Guide to New Mothers

"Motherhood is beautiful, but it can really mess with a woman's body, mind, and life." - New Dad

Guide to New Mothers

"Motherhood is beautiful, but it can really mess with a woman's body, mind, and life." - New Dad

 Taking Care of a New Mom

 When we started Boot Camp for New Dads in 1990, we were all about babies. But when our new dads came back and were asked "What was the most important thing you learned in Boot Camp?" learning about new mothers topped the list. As in "support her, no matter what" and "don't take what she says personally." 

We learned that nothing is better for a new dad than a partner who understands and appreciates him. We also learned that taking care of a new baby can be a piece of cake compared to taking care of a new mom. So we went to work, and over the years, we talked to new moms, taught them about new dads, and eventually started Boot Camp for New Moms. This is what we now know about new mothers...


The Wonder of New Mothers 

The more we learn, the more we value the contributions and sacrifices new mothers make for our children. Their courage, passion, and commitment knows few bounds; over a few months they typically transform into a powerful force of good for our babies.

Next to the creation of a baby, the metamorphosis of a woman into a mother has to be the most remarkable of all human events. Becoming pregnant, "carrying" a baby, and giving birth are incredible experiences, and that is just the start. In addition to her physical changes, nature has endowed her with neurological hard wiring and biological drivers to intensely bond with and care for your baby. Terms our dads use to describe their mates include "warrior," "selfless," "passionate," and "heroic." 

Amanda: Two Things for New Dads (2:33)

Next to the creation of a baby, the metamorphosis of a woman into a mother has to be the most remarkable of all human events. Becoming pregnant, "carrying" a baby, and giving birth are incredible experiences, and that is just the start. In addition to her physical changes, nature has endowed her with neurological hard wiring and biological drivers to intensely bond with and care for your baby. Terms our dads use to describe their mates include "warrior," "selfless," "passionate," and "heroic." 

A New Perspective for Moms (3:08)

She will take for granted what she does best as a mom while dwelling on any inadequacy she may feel.

Moms Take Themselves for Granted

New mothers get swamped in a sea of worries, including whether they are a good enough mom. She will be proud of her baby, but will likely have too many doubts to be proud of herself.  She will take for granted what she does best as a mom while dwelling on any inadequacy she may feel. This video of moms talking about themselves, and then listening as their kids talk about them, is a tribute to the depth and power of a mother's love.

Being appreciated by you has a big impact on her; there may be no one else reminding her of her courage, passion, commitment and strength, and how wonderful she is for your baby. Respecting her as a mom and loving her for what she does for your child will also have a substantial impact on you.

We risk this by putting new mothers on the pedestal they richly deserve, which adds to their expectations that they need to be a fantasy mother. Once you review this moms section though, you will understand what she and you may experience, both good and bad. This will prepare you to constructively address problems should they arrive, not react in anger, and value what she is bringing to your family.

Every New Mother Is Different

They all share physical changes and new strengths, but they are also all different. Some new mothers embrace motherhood immediately and thrive, as if born to be a mom. Some babies sleep through the night within weeks and rarely cry, making them easy to embrace. Then there is a range of babies with more challenging characteristics, and a range of new moms including those who struggle as mothers and partners.

She will also change as she progresses as a mother, and may react in ways that surprise you. Don't expect her to understand her experiences either; they are new, surreal and confusing to her as well.

Neither of you will know what you will get until it happens.

"I heard a lot of 'beware of the short temper' and 'your pregnant wife will be a pain in the ass for nine months' etc... We're four weeks away from our due date and I can't remember a single time my wife was any of the above."  - Dad-to-be

Every New Mother Is Different

They all share physical changes and new strengths, but they are also all different. Some new mothers embrace motherhood immediately and thrive, as if born to be a mom. Some babies sleep through the night within weeks and rarely cry, making them easy to embrace. Then there is a range of babies with more challenging characteristics, and a range of new moms including those who struggle as mothers and partners.

