Say This, Not That, to Your Partner Post-Delivery
As someone who is pregnant as of this publication date, I know firsthand how seemingly innocuous comments from a well-meaning partner can go south, for example, when he says, "Whoa" in a monotone voice upon seeing me without a shirt.
Sometimes, remarks that sound supportive in your head can come across as annoying, offensive or isolating to your partner when she is pregnant or in the postpartum period and flooded with hormones, new responsibilities, an evolving sense of identity and intense bodily changes.
Beyond annoying or offending your partner, comments gone wrong can have more lasting negative impacts, too.
"Marital disharmony is the most common nonbiological cause of perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, [that is,] mental health disorders during pregnancy and postpartum," said Rachel M. Diamond, Ph.D., a licensed marriage and family therapist and the clinical training director in the couple and family therapy department at Adler University in Chicago. Diamond specializes in the relational impact of parenthood and works with parents and couples on issues surrounding pregnancy, birth, the postpartum period, birth trauma, grief and loss.
Sometimes, remarks that sound supportive in your head can come across as annoying, offensive or isolating to your partner.
As many as 67 percent of couples report a drop in relationship satisfaction for up to three years after the birth of a first baby, though not quite as long after the arrival of a second child, according to a study by the Gottman Institute. While some of the factors that influence this potential decline in satisfaction are largely out of your control—a lack of sleep and less time for dates and sex—the way you and your partner communicate with each other is imperative during this fraught time.
As for the approximately one-third of surveyed couples who did not experience a drop in satisfaction?
"They had a strong sense of friendship, practiced healthy conflict management and tackled the varying needs of a newborn as a team," the study found.
Words, however well-intentioned, can prove a source of conflict, so saying the right thing goes a long way. Discover five comments your partner probably doesn't want to hear after giving birth—don't mention how uncomfortable your cot at the hospital was—and five things to say instead.
Don't say: What can I do to help?
This seems like a totally normal and supportive question, and it's clear it comes from a good place.
"While this seems perfectly reasonable, mothers carry the majority of the mental load in the household," Diamond said. "Asking how to help reinforces the idea that she is the manager of the home and childcare, and that dads step in to babysit."
Say this instead: Here are some ways I'd like to support you
This shows you have considered your partner's needs and have come up with ways to be helpful.
"Many women feel discharged after giving birth, all eyes and attention goes to the baby while [they've] gone through a traumatic experience. Even the most wonderful births are difficult and draining," said Emmalee Bierly, L.M.F.T., who practices at the Therapy Group in Chester, Pennsylvania. She added the support can be simple: offering to make coffee in the morning, handling laundry and dinner, or dealing with the insurance company and other red tape.
When the time comes and your partner feels ready, offer to take over all baby responsibilities and encourage her to do something for herself, Diamond said. This step also gives you the opportunity to develop your parenting identity.
Don't say: I knew you'd drop that baby weight quickly
Your partner's body has done something amazing, but that doesn't mean she feels amazing in her body.
"This is meant to be a compliment but it doesn't feel that way," Bierly said, adding it can cause your partner to question how you'd feel if they didn't lose weight or if it takes longer next time.
"During pregnancy, a woman's body goes through rapid changes that are publicly on display," Diamond said. "In the postpartum period, research shows the majority of women struggle with issues of disordered body image and eating, so comments about how one's body looks can increase feelings of self-consciousness."
Say this instead: You are spectacular and strong
Whenever possible, express awe and gratitude toward your partner without mentioning physical appearance; yes, this can undeniably be tricky. If your partner specifically asks about their appearance, offer something positive that's not tied to weight specifically, such as "You look amazing."
"Many moms have conflicting feelings around their physical appearance, and folks are so quick to make comments on bodies," Bierly said, adding that it's always more impactful and feels more supportive to comment on emotional, physical and mental strength, and not on how their body should or shouldn't be looking.
