I was on a trip with my husband to Boston to attend my god-daughter’s baptism. I was HUGELY pregnant with my first. Hours before the big event, I remember holding her sleeping body against mine when the urge struck: I needed to pee, and I needed to pee NOW! Her parents were not in the room at the time, and I was getting desperate…
“Roberto! Can you please grab the baby from me?” The look he gave was a mix of confusion and sheer terror.
“What do I do?” he practically wailed. I snapped, “Just hold her! I have to pee!”
The handoff was clumsy and inelegant but the transfer at last was complete. I started walking down the hallway to the bathroom when he whisper-hissed, “She’s waking up! She’s waking up!”
When I turned to look back, my husband was doing a move that looked like he was trying to win a limbo contest and my wiggling god-daughter was slowly sliding down his chest.
“Oh my God!” I thought. “We’re having a baby in less than two months! This is NOT good. What if he tries to hold OUR baby that way?”
Maybe you’ve had a similar experience… Your beloved partner looks extremely uncomfortable holding a friend’s baby (and it isn’t even a newborn!) or they tell anyone within earshot that they don’t really like kids, or you’ve seen them gag at just the thought of puke, poop, or blood. In any of these situations, you may have freaked out, thinking to yourself that you were going to end up doing this parenting thing mostly on your own.
Fear not! Your partner has the potential to surprise you with their parenting in all sorts of ways – especially if you let them.
Pregnancy, birth, and new parenting experiences are very, very different for the pregnant person vs their partner.
If you’re the one who is physically carrying the baby you have a second-by-second, minute-by-minute, day-by-day, week-by-week and month-by-month reminder that there’s actually a baby inside of you.
You may have what I like to call “Unless I’m Sleeping Sickness” early on. Your belly may be expanding at what seems like an alarming rate. You feel there’s a butterfly flitting around inside of you, and this feeling eventually morphs into a scurrying mouse, and finally becomes the undulating waves of a snake confined in a space too small. You’ll likely experience heartburn, aching hips and sleeplessness — all hallmarks of this pregnancy experience.
Your partner? Not so much.
The non-pregnant partner might be getting a pass for some of the more annoying or challenging aspects of pregnancy, but they also miss out on the super cool aspects that you get to experience, like: co-creating another human being, having a really intimate physical connection to this little person from the get-go, and being able to bring your baby into the world and then potentially feed it from your own body for the first six months of its life! The trade-offs are both challenging and completely worth it, in my opinion.
There’s often a disconnect for the partner that is rarely, if ever, talked about. Why? Because your partner doesn’t want to appear to be an idiot.
In all of the births that I’ve supported, and in all of the classes that I’ve taught over the years, it’s clear to me that the baby is theoretical — at least to the partner. The baby doesn’t exist in any real sense until the moment of birth.
In two of the movies I show in class, the partner says something like, “It was amazing to see what was inside of her this whole time!” or “When I could see that it was a real human being, I was amazed!” These comments usually elicit “You’ve got to be kidding me!” laughs from the group, but I’ve seen it on the faces of partners when their baby is being born. They’re thinking to themselves, “Holy crap! There really was a baby inside of that belly this whole time!”
The partner will never say this out loud by the way, because — DUH. Of course there was a baby inside of the belly the whole time! They went to the ultrasounds, they heard the heartbeat, they felt the movements! But, still…
If you ask the partner to imagine a baby, oftentimes what they bring to mind is actually a toddler! Someone they can take a walk with and push in a swing, someone that will babble and laugh at their attempts to make them smile. Their minds often skip over the newborn period completely. These differences in experience between you and your partner matter. Why?
Because if you’re the pregnant person, you’ve had almost a year’s head start on the whole parenting process! And not to be too gendered about this, you may have had more opportunities to babysit as a younger person than your partner did. The pregnant person is often assumed to be better or more qualified for parenting because society tells us this in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.
The person who gives birth is typically afforded more time off postpartum (not enough time, but still…) so you will likely end up spending more time with your baby as the primary caregiver. Which affords you LOADS of time to make a bunch of mistakes and learn from those mistakes — what works, and what doesn’t work.
If you’re planning on breast/chestfeeding your baby, you have another advantage in new parenting as babies like to cuddle up for both food AND comfort. Which can lead your partner to believe that the baby prefers you over them.
This is not to deny the mountains of work that you will be dealing with as your body recovers from pregnancy and birth. I’ve done this 4x myself and it is a LOT.
