This post is dedicated to all the fathers and fathers-to-be out there, with love – especially if this is your first Mother’s Day. I hope some of these words can be useful to you, or to someone you know.
(If you are an equal-time, full-time, or single dad, then you can stop reading now… Welcome to the Mama Club.)
I know some truly great fathers. My own father, my husband, and many of my friends are modern, enlightened dads, thoroughly invested in their children’s lives, who demonstrate their love and care in all kinds of ways. They’re “father figures” in the best sense of the word.
It’s not easy, taking on the Daddy role. Becoming a father is huge; it changes everything. Life becomes a balancing act, a dichotomy, with societal expectations for fathers having done an about-face in half a century. It’s beautiful, too – I’ve seen guys morph from macho to mushball, and there’s nothing more wonderful. When they’re with their children, they are better people, opened up in new ways. But it’s still tough: how do you be your old self as well as your new father-self?
That is a question only the fathers can answer. But I do have some insight into another, perhaps even more tricky, question… How do you keep your relationship with your Baby Mama healthy?
It’s tough, watching her go through wicked hormones, sleep deprivation, pain in various lady parts, shrinkage of social life, etc., and not knowing how to help. Especially in the beginning, she might even seem like a different person, and you’re not sure how to react.
Did anybody warn you about how hard that would be, for both of you? For lots of couples, it’s quite a curve ball.
I remember, when I was pregnant with my first child, a friend warned me: “No matter how good your marriage is now, having a baby will strain it.”
Another friend said, “Just be prepared – if you disagree about parenting, you will always feel that you’re right, because you’re the mom. And you pretty much always will be right.”
Since then, I’ve been in many more conversations with mothers about their parenting partners, and certain themes are unmistakable. The issues that make a mom say, “I freaked out on my husband the other day…” or “Last night I finally snapped when he…” are the same ones, over and over, across all kinds of families – even the ones you have always assumed are perfect.
Our family is no different. My husband and I have had our share of issues, and our combined wisdom on this topic is hard-won – genuine communication is often painful, but absolutely worthwhile. It took a lot of frank talking, and even more listening.
Let me be clear: my husband is a fantastic life-mate, and I love him to pieces. I got one of the very best ones. He was a brick through my three labours and deliveries; he has changed his share of diapers, and dealt stoically with countless other icky messes. He does all the best Daddy things with his living son and daughter, and keeps his stillborn son close to his heart. He is thoughtful and loving and firm and really fun.
It’s just that these great qualities – especially at the beginning – couldn’t exempt him from the basic truth, the one I hear repeated constantly by moms: it’s extremely hard for Dads to really get it, to understand what we go through.
This may sound cry-me-a-river-ish. After all, most of us get into the procreation gig because we want to, right? And women are the ones biologically designed to gestate babies, give birth, breastfeed, and fiercely invest, mama-bear-style, in the welfare of their children.
So where’s the issue?
If motherhood is such a joy, why do I know so many healthy, well-adjusted moms who have become enraged (some on a regular basis) at their baby daddies, whom they have previously loved with ease? Why are dads flabbergasted to find themselves abruptly on the receiving end of moms’ wrath, when they know they’re doing a good job?
I think it happens when fathers have not yet recognized this fundamental truth:
Motherhood is indeed awesome – AND, it’s really tough. A lot tougher than either of you first thought.
Birth and baby-bonding can be beautiful, transformative experiences. I know I’m not the only mama who has completely lost track of time, just staring at her newborn’s face. Breastfeeding, once mama and baby have mastered it, can be just as dazzling as they say. Where I live in Canada, maternity leaves are lengthy enough for new mothers to immerse themselves in their roles, and most moms I talk to wouldn’t have it any other way: they want to spend all that time with their babies, they want to be their child’s food source, and they want to be there for every tiny moment, every change and milestone. The rewards of new motherhood can be grand.
How can we possibly complain?
Here are some of the reasons why it’s so tough, and why the frustration can build up into Wrath:
We’ve acknowledged that becoming a father is an enormous change – at least, it is if you’re doing it right. But for most mothers, having a child is beyond huge. It alters us from our foundations. Our lives as we know them completely unhinge, and re-attach to revolve around our babies. NOTHING stays the same for us. Not the shapes of our bodies, not our hormones, not our instincts, not our priorities, not our careers, not the functioning of our brains, and especially not our day-to-day activities. Intellectually, we know this is how it will be – but it’s still a giant, often overwhelming adjustment when it happens. (N.B.: For moms with postpartum depression/anxiety, PTSD, and/or colicky, high-needs, or non-sleeper babies, it is a different and exponentially harder story.)
