The link between a mom and a newborn is remarkably intense. It can involve breastfeeding, bliss, struggle, depression, bonding, regret, anxiety, protectiveness, super-strength, exhaustion; and can overwhelm both parents. Psychologist Augustus Napier refers to it as the “charmed circle of mother and child,” and writes about how intimidating that circle can be, especially for fathers and parenting partners. Partners often experience feelings of inadequacy and isolation. They long to help, but feel intrinsically shut out of the many parts of initial bonding that are mama-centric.
My kids are lucky to have J for a dad for many reasons, but one of the biggest is that not much scares him. During my first pregnancy, he shared his conviction to stay close to me and our new baby, not allowing his own insecurities to get in the way of being as relevant and helpful as he could be. He said, “I’ll obviously never be The Mom. I don’t have those [pointed at my breasts], and there’s just no replacement for the bond you’ll have with the baby.” Before she even arrived, he started accepting that she and I would be the center of each other’s universes for some time.
Instead of J withdrawing, we both worked (and fought, and misfired, and tried again) to find ways for him to stay in the circle with us. Every partnership is different, but here’s what worked best for us:
“I can’t feed her yet, but I can feed you.” He made sure I had snacks and meals and kept my water glass full – especially when I felt too tired to prepare food for myself.
“You have to get up with her, so I will too.” During night feedings, he changed her diaper and expertly swaddled her while I got myself situated on the couch with my pillow and book.
“You focus on her, and I’ll hold down the fort.” He made grocery runs, helped keep the house picked up, did laundry, learned to set up and break down a pack-n-play with one hand behind his back, bathed her, held her for hours while she colic-cried, and snuggled with us during feedings.
Parts of the maternal bond are impenetrable, but as partners, you can swerve toward it, finding your own ways of being indispensable. Tell her you want to help, and ask her to give you specific, measurable ways you can support her and the baby. Be patient when she can’t identify what would help, and reach out for support if you both start feeling flooded. Moms, if you notice your partner withdrawing, try to identify ways he or she can connect with you. Being invited to the party feels really good, even if you’re not quite sure how you’ll fit in.
Here’s to Sanity and Circles,