What pregnant women want...
FOR MEN: We know what we want - we just want you to know it too. Because we may emit conflicting messages, we thought we'd help you through this rather fraught time with a rough guide to pregnancy and birth.
Pregnant woman = enigma
Note to women: this feature needs to be left surreptitiously in a male zone where your man is bound to find it. Or, if he's not getting the signals, simply shove it under his nose.
For most men, a pregnant woman is an astonishing enigma, the pregnant body a bewildering mystery. Men have reported that watching their partner transform into a pregnant woman is like helplessly witnessing an alien abduction - only this one lasts nine months, and the alien in question is your own offspring.
We know you have learnt to, if not love, then live with our minor inconsistencies. We're moon-bound, menstrual creatures, prone to mood swings and often impossible demands. In pregnancy, when our bodies become, in author Naomi Wolf's words, "a powerhouse of female substances", we become, in turns, a time bomb waiting to detonate; a pathetic, whiny wimp; and a superwoman. We may be stand-offish and touch-me-not one minute, and desperately clingy the next. It's our hormones, and we're more or less at their mercy. We need you to know this about us; to intuitively know when to back off and when to move in for a cuddle, when to proffer help and when to allow us to do it all ourselves.
Sex, thighs and communication
Perhaps the first area of assistance should be on the sex front. Because we know you think about sex every five nanoseconds, you will clearly be a little frustrated over the foreplay famine and the sex drought that may accompany pregnancy. While your partner's cleavage now rivals the girls on Baywatch, her libido might not be quite so buoyant, and so you need to know what's alright in the boudoir.
Sex is utterly safe during pregnancy - it won't harm or corrupt your unborn child, or induce a premature birth. But your partner is on a curious journey that involves her going inward, focusing on the new life within. She might not be feeling terribly amorous. So be sensitive. If you really need some coital bliss, ask first, and then create the right atmosphere - court her with candle light, slow music, mood enhancers that will show her you care. You need to romance your wife more than ever at this stage.
Her body may still be the object of your lust, but her changing shape is going to have a profound affect on her self-perception and on her own sense of sexiness. Observing how big her bottom and thighs have got or how swollen her ankles are, is not going to win you points. Now's the time to repeatedly tell her (in a clear, verbal way - no grunts or ambiguous gestures!) how downright sexy she is, that it blows you away that she is carrying your child inside her, that she is as desirable as she always was, maybe even more so.
This is the time for talk. We know it's hard for you to bare your souls (we just do it over a cup of tea), but you need to seriously boost your communication quotient. Discuss what's happening in her body, talk about the birth and your role in it, and share your dreams about your child's future. And talk to your baby. My husband started talking to his daughters from the moment of conception. We fondly call those days "The Abdominal Monologues", where he wooed and charmed our daughters in utero so that they were madly in love with him before they were even born.
A whole host of egregious myths and stereotypes have obscured men's role in the birth process. We need to assure, remind, and convince you of your utterly vital role in the birth process. You are in your wife's corner. You are her coach, her backstop, her advocate, her protector, her spokesperson. You're there to "second" her on this marathon journey, but your role is by no means secondary. You're the man! Try to support her birth choices. We know you love technology and gadgets, and want the safest possible birth for your woman, but her body is beautifully primed to give birth naturally. If she chooses a natural birth, support her in it. If she asks not to have pain relief during the birth, coach her through her pain.
My husband was allowed to utter a single phrase - a mantra - during my labour. "Ride the pain" was the chant - uttered in his lovely deep, compelling male voice - that kept me going. Of course, any departures from this phrase - adding a few motivational words, for instance - put him in danger of losing a limb. Your partner will become a different creature entirely during labour and might use foul language to show her appreciation of you. Don't take it personally. Just hold her hand, help her breathe, and coach her through it.
After the birth, your role becomes just as pivotal. You can cut the cord, and bond beautifully with your babe while your partner delivers the placenta. You've become a sort of holy trinity now, and you are very much in the frame. This is the time, weak and weepy, when she needs you close. Stroke her, praise her, be available. And allow her to talk about the birth for as long as she needs to. In an age devoid of ritual and rites of passage, you've just been through the most life- transforming experience together. Talk about it. Make memories.
Baby's here - now what?
Now that your life has been reconfigured as a family, there are going to be changes. Because we know you think about sex every five nanoseconds (we've said that before, but because we know it's true and hey, we love that about you!), you may be having these pressing post-partum thoughts: am I doomed to a sex drought until my baby turns 18? How soon can we have sex after birth? Please?
There's a very simple answer to these profound questions. Women have unconsciously been known to withhold sex when they perceive that their partner is indifferent to or unconcerned about the mothering load. It's a simple axiom (known and cherished amongst all women): men who change nappies, help with the night shift and give regular back massages have at least 99.9% more sex than men who don't. But you'll want to wait at least six weeks, because after a natural birth or C-section, she will be rather tender. Her breasts, once the apple of your eye, are now a major food supply system. Be patient, and encourage breastfeeding. Your time will come. Eventually.
Your partner might not be emotionally available to you after the birth. Recognise you have crossed a threshold in your relationship. Her energies and attention will be focused on your newborn. This is an evolutionary, innate survival mechanism, so don't feel rejected. And don't be excluded.
Traditionally, in the postnatal phase, society shoves men out of the picture, while all the attention centres on the mother with babe-in-arms. Re-insert yourself. Go walkabout with your baby - there's nothing sexier than a man with a baby strapped to his chest. Have Sunday morning lie-ins where you all just moon over each other in bed. Sing lullabies while your baby snoozes on your chest, and dream big dreams about the million things you're going to love teaching this babe. After all, you're the dad!
Note: Postnatal depression
If your partner has prolonged feelings of despair, helplessness and anxiety after the birth, she may be suffering from postnatal depression. She needs help, both yours and a professional's.
PND is a common postpartum experience, and should be handled with compassion and sensitivity. It may be very trying for you, but there are ways of supporting your partner through it. Consult your gynae, midwife or a psychologist for advice.
And yes, you too can call the Postnatal Depression Society of South Africa www.pndsa.co.za