She will also change as she progresses as a mother, and may react in ways that surprise you. Don't expect her to understand her experiences either; they are new, surreal and confusing to her as well.

Neither of you will know what you will get until it happens.

Tune Into Her

Even if you are a sensitive man who picks up subtle changes in your wife, this is for you. If you are a man who expects her to tell you what she needs, this is especially for you. 

Once pregnant, a broad range of implications occupy her mind, and her hormones quickly kick in, discombobulating her thoughts. She may barely know what is going on inside herself, let alone know how to describe it to you. Literally lost in her own thoughts, she can feel alone, even with you next to her.

Don't assume you know what she's feeling; regularly ask her what's on her mind. Notice how she acts and how she changes for tips on what to ask. Just get her to talk to you and tell you about anything that is bothering her. Tell her you learned that pregnancy can stir up weird feelings and uncomfortable thoughts, that your job is to help her get them off her chest, and that she can totally trust you. Knowing you have her back will give her a sense of security no one else can provide.

It Is Tough for Most New Moms

In addition to the physical and hormonal impacts upon the new mom, and the changes in her life, there are other reasons things are tough for Mom:

A first-time mother will assume it is up to her, literally, to keep her baby alive. Breastfeeding problems with a hungry, crying newborn are awful. Any hint something might be wrong sends her into an extreme protective mode. Hiccups can send her thumbing through her baby books and keep her from sleeping. Her feelings for her baby will be so strong she can barely think of herself, which leads to more stress and frustration. 

A new mother wants to be a good mother, and if she runs into problems, her default response is to think she must not be. If she has a C-section or epidural, or breastfeeding problems, she can feel like a failure right out of the chute. She should also know how to soothe her crying infant, be strong and protective, and be happy. And, God help her if she utters a negative thought...

"They get it ingrained in their minds that they're supposed to know everything about taking care of a child. In reality, they can be just as clueless as we are, but they can't share that because they expect themselves to know everything."  - New Dad

The Maternal Industrial Complex has expanded dramatically since the advent of the internet, along with the number of concerns it relentlessly pushes on a new mother. She will start off responding like the hormonally supercharged mom she is - you can help her process her concerns by just listening. She will eventually develop a BS filter for MommyLand; a second baby will add a full shield.

Edel & Ryan: It Takes a Village (or at least a Dad) (1:02)


Most Are Tough on New Dads

There must be an evolutionary reason why pregnancy hormones intensify your partner's emotions. Perhaps aggressive behavior helped pregnant cave women secure the support they needed from their tribe for themselves and their babies. With the tribe gone, you may be the only source of support left and now her only target.

If her hormones worked to positively reinforce your patience, efforts, and understanding (by exhibiting a positive reaction to what you do, to reinforce that you might do it again), your bond as you enter parenthood would be stronger. Instead, just as you two need to collaborate, her nature has conspired against you. Looks like evolution hiccupped on this survival issue for new families today. Not to worry, nature gives you a boost to handle it and be even more patient (but not always).

Pregnancy adds many new issues for a new mother to become emotional about, and the natural target for her frustration is you. There is a broad range in how moms-to-be respond, but since it surfaces quickly in pregnancies, you already know what's up. Hormonal impacts are most prevalent in the first trimester and often resurface in the third.

What new dads experience is treated as a joke, like rookies being hazed in a sports training camp. The joke gets old when you are living it. Like moms are not allowed to complain about motherhood, dads are not allowed to complain about moms. If your partner is being tough on you, the mom media says the simple solution is for you to be a saint. 

Her hormonal surge, problems in her pregnancy, your relationship, and her character all play a role in how she treats you, and sainthood only goes so far.

This evolutionary glitch presents a problem; how do you build a strong parenting team when your partner goes south on you at the start? Your family is in its formative stage and your new relationship as parents is just forming. Issues beyond the hormones come into play, like your current relationship. 

