Do you remember the movie Jerry McGuire? The one with that adorable little blonde boy, from before Tom Cruise went a little crazy. If so, you remember Jerry’s client, Rod Tidwell. Rod is very difficult to please and gets in his own way constantly, making Jerry’s life way harder than it needs to be. Jerry pleads with him:
I am out here for you. You don’t know what it’s like to be ME out here for YOU. It is an up-at-dawn, pride-swallowing siege that I will never fully tell you about, ok? Help me… help you. Help me, help you.
What does this have to do with you, your partner, and the postpartum period?
A lot actually. Your partner is your number one support person, but lots of things –miscommunications, hormones, anxiety, overwhelm, sleep deprivation – can make it very difficult to be a true team. Despite your partner’s best, up at dawn, pride swallowing efforts, he will not be able to truly support you without a little help from you. Help him help you.
(Please note that although I use the male pronoun and the word partner, this applies to your primary support person regardless of gender or relationship.)
Don’t assume clairvoyance
Can you read your partner’s mind? Are you always able to guess, with 100% accuracy, what he wants or needs in every situation? Not a chance. The same goes for him. No matter how obvious it may seem to you, never assume your partner can read what you want or need.
Even when you’re standing in the middle of the living room holding a baby whose diaper has exploded all over your shirt and the seemingly only obvious way to help is to take the baby so you can grab some towels and get to work cleaning everyone up.
Instead of getting mad when he stands there frozen, tell him. Calmly. Clearly.
Or maybe it’s not something you need him to do, but rather something you need him to stop doing. Give him the benefit of the doubt and let’s assume that he’s not intentionally doing anything to upset you.
Example: he has asked you every morning for the past week if you’d like to go for a walk today. In his head, he’s just offering an idea of something to do together, but it makes you feel awful because what you’re hearing is you really need to get back to working out. You cry and storm out of the room. He has no idea what he’s done, other than suggest a family activity. He shuts down, you shut down, life is unpleasant.
What to do instead? Tell him. Calmly. Clearly.
He’s amazing and knows you better than anyone else on earth. But he’s not a mind reader.
Yes first, details later
Sometimes when we’re asked if we need help when we’re in the middle of a million things and overwhelmed, it’s easier to just say no thanks than to pause and figure out what we need help with.
It’s time to stop that. Even if you have no clue what on earth he could possibly do to help, say yes please every time he asks. Capture his willingness and availability whenever it is offered. There is surely something he could do to help at any given time, even if it seems insignificant (more on that in a moment).
So next time he, or anyone else for that matter, offers help, this is your response:
“Yes, please. Just give me one second to figure out what I need.” Every. Single. Time.
The little things are the big things
It’s easy to believe that there isn’t much someone else can do to help right now. If you’re nursing, no one else can do that. Even if you’re not, moms are often the only ones who can comfort the baby on any given day. And what you really need is two uninterrupted hours to take a long shower, shave your legs, blow dry your hair, and drink some coffee in peace…unfortunately that’s rarely possible with a newborn.
So what can your partner do? Little things: take out the trash, refill your water glass, or grab the remote that’s just out of reach when you’re trapped under a sleeping baby. These may seem like small, insignificant tasks, things that we often tell people not to bother with because they aren’t a big deal.
True, they aren’t monumental, but they make a difference. And when you add them up, they can make a significant difference. Not only do they make your life easier, they give your partner a way to contribute at a time when he likely feels helpless, overlooked, and a bit in over his head. Don’t underestimate the power of the little things.
This isn’t IKEA
Let’s talk about IKEA for a moment…home of bright textiles, clean lines, delicious meatballs, and really good soft serve. You can get lost in there for hours of shopping bliss. But there’s a dark side to IKEA: the directions are awful. Seriously. There aren’t even words! I’ve always been able to assemble whatever I bought, but generally not without frustration and wasted time.
New parenthood is very similar to assembling IKEA furniture; you have a vague idea of what needs to be done, but the details on how to get there are quite foggy. However, once you’ve mastered a certain parenting skill – diaper changes, giving a bath, swaddling, etc. – it can be hard to remember a time when you weren’t able to do it in your sleep (literally).
Remember that your partner may not have reached your level of expertise yet. So, when you ask him to change a diaper, don’t be surprised when it takes him a bit longer and it sometimes is put on backwards. But rather than get frustrated and insist on doing everything yourself, take a few moments to give him real instructions. Tell him how you want things done, or better yet, show him. Doing things together will help him learn faster and is a great way to maintain your connection during a period when typical couple bonding time is nonexistent.
Remember, he can’t read your mind. Show him. Tell him. Calmly. Clearly.
Keep him coming back for more
Confession time: I’m really bad at this one. My husband and I just welcomed our third child several weeks ago, so we’ve been through this postpartum period a few times and have our routine down pretty well. But this is one area that I just can’t seem to get right. And, not surprisingly, it’s one of the first things my husband suggested when I asked him for some input on this topic: give your partner some praise.
This is all new for him, and he’s doing his honest best to support you. His support will be imperfect. It won’t be enough at times. It will feel intrusive at other times. He won’t do things exactly the way you would, but he is trying, and he’s a good partner and a great dad.
Give him the recognition he deserves. Tell him he’s doing a good job. Remember, he’s unsure and scared and overwhelmed, just like you. If you want him to continue offering help, make sure he knows he’s appreciated. You’re a team, now more than ever, and even the backwards diaper took effort.