Illustration by Sarah Ferone
Throughout a pregnancy, the focus is on the mother, and rightfully so. But those nine months—not to mention the first year of a newborn’s life—can be difficult for dads, too. It’s a time of transition, anxiety, joy and exhaustion.
While men are involved in prenatal doctors’ visits and classes, experts say dads will often refrain from asking too many questions because they don’t want to seem self-centered. We answer some of those questions here.
Healthy weight gain. Men usually ask what foods and drinks moms should avoid. And while that is important, the focus should also be on eating a nutritious combination of foods. Dr. David Hadley, an OB-GYN with Crozer-Keystone Health System, encourages fathers to get involved in grocery shopping and cooking. They also need to provide emotional support during a woman’s physical transformation. “Her body is changing,” says Sister Anna Marino, a nurse and midwife who teaches childbirth and parenting classes at Mercy Fitzgerald Hospital. “He needs to tell her she’s beautiful.”
Sex during pregnancy. Many men are concerned that intercourse will hurt the fetus, says Hadley, but it won’t. “There can be bleeding, and that can be scary,” he says. “As long as that stops in 12-24 hours, it’s OK. Unprovoked bleeding is cause for concern.”
After the birth, though, couples are told to refrain. Six weeks is the minimum, and some women need much need longer. “At the six-week visit, we do encourage parents to go on a date,” says Megan King, nurse manager at Bryn Mawr’s Lifecycle WomanCare. “That part of their relationship is important.”
Where to stand. Because women can be sensitive about that, it’s a topic that should be discussed before labor starts. At Lifecycle WomanCare, dads can focus on the face or go all-in and “catch” the baby as she delivers it. OB-GYNs do the catching at Crozer hospitals, and the guy typically holds a leg while she pushes.
Fluids happen. “It’s a lot messier than hard because the man has no control over what’s happening to his partner or the baby,” Hadley says.
Men tend to get very protective and ask a lot of questions. “I call it the Papa Bear effect,” says King. “They know that they’re in the right frame of mind to understand the options, even if the mom is not.”
The pain factor. “It’s hard to see your partner in pain—it’s a difficult situation for them to watch,” says Dr. Thomas Dardarian, a Main Line Health OB-GYN.
Even with an epidural, she’s going to be in pain—and without one, she’s going to be in a lot of pain. That’s par for the course at Lifecycle WomanCare, which specializes in midwife-assisted natural births. “We show the men videos of births in a lot of situations, so they see the squatting, the sitting and the screaming,” King says. “Instead of seeing the pain, [we hope Dad sees] how strong the mom is—and that she’s a rock star.”
Encourage breast-feeding. Not only does breast milk contain nutrients and antibodies babies need, but it also helps Mom balance her hormones, contract her uterus, and lose some of the weight she’s gained during the pregnancy. “Dads can bring the baby to her and make sure Mom is eating and drinking properly,” says King. “And don’t forget the Motrin.”
Know the warning signs of postpartum depression. There’s a difference between the so-called “baby blues”—which is a normal result of a mother’s shifting hormone levels—and postpartum depression. “We tell dads that they are our eyes and ears in the house,” King says. “They have to know if it has crossed a line. If it has, the mom probably won’t be able to help herself, so dads have to pick up the phone and tell us.”
Dardarian has gotten plenty of phone calls from worried dads. Sometimes the concern is unfounded, but depression can segue into post-partum psychosis. Health systems have services that screen and treat women quickly and discreetly.
Prepare to be exhausted. Babies need to be fed and/or changed every two to three hours, and Dad has to do as much as he can. “I had the training of being up all night from being a resident, but waking up every two hours to feed, burp, and change diapers for a whole year was incredibly taxing,” says Dardarian. “I don’t think men realize how difficult that initial period is.”
Nor do they understand how much they’ll fall in love with their children. “No matter what’s happened during the pregnancy and birth, seeing their child overwhelms men with emotion,” says King. “There’s nothing else like it in the world
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