The reality is that dads-to-be have been handling rough starts on their mom relationship for a very long time. The reason is they are tougher, see beyond her temporary chemical surge, and whatever happens before the baby arrives pales in comparison to after.

Look at the bright side - they can be funny:

"Well the hormones are now in full effect… she's trying to make us get rid of our cat. Whom she adored twenty minutes ago."

She may laugh later, but in the heat of the moment, she really feels the cat must go. So humor her, buy time, and give her time to calm down. 

BTW, the cat stayed. 

There is a range of crazy among our pregnant partners. It's her hormones talking.

You must respect the fact that there is no better excuse for her going off on you than "My baby made me do it." 

"She will go scream for 30 minutes and then apologize. The hormones are ridiculous."

She is making a mountain out of a molehill, but don't discount the molehill: her feelings 

This will lose its rationality when you are personally being attacked. Avoid being triggered; if you are not in a mode to take her grief, leave the room. We don't have any other tricks. Suck it up when you can, and if you blow up, try to get back on track.

"Just coming home from work and opening the front door becomes a game of potluck. You just don't know what's waiting for you on the other side - a crying woman you want to put your arms around, or someone who looks a little like the woman you left this morning but holding an ax and standing among the ruins of the telly."

At your best, you will take it like a man, which means serving as her punching bag to help vent her frustrations, patience, turning the other cheek, and understanding. This often is one of the jobs of a new dad; take pride in the shots you take.

"She's eight months along and wants to know that I'm going to be able to take care of the baby, which is hard to do since I don't have a baby yet." - Rookie Dad

"I've been the crazy pregnant lady. [Your partner] is freaking out because in her mind you didn't help her with laundry, so you're not going to help with the baby. Yes, that escalats quickly." - Mom

"Be sweet and reassuring. Know that she's crazy but never tell her you know she's crazy. I'm sure she knows she's being ridiculous, on some level she's just hormonal and freaking out. If she comes back and acts like nothing is wrong; just go with it." - Mom

"Freaking out about impending parenthood plus hormones makes us batshit. I knew to expect it the second time around and made an effort to contain it and I still lost my mind."  - Mom

"My husband just reassures me and holds me when I'm upset and he tries to keep me laughing otherwise. Being happy is certainly a lot more fun. And he keeps telling me how adorable my little screw-ups are. I have done some really silly things and my husband just says how absolutely adorable I'm being and it kicks those tears outta my eyes instantly." - Mom-to-be

"My husband mellows me out when I start to worry too much or read too much. Sometimes we have to balance each other out." -  Mom-to-be

Women arrive at motherhood with a media-fed predisposition to be Mad At Dad. Moms-to-be can also have low expectations for new dads from what they have seen or heard from their friends, their own father, or the internet. Although it has gotten better, missteps by you may confirm her worst fears. You can find yourself in a hole before you are barely outside the gate.

As a heads up, here are a few more prevalent issues before your baby arrives:

  • "I am the only one getting dumped on"
  • "He doesn't care" 
  • "He wants me to make all the career sacrifices"

And a few in addition to housework for after the baby:

  • "You are worthless around the baby"
  • "You are purposely working longer hours when I need you here"
  • "All you want to do is get back in the sack"

This just goes with the territory. When she is having a tough time, no matter how good you are, it may not be good enough. This will become apparent after the baby arrives and she becomes overwhelmed. Her mind is churning with things she must do for her baby, whether helpful or not, and she will expect you to take the same approach. 


Becoming A Mother

If you track her progress month-by-month as described in her pregnancy book, you'll lose the forest for the trees. What happens to her goes way beyond morning sickness and childbirth. Motherhood will change her to her core.

During pregnancy, the incredible reality of a baby growing inside her captures her full attention, and she imagines what her baby will be like. She may daydream about him, perhaps as a little boy with the ideal traits she envisions (ask her what she imagines). Towards the end, she'll likely worry about childbirth, so encourage her to talk it out.

