I was recently invited to a Children’s Centre in Hertfordshire, to talk to a group of new mothers on a subject that forms the basis of many issues that couples come to see me with. That is; having a new baby and its impact on the couple relationship. Parents-to-be can spend months preparing for the arrival of a new baby; taking classes, collecting books and a wealth of equipment. But even with all this preparation, the reality of caring for a baby can be overwhelming. When your household grows from two to three, your relationship with your partner is bound to change. My hope from the talk was to learn more about these experiences directly from the group of new mothers, and what followed was a frank discussion of shared experiences and an identification of some of the common issues that new parents face, the impact of these on relationships, and a discussion of possible ways to manage these and seek support if needed. Below I have summarised the main themes that emerged in the hope that sharing some of these might be valuable to couples who are concerned about the impact of a new baby on their relationship:-
SLEEP – To start with the obvious, you probably won’t get enough sleep in the early months of your baby’s life. At first, your newborn may only sleep for a few hours at a time, and when your baby sleeps, you sleep. The resulting sleep deprivation can make you irritable and turn tasks like household chores and errands into ordeals because you have less energy and can’t concentrate. You’ll also have less time for work, for yourself, and for your partner.
TIME – When a baby comes along, there has to be a shift in priorities, with your baby generally coming first. When you form a partnership and make commitments to each other such as cohabiting or marriage, you learn about compromise and how you have to make an effort to think about each other’s needs. After a while, it becomes second nature. And then you throw a baby in the mix and the baby’s routine becomes the primary focus, and the needs of the parents become secondary. A baby also can stir up surprising feelings of jealousy. Sometimes new dads get jealous because the baby takes up so much of mum’s time. Dad may feel like a third wheel, or maybe he’s jealous that he doesn’t get to spend as much time with the baby or do as much of the parenting. The woman has to deal with all the emotional, hormonal and physiological changes. The man has to adjust to feeling a loss of companionship. He now has to share the woman who has been by his side. His emotional and practical needs come in second or third, so he might feel demoted. The focus on the new baby can sometimes be so strong that it completely overshadows the couple’s feelings for each other. These feelings are completely normal when the structure of a family changes so drastically.
SEX – Women have their own challenges to confront. Pregnancy temporarily changes a woman’s body from the body they were used to, which can make a woman feel self-conscious and less attractive to her partner. Some women also find it difficult to reconcile the image of a mother with that of a sexual woman, so they may be less interested in intimacy. There are undoubtedly physical challenges. While breastfeeding, oestrogen levels are very low and that may affect desire. It can cause vaginal dryness, a problem that may be relieved with lubrication. But the biggest problem is usually exhaustion. You’d rather go to sleep than have sex. So it’s a combination of fatigue and changes in hormone levels. Resuming your sex-life may take time – you may feel ready within weeks or you may not be ready for months. Every woman is different, so do not feel pressurised or worry that you are not normal. This is a time of huge readjustment as you learn to live with, and tune into, your new baby’s needs so it is completely normal if sex isn’t high on your agenda.
FAMILY – The changes brought by a baby reach beyond your immediate family as well. Suddenly, relatives and acquaintances have endless stories and advice about raising children. Family members may drop by unexpectedly or schedule regular visits to see your baby. Just when you have more to do than you think you can handle, all these extra people decide to stick around for dinner. Although you know they just want the best for the baby, their constant presence can make you feel even less in control of your own life and household.
HOUSEWORK – If you’re staying home to care for the baby, you’ll probably find yourself doing more than ever around the house. And in spite of that, you may feel that your efforts are unappreciated. The reality is that caring for a baby requires more work than most full-time jobs, with no option to “clock off” at the end of the day.
With all of this considered, perhaps it might be useful to consider possible solutions that could ease some of the pressure and deal with some of these issues:-
SLEEP – It can be helpful to only have one parent awake at night. It may make sense to have mum get up if she is breastfeeding, then give her a break during the day to catch a nap between feedings. For others it might work better to have dad get up, or alternate nights. Discussing in advance how to handle night time awakenings can help both parents get just a little more sleep. And try to be aware of each other’s emotions and needs. If your partner has had a particularly stressful day, offer to take the baby so your partner can soak in the tub, watch a favourite TV show, or read a book for half an hour.