How To Avoid The Wrath:
- Be sensitive about whether you are both able to do things like take a shower whenever you want, eat hot meals with both hands free, have conversations with adults about grown-up topics, etc… or whether only one of you currently enjoys those luxuries.
- Consider whether your golf/hockey/gaming/running/gym schedule is still intact. If you’ve just become a parent, your timetable should reflect that. What about her hobbies? Do they still exist?
- Don’t be the guy who says, “You’re no fun anymore!” Outlandish as it sounds, I am NOT making this one up – it’s a direct quote. Dads who say this are putting themselves in the league of Fathers Who Become Ex-Husbands. (Not kidding.)
- Also, if you have the urge to remark on the changes in her body, even as a joke… QUASH IT. I guarantee she will not find it funny. (Unless you want to tell her she’s gorgeous. Then go ahead.) So many moms torture themselves about their postpartum bodies – even if they’ve never mentioned it to you.
- Along similar lines, please be patient when it comes to sex. If you are feeling any boob jealousy because Mama is breastfeeding… best to keep it to yourself. If you like breasts, just remember why they were put on earth (motorboating not being a biological imperative). If you are feeling sexually neglected, remember: between hormonal changes and physical pain (because no matter how well the birth went, there will be some), not to mention lack of sleep and postpartum body-image issues, it takes a while. It’s a rare couple who really gets it on within the first month… and depending on what happened to her girl parts, it’s often more like two or three… or six… (I know, sounds unimaginable. Welcome to parenthood.) But she’ll get there.
Committed parenting is an ocean of doubts and questions to which there are no single right answers.
Basically all moms, with all their hearts, want to do what is best for their children. A new mom spends all day every day with the baby, attempting to do just that, even though it’s a job that is impossible to do “perfectly.” When they encounter problems, or even uncertainties, they discuss them with other moms; they research on internet baby forums; they read baby books. It’s like a whole new career. (And for stay-at-home moms, it IS a whole new career. In the U.S. especially, where maternity leaves are brutally short, many moms choose to leave the workforce entirely – and motherhood is their new life’s work.)
For moms who, before motherhood, spent most of their time doing something they were good at, it is really challenging to suddenly be doing something so unmasterable, so uncontrollable, so guaranteed to maximize your insecurities.
When mothers run into parenting troubles, fathers often offer advice about how to solve baby problems, and they do so with the best of intentions. You want to help, to ease frustration, to be really involved. That, in itself, is great… you just need to tread carefully.
You may be passionately committed to fatherhood, but if you’re working full-time outside the home, it’s just different. You don’t have the same number of hours to get hands-on experience and bonding time with the baby, and it’s unlikely you have the same gut-level motivation to research whatever feeding or sleeping or other issues have cropped up.
Just imagine how you would feel if you were investing your whole self in a new calling, spending all your time and energy trying to get it right, and someone with far less experience blithely piped up, “Hey, have you tried this?”
You see what I mean.
How To Avoid The Wrath:
- If you can find the time, read some parenting books and/or articles. There are lots written especially for dads, if you’re into that.
- In particular, if mama and baby are trying to resolve a specific issue (that she is bearing the brunt of), do the reading necessary to be on the same page with what they’re trying.
- If you don’t have time to do this… then don’t offer advice (as mentioned above). Give her credit for the nonstop on-the-job training she’s been doing. Be the one to listen, and ask what you can do to help.
Ask any stay-at-home mom: people constantly trivialize the work you do when you’re “just” parenting. In fact, there’s a widespread fallacy that it’s not actually work. As in, “Oh, so you’re not working right now?”
Well. Is it something you would pay someone else to do? THEN IT’S WORK. (One could also mention things it has in common with jobs like teaching, waiting tables, mediating, housecleaning, coaching, and lifeguarding.) Babies can’t wait patiently for their needs to be met. Toddlers don’t understand the importance of a to-do list. Full-time parenting is exhausting. Hearing comments about how easy you must have it gets old real fast.
Yes, most of the moms who stay home with their kids – for any length of time – have chosen it, and love it overall. That doesn’t mean it’s a cakewalk – mentally, physically, or emotionally. It’s like many of the most rewarding jobs: the more you care about it, the harder it is.
