ask for clarification. If you’re not quite sure about what your partner really needs, just ask. Or if it’s not the right time to ask, come back to it later and ask then.
- Read her non-verbal cues, like her body language and her tone of voice. If she looks exhausted, then offer to give her a break, or if she says to you not to worry about doing something but you can see that she is run off her feet, then insist that you can do it (or help with something else if she is adamant).
- At some point in the day, ask her what she needs help with that day or for the next day. Show that you are there and wanting to help, and she will probably tell you what she needs help with. And if she doesn’t, read her non-verbal cues and pick something practical you can help with.
Emotions – Something We Have To Deal With Eventually
As I mentioned earlier, people generally like to avoid their own thoughts and feelings, particularly if they are too tricky to deal with. The same can also be said for other peoples tricky emotions. Generally, anything that makes us feel uncomfortable, most people have a tendency to avoid talking about it. But just like how we need to work on our own emotions, we also need to be there to support our partner with the emotions they are going through. This can be tricky to do, and I have at times spent a number of sessions working with people to learn how to respond to others in emotional turmoil, but this is what I try to do…
- Use my listening tricks. Focus on the meaning rather than the specific words. Focus on how they are feeling as they speak. Be present to the conversation. I don’t always do this, I get easily distracted by TV, the laptop, literally anything when I am at home, but when I make an effort to be present in what my wife is saying, she feels heard. And sometimes, that is all a person really wants.
- Learn to stop trying to solve the problem. When we are going through our emotions, most people know what the logical solution is to the problem, but their emotions get in the way. So if you are supporting your partner, put away your problem solver hat for the moment, and just ‘be with‘. ‘Being with’ is all about listening, empathising and supporting a person by just being there, and not trying to solve the problem.
- If requests are made for help or to solve a problem, then put that hat back on and solve it if possible. Sometimes it isn’t possible, so we have to put on our ‘being with‘ hat again, but if there is a practical solution that you are being asked to do, then go ahead and do it.
It’s A Shared Journey – Don’t Do It Alone
If you have a partner that you are raising your child with, then go on that journey together. You are there to support one another during one of the toughest gigs life can throw your way. Learn how to communicate with each other – everyones style is different, and if you are having trouble figuring your style out then chat with a psychologist together who can help you figure it out. But otherwise, continue to listen and communicate to each other regularly, continue to face your own emotions and your partners emotions together as a team, and continue to ‘be with’ one another in the moment, and you will find yourself being a supportive partner, and feeling supported in return.
Any advice in this post is general in nature. Please seek support from a psycholologist, counsellor or similar if you identify challenges that you need assistance with.