Don't say: But you don't seem [fill in the blank]
Everyone wants to see their partner thrive, and it can be difficult to acknowledge when the mother of your child doesn't seem to be feeling her best. Interestingly, Diamond explained that the strongest predictor of a father's onset of postpartum depression and anxiety is the presence of maternal depression, so a father who is hearing this from his partner may also be struggling with mental health.
"In response to a new mom telling her partner that she feels depressed or just not herself [or] is struggling with the new tasks of motherhood, etcetera, her partner should not respond with some variation that she outwardly does not appear this way," Diamond said.
These words, well-intentioned as they might be, can feel invalidating and confusing to hear, and the mother may begin to question if she's overreacting or if she needs to demonstrate her struggle in a bigger way to receive help.
Say this instead: Is there anything I can do to advocate on behalf of you or the baby?
When a new mom knows something is off, it can feel scary and overwhelming; plus, depression doesn't help someone to be proactive. Your partner may need help getting the necessary treatment.
"One in 5 new moms experience postpartum mental health concerns, and during COVID, this rate has gone up to 1 in 3," Diamond said. "If a partner notices a difference in mood that lasts beyond the first two weeks postpartum and that interferes with functioning, it's helpful for partners to kindly express concern for emotional well-being and offer to help find support either by contacting her OB-GYN or a therapist trained in perinatal mental health. It's also helpful to offer to go to the [appointment] and/or watch the baby so they can attend."
Even if postpartum depression (PPD) or anxiety don't seem to be a concern, your partner will likely still appreciate support in setting boundaries with family and friends, or advocating for their health or the baby's. During birth and postpartum, women are often in "survival mode," according to Bierly.
"It's hard to have a voice, especially in medical settings where the doctor or nurses are seen as authority figures," she added. "Having your support person help you in tough conversations can be a wave of relief."
Don't say: Statements like 'What have you been up to all day?'
Sure, you're making conversation and you probably are genuinely curious about your partner's day. The thing about caring for newborns is the work may not seem like much when it's listed out but is exhausting and overwhelming as a lived experience.
"Newborns are incredibly time-consuming with an unpredictable schedule," Diamond said. "If a new mom is on maternity leave or stays home with a baby while her partner is at work, the partner will not see all that goes into caring for their child and could make an insensitive comment like this that diminishes and minimizes her experience."
Say this instead: How are you feeling about all of this?
Express gratitude for your partner's work and acknowledge her day-to-day life is likely completely foreign and different. Bierly explained many new mothers are met with "toxic positivity." Comments from well-meaning people often range from positive statements that feel vaguely threatening ("Enjoy every second") to questions with only one right answer ("Aren't you just so in love?").
A supportive partner gives their spouse space to feel and express how they're feeling, even when it isn't all rosy. After you've really listened to her responses about how her day went—the good, the bad and the ugly—say she's doing a good job and express your love, Diamond said.
"This might seem simple and obvious, but being a first-time parent comes with many doubts and insecurities," she added. "Reassurance goes a long way."
Don't say: Well, at least the baby is healthy
Yes, everyone is glad the baby is doing well. No, it definitely does not need to be reiterated every time a new mother says something is hard.
"[This is] said to so many mothers when they've experienced birth trauma," Bierly said. "It's toxic positivity. An empathetic statement has never begun with 'at least.'"
Resist the temptation to look on the bright side or deflect to a silver lining, which can feel isolating or minimizing, or make your partner feel like they're not being grateful.
Say this instead: I know this is hard and I'm so impressed with you
When in doubt, the most supportive action to take is to listen intently and respond with empathy. Many partners default to offering solutions because they feel powerless to watch their partner experience something difficult and not be able to swoop in and help. This is true, too, if your partner is experiencing grief about not having the birth or newborn experience they'd planned.
"Your well-thought-out plan may have to change in a matter of seconds, often without choice and time to process," Bierly said. "Instead of saying, 'At least everyone is healthy,' give time and space to process any grieving they may feel."