This subject will open some generalizations, as it’s difficult to avoid considering how many successful ways there are to parent. So please excuse any insidious, heteronormative generalizations that may creep into the discussion. My intent here is to open up a conversation around how to really hold the process of becoming a good partner to a mother. As a partner of a mother myself, I’ve learned a lot and am still learning a great deal. There’s no end to learning about how to be a supportive partner to a mother. It’s a difficult task, and it’s my personal view that being a mother is just plain one of the hardest roles on the planet and therefore deserves some serious acknowledgment and reflection.
I want to lay out some of the things that I’ve noticed from both individual mothers and couples I’ve worked with. As I think about the subject, it bothers me how—in American culture—there’s a general lack of support and recognition for how much mothers are putting out and how much they have to hold. I see mothers internalizing that lack of support and acknowledgment because they never feel like they’re doing enough or getting enough support. I believe there’s some cultural truth to that, and it’s painful.
In my lifetime, I want to do my best to shift that way of thinking.
I want to support partners of mothers and cultures at large to celebrate motherhood and make them feel at ease with the huge task that they’ve taken on. This will be one of the most impactful things that we can do as a culture to support mothers—in my humble opinion.
It’s very common for mothers to feel like they’re “not doing it right.” they end up carrying a lot of stress that ends up permeating the relationship (naturally.) So, the question at hand is, how does a partner become effective at alleviating that stress and not taking it personally? Unfortunately, sometimes we can’t help but take it personally. The best we can do is weather the storm.
There’s a concept in developmental psychology that expands on the principle of individualization. One thing that’s inherently difficult, regardless of the support a mother has, is that from the moment a child is born they’re learning how to be an individual human. They learn a great deal through the mother, then eventually pull away. It’s a wonderful thing to watch a child take on their own personality and roam off. But, other times, individuation can look like they’re pushing away—angry towards the mother for not being perfect or alleviating their deep existential suffering as they come into their own identity.
In my child, I see it come off as anger and frustration towards her mom—because she’s not magically alleviating her problems. Although I experience a fair amount of my daughters pushing away, my wife gets this extra special nasty sauce. Based on my understanding of developmental psychology this makes sense, father is more of a guide into individuation. As the child develops they can jump on the back of the father, as he leads them into the world. This is archetypical as well. This isn’t to say that this doesn’t apply to all manners of couples—be it gay, lesbian, trans, or non-binary. In my study, there’s this developmental process for the child to push away from the mother, that represents home, and go to the father that represents the wide world.
There are times where the mother just burns out, naturally. This can look like a short temper, misplaced blame, or lack of giving in general. My intent is to make partners realize the context. It won’t last forever, and we need to recognize when we’re doing the best that we can and have that be enough.
As fathers, sometimes we can get burned out too. While I can only speak for myself as a partner to a mother—a lot of my work has been to learn how to pause when she is in a state of burnout. When she’s exhausted, all I can do is what is necessary for her to come back into herself. I make a conscious effort to do what is necessary to support her rest and recovery. It looks different from person to person, so it’s important for people to strategize based on their relationship.
Set limits and boundaries
Oftentimes, the partner of the mother feels like they’re underappreciated. Maybe the mother is exhausted and overwhelmed. So, how do I as a partner become proactive? We have to recognize our responsibility to certain aspects of the relationship. Maybe we’re fearful when they’re exhibiting frustrating behavior.
I need to know what you need—and I need you to communicate in a way that I can hear it.
Sometimes we communicate in a way that seems blameful. The goal is to be proactive when we notice ourselves avoiding or pulling away. This avoidance is only going to make the mother more frustrated. This is really important for the children involved—that the parents maintain an ability to stay in a coregulatory space with each other. You don’t want the children to swim in a sea of dysregulation and non-collaborativeness. They will end up being dysregulated in their most sensitive age. It’s how our nervous systems work, and a lot of it is non-verbal. It’s a feeling. If we can bring ourselves back to childhood, think about how much of our memory is felt as opposed to heard. If the child is in a non-regulated household, it can lead to instability, anxiety, and unhealthy coping mechanisms. We don’t want them to have to devote their resources to regulating themselves—because the parents aren’t making them feel safe by not responding to each other’s distress.
So, what’s the solution?
What works for me is being mindful of the questions you’re asking when your partner is in distress. Questions that I think are helpful are: how can I encourage her to let go of her identity as a mother for a period of time? How can I create conditions for a day or two out of the week where I can lift some of the burdens. A lot of mothers don’t give themselves permission to do that. You may need to let go of some of your attachments. It’s a natural part of transitioning to parenthood. Lastly, I invite you to have these conversations and listen to what your partner wants as a mother (being careful not to jump to solutions as means of alleviating your own anxiety or sense of not doing enough). Really try to understand and step inside their shoes so that they can feel acknowledged for what they’ve been through and what they’ve sacrificed.