This is also not to deny the fact that the primary caregiver for the baby carries a mental load that has been well-documented and has serious consequences on the new parent’s emotional health and well-being, as well as the couple relationship long-term.
But despite these truths, partners can still end up feeling discounted and left out of the pregnancy, birth and especially new parenting experiences. This can lead to a sense of helplessness — both innate and potentially learned — in this new parenting gig. They might feel like they’re not up to the task, and we might secretly (or not so secretly) feel the same.
When I saw my husband struggling to hold my god-daughter while she was sleeping, all too quickly I transferred that to mean he wouldn’t be able to step-up in his new role as “Dad” and that I would end up having to teach him how to do ALL the things. Thank goodness I realized I was wrong and didn’t put myself in the role of “resident parenting expert.”
Caring for your own baby 24/7 is nothing like being a full-time nanny! It’s not at all reminiscent of being the oldest of six siblings! It is entirely different than managing a team of twenty in a high-powered corporate environment!
Caring for a baby is likely to the be the hardest job you’ll ever have to do, because it really never ends. But if you can have a partner that is your equal and doesn’t feel like they’re the runner-up in this parenting gig, the whole family benefits.
Partners need to be welcomed into their role as parent.
A couple of considerations:
- Remember that they become a parent — for real — the moment they see the baby come out of you! You’ve had a head start on this whole thing, so help them catch their breath, let it sink in that they just became a parent, and get over the shock of it all! (They’re unlikely to admit that this is their experience. Trust me, for most partners this is their reality.)
- Let them have the baby after the first feeding so they can get in on that skin-to-skin magic! It’s not just for you and the baby! An hour of uninterrupted skin-to-skin contact between your partner and the baby within the first 24 hours of life can literally change their brain architecture! They move from, “This is my baby” to “This baby is MINE!” and it greatly enhances their connection and bonding from the get-go.
- Maybe the grandparents can wait awhile before they show up to help out? (I’d suggest two weeks if you think they can hold off that long!) This allows for a period of trial and error where the two of you figure this stuff out together without any outside influence!
There will be many false-starts, lots of mistakes, plenty of times where you both wish your Moms were there to take care of you while you take care of the baby! But it’s during this time that your partner can ease into their new role without a (very loving and caring) mother or mother-in-law swooping in to save the day! When this happens, it only extends the learning curve for the partner, which can lead to alienation and lack of self-confidence as a new parent.
- Ask your partner to choose at least one caregiving task that they would like to get really good at doing. Remind them that you’ll be doing the bulk of, if not ALL of, the feedings at first, so that leaves just about everything else up for grabs!
Do they want to master the diaper change routine and get it down so well that they can do it in the overnight hours with only a nightlight as their guide? Go for it! How about bath time — can they show YOU how to get that slick baby body from dirty to clean on the regular? I’m 100% sure they can!
What about making sure that you’re well-hydrated and well-fed by stocking a feeding nook for you on every level of the house that has easy access to water, a snack you can hold in one hand, and the remote nearby? You’ll be loving on them all day long for being so thoughtful! Can they commit to wearing the baby and taking the dog out for walk when they first get home? What a great way to give you a break AND get some cuddles in at the same time!
There are so many ways that your partner can get involved at the onset of this parenting gig which will become very, very real for them the moment the baby enters the world.
But we need to remember to welcome them into this role, let them have some one-on-one time with the baby soon after birth, ask them right away for their help, and encourage them to take on tasks that are, quite literally, too much for us in the early days and weeks of new parenting.
We need to be curious about this new parenting gig, looking to create a parenting team with our partner, rather than isolating ourselves as the “resident expert in all things baby.” We need to allow for learning to occur — which means a lot of mistakes will be made, and that’s okay! But we should also set the bar high for our partners. They want to be involved parents, and if we make space and welcome them into their new role, they’ll see your bar and blow past it! No surprise!
Back to my limbo-ing husband…
A couple of months later, after a very long and intense labor with my guy by my side the whole time, we welcomed our first-born daughter into the world. I have a picture of him from the first hour or so after her birth. He’s holding her securely, confidently with one arm, gazing at her with an expression of pure love and delight. If you didn’t know it, you’d swear by the way he was holding her that he might be the Pediatrician!
My husband took on his role of Dad whole-heartedly (albeit not until the moment our daughter came into the world) and he’s been rocking it ever since! I hope the same will be true for your (potentially) limbo-loving partner!
And you have to watch this because it’s just SO cool! (My husband has NOTHING on Shemika Campbell, the Queen of Limbo!)