Having a baby is certainly life changing – one minute you’re footloose and fancy-free, and can head out for the evening whenever you wish, and the next minute you have a little one to care for 24/7 and your heart is bursting at the seams with unbridled love. Housework, socialising, sleep and sex go out the window and all your attention is focused on the needs of your new baby. And so it’s little wonder that your relationship is likely to change somewhat. One famous study from the 1950s found that for 83% of couples, their first child brought about a marital ‘crisis’ and things don’t seem to have changed hugely since then.
“Along with the positive changes that come with being a family are ones that create pressure and can change the dynamic of the couple,” explains Clare Flaxen, CBT therapist and expert at