It is a process. She must deal with the incredible changes she is experiencing as they occur; setting the clock back is not an option. The first few weeks can be especially trying until she is able to offset her uncertainties about caring for her newborn with the reality that her baby is growing and becoming stronger daily.  

Most new mothers struggle at times, and some describe feeling trapped and virtually chained to the baby. She may be disappointed that her baby doesn't look like she had imagined, yearn for a break, or simply be bored. She may try to mold herself into someone she is not. The behavior of your baby is a big factor; adding colic to her circumstances will push her closer to the edge: how good a mother can she be if she can't stop her baby from crying?

And then she will adjust. If she ends up with post-partum depression, she will simply take longer to adjust. Her child is growing, and the mother in her will grow alongside. 

Milestones for New Moms

Her best strategy is to plan on doing nothing else in the first months but getting used to being a mom. On average, it takes new moms 4-5 months to get their "mommy legs," the point at which they generally feel like they know what they're doing. Within a year, she will grow into a comfortable and confident mom, with new capabilities, character, and power.

Here are some early milestones for new moms:

  1. Childbirth
  2. Her baby "latching on" 
  3. Accepting help
  4. Enjoying a shower
  5. Making a new "mom friend"
  6. Accepting her own choices
  7. Sleeping for more than 4 hours
  8. Leaving her baby with you
  9. First baby outing by herself
  10. A first date with you

Then she starts feeling that some of her pre-baby life is back, which can include you.

Sociologists argue over whether women instinctually have babies, but no one denies the power nature has bestowed on mothers to care for and protect their babies. This includes her drive to do everything possible to benefit her baby, and intuitive ways to hold, touch and communicate that strengthen the bond between her and her baby. This is an interesting note on high expectations; she actually knows more than she thinks she does.

READ: Maternal instinct is wired into her brain. 

Due to her commitment to motherhood, she will quickly develop a new mindset that includes being a mom. After the birth, self-discovery ensues as she struggles with the life changes and intense responsibility thrust upon her. As she watches her baby grow and flourish, she learns to trust herself.  As she finds she is able to give her baby everything he needs, a profound sense of validation, a feeling that she is a real mom, sets in. In a sense, she is reborn as a mother in her own mind.

She Has the Strength of a Cave Mom

In her mid-teens, a cave girl, living with her family and tribe in the wild with dirt floors, rats, rain and wild meat-eating animals, would mate and become a mom. Then, in addition to her own survival, she took care of, nurtured, and did everything possible to keep her tiny baby alive and thriving. 

Why did she so awesomely commit herself to her baby? A new cave mom experienced a powerful metamorphosis that fundamentally changed who she was. She had inherited her enormous motivation from her maternal ancestors in the form of a deeply imprinted genetic code, coupled with supercharged hormones and new brain capacity. This has been passed on down to your partner as well.

While humans have developed over the past 50 million years, it has only been over a short 150,000 years that we homo sapiens have evolved, so your partner will still be running cave mom blood. Her genetic makeup will trigger an intense desire to provide everything her baby could possibly need. Even with central heating, breast pumps, and home-delivered meals, her maternal drive will be as strong as the cavemom's drive.

Help Her Manage Her Cave Mom Drive

While her ancient biological drive will ensure she is a good mom, and more, she will still likely question whether she actually is or not. A bigger question is: Will she try to be too good, and suffer the added pressure and stress this puts on her.

She may also commit herself so strongly to her baby that she doesn't take care of herself, get worked up by nonsense spewed by Mommyland, pushes you away from your baby (see Gatekeeping, below), and makes life-changing decisions in the early months after your baby arrives that she later comes to regret.

