“Who is scared of giving birth?” asks a woman at the front of a large room full of soon-to-be mums holding their burgeoning bumps. Almost everyone lifts their hand straight up into the air without a second thought. Mine stays firmly by my side. I’m at a birthing class, and the teacher is keen to know why I’m not fearful. “I guess… I have nothing to compare it to. I have never experienced the pain, so I have no concept of what it will or won’t be like,” I respond. She looks impressed. It’s not a test, but I feel like I’ve just passed.
I’m scared of everything else that goes with having a baby. I’m worried about my relationship with my husband changing, the financial strain of taking time off work, what will happen to my career while I’m out of the mix, whether I’ll be a good mum, how it’ll change my friendships, being lonely... You see I, like many expats in Dubai, have never really had to do the grown-up stuff that comes before having a baby. My husband and I don’t own a house together, we don’t have a joint bank account, and I’m a bit ashamed to admit that we don’t even clean our own home. Therefore it feels like being whacked in the face with a heavy dose of adulting and compromise all at once. There are plenty of groups available to teach us how to push a baby out and feed him or her, but where is the class for all this new life admin? Surely these are the important things that are going to keep us sane and relatively argument-free in those precious early months?
These fears lead me to Dr Marie Thompson, clinical director and consultant clinical psychologist at Vivamus, who specialises in working with pregnant couples and new parents. “You’re not born knowing this stuff… how are you supposed to know?” she says reassuringly when I tell her about my postbirth fears. According to Dr Marie, there are key topics that I need to address with my husband in the next few weeks. “If you wait until the baby’s born, you will have just delivered a child, hormones are going to be all over the place and neither of you will have slept,” she reasons. Makes sense. If we’re going to have conversations about chores, money, expectations, and parenting, I’d rather do it while I’m well rested and rational. So, what have we got in store for us? “The dynamics in a relationship change, at least in the short term. Usually there becomes a dynamic where one person is dependent on the other, and in the immediate term that might be for your physical needs,” she explains. “The major predictor of mental health problems in that postnatal period is perceived social support. It isn’t the amount of support, it’s your perception of it. You might look like you’ve got loads – your family, his family – but if you’re not perceiving it to be helpful, that’s a problem,” she says. Over the next hour we discuss what that support might look like. Boundaries for visitors, how finances will be shared, our parental roles, family involvement, a full or part-time helper – there are many things that I haven’t even thought to worry about yet, so it’s extremely helpful for an expert to give me a nudge before I’m confronted with them postpartum. “If the couple can be a united front, that bodes very well,” Dr Marie affirms, explaining why having boundaries and agreed-upon parenting styles will come in very handy later down the line. “You are going to get people suggesting ideas. Family, people on the street – everyone will have an opinion. The important thing is to be informed and agree on your approach.”
Armed with a list of topics to address and a clear idea of my stance on them, I feel ready to tackle a conversation with my husband. We sit down and write a list of bullet points separately, then come together to discuss. It starts off badly. It seems we have completely different ideas about almost everything. We both close our notepads and switch on the TV without finishing the list, barely talking. Then I remember what Dr Marie said about how having a baby could affect my husband: “Postnatal depression is something that does occur in men. There’s a change in their hormone levels as well. The pressure that they might have, the responsibility, if there’s an expectation that they are up with the baby during the night when working the next day. That also has an impact.” A few hours later I pick the notepads back up. “What did you write down about your fears?” I ask, sitting next to him on the sofa with a cup of tea. He tells me he’s scared of something being wrong with the baby, how having a baby might impact his friendships, and work.” In that moment I realise that I’m not alone in my anxiety. I have someone right here who, albeit on a slightly different level, understands. Something that Dr Marie said to me now makes a lot of sense: “The other person doesn’t know what they’re doing either. You’re both working it out as you go along. But I think, in any relationship, if you can see that the other person is feeling vulnerable in a moment, and you can take care of that person’s vulnerability, a lot of angst and aggression is taken out of the communication.” Later on while we’re cooking dinner I bring up some of the practical elements of the postpartum period that we had disagreed on earlier.
The truth is, I’m terrified...Just not about the birth.
When we both explain why we have set a certain boundary, made a particular parenting choice, or decision about work, it becomes a lot easier to compromise. In fact, it doesn’t even feel like a compromise… it feels like conclusions that we’re arriving at together. Off the back of that conversation, I know that we’re going for a baby-led parenting style initially, but we’re both keen to try a routine as soon as we feel that our baby is ready. We’re going to give each other time to rest on a shift basis, and hire someone to help around the house part-time. Visitor-wise, we’re both happy to see how we feel, with the understanding that if any one of the three of us isn’t up to it, we’ll say no. We’ve even taken charge of our finances so that we can start saving for our child’s future. I can’t say that all my fears have evaporated, or that I have a fool-proof plan for when the baby arrives, but I’m now confident that I have an ally by my side who will support my choices. Although I have no doubt there will be some disagreements that we can’t prepare for, I can rest assured that we have laid the calm and considered foundations necessary for our baby’s arrival into the world. And that seems like a pretty good plan to me.
Checklist of what you need to discuss pre-baby
- Birth: Who will be present and what would you like them to do?
- Visitors: Who will come, when and for how long?
- Finances: Will there be a change in income as a result of one member of the couple not working, and if so, how will you ensure both of you have access to money?
- Parental leave: How much time will each of you take off?
- Fears: Sharing your vulnerabilities and supporting each other in navigating them helps bring you closer together.
- Change: How do you anticipate your lives changing as a result of having a child? How will you embrace or manage these changes?
- Roles: Who will do what? When the working parent is home, will they be given free reign to parent their way or will there be an expectation to follow the routine established by the stay at home parent?
- Parenting: What approach will you take? Baby led, attachment based, routine driven etc.
- Language: You may well have a number of languages to impart upon your child, how will this be done? Will you agree a shared language and each speak to your child in your mother tongue?
- Help: Will you use the services of a maid or nanny? If so, how will you arrange this – prior to delivery or afterwards?
- Intimacy: How will you manage each other’s expectations so neither feels unloved or not important?
- Rest: How will you arrange things so the stay at home parent and working parent each has some down time?