There are many sources of support that women can draw on after having a baby, including family, friends, mother’s groups and maternal nurses. The role of their partner, however, consistently rates as the most important source of strength and assistance. Often when we think of fathers helping out with a baby, we probably imagine a man (somewhat) adapt at changing diapers and bottle-feeding that will also wash the dishes and vacuum every once in a while. And yet the reality is very different from this stereotype and has a lot more nuances. Support is about much more than particular actions such as helping with feeding and cleaning, but involves certain attitudes and a particular relationship dynamic.
As part of my research at Monash University, I conducted a study of mothers’ experiences of partner support. Below are the key aspects that women identified as having been particularly helpful to them. Being a mother of two boys myself, I could easily relate to all of them and recognised many that had been incredibly supportive to me too.
1. Engage with your partner by listening and talking
The ability to be heard is psychologically beneficial. For many women, just having someone to talk to about the challenges of parenthood or even how their day has been can offer a sense that they are not alone in this journey. Also, by participating in discussions on parenting issues, fathers show that they are involved and can provide useful input. New mothers often experience a lot of uncertainty and self-doubt and an engaged partner can alleviate these feelings and take on some of the responsibility of making parental choices.
2. Be generous with compliments and praise
All of the women in my study mentioned how good it made them feel to receive compliments by their partners. It made them proud, but also reassured them that they are good parents and doing right by their children. Hearing praise by the person that is closest to you can offer a lot of encouragement during the difficult times of early parenthood and act as confirmation that all the hard work is worthwhile.
3. Give the mom a (time)break
One of the biggest challenges of motherhood, particularly in the first couple of years, is the lack of personal time. Whether it is time to sleep or rest, an opportunity to catch up with friends and have a social life, or even get some exercise – chances are, these have now become rare occurrences. Partners should offer mothers some child-free time on a regular basis. The options are endless – taking the baby for a walk so mom can get some sleep, look after the kid while she goes swimming, encourage her to go out with a friend on a Friday night while you stay home. And most helpful of all – give the baby a bath and tuck her in bed while your partner puts her feet up after a long day of work.
4. Be dependable and reliable
Knowing that you can depend on your partner for support during tough times is incredibly important and reassuring, particularly during a time when your life has been turned upside down. Having a baby is a particularly vulnerable time for most women when they often have to rely on a partner’s support much more than usual. Being a reliable father that can be counted upon to take on his fair share of responsibilities offers a sense of stability and security within the relationship.
5. Show willingness and initiative
Don’t just wait for your partner to tell you what to do and certainly don’t make her feel like she is nagging you when she asks you for help. Supportive men are willing to take on tasks on their own accord and share in the household without complaint.
6. Be flexible
Parenthood goes through various stages and what’s helpful during the early days loses its significance a few months down the track. While help in the first months may have been changing diapers and preparing bottles, later on it is much more about re-arranging your schedule to pick up the kid from childcare or cook dinner on the nights your partner has a late afternoon meeting. The bottom line is, fathers need to sense the changing stages and adapt their support accordingly.
7. Be open to negotiation
It is not realistic to expect that your partner should somehow instinctively guess everything you would like help with. This is why it is important to communicate and discuss your needs and expectations, rather than hope for an unspoken mutual understanding. Being a supportive partner is not about being an intuitive mind reader but rather someone that is able to listen and accommodate the other person’s request for assistance.
8. Treat your partner as a fellow team player, not a competitor
When resources get scarce, it is normal for people to start fighting over them and become competitive. Sleep or even just chore-free time become hard to come by once the baby arrives. Often parents start arguing about who does more around the house and who deserves more rest which can quickly turn into an ongoing competition of who’s more tired. Being equal parents should be like being on a team that strives to achieve the same goals together. One of the study participants summarized this well: “It’s not about who does more, it’s about you being a team and helping the other – putting up the person rather than saying that you do just as much. It’s not a competition, you are in it together”
9. Demonstrate respect for the role of motherhood
Many mothers that remain at home looking after the baby feel like they have lost their identity of competent working women equal in contribution to their partners. It is fair to say that society holds a gendered and not-particularly-appreciative view of stay-at-home mothers. A partner’s respectful attitude that demonstrates appreciation towards the role of a mother and her contribution to the family is a powerful antidote to this.
10. Support your partner when she decides to resume work/study
A mother that has put her career on pause is often faced with multiple challenges when she decides to return to work or study. A partner’s support both practically and emotionally can encourage her to pursue her choices, as well as allow her to do so in logistical terms. This could mean the father reshuffles his work schedule to share childcare duties, looks after the baby while his partner attends work/courses, and picks up more duties around the house to lighten the load for the working mother.