Here’s the thing about the first months after having a baby: No matter how much people talk about what the postpartum period feels like for a mom or birthing parent, you don’t really understand until you’ve been there. Which leads us to a fundamental flaw in this system we call parenting: Your partner may not intuitively know what you’re going through. But just because they don’t feel it doesn’t mean they can’t help you.
But how can they help? And how can birth parents get over that nearly universal instinct to hide their suffering because they think being a good parent is being strong? For the answers, we turned to Connie Simpson, a.k.a. Nanny Connie, the favorite postpartum nanny to the stars and author of The Nannie Connie Way: Secrets to Mastering the First Four Months of Pregnancy. After caring for hundreds of babies and their parents, she’s seen some stuff. And she has some ideas of what works, and what doesn’t, for parents tackling this fourth trimester together.
1. Plan for postpartum long before Baby comes home
Simpson describes what happens with so many parents in those early days: “They both come home on this adrenaline high. It’s a true endorphin that’s released when the baby’s born and it’s, ‘Woohoo, happy new year!'” she tells us. “And then they wake up.”
During that initial shock is not the ideal time to strategize your new way of life. Instead, you’ve got to have a serious sit-down before the baby comes. This is when you should talk about the practical things and plan for how to deal with each other emotionally, too. The more you plan ahead, the less guesswork (and second-guessing) you’ll have to do in the thick of those rushing hormones, sleepless nights, and oh-my-god-I’m-responsible-for-a-human epiphanies.
“Decide meals, what kind of things you want to eat, things that you can prepare,” Simpson suggested. If the birth parent has had a C-section, if they’re breastfeeding, if the baby has health issues or is just plain colicky, you’re going to be happy you figured out in advance which restaurants deliver the fastest, which laundry can just stay dirty, and how to take apart that damn breast pump.
“Play to your partner’s strengths. If he’s good at getting groceries and doing laundry, then designate that for him, so he knows what to expect and he’ll take care of it.”
This is a great time to do your research together. So often, the pregnant parent reads all the baby books — because the baby is inside them, a constant reminder of the impending BIG CHANGE in your life. But if both of you read the manual, so to speak, you’re more likely to be on the same page. And speaking of manuals, Simpson, a spokesperson for Owlet baby monitors, advises parents to learn how to work all their baby gear in advance.
“Learn about how to put your Owlet monitor up on the wall and know what the sounds are now. And that helps moms to relax [when they come home with the baby],” she says. “All of the stuff that comes in to help you be a better parent in those first couple weeks.”
2. Plan how you’ll say ‘I need help’
You do not know who is going to have postpartum depression or anxiety in advance. Sometimes even dads get it. And, as we mentioned, some moms mistakenly feel like it’s a sign of failure to admit that they’re not in some nonstop euphoric state with their baby.
“A partner or your spouse is not going to know to look for certain signs [of trouble], and a lot of them miss them because they are so subtle, and then we are so good at masking our pain or how we feel,” Simpson says. “We think, ‘Oh, well, never mind. I’ll just do it right now, and I’ll be better in a minute.’ No, you won’t.”
Before the baby comes, Simpson says you may want to come up with words that are easier to say than, “I am slipping,” “I have lost control,” and “I need help.” What those new words are is a very personal — sometimes even humorous — conversation between the two of you.
“Say she hates kale. When she starts saying, ‘Kale is really on my plate today,’ that’s the key word,” Simpson says. “You know she hates and if you’ve gotten to the point where she’s talking about ‘eating kale,’ she’s at that point of breaking.”
3. And then, actually ask for that help
Simpson sums up a typical dad attitude about everything: “If you tell me what you want, I’ll do it.” Otherwise, they often remain clueless about their partner’s postpartum needs.
Meanwhile, moms may be suffering and wishing that their partners would just intuit their needs. If your partner never had that special skill before you had a baby, it’s not going to appear magically now. So, yeah, it’s time to suck it up and ask, in code words or spelled out.
And partners, here’s a clue: If you think the other parent needs help and isn’t asking, you’re going to have to step up and offer it anyway.
Simpson said this also might mean calling for backup.
“Reach out to a family member, a mother-in-law, or a parent and saying to them, ‘I really need help right now,'” Simpson said. “Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Tell your closest friends, ‘Listen, I’m drowning. I just need 15 minutes of sleep, and I need someone to rub my shoulders.’ And even hearing that from a new mother could be a radar that goes off with someone who will think, ‘OK, you mean more than just 15 minutes.'”
One more resource is your doctor. Especially for new parents who are reluctant to admit their vulnerability to those closest to them, a doctor can be a confidante who can then lead you in the right direction.
4. Schedule a date night
This may sound absolutely impossible for new parents who are really in the weeds, but we’re not talking about candle-lit dinner at a Michelin-star restaurant. It could be as simple as a meal at home after the baby goes to sleep.
“I’ve always put this at the top of my list,” Simpson says. “Talk about nothing to do with the family. You look across that table and if you don’t say anything more that, ‘Man, your eyes are really pretty tonight,’ and then go to sleep, then that’s what it is.”
This is how you maintain the connection that got you in this wonderful mess in the first place. It’s especially good to remind new moms that having a baby didn’t remove your identity and make you nothing but a diaper-changing cow. You are still you, albeit transformed by a new life. And when these tough postpartum days pass, the two of you and your new little, will still have each other.