TIME – Even though your baby has made you a family of three, the two of you still need time together as a couple to keep that relationship strong. Because your lives are busier now, the best way to find that time is to plan for it. It’s OK to want — and need — to take a break from the baby every once in a while. Try to make a regular weekly “date” — schedule a sitter and head out to dinner or a film. If you don’t want to or can’t leave the baby with a sitter just yet, make a special dinner at home after you put the baby to bed. Staying up after the baby is sleeping can also give you time to connect daily. Aim for at least 20 minutes a day to talk and share feelings. You can do this while you wash the dishes together or as you get ready for bed. On the weekends, get out of the house and do something as a family, like visiting a museum or a park. Even daily family walks when you get home from work let you grab a little time together while your baby enjoys a ride in the stroller. The most important thing is to use your creativity to find a way to spend time together that works for you, whether that means meeting for lunch while a willing grandparent watches the baby or playing a game of cards before bed. Remember that one of the best gifts that you can give your child is a good relationship with each other. Even better than an evening off is a whole weekend to reconnect. If you’re breastfeeding, you can still manage a short trip — just freeze a stash of breast milk to leave with your baby’s caregiver and bring along a pump to prevent engorgement.
SEX – How soon couples resume having sex depends on the mother’s physical and emotional readiness. In the early months, men usually have their normal sex drive, but women may not, especially if they’re breastfeeding. The time taken to recover from labour and get back to having sex depends on the type of birth you had. With stitches following a cut (episiotomy) or a tear you’ll feel sore. Stitches should dissolve after 10 days and by two weeks healing should be well underway, and the soreness should have reduced. If you do have stitches, you may want to try positions that limit penetration or reduce the pressure on the stitched area and remember to take it slowly and gently when you feel ready for sex. If you had a natural birth, you may just feel tired and uncomfortable. With no tear or cut healing will be swifter and you may feel ready for sex earlier, although if you feel bruised or have some grazing (which may sting) you may want to take it gently. If you have had a caesarean you may be worried about the scar but it should be well healed by the time your stitches come out. If it is still sensitive you may prefer to find positions that do not put pressure on the scar. Tiredness, fear of pain, or other fears generally, such as any vaginal or scar tissue reopening, may all play a part in your feelings of readiness to resume sex. Talking to your partner initially may help, as worries around sex can delay arousal or sexual feelings. Spending time on foreplay and not feeling that you have to proceed to penetrative sex may also help. Using lubrication during sex can be helpful too. It is advisable to wait until the post-birth bleeding has stopped (often between 10–14 days, but it can continue for several weeks), and also after you have had your 6 week check. This is because your uterus is still healing and if you have sex before the bleeding has stopped there’s a possibility that you could introduce an infection. If stress is a factor, you might consider having a babysitter or family member whisk the baby away for an evening. It’s hard to relax when you know the baby is about to cry in the next room. Sleeping separately can help at least one of you get some sleep, but don’t do it for too long. Sharing a bed is an important part of being a couple. A positive approach is patience, a sense of humour, understanding, and a willingness to find new ways of expressing physical affection until you both feel ready to have sex again. If you’re not ready for sex, don’t feel pressured to resume sex.
FAMILY – The theory here is to set boundaries whilst also taking advantage of any help that can be offered.
HOUSEWORK – Once you’ve both said what’s on your mind, work on solving the issues together by coming up with solutions you both can accept. Be willing to compromise, too. If one person can’t get home early on Wednesdays because of a staff meeting, the other can get the baby ready for bed on those nights. In exchange, the partner who gets home late on Wednesdays can take over on Thursdays. This is also the time to assign baby care and household duties, like cooking, laundry, and early-morning feedings. When both partners know what’s expected of them, the household will run more smoothly.
But as with any relationship issue, the key to making all this work is effective communication. Communication needs dedicated time and patience. Tell each other the ways in which you are struggling and tell your partner what they can do to help you with these issues. You might ask: “If my partner really knew me/cared about me I wouldn’t have to ask, they should know”. However, sometimes we have to spell it out. We cannot expect our partner to always know what we want. When we were babies we would cry and our mothers either intuitively knew what it was that we wanted, or worked it out. Much like we do with our own babies. We cannot expect the same of our partners because we do not have a parent/child dynamic in a healthy relationship – we are equals. Whether you choose to go for a walk, or sit down after dinner when the baby is asleep, choose a mutually convenient time to talk when you both have the energy and willingness to listen to each other. Tell your partner what you appreciate about them, tell them about your day and any new information you have to share about yourself, friends/family, something in the news, your baby. Tell them what is puzzling you. Tell them any behaviours of theirs that are bothering you with requests for change, and finally your wishes, hopes and dreams for the future. And remember, one of the greatest gifts you can give to your child is investment in your relationship as a couple and as parents.