For Partners: How to Show Up Well in the Postpartum Period
Let’s be real: the postpartum time is incredibly exciting for many families and it’s also a time when partners can feel frazzled, disoriented, and overwhelmed. As a therapist who supports many couples during this time period, I see the latter more than I would like. But the good news is that there are ways to work with those emotions and create a more solid partnership during this time of major transition.
When we are in the process of growing our families, we don’t necessarily focus on how we are going to show up as well as we can for our birthing partner. Instead, we are considering whether we have space in our house and how we might afford childcare and whether we will have practical support for the basics: eating regular meals, sleeping, and having clean clothes to wear. And of course, caring for a tiny human who requires a the majority of your time and energy. I’m here to remind you that the way you show up in your relationship during the postpartum period can make or break your experience. The support you offer, the kind words you use, and the consistency of your presence all make a difference in how your entire family will remember this time.
As a therapist, one of the situations I see most often during the perinatal and postpartum time is the person who gave birth sitting on my couch in tears, talking about how exhausted they are and how it seems like their partner has no idea what is happening for them. They talk about how alone they feel in the postpartum period—and that since they’ve given birth, the focus is on the baby. They feel unseen, unsupported, and alone in their relationship.
Your birthing partner’s need for emotional connection grows during the perinatal and postpartum time. I know this sounds challenging when there is so much else happening in your lives, but your ability to stay present with your partner, stay curious about how they are doing, and offer not only practical support but the ability to tolerate shifts in mood and perspective are key to navigating this time with a sense of love and connection.
I’ve created a list of questions and qualities you can reflect on as you put your focus on your relationship and create a solid foundation upon which your relationships with your children will be built. Investing in your partnership is one of the best things you can do for your family. Your relationship needs you. Everyone will feel more stable, solid, confident, and grounded when your partnership is tended to and cared for (including you!).
- Are you staying curious about your partner? Do you ask them how they are *really* doing? If they respond that they are having a hard time, how do you hold space for them? Do you rush to fix it or can you be present with their emotions and struggles? Sometimes listening, validating (“that must be SO hard. It’s no wonder you’re feeling down right now.”), and empathizing with your partner are the very best things you can do during difficult moments.
- Do you take a team approach? Unless you have clearly decided that specific roles belong to each of you, you are *both* responsible for the day to day preparation, tasks, and duties—which means that if your partner is busy with the baby, those tasks may fall to you. Just because your partner used to do the dishes every night or take the trash out before the baby does not mean that’s what will happen moving forward. Having conversations about what feels right for each of you is important and there are going to be tasks that just can’t be done because there is only so much time in a day. Decide together what those tasks are so you are both comfortable with them falling to the wayside for a period of time (or reach out to your support system and ask for some practical help). And please don’t forget: feeding a baby can feel like much more than a full time job. If there is any way to take something off of the partner’s plate who is doing the majority of the feedings, it can make a huge difference in their perception of the support they are receiving. If you don’t have community to support you in completing some of these tasks, hiring a postpartum doula is always a good move.
- How flexible are you able to be right now? When we are experiencing overwhelm and exhaustion, we can fall back into patterns of rigidity and stubbornness that do not serve our partners or our relationships well. Any opportunity you see to engage in flexibility and openness can increase your partner’s sense of support.
- Have you created a plan for reconnecting when you start to feel distance between you? When you have a lot on your mind and you are also sleep deprived, this concept can take a back burner to the rest of your life—but don’t let it. When you initiate this conversation with your birthing partner, you are letting them know how important it is to you to stay connected emotionally. Creating a plan together so you are both keeping tabs on how the relationship is feeling can prevent a significant disconnect from happening (which takes a LOT more work to recover from) and keep the two of you feeling like you’re on the same page.
- Are you responsive? Do you reply when your partner speaks to you? If you didn’t hear because you were distracted, do you ask them kindly to repeat what they said? Prioritizing your relationship is the key here. When your partner is sharing something with you, it’s important to be sure that they know they were heard. Moments like this can set off the old relationship cycles and arguments that you’ve had more times than you can count (you know, the argument that you seem to find yourselves in no matter what triggered the conversation?). Being responsive and engaged as often as possible meets your partners need to be seen and heard. Saying “got it, thank you!” or “I’m on it!” instead of saying nothing at all creates more safety in the relationship.
This time of transition can be super challenging in relationships, but I want you to remember this: your relationship is a living, breathing entity that requires consistent care and support (just like your baby). Your partnership will feel happier and more solid if you are tending to it’s needs and prioritizing the needs of your partner, especially during this time. It’s also important for you to feel supported—and your partner is going to be able to hear your needs much more clearly when you’ve been responsive in your relationship.
Elizabeth Gillette, LCSW is an attachment-focused therapist who provides education and workshops to support growing families in passing down relationship patterns that are healthy, mindful, and connective. Her website is www.heirloomcounseling.com.