You can remind her that baby needs her to be healthy. Encourage her to step away from the keyboard and suggest she delay any big decisions shortly after your baby arrives. In spite of three months of paid leave for mothers, they were still losing them at twice the rate of other mothers; when they extended paid leave to five months, the difference disappeared.

cave mom runs

Her Emerging Mommy Brain

Dads have told us for decades that it's not just a new baby they bring home from the hospital, it's a new partner as well. Research has now made clear that while your mate's beliefs and characteristics will help shape her as a mom, the innate biologically driven changes she experiences will dramatically impact the direction she takes. 

The hormones impacting her during pregnancy and new motherhood (that are known) are FSH LH, hCG, estrogen, progesterone, relaxin (no kidding, but limited to relaxing her body for birth), placental growth factor, HPL, oxytocin, and prolactin. They drive the extraordinary physical changes she undergoes during pregnancy and birth, and supercharge her emotions (or add the equivalent of a nitrous oxide system, if you prefer). Some are new and others, like oxytocin, are always with her; they are all described here.

Even with 100 billion neurons and a quadrillion synapse connections in her head, she only has so much mind space, so nature rearranges what gets her attention. While she forgets things (aka Mommy Brain), her IQ doesn't change, but her priorities do. A portion of her neurons are being repurposed for motherhood; this mind reset automatically starts with her brain shutting down neural connections to mental activities not related to the baby inside her, to make room for her new focus. 

Scientists theorize this pruning process reduces stress on moms-to-be by giving them less to worry about, although evolution did not anticipate today's internet-induced stress that more than makes up the difference. The front section of her brain will actually shrink in density and weight during the last six months of her pregnancy as her synapses disconnect. They then reconnect to different neurons which are repurposed to support her role as a mother, and in the six months after birth, her brain regains its full weight. Many of these connections are made to sensors (neural sensors receptors) that react to her emerging hormonal processes, further intensifying her feelings. 

Our quest to understand new moms was energized by Louann Brizendine, MD, a leading neuroscientist and mom, who confirmed that motherhood "literally changes a woman's brain-structurally, functionally, and in many ways, irreversibly." Brizendine explains a mother's shifting biology:

  • "Deeply buried in my genetic code were triggers for basic mothering behavior that were primed by the hormones of pregnancy, activated by childbirth and reinforced by close physical contact with my child."
  • "These changes result in a motivated, highly attentive and aggressively protective brain that forces the new mother to alter her responses and priorities in life. She is relating to this person in a way she has never related to anyone else in her life. The stakes are life and death."
  • "Biology can hijack our brain circuits despite our best intentions. Even the most career-oriented woman's changing the way she thinks, feels and what she finds important."

While she is already experiencing a big emotional shift, there's an even bigger one that happens after childbirth that will take her by surprise. Feelings of responsibility, purpose, and vulnerability (mixed with guilt) will come in waves and can leave her wondering who she is. Even her most well thought out plans might need to be reconfigured after your baby arrives.


Her Gatekeeping Can Go Either Way

New mothers quickly take charge of their babies, and they can use their control as the "gatekeeper" to encourage a new father's involvement or criticize and restrict it. The latter includes micromanagement of your interactions with your baby and hovering around and criticizing or correcting you. 

Research indicates that if a new mom opens the gate by encouraging dad's involvement, very good things happen in brand new families:

  • Dad becomes more involved and confident in child care.
  • He gets better at caring for the baby.
  • A sense of teamwork develops between mom and dad.
  • This extends to other challenges including housework.
  • Their relationship becomes stronger vs. declining.

This is a great way to start a family.

Just as a family is forming, if she restricts his care of their baby, this happens:

  • Dads get frustrated and back off caring for their babies.
  • His baby skills don't develop, which leads to more criticism from Mom.
  • He feels rejected and hurt, and retreats to more time at work.
  • Teamwork suffers right out of the gate.
  • The relationship suffers.

This sucks for Dad, and ultimately for Mom and the baby. 

