I thought I would begin the life of my blog with a post that has been brewing for some time. There is a lot of advice out there on things to buy for new parents, and to a lesser extent on practical ways to support them. But much of the journey of a new parent is within, and it can be difficult to know how to be an ally on this journey. Here are my tips. Though I have referred to mothers for ease of expression, these can equally apply to new fathers. Please feel free to share any ideas you have in the comments...
Nurture her. She is a warrior, but she is also a newborn herself. She needs safe space, time and energy to process her journey and learn to be a mother. Nurture her so she can nurture her baby. Ask her what would help. If she doesn’t know, suggest some options: “Would it help if I washed the dishes, cooked you a meal, came over for some company, or went home and gave you some space?” Let her know, as you would a newborn, that you’ll be there for her no matter what. She can be honest with you.
Honour her feelings. She needs to know that what she is feeling is OK—and it is*. If you tell her it’s not—generally any sentence starting with ‘you should’, ‘don’t’, ‘but’, or ‘at least’ falls into this category—she’ll still feel it but with added shame. Strong emotions cannot be controlled with rational thinking and they will not pass without acknowledgement. As Geneen Roth writes, “If you don’t let a feeling start, you don’t let it end.”
Hear her. When she speaks, listen with more than your ears, to more than her words. Open up and let all your internal commentary fall away. In telling you about her experience or feelings, she is not necessarily asking for advice. If you do offer some, don’t assume it will work for her unique baby and situation: “Something I found helpful when I had a similar challenge was…” Let her know that you are listening, even though you don’t have the ‘answers’.
Hear yourself. Before you speak, ask yourself compassionately, “Why do I speak?” Are you speaking because you truly feel that what you say will help her on her journey, or because you can’t keep it in? Are you looking for reassurance? Chatting because you don’t know what else to say, or to fill a silence? Do you feel uncomfortable with her or her baby’s challenging feelings unless you can ‘fix’ them? Do you feel a need to express your own difficult feelings or experience? She undoubtedly cares about you, but at this moment she is busy taking care of her child and herself. She does not have the capacity to take care of you as well.
Honour her birth story. If you were at her birth, know that her story and your story are completely different. Just as you would remember different scenes and experience different emotional reactions to a movie, you have your own story of her birth (whether you are her partner, family member, friend, or caregiver). The fact that her story doesn’t match yours doesn’t make either less true. Something you weren’t even aware of (the ticking of a clock; a caregiver’s tone of voice; a thought or feeling that rose within her) may have meant the world to her. Accept this, and if she does share her story with you (whether or not you were present at the birth), please don’t pass it on to others. It’s not yours to tell.
Honour your birth story. Your birth or new parenthood story deserves more than what she can give right now. If you feel a pressing need to tell your story (whether it’s your story of her birth, or your own birth or new parenthood story), it probably means you would benefit from outside support to process it. A counsellor, professional birth story healer, or even a non-judgemental friend can better support you.
*Normal feelings for new parents may include but are not limited to: Bliss, confusion, profound love, terror, amazement, overwhelm, joy, disappointment (in self, others, parenthood and/or birth), pride, anxiety, excitement, disconnection, connection, anger, gratitude, frustration, optimism, grief, wonder, shock, giddiness or exhaustion.
A note about postnatal depression: While not normal, postnatal depresseion is common and does not reflect on a parent’s worth, suitability or love. If you are concerned that a new mother (or father) may be depressed, gently ask her opinion: “I’m concerned that you may be experiencing some postnatal depression, for these reasons... What do you think?” Hear her response. If necessary, support her to get professional help from a GP, counsellor or psychologist, or for an afterhours mental health crisis call ACIS on 131465. For a list of symptoms of PND, see Beyond Blue or PANDA.