"New moms strive for perfection. Dads tend to be confident, calm and blithely unaware of their shortcomings."
"New moms strive for perfection. Dads tend to be confident, calm and blithely unaware of their shortcomings."
When it comes to the fears and expectations about new parenthood, men and women aren’t always on
the same page. It doesn’t help that much of what divides them often goes unspoken, either. Here, a few brave couples talk about the issues at stake, and a therapist offers some workable compromises. Plus, to help ease expectant fathers’ concerns, a confidence-boosting list of 10 baby-raising skills men are good at and can even teach moms a thing or two about.
You’ve got issues
Agreeing to get married, agreeing to have a baby, agreeing to have one appetizer instead of two: Your life up until this point has been nothing but childless child’s play! Most first-time parents become fixated on the challenges of childbirth. But you’ll be faced with equally demanding challenges as soon as you get home from the hospital, and they won’t end as quickly. So the next time you’re going back and forth about whether to order the guacamole, try verbalizing your thoughts on the more hot-button topics.
To help you out, we asked psychologist Pamela Brill, Ed.D., author of The Winner’s Way: A Proven Method for Achieving Your Personal Best (McGraw-Hill, 2004), to offer workable solutions to some of the often-unspoken dilemmas that bedevil expecting parents.
What he’s thinking- “I’m afraid of what having a baby is going to do to our relationship.”
What she’s thinking- “It’s going to be the best thing in the world!”
Some men dread the fifth-wheel syndrome. Others fear they’ll be turned into baby-wearing wimps. In any case, the days of fun and games are over, right? “We’ve had eight or nine great years together,” says Chris Gentile*, a professor of English literature in the Midwest. “But we don’t know what will happen when the baby is born.”
Susan, his wife, thinks she’ll have no problem finding a balance between being wife and mother. “Maybe our needs as a couple won’t be met when they need to be met, but we’ll get it together,” she says. Or will they?
What the therapist suggests- “You need to collaborate on the new challenge of maintaining independence on both sides,” Brill says. “Your ability to talk about things other than a child is what brought you together in the first place—you need to keep it going.” Try to maintain interest in one or two of the hobbies or activities you enjoyed before the baby arrived, Brill adds; that’s particularly true for new moms.
What he’s thinking- “We won’t have enough money.”
What she’s thinking- “We made a budget—what’s the problem?”
Once the diapers, car seat, cute clothes and other baby accoutrement started piling up, John O’Connor, an actor in Chicago, started fretting about cash flow. It didn’t matter that many of the shiny new plastic things were gifts; the list of future purchases overwhelmed his imagination: new stroller, new car, new house … child care … college! “I know I need to make as much money as I can, so I have a number of projects going,” John says. “I just completed a movie, and I’m taking a course to get my real estate license.” He’s not alone: It’s common for men to spend more time at work after the baby arrives than they did before, even though their presence at home is more important than ever.
At 36 weeks pregnant, his wife, Jan, can’t see what all the fuss is about. She doesn’t want John to turn into a workaholic, absentee father and thinks the money they once spent on meals out and vacations will take care of the baby’s needs. “I know it will all work—we figured it out on paper,” she says. “John just needs to see our new budget in practice.” And she’s ready to show him how to do it.
What the therapist suggests- Such money issues may have a silver—even gold—lining. In other words, it’s great to look at pregnancy as a time for each of you to reassess your career paths. “Either recommit to becoming more successful in your present line of work or pursue other options,” Brill says. But you have to work as a team. “If Jan’s serious about wanting John to spend time at home, she has to prove she can stick to the new budget,” Brill adds.
What he’s thinking- “I’m afraid I’ll never have sex again.”
What she’s thinking: “I’m afraid I’ll never want to have sex again.”
“I’m definitely worried about sex,” says Frank Declerq, an editor in New York. “I know that when the baby comes, I won’t have time to address Jennie’s needs. She isn’t just going to bend over a couch—she’ll need to be seduced.”
In her second trimester, Jennie has concerns of her own—different ones. “I’m fine feeling all wrapped up in being pregnant,” she says. “And I’m more anxious about how I’m going to
handle being a mother than I am about sex, which is the last thing on my mind right now. However, I do hope my libido comes back.”
What the therapist suggests- Focus on intimacy, not sex. Frank can help Jennie adjust to her physical changes by allowing her to enjoy lots of rest, long baths and cuddling. The time
to reconnect sexually is when she feels as interested in receiving pleasure as she does in giving it. “Start by acknowledging that things have changed,” Brill says. “Frequency, times, places and ways to have sex will be restricted, but together, you can find new ways of being intimate.” Another suggestion: Pretend that you just started dating.
What he’s thinking: “I won’t have time for myself.”
What she’s thinking: “He’s going to have to forget about ‘alone time.’”
For Frank, lack of time ranks up there with lack of sex. “I wake up early in the morning to do things for me, whether it’s working on business plans, going to the gym or taking a run,” he says. “That will be history with a new baby. I’m not worried about going to bars with friends; I’m worried about not being able to do the extra things I need to do to get ahead.”
Jennie wants him to change his priorities. “I don’t want him disappearing,” she says. “Having a baby is going to be a lot of work, particularly in the beginning. He’ll just have to learn how to be more efficient.”
