After attending PolyDay for the second time, I'm aware that this might be an increasingly common situation in my community. You might be years off starting a family of your own, still looking for your perfect co-parent(s) or even be resolutely child-free, but the more relationships we have, the greater the chance is that one of our partners is at a different stage of life, or makes different decisions to us.
So you might not be ready to have children, or even want them at all, but now you have them, by proxy at least.
Either you are supportive of your partner's choice, and try to be involved with their new family member, or you risk drifting apart. Evolution gives new parents a one-track mind, so unless you're part of this, there's a good chance that they just won't have time for you.
So, if you decide you want to be a source of support, and a part of your partner's new family, how should you do it? You're in a better position than most of their friends, as not only do you probably know them better, but the intimacy that you have means that they may be more comfortable accepting your help and falling apart in front of you. My husband advises new parents to have no one around for long unless you would be comfortable crying in front of them, but you probably fall into that bracket, right?
1. Offer to help with nappies
If you've had a baby, you'll understand why I'm saying this. If you haven't, you'll probably be scared of the yuck and of doing it wrong. But most new parents haven't had a great deal of experience with this skill either, and now they have to do it 6-10 times a day. It's terrifying. So, if you're confident, offer to change a nappy, perhaps asking for supervision. If you're unsure, offer to help or ask to watch, so you can do it on your own next time. Even with poo, it's not that bad, I promise, and once you've done it (and the baby's parents can see you can do it), you'll feel much more comfortable with the idea of baby care, and become a much more useful source of support.
The parents might turn down your offers of help. Maybe they're uncomfortable having other people care for their new child, or maybe they're trying to be polite. They will definitely appreciate the offer. There won't be many people who feel comfortable or willing enough to offer, so it shows your commitment to both your partner, and keeping involved in this new person's life.
As time goes on, the parents will become more confident, and nappies will become less of an issue. But your early involvement will be a sound investment in keeping your bond with your partner and their child.
2. Feed the parents.
If you're visiting the new baby in hospital, after the birth, bring food. The mother and her birth partner(s) will be starving, and struggling to survive on hospital rations. Giving birth is hard work, even for the people who are just there for support, and it's likely none of them had a chance to eat much (or sleep at all) during labour. If you don't get a chance to ask them what to bring, cake and biscuits are usually safe. This is not the time for salad.
If you're visiting at home, bring food. New parents struggle to find time to eat, let alone prepare food. It can be hard to accept care from friends or even family, but you're probably used to caring for your partner, so they will probably be grateful of a cooked meal, or even a sandwich. Recovering from birth and beginning breastfeeding takes a tremendous number of calories just to keep on an even keel, so I guarantee that help in this area will be welcome, whether your partner is the mother, or just the co-parent who is trying to care for her. I had people bringing me plates of food, snacks and hunks of cake continuously for the first four weeks, and dear God it was amazing.
You know your partner better than most, so you'll know what sort of food they'll appreciate. Just make sure it takes little or no preparation, and if possible, can be eaten with one hand.
Oh, and if you ever see someone breastfeeding, offer her a drink.
3. Help around the house.
New parents might still feel like they have to 'host', but hopefully, you'll be close enough to both of them to be able to pitch in without them becoming uncomfortable. Someone did our washing up without asking when Small was two weeks old, and I'm still grateful. If you see any little jobs that need doing, just do them, and if you have the time to do anything more, ask if you could run a hoover around, or hang the washing out. Again, this is the sort of help that would make most people uncomfortable, but it's much easier to accept from someone you love.
4. Get comfortable with your new family member.
Get comfortable cuddling them, making faces, singing songs, patting and rocking them to sleep. Cuddling them as you dance around works with most newborns. The more confident you get with these new skills (and calming and keeping babies happy is definitely a skill!) the easier you'll find it both to support your partner, and stay an intrinsic part of their family.
Personally, in the first few months, I was usually desperate for a break from the dratted child (sorry, Small...) so was much happier when someone offered to hold her so I could throw on some washing, than if they had offered to help with the housework. Sometimes, what I really wanted was to have a bath with the bathroom door closed, so it might feel that just holding the baby isn't enough of a help, but your partner might be both grateful of the break, and happy that you want to spend time with their child.
5. Be aware that the ground has shifted
If your partner has just given birth, you'll know not to expect sex for a while, but even if your partner is the mother's co-partner, you might not be sharing a bed. The baby is the parents' priority, and newborns need parenting 24 hours a day. Everything is different now, and the space the two of you had before has gone. It will take time to work out how things have changed for you both.
It's not easy to predict how the recovery will affect the intimacy between you and your partner, even if your partner isn't the one recovering from the birth. The first few weeks are overwhelming, but it will get easier. There is a reason everyone tells you that they grow up so fast. It's a cliché, but they really do. It may seem almost impossible for you to find space to be with your partner now, but things will change incredibly quickly. The two of you can find a way to reconnect, but you'll need to be patient and gentle with the parents, and don't push it.
There is also no exaggeration to the cliché that your life is never the same again after having children, so you can't expect your partner to give you what they used to. But don't see this as a bad thing. Supporting your partner as they settle into parenthood will bring you closer in a new way, and when they're able, they will be even more delighted to support you with your life changes, whatever those will be.
Being a part of a person's life right from the very beginning is a peculiar and rare privilege, and so even as things between you and your partner are changing, new opportunities for love are blossoming. Enjoy it. They grow up so fast.