I once got the sweetest client feedback when a new father wrote: “You helped me to find the bond with my son.” I don’t mean to imply that men cannot do this on their own, but, for this particular father I was able to help him build his confidence in that bond. How did this happen? I think it was mainly through my belief that he and his son already shared a bond. I helped the father to gain confidence in his connection by showing him concrete things he could do with his baby. I remember teaching him how to give baths, trim his baby’s nails and wear him in their baby carrier. I respected his opinions and pointed out how his baby responded to him.
When there are two parents in the family, the biggest challenge to including and supporting the partner is often in creating the expectation of support for the partner. Many families are not thinking about this when they call a postpartum doula for help. Rather than “replacing” the partner when he or she is away at work, I try to build a relationship with both parents–providing information, emotional and practical support and referrals.
There are lots of good reasons to make sure the whole family is being supported. Here are my top three.
#1 Hey, It’s All New! Sometimes People Just Need Help Knowing What To Do
Too often we tell partners to “support the mother” without actually helping them know what to do. When it’s all new, sometimes it’s even hard for the mother to know or say what would be helpful. So especially for new parents, I teach and model ways to care for the baby and ways of enhancing a bond with the baby, such as baby wearing. I also show and talk about with the partner ways to support the mother and stay connected with older children during the postpartum period. This can include listening to the mother’s feelings without trying to “fix” them, bringing drinks and snacks or helping with positioning during breastfeeding and setting up routines that ensure everyone has some time with each other.
#2 Because It’s A Time When Things Can Get A Little, Um, Tense
When there’s more work than two people can reasonably manage, and you’re exhausted with no end in sight, it’s easy to blame your partner and think that they are not giving their best effort. With the demands of caring for a new baby, sometimes communication breaks down a bit between parents, too. Partners might hesitate to express their needs because they see how hard the mother is working, and frankly, sometimes mothers are just too exhausted or annoyed to check in with their partner like they used to do.
I bring an outside perspective, an appreciation of each parent which sometimes the two of you may lose sight of. I can listen to what’s been hard and encourage you not to be hard on each other or yourselves. All parents need validation of the importance of their presence and attention for the family, and a chance to talk about how the transition is going for them. I model support for the partner by talking with and listening to the partner about how he/she is doing and what his/her needs are. Acknowledging that the partner is going through a transition as well, and building support for him/her into my schedule will benefit the partner and the mother, baby and siblings.
#3 Isolation and Depression Hurt Families
It’s difficult to overstate the impact that isolation and postpartum mood disorders can have on families. Research documents the importance of the partner’s attitude and support in helping mothers through postpartum mood disorders (Misri et al, 2000). Additionally, not receiving support may also contribute to the deterioration of health of the partners of women with postpartum depression (Misri et al, 2000). We are also learning that a significant number of new fathers are experiencing postpartum depression themselves. Even when a family isn’t dealing with a postpartum mood disorder, I have still seen the postpartum period bring intense isolation for many parents.
My relationship with the partner is an important element of supporting the whole family. It is often said that a postpartum doula is always “working herself out of a job.” For the job to be finished, the confidence of the partner in his/her ability to bond with the baby, support the mother and communicate about his/her own needs all need to be in place. If, when leaving a family, I think that I have accomplished this in addition to providing direct support to mother and baby, then I can leave with a sense of a job well done and know that the family is well prepared for whatever comes next.