Your wife trusts you with money, with her feelings, and when you go out alone. She just doesn’t, however, trust you with your new baby. Sound familiar? This happens to a number of new fathers. While it feels personal, it’s not entirely so. It’s about worry and fear of the unknown, and your wife might have a low threshold for those kind of things.
Or not. This could be a new facet of the woman that you know, which makes sense, because your old normal is gone, and no book or class could fully prepare you for what’s to come.
“A baby is like throwing a hand grenade into the relationship,” says Paulette Sherman, a psychologist in New York City. You’re both tired. Your wife is exhausted. Chemicals are racing through her head, and she feels the prime responsibility for the child’s safety, for which she and you, despite whatever rigorous research you’ve conducted, have no practical knowledge.
Then you have to understand that beneath all this is a need to protect and bond with your child, helped along by the release of the neurotransmitter oxytocin also known as the feel-good hormone. It creates the primary maternal preoccupation, says Dana Dorfman, psychotherapist in New York City and co-host of the “2 Moms on the Couch“ podcast. Your wife might know intrinsically that letting others help will make her life easier, but a cocoon has formed around her and the baby, and anything or anyone who disrupts it, however well-meaning, is not well-received. It’s real and primitive, and, “it’s not entirely logical,” Dorfman says.
So what can new fathers do? The first thing is to understand all this – and keep reminding yourself that your wife isn’t getting any sleep — while pushing the idea that you still need time with baby to build your own confidence. You will make mistakes, which are necessary and unavoidable, but the problem is that they don’t engender trust.
That, you have to build. And you can’t expect it to be instantaneous. The first move is often said but still essential: you have to validate her feelings. This doesn’t mean agreeing with them. It means acknowledging them. After all, her worry, fear, and anxiety are not up for debate. If you don’t say something along the lines of, “I get how stressful and scary this is for you,” you’re going nowhere. “Anytime you’re trying to get through to someone, validating will lower defenses,” says Dorfman.
Remind her that you’re in it together and that you’ll only learn with practice, both valid points. But also you have to be more head-on. When she expresses doubt, ask, “What are you afraid of?” and walk through her worries, Dorfman says. If it’s you not paying attention (even if you are) and the baby falling off the changing table, suggest changing the baby on the floor. If it’s you taking the baby for a walk and crossing streets — and again, not paying attention — it’s calling her every so often or texting pictures. It might be slight overkill, but it’s problem-solving and taking the path of least resistance to allay her fears.
It’s also essential to just be there with her. If you’re not doing so every time, get up for early morning feedings, change diapers, give baths, or help your wife do these things. Her sense of comfort will grow, and nothing will be a mystery. You can take on tasks and won’t have to interrupt her nap with emotionally laborious questions about where bottles are. If you did, it would make her think that it’s easier to take care of the baby herself, says Gwendolyn Nelson-Terry, licensed marriage and family therapist in San Diego.
On the subject of feedings, they can make your wife feel chained to a baby. One important step: Take over the midnight one. That single shift will allow her to potentially sleep from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m. “That’s huge,” says Michelle Paget, licensed clinical social worker in Denver. “Mom getting more sleeps makes everyone happier.”
Don’t back away from crying, either. It doesn’t guarantee that there’s a problem; it’s just how babies communicate about everything. But it’s easy to hear the sound and default to: Mom can handle it. And while she can, she doesn’t have to be the sole pacifier, says Catherine O’Brien, licensed marriage and family therapist in Sacramento, California.
Take on this trust-building opportunity and take the baby out of the house. Your wife won’t have to hear the crying, and you can experiment, and learn what works, because there’s not just one thing that works. Before you walk out the door, tell her that you’ll come back if you can’t handle it, but if she doesn’t hear from you, everything is fine. She probably won’t relax for the first few times, but, “She’ll eventually sleep, because she knows that you have it,” O’Brien says.
It’s essential to understand this as well: Your pre-baby behavior is now viewed through a different lens. If your wife knows that you check your phone in the car, that’s a concern if you have the baby. If you tend to lose patience when you’re hungry, that’s another concern. So be proactive: “The phone is only for emergencies;” “I’ll have a protein bar with me” — and it’ll show her that you’re mindful and respectful of her worries, Sherman says.
From there, ask to take over a task. There’s always a new one popping up and she might find that she hates certain jobs. Whatever it is, make it yours. It gives her a semblance of control and you some ownership. It’s also crucial to realize that while things don’t ever completely settle down, the New Baby, No Skills Era of worry is not forever.
“It’s like a job,” Dorfman says. “Someone who’s new won’t be in six months.”