It's partly instinctual and an extension of the cave mom's hormonally enhanced protectiveness. A brand new mom's whole life is wrapped around her baby, and because you care for him differently as a dad (a good thing), you represent a potential threat. Since your new family does not live in a cave with all sorts of threats about, you have essentially replaced the Saber Tooth Tiger as the main danger to "her" baby.

Sarah J. Schoppe-Sullivan, Ph.D., a researcher and mom from Ohio State University, found that even when moms-to-be fully intended to share baby care with Dad, once their babies and hormones arrived, they struggled with letting Dad get hands-on with the baby. 

"I know we're supposed to let our husbands be involved and let him do things with the baby his way, but it's really, really hard!"    -New Mom

The research also indicates new mothers were more likely to close the gate to fathers when:

  • She has high expectations regarding his baby care skills, as she has for herself.
  • Dad hasn't taken the time to learn about baby care.
  • Mom is experiencing anxiety or depression.
  • Mom is not feeling love for him in the relationship.
  • Mom is angry over his not doing more to help.

Normal conflicts overwhelmed new parents face aggravate these circumstances; in a sense, Mom can end up holding your baby hostage because she's angry at you. 

During the trying first months when you're unsure of what to do, it's easy to conclude that "if she wants to do it all, let her." This becomes a hard pattern to break for both Mom and Dad, and often sets the tone for your relationship with both Mom and your baby for a long time. So don't take the easy way out of your child's life; stand your ground but do it constructively.

In most cases, new mothers do not make a conscious decision to gatekeep and are not even aware they are hindering Dad's involvement and bonding with his child, so it will be up to you to act. Constructive steps include:

  • Demonstrate to her that you are capable of caring for your child by learning about baby care.
  • Understand her behavior is directly tied to her drive to do a good job as a mother.
  • Be sensitive to her needs and ask for her "advice" on how to care for your baby. 
  • If she's watching and correcting you, take the baby into another room. 
  • Encourage her to get out on her own to the mall, an exercise class, a friend, etc.
  • Take your baby out for a walk, or on a trip to the store. 
  • Explain that "her" baby will benefit from the very relationship with you that she is undermining. 
  • Tell her an involved dad helps a new mom balance work and family.
  • Let her know how important being close to your child is to you.

See "How to Help Dad Succeed" in the Mom's section of this site.

Ninette: "I Like Things My Way..." (1:21)

SCIENCE DAILY: Fathers' early parenting quality affected by mothers -  Study shows the impact of maternal 'gatekeeping'


If She Is Not Stepping Up

These critical issues are very difficult to address amidst her hormonal surges, especially if confounded by preexisting relationship problems and your anger. The guidance to you from the experts, including our dads, is limited to "take care of Mom, no matter what," and that only goes so far. Given the enormous stakes for your baby and your marriage, we'll tell you what we can, and encourage you to act constructively.

This doesn't mean she is not following all the rules.  After all, some rules, like absolutely no alcohol during pregnancy, are not supported by the research. "No more than an occasional drink" is supported though, along with regular doctor visits, decent nutrition, no smoking and some exercise.

First, ask yourself "am I being compulsive?" If not, then you will need to find a way to talk with her and/or her doctor. 

Impending motherhood understandably tilts the focus in your relationship towards her needs and her responsibilities. Once your baby arrives, the tilt is even more dramatic. Is her attitude towards you her hormones talking, along with her suffering and struggles with the demands upon her? Or is she also taking advantage of her circumstances to treat you poorly?

"Support her, no matter what" is a good place to start, but you will also need to act on your relationship issues. Hormonal impacts rise and fall, and after several months she should adjust to the demands of new motherhood. Be very patient, despite your own anger, and wait to see if she comes around. If there is no change, your patience will support progress on your relationship, and the timing will likely improve your prospects. Hopefully, you can find answers in our relationship section; if there is any time to enlist the help of a counselor, this is it. 

If it is depression related, especially after the birth, check out our information on postpartum depression, and especially

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