What the therapist suggests- Can you say multi-task? It is possible to be more productive in less time. “So maybe when Frank has baby-induced insomnia at 3 a.m., he can climb on the StairMaster and think about ideas for work,” Brill says. “He’ll have less time to himself, but look on the bright side—he’ll be awake a lot more!” All kidding aside, Jennie should help Frank think of new parenthood as a precious, once-in-a-lifetime experience that goes quickly. “She needs to share with him. the peaceful, loving moments with the baby, not just hand off a screeching infant when Frank walks in the door,” Brill says.
What he’s thinking- “I don’t see how I can help with a newborn.”
What she’s thinking- “Oh, there will be plenty he can do.”
Chris Gentile fears he’ll be useless when it comes to caring for a tiny baby. He thinks mom and baby will bond, and he’ll be stuck on the sidelines. “I have no idea how much I’ll be able to take the load off Susan,” Chris says.
With just six weeks to go, Susan is looking beyond childbirth and wants Chris’ input—and future help—on everything from breastfeeding to sleep issues. “But he doesn’t see the point of reading about these things,” she says.
What the therapist suggests- Be prepared, Chris. “Women don’t innately understand how to do many things required of mothers, including breastfeeding,” Brill says. “So plan now for how you’ll handle problems that may come up.” That might mean dialing up a lactation consultant in the early innings and maybe arranging to bring in a doula. Throw in some help by changing diapers, taking the squeaker for walks and letting mom sleep in. “And Susan must encourage Chris’ efforts,” Brill says. “She shouldn’t criticize him if she thinks he doesn’t wrap the baby correctly or finds a diaper is on backward.”
10 Things dads can teach moms about babies:
1. Babies like things topsy-turvy. Whether they’re being tossed in the air, swung between your legs or suspended upside down by the ankles, older babies (not infants who can’t support their heads) will gurgle with delight during energetic acrobatics. Tip: Grasp the baby by the torso, not the arms. Extra tip: Stay away from balconies, or you’ll be in deeper trouble than Michael Jackson.
2. Babies appreciate a good mess. Moms tend to freak out when a baby starts pulling scraps out of the garbage or upends a box of Cheerios. So after you’re done laughing, assure her you’ll do the cleanup. Tip: “Encourage your wife. to roll up her sleeves and make a mess together,” says Christine D’Amico, a life coach and author of The Pregnant Woman’s Companion (Attitude Press, 2002). “It will allow her to break out, too.”
3. It’s OK for babies to cry sometimes. When your wife’s sympathetic sobs rival your baby’s, remind her that crying is just what babies do. It doesn’t mean she’s doing a bad job; diaper boy will still love her in the morning. “Dads are a calm force,” says D’Amico, “particularly at times when a baby can be expected to cry, such as when he’s
getting a shot.” Tip: Stay upbeat and supportive. Take the pressure off her.
4. It’s a baby’s job to try to leave the nest. Fathers are more likely to encourage a child’s first steps toward independence. “Babies can do more than moms think they can,” says Armin Brott, author of The New Father: A Dad’s Guide to the First Year (Abbeville Press, 2004). “Dads will allow a tot to try for things in a situation where he might fail, while a mom might rush to stop him. Dads also tend to wait a few seconds when a toddler falls down before running to pick him up.” Tip: Make sure mom sees how much fun your baby’s having when he’s pushing the limits, like crawling up stairs. Of course, beneath your nonchalant exterior you’ll be poised to scoop him up in a second.
5. Babies can be inscrutable. What’s going on inside that brain the size of a pigeon? By the time you figure it out, your 15-pound party is confounding you with a new dilemma. Being in the dark won’t bother you, but it’s probably driving the woman who’s sharing your bed crazy. “Babies are stressful to care for,” D’Amico says. “Men remember this more easily and are able to
distance themselves from the stress.” Tip: Suggest she take time for herself to recharge, and help make it happen.
6. Babies don’t always need a breast to fall asleep. One of your major missions is learning how to wrap, shush and rock your baby to sleep. Eventually, your skill will prove invaluable when mom decides she needs an alternative to nursing at bedtime.
Tip: Make like the Baby Whisperer: Offer to lie down with the little
critter and let your wife get a head start on some sleep of her own.
7. Babies will survive someone else’s care. “A man can leave the baby with someone and know he can come back and the baby will be fine,” D’Amico says. “It’s important for a man to help a new mom realize she won’t scar the child for life if she leaves him for an hour.” Tip: First babysitter? First drop-off at day care? First trip to granny’s? Be there with her.
8. Attention compensates for technique every time. Sometimes doing their best is not enough for new moms; they strive for perfection. Dads, on the other hand, tend to be confident, calm and blithely unaware of their shortcomings. (It’s why we insist on buying the same size pants as when we were 18 even though our waistlines have grown by 10 inches.) Tip: Praise her, then pitch in. “A woman who’s having problems can feel horribly guilty,” Brott says. “That’s when a dad’s help can make a huge difference.”
9. Babies don’t always go by the book. Parenting instruction manuals will start appearing in a huge pile on her night table, and you probably won’t read more than a paragraph. But your reductionist instincts will pay off when she comes across conflicting information on issues like soothing, sleeping and nursing. That’s when you can help her follow her heart. Tip: Be the half of the team that sticks to the basics: Change, feed, burp, soothe. Rinse and repeat.
10. History doesn’t have to repeat itself. Men today are committed to not using the same parenting techniques as their fathers—no more smacks to the back of the head or throwing toddlers into the deep end of the pool to teach them to be fearless. Sometimes new mothers need to be encouraged that they won’t make the same “mistakes” their moms did. Tip: Talk about all the good things you’re both doing that your parents never even knew about.