How To Avoid The Wrath:
- Try not to say this: “Wow, the house is a mess! What did you do all day?” It can be very tempting. Oftentimes the house IS a mess – but I highly recommend you refrain on this one. If the dishes didn’t get done, trust that there are reasons. Chances are, she would have liked to get more done – it’s hard for lots of moms, especially in the beginning, seeing their “productivity” take a nosedive – but baby needs come first.
- Even if all the baby does is sleep and eat, those things can be a lot less straightforward than it seems like they should be. Especially now that Google is there to make us second-guess everything we do.
4. Default Parenting
No matter how much each parent loves his or her children, there’s always a default parent. With new babies, it’s natural for that to be Mama, for reasons both biological and societal. However, in my experience, Mama remains the default for much longer and in more situations than necessary, because the precedent has been set. Even if she has gone back to work and has as demanding a schedule as Daddy, in many cases she is still automatically taking care of most meals, day care drop-offs and pick-ups, school communications, hand-me-downs, doctor’s appointments, etc.
In large gatherings, she is the one whose parental radar never turns off, even if both parents are there. It happens all the time: kids are playing, dads are socializing, moms are partly socializing, and partly checking if the kids need to pee or need snacks or band-aids or are getting up to mischief or going too close to the stairs/breakable things/sharp things. I don’t know why this dynamic is so common, in this day and age… but it is.
How To Avoid The Wrath:
- Avoid saying, “Oh man, I am SO TIRED.” I’m sure you are. Being a parent AND a person is tiring. But unless you are doing exactly as much nighttime baby-feeding, midnight potty trips, nightmare-soothing etc. as Mama, she is the wrong person to complain to about your fatigue. She is the one at whose expense you get your sleep (and keep in mind that if her body is a full-time milk factory, this actually uses even more energy than pregnancy). If you’re tired, she’s exhausted. Reserve the complaints for your guy friends.
- Be present. When you are in the same building with your children, even if Mama is there, you’re automatically on duty too – unless you’ve specifically made other arrangements with your co-parent.
- If you are one of the countless Dads who like to take leisurely bathroom breaks with their favourite book/magazine/handheld device, remember you’re on the clock. Those fifteen-minute intermissions are very noticeable to the mama who doesn’t even get to pee alone, never mind take more than ninety seconds at a time on the john.
- If you wish you could reverse the roles (she probably does too, sometimes), please don’t assume that it would be the proverbial stroller-ride in the park if you did.
5. Bad Cop Syndrome
This follows on the heels of Default Parenting. There’s usually one parent who’s more strict than the other, and that’s normal too. But it’s funny: even though the phrase goes “Wait till your father gets home,” as if Daddy’s the one who draws the hard line, nowadays I’ve seen much more often that Daddy is the permissive one. He says yes more frequently to sugar and extra video game time and fun new toys. Daddies bend the rules way more often.
And it’s not that those things are awful. They’re fun. But if Mommy’s the one who sticks to the boundaries and Daddy’s the fun one, well… that makes Mommy the bad cop. Especially because now she’s now monitoring the kid(s) AND you. She did not sign up for that. It sucks to be the killjoy, even if you know it’s your job. The point is, it should be both of your job.
How To Avoid The Wrath:
- Don’t give credence to that harebrained dad from dumb commercials, the one who always screws up. People joke about how moms end up with one extra kid because dads are like big children; in reality, this is not funny at all. Perpetuating the perception of fathers as bumbling fools who can’t parent properly is insulting to you and your family, and it only takes society backwards.
- Make sure you’ve talked about the limits the two of you, AS A TEAM, are setting for your children. Stick to them, unless you have a very good reason not to. (For the record, your child simply asking is not a very good reason.)
- Attractive as it is sometimes to say things like “No dinner if you can’t cooperate!”, try not to make threats you can’t keep. Kids only take you seriously if you mean what you say – and you will soon pay for your wavering.
This is probably the hardest thing about New Motherhood – and Motherhood in general: it is relentless. Even for mothers with dream babies who feed well and sleep lots, it’s still hard being the be-all and end-all of your child’s existence. Beautiful and rewarding, of course, but sometimes… damn hard.
Is there any other job where you are working or on-call literally 24/7, for months (or even years) in a row? Especially for a breastfeeding mama whose baby doesn’t bottle-feed, or one whose children are very mama-centric, or one whose baby daddy is mostly (or always) not home… Sometimes it feels like we just might not make it through with our sanity. (And remember, grasp on sanity weakens in proportion to the amount of time spent listening to crying/screaming.)
As I see it, the key thing is Me Time, or rather the lack thereof. I know “Me Time” is kind of an annoying, new-agey phrase that sounds like it belongs in a spa ad. But trust me, it’s a critical issue that goes unaddressed shockingly often. For a mother with a newborn, depending on the baby’s needs and personality, the simple ability to take a break can basically cease to exist. I remember, in the first few weeks of E’s life, fantasizing about folding a whole load of laundry uninterrupted or going grocery shopping alone – and those don’t even count as Me Time. Taking ten-minute Sitz-baths for my postpartum stitches felt like over-the-top luxury.
Please note also that mom-and-kids dates, although they are fun and rejuvenating and do wonders for moms’ mental health, don’t count as Me Time either. Mom is still on-duty the whole time. Real, legitimate Me Time must remove her from the duties of motherhood, and remind her of who she is, as herself, in addition to being a mother.
If you still spend the majority of your time being yourself, doing things you used to do before becoming a father, then it’s hard to relate.
If it’s not possible for Mama to take breaks at the moment (which can happen, especially early on), examine the extent of your own Me Time, and how much of it is in her presence. The discrepancy between your Me Time and hers will likely be proportional to her level of aggravation.
How To Avoid The Wrath:
- Notice and appreciate when you have time to yourself – and this goes double for when you have the house to yourself. I have heard described SO MANY scenarios in which Mom has literally not had a moment of Me Time all day, and Dad comes home (or is already home) and puts his feet up, or takes a bike ride, or goes to putter in the garage, or picks up his iPad, without thinking about it. Trust me, this habit incurs the Wrath.
- Enable her Me Time, if you can. Even a few minutes can make a big difference to a tired mama’s mental state.
- Ask yourself this test question: How many times have I been on a real trip – out of town – without the kids? How many times has she? (If she goes on trips with the kids, it’s not the same at all.)
- Remember that motherhood today is burdened with impossible standards. Between the contradictory wisdom of the Interwebs and the generations-old pressure to Take Care Of Everything, not to mention new expectations of scheduling kids to death and making life Pinterest-worthy… There’s just no way to ace it.
- Don’t let her be a martyr to the work; take some of it off her plate. Don’t give her the chance to identify with that perfect-but-drudgey 1950s housewife who barely got to be a person. (That effing model housewife, whether she ever existed or not, looms in the maternal subconscious, judging us when we haven’t vacuumed.)
And there you have it! Those are the big Wrath-Incurring Issues. If my advice seems self-evident and way too easy, that’s great. You are ADVANCED. If it seems condescending, I apologize – I only wrote what the complaints called for. If it was overwhelming… feel free to re-read. 🙂
So. Are you all ready to celebrate Mother’s Day?
I know some say that it’s the kids who should be appreciating their mothers on Mother’s Day, and yes, they should, if they’re developmentally able. But if you are grateful to have progeny, your appreciation is just as important. And don’t forget to call and thank your own mom, if you can.
All the information above might have given you ideas about how to show Mama you’re glad that you have kids with her. Just in case you’d like a recap:
1. Recognition. Be observant enough to see what she does, and what she gives up, on a daily basis.
2. Appreciation. I have seen these situations improve dramatically with a simple acknowledgement from Dad: I know you work hard, and even though we are a team, I know that when it comes to the kids, YOU DO MORE, and I appreciate it. Nobody wants to work thanklessly, especially when it’s work they pour their passion into.
3. Facilitation. Help her get those breaks that remind her who she is, and what she’s good at (besides being the best baby mama in the world).
4. Recalibration. As your child(ren)’s age permits, especially if Mom goes back to work, swing the balance back. Take honest stock of who’s doing the non-negotiable child-care things that have to happen each day, and try to even things out. You will reap the rewards; if you ever felt the pang of your child rejecting you in favour of Mommy, this is the time when the tables can turn.
5. Libation. Just a couple of wee bonus tips: if you have a newborn and you’re around when Mama is breastfeeding the baby, get her something to drink. It’s a small gesture that makes a big difference to a mother possessed by the nursing thirst. On similar lines, if you ever have chances to pay her back for the alcohol-free time she’s done by being the DD, take them.
And if you want to do more for Mother’s Day… you might ask her what would make her happiest.
Thanks for reading, Daddies (and Daddies-to-be). I hope it has been worthwhile, and that if you make a loving effort to understand her experience, she will be able to do the same for you.
Happy parenting, and good luck.