I hope this post won’t sound too self-serving, seeing as I am a new dad myself and all, but our church has a growing number of new mums & dads with teeny tiny little babies, with more on the way, and for I while I’ve been thinking it would be helpful to write a post on how to support the new dads in particular. Lots of what I have to say applies to the mums too, and of course in many ways mums need even more support than the dads – but my general impression is that girls are much better at both providing support and asking for/accepting support than blokes are, and as a result I think sometimes the dads suffer a little bit because people don’t realise their distinctive needs or know what to do about them. (That said, I’m extremely thankful for how well people have looked after me & my wife – so don’t go feeling guilty when you read this if you know us personally!)
So here goes…
1. Make contact during the early days and weeks
The early days of having a new baby can be quite stressful, worrying about whether your baby is feeding properly, whether they’re gaining enough weight, whether they’re healthy, not to mention worrying about the mum and how she’s recovering from the birth. In general the first six weeks are the hardest and it can feel literally touch and go whether your little one is going to make it (or whether you’re going to survive as parents!) What’s more, new parents are in a bit of a time warp – they’re probably awake for at least 22 hours out of every 24, compared to a normal person who’s only awake for 17 or so. This means that time moves more slowly for a new parent and the days stretch out forever. So those scary six weeks really last a long time.
Girls are great at talking to each other, so the mum’s phone is probably buzzing non-stop all day long, and then she’s probably chatting to her friends on Facebook during the midnight feeds as well. Boys on the other hand are often a bit rubbish at communication and feel a bit awkward about whether it’s ok to be in touch with a new dad with a new baby.
My advice is to get in touch with dad, get in touch early and get in touch often. If you wait until a month has gone by then by then it’s too late – the hardest part is over and dad feels like he hasn’t heard from anybody in an age. To send a text message every couple of days or so will probably feel a lot more often to you than it does to him, because he’s been awake for a lot longer than you have in the mean time :) He’s just been through the biggest ordeal of his life and can’t really leave the house to see anybody. Dads feel like they have to be strong on behalf of the mum, but sometimes that leaves a lot of pent up emotion and giving a big hug can go a long way.
Good questions to ask in a text message are “How is it all going today?” “Are there any specific prayer requests today?” Send an encouraging Bible verse or a hymn that made you smile.
2. Send cards
When you’re more-or-less housebound for two weeks, the daily trip to the letterbox can be a real highlight.
Like the text messages, girls are often great at sending cards, so the mums get lots of cards from their friends, but dads might be at risk of feeling a bit left out if none of their mates remember. You may have at least eight months in advance to prepare for this, to find out your mate’s address and buy a couple of alternative cards / chocolate and some stamps, so you don’t really have any good excuses.
3. Don’t expect too much
Looking after a new baby is pretty all-consuming, so don’t expect too much from a new parent. In particular:
- Don’t expect promptness from a new parent coming to a church service or other meeting. Something as seemingly simple as leaving the house can be a huge effort when you have a newborn – just as you’re about to hop in the car they fill their nappy, then as you change it they pee all over themselves and need an outfit change, then by that stage they’re hungry again and need another feed before you’re finally ready to give it another shot at getting out through the front door.
- Don’t expect replies to your emails. You may think “they’re at home all day long, I’m sure they’ll be checking their email”, and that may well be true, but they’ve probably got hundreds of emails that they haven’t got the time or energy to reply to, and you shouldn’t take offence if yours is one of them. This applies to those thoughtful text messages you send – don’t interpret a lack of response as an indication that they weren’t very gratefully received!
All of this probably applies in the few weeks prior to the birth too – so if you’ve asked the dad-to-be to perform some role in a church service or something like that then make sure you have a backup plan in case he has to vanish at short notice to attend the birth!
4. Leave space
When it comes to a new baby, establishing patterns takes time and space. Often you’re on a mission to get as much milk into the little one as possible, and it’s hard to do that if you have visitors coming and going all the time. Of course you’re desperate to meet the little one as soon as possible, but if you can wait a couple of weeks then it’ll probably be a lot less stressful – and if you do visit, make sure not to outstay your welcome. Dad’s job is to be the “rottweiler” who keeps the visitors at bay and makes sure the mum isn’t overstretched, but he’s not always very good at it and finds it hard to say no to all these lovely people who want to come and express their love for his family. Some days they’ll be longing for some visitors and actually your company is very welcome – other days not so much. The best approach is to ask.
One great way to get a cheeky visit and to leave space at the same time is to offer to take older children to the park for a couple of hours – that way you get to meet the new arrival and mum & dad potentially get to have a nap too. If you want to offer to hang up the latest load of washing on your return as well then so much the better :)
Some brief ‘rules’ for visiting new parents:
- Try to be punctual and arrive when you say you will. Feeding babies is a complicated and time-consuming business, and to get ready for a visit at a certain time may take many hours of preparation. If you then show up half-an-hour later than expected then that beautiful window of opportunity where the the baby is clean and well-fed and awake enough to be interesting will be missed, and depending on how comfortable mum is feeding in front of you then it may cause a fair amount of stress once you do show up.
- Embrace the chaos. Be prepared for carnage – breakfast left unwashed-up on the kitchen table at 5pm, mum & dad still in their pajamas; teeth unbrushed and showers skipped – all of these are normal for new parents. Some days they’ll be on top of it all, other days they’ll be feeling completely overwhelmed. So if you do visit, make sure you’re not seen to be tidying up with your eyes (feel free to tidy up with your hands though!)
5. Remember that the first two weeks aren’t necessarily when help is most needed
We’ve been so thankful for our church family and neighbours rallying round and offering to bring food and so on in the early days, but sometimes this kind of enthusiasm risks being a bit overwhelming at first and then sometimes fizzles out after a couple of weeks. This will depend upon the exact circumstances of the particular family, but in many cases it’s actually once dad’s paternity leave has come to and end and mum suddenly finds herself on her own (in some cases looking after multiple children if there are older ones too) – that’s when the help is most needed.
6. Understand how your comments might be interpreted
Please don’t feel like you have to walk on egg-shells, but at the same time, understand that new parents are massively sleep-deprived and probably feeling desperately neurotic about all kinds of issues related to the new baby. Well-meaning comments on the look / size / weight / spottiness of their baby may hit on exactly the topic they happen to be anxious about on that particular day, and the problem you’ll have is that there’s no way you can know what topic it happens on be on the day you see them. So rather than saying “she’s so tiny!” or “he’s so huge!” try something a bit more objective or neutral like “you’re so young!” or “isn’t she cute!” You won’t believe the range of potential topics that parents are able to stress about. “Do these bendy legs mean my child has rickets??!”
Bringing up children is hard work, and you are utterly dependent on God’s help. It may not feel like much, but to pray for new parents is actually one of the best things you can do to help. Pray that they’ll get just enough sleep to keep going. Pray that the baby will feed well and grow properly. Pray that older siblings will adjust well to the new arrival. Pray for gospel opportunities with family members, midwives & health visitors. Pray for joy in the midst of pooey nappies and midnight feeds. And pray that the new mum & dad will keep walking closely with God even though quiet times may be hard to come by and concentration spans may be limited during sermons.
Don’t let all that scare you or make you nervous – ultimately new mums & dads just need the same kind of loving friendship as anybody else. Know that your words and actions can make a real difference during this particularly intense season of their lives. And remember that new dads need support just as much as new mums.