How Partners Can Help Even When They Don't Understand

I feel so lucky to have an amazing husband; he is a friend, partner, father, and the passionate love of my life. When I struggle hardest, however, it doesn’t look like the marriage I just described. I want to share his most helpful insight with all of you, here, because the sheer simplicity of it knocks my socks off. I should add to that sentence: “when I’m in a good place.” When I’m in a dark and scary place, I sometimes want to throw things when he does this.

He says, “I don’t understand, but I don’t need to.”

He says this when I call for help with the baby in that desperate tone, and then ask him with so much accusation in my voice, “What?! Why are you looking at me like that?” It’s an explanation, and it gives him a graceful exit, babe in arms.

This is helpful because in those desperate moments, I am usually feeling intense anxiety and often rage, and I need a safe space to let that pass. If it’s just me and the baby, then the baby goes in the playpen, while I wait for it to pass, sometimes just around the corner, where I can’t see him cry for me. It’s a lot easier to wait it out, though, when Daddy can distract our baby from my confusing disappearance with a game or a story or a toy.

In those moments, I long to be understood. I want it to be normal, not scary, something every parent feels. But it isn’t something every parent feels. It’s my illness. It is okay; feelings are not dangerous. Thoughts about doing something to release feelings of rage are not dangerous. Only actions are dangerous, and that’s not something we have to fear. My illness may drown me in feelings and thoughts until I feel like I’ll never get my head above water again, but I don’t act on them. My husband does not fear that I will act on them. We all know that we are safe.

When he says that he doesn’t understand, and he doesn’t need to understand, my husband is helping by making our family as comfortable as we can be, when my illness shows its ugliest side. In the moment, it releases us from talking about it. I have a hard time talking about these feelings after they have passed. I’m not in any shape to talk about them during the middle of it all. His words explain the look on his face, a look I used to interpret as disgust or fear. “The Look” happens because he doesn’t understand. Knowing that releases me from the fear that it means something bigger and uglier.

So, why the second part? Why does he say that he doesn’t need to understand?

Partners, spouses, parents, grandparents: If they haven’t experienced the feelings that come with anxiety, depression, and postpartum rage, then they just don’t know what those things feel like. They can’t know, no matter how I try to explain it. I’m good with words; I’m a writer. I can’t make it happen any more than a writer can make me taste something I’ve never eaten. Everyone understands certain levels of anxiety, sadness, anger, etc., but that doesn’t make it any easier to understand why I need my child taken to another room, because I feel so full of rage that his touch upsets me, and his laughter sounds taunting.

There’s another level to this, and it’s something I’ve only very recently come to appreciate: In order to truly understand what I’m going through, my husband would have to feel these feelings. I wouldn’t wish them on a complete stranger, let alone my life partner and father of my child.

I have found a community of mothers who really understand this, through Postpartum Progress and #ppdchat on Twitter. I can go to my phone or computer any time of day or night and find someone who has been to this awful place. But when I call out for help with the baby, it is really nice to know that I’m going to get help from someone whose emotions run a more even course.

I am sure that we’d be okay if he did know these feelings, since dads do experience postpartum depression. The plus side of not my husband not understanding what I’m going through, though, is that I don’t have to worry that he’s going through the same thing.

I do not mean to imply that moms like me don’t need understanding, or that we can get everything we need from friends. This is not a phrase that I hear often, by any means. It’s not an excuse to avoid me or to avoid talking about feelings. My husband came up with this after years of talking about feelings, anxiety, my illness, then, after the baby was born last year, postpartum rage. I need my spouse to talk about feelings with me, his feelings and my feelings. My point is very specific: When fear and/or rage feel like they will overwhelm every molecule of my being, my husband is comfortable caring for our child, even though he sees the intensity of my mood but does not relate.

He doesn’t understand. He doesn’t need to understand. We need acceptance. He needs to accept that I feel something so intense, that I want our child to be in another room, if possible. I need to accept that these feelings have come, and that they will go. These are the words we use to communicate that that is happening. We make for a truly awesome team, especially during those moments.