One the reasons I knew my husband was a great partner for me is because he respects my boundaries and knows how to be supportive without being pushy or bossy. This really should be a super obvious, basic thing, but it's apparently startlingly difficult for many straight, cisgender men, because patriarchy. That can be a huge problem for straight, co-parenting couples, where dads quite admirably want to be involved in all aspects of parenting, but don't understand that there are times when dads should actually back off.
When I say "back off" here, I don't mean "disengage completely." I mean "follow someone else's lead, instead of trying to set the agenda." That can be challenging for people who have been socialized to believe that they should always be in charge or always take an active role in everything, rather than a supporting one. If you spend more than a day in any online mom group, for example, you'll inevitably see thread after thread of rants and requests for advice because of problems caused by dads who don't understand that, in some situations, it's just not their place or their right to make the call. (That's not to say that this dynamic doesn't or can't pop up in queer parenting relationships, but because straight couples are both more common and more subject to the pitfalls of toxic masculinity, dads who overstep their boundaries with moms are a more common problem than the reverse.)
There is so much to parenting, and so many opportunities to bond and be involved, so dads and those who love them shouldn't worry that backing off in any of the following situations means they can't or shouldn't be involved in anything. (On the flip side, men who use the fact that they can't call all the shots as an excuse to do nothing are putting up a giant red flag; namely that they're either looking for an excuse to be uninvolved, or that they're controlling. Please: if someone is trying to control you or pressure you to do anything you're not OK with, keep an eye out for other signs of abusive relationship dynamics and get help if you need to.) Recognizing when to step up and step back is important for everyone, especially in parenting. Since learning that can be harder for some than others, here's a cheat sheet for dads who don't always realize when they're crossing the line.
When Deciding Whether Or Not To Keep A Pregnancy
"My body, my choice" isn't just a refrain to be repeated over and over and over again until politicians hear it and understand it. It's something a lot of male partners need to understand, too. Men's chance to decide whether or not they want to be fathers happens before they decide to have sex (or otherwise dispense their sperm, in the case of families pursuing IUI or IVF). After conception, it is the woman's decision. Period.
When Mom Is Choosing Her Birth Plan
How a baby is born is a special moment for the entire family, but it's a particularly important and significant (and potentially traumatic) event for the person who is actually giving birth. So, once again, this is a moment where mom's needs and desires take precedence. Dads should be supportive, attend the childbirth classes that mom chooses, and be an advocate for her needs if she runs into problems with disrespectful health care providers while in labor. However, dads shouldn't weigh in on choices like whether or not a mom decided to have an epidural or an unmedicated birth, because he ain't the one pushing this baby out (or having it cut out) of him. Know your role, papas!
When Deciding Whether Or Not To Breastfeed
When it comes to new babies, the first feeding decision belongs exclusively to mom, because it also involves her body and her postpartum health and her labor and delivery recovery. For their part, dads should read up on the subject so they can learn how to support their breastfeeding partner and/or how to successfully formula feed a baby. However, they should never push a decision in either direction, because once again, her body, her choice.
If Mom Is Struggling In The Early Stages Of Breastfeeding
There are lots of ways for dads to be supportive of early breastfeeding success. But pressuring her to persevere if she doesn't want to, or pushing her to "just give the baby a bottle" are not among them. A good statement for dads to practice in this and many other situations: "I'm here for you no matter what you decide. Please let me know if and how I can be helpful."
When A Breastfeeding Mom Is Deciding When To Wean
Just like deciding whether or not to breastfeed is mom's choice, deciding how long to breastfeed is mom's (and baby's, to some extent) choice, too. This is an especially important reminder for men who are struggling to relearn what breasts are primarily for; nourishing children, not straight cisgender men's sexual interests. To any dads out there trying to pressure a mom to wean earlier than she wants to because they think it's "weird" or so they can "stop sharing her breasts with the baby," I say: have a whole freakin' stadium of seats. To any dudes out there trying to pressure moms to keep nursing longer than she wants to for any reason, I say: have another whole freakin' stadium of seats.
When/Whether Mom Goes Back To Work After Baby
To be clear, financial matters in a relationship should be decided by all the adults involved. But if there's an open question about when and whether mom plans to go back to work outside the home, that should be her choice to make, not something that is forced on her either way and definitely not something that is shaped by outdated but somehow still prevailing sexist, gender stereotypes.
When His Partner Is Deciding If And When She's Ready For Postpartum Sex
Consent, consent, consent. Anyone worth having sex with, and certainly worth having and/or raising kids with, should already understand that enthusiastic consent should be the basis of any sexual encounter, pre- or postpartum. It doesn't matter if it's been a while. It doesn't matter if six weeks have already passed and/or the doctor says everything is healed. The only person who gets to decide if she's ready to have sex is the woman in question. (Also, pressuring someone to have sex is one of the biggest, reddest red flags for intimate partner violence and abuse. If this is happening in your relationship, please get help if you can.)
When Mom Is Figuring Out If She's Ready For Other Postpartum Activities
It's admirable for dads to want to help their partners get back into their not-pregnant groove, whether it's exercising, hanging out with friends, or anything else. But just as with anything else, she needs to be the one to decide when she's ready for all of that. Harping on the idea of starting an exercise regimen, making plans without checking in with her, or otherwise pressuring her to do something she hasn't indicated she's ready to do is not OK. Another time to remember that "I'm here to support you," line.
When He Hasn't Done His Homework
A lot of men are still getting the memo that it's important for them to actually read and learn things about raising children so, unfortunately, some really don't do much on this front at all. However, if they're going to actually step up and be equal partners in parenting, they need to do an equal amount of the cognitive and emotional labor required to make those choices. Whether it's how and when to introduce solid foods, what kind of car seat to buy or how long to rear face, dads shouldn't get veto power based on a "hunch," or what his mama/auntie/buddy told him they did, when their partners have put serious thought and research into a decision.
When A Mom Is Making Peace With Her Postpartum Body
There are plenty of ways to be supportive of a postpartum partner who's struggling to adjust to all the changes in her body. Aggressively pushing exercise or postpartum beauty regimens, or even shaming her for feeling badly about not looking the way she used to, isn't one of them. It's pushy, and it can do more harm than good.