For even the most prepared couples, having a baby can feel a bit like dropping a hand grenade into the middle of a marriage. Everything changes. Your days and nights of focusing only on each other are gone, replaced by days and nights of taking care of a helpless human being. This new landscape is tricky to navigate, as both parents are stressed, sleep-deprived, and trying to adjust to all the changes happening around them. For moms, it’s especially difficult, as they need time to recover and adapt while also subject to the many needs of their children. It’s a beautiful time. But it can also be especially difficult.
Molly Millwood, PhD. was well versed in the myriad changes that awaited her marriage and life after she gave birth to her child. A psychologist who specializes in martial therapy and has done extensive research on postpartum depression and motherhood, she set her expectations and was ready for the messy but wonderful world of parenting. But, after her son came into the world, she was blown away by the reality, particularly with how her identity, happiness, and general sense of wellbeing shifted.
“I entered into motherhood feeling really prepared,” she says. “I felt like I was in a really good place in my life had done a lot of research on what to expect. And yet I had a very tough time. It felt like my world had been turned upside down and there was so much information everywhere about how to take care of a baby and no information that I could get my hands on about what happens internally to women when they become mothers.”
Millwood’s transition to becoming a mom led to some keen insights about the struggles that many new mothers face. “I had this awareness that you don’t have to have postpartum depression to be having a tough time,” she said. “And that actually the normal transition to motherhood is very emotionally destabilizing.”
Millwood soon recognized the universality of her experience, which led her to author the new book, To Have and to Hold: Motherhood, Marriage, and The Modern Dilemma. In it, she explores new motherhood as a psychologist looking it from within and tackles among other things the emotional, physical, and professional ways it effects women and their relationships. Her hope is that it will reach women who might be coming to grips with new motherhood and let them know that they’re not alone.
“I wanted to give women a sort of a collective voice,” she said. “Women who are faltering and, and struggling and feeling destabilized and out of sorts in motherhood, I wanted to normalize all of that.”
So what can husbands do to help their wives through the often difficult transition into new motherhood? We asked Millwood for a few key things all men should understand about new moms — and what they can remember to make the transition smoother.
They’re Sensitive About Their Looks
After pushing an entire other person out of her body, and then spending day and night tending to that person’s every need, your wife is going to have some insecurity issues. Her clothes won’t fit right, her eyes will be puffy from lack of sleep, her hair will be a mess, and it’s all going to weigh very heavy on her. Compliments are key here, but Millwood stresses that it’s important that the compliments be authentic. “What women need is the sense that their partners understand that they’re not feeling like their best selves,” she says. “If your wife is talking about not being comfortable in her body, I would argue it’s almost better to say, ‘I hear what you’re saying and that must be really hard,’ as opposed to, ‘Oh honey, you look great to me.’ There’s something about that well-intended compliment that can feel sort of invalidating.”
They Can Feel Burdened By Responsibility
While things are changing, traditionally speaking, as a new addition arrives in the family, the mother takes maternity leave (or becomes a full-time mom) while, after an appropriate amount of time off, the dad returns to work. This can, in certain situations, begin to breed resentment on the part of the mother, who sees her husband as free and unencumbered, able to go off and spend time with adults for eight hours. However, Millwood notes that dads can also feel a sense of displacement, watching their wives bond with their child and having to leave and miss out on that time. It’s important for both parties to realize that they’re sacrificing something. For this, Millwood suggests that new dads say to their wives or their partners, “I see you and our baby in this bubble and I think it’s a really beautiful thing and that I wish I could get in there. I’m not just going about my business happily. I’m actually kind of feeling a little displaced and wishing that I could figure out my role here.”
They’re Afraid They’re Not Doing a Good Enough Job
Raising a new baby is a tough, demanding and constant job. And, even though they’re doing their best, they’re going to have bad moments and even bad whole days. These moments of weakness can wreak havoc on a mom’s self-esteem, leading her to question whether or not she’s up to the task of being a mom. Millwood says that hearing validation from her partner is particularly important here, because their partner is the one who’s seen them at their worst and can offer honest support. “If you have your partner witnessing those moments as well as all of your better moments, and the assessment in the end is, ‘You’re doing a great job, you are a wonderful mother,’” Millwood says, “then that’s something that we as moms really take in.”
They’re Anxious About All The Advice They’re Getting
Once the baby arrives, everyone around you and your wife suddenly becomes an expert. Whether it’s mothers-in-law, persistent friends, or strangers on the Internet, everyone has an opinion. All of them can make a new mom feel as though she’s not measuring up. Again, Millwood stresses that empathy is essential here. “All of that unsolicited advice can just make us very anxious and feed into that river of guilt about whether we’re doing a good enough job,” she says, “So that’s a case where dads can say, ‘You don’t have to listen to everybody’s advice. Just trust your intuition.'”
They Don’t Want You to Ask “How Can I Help?”
As we’ve discussed at length, asking such questions is a bad move. Even if it’s well-intentioned, a statement like that can anger a new mother. She’ll take a look at the dishes piled up, the laundry overflowing, the garbage that needs taking out and say, “How can you help? Look around, isn’t it obvious?” Wanting to help is great, Millwood says, but its key to take initiative and offer actual solutions and suggestions that are helpful instead of asking her what to do. “Try saying something like, ‘Hey, you haven’t had any time to yourself. How about if I take the baby on Saturday morning and you go get a massage or you go to yoga?’” she says. “Making those very specific offerings can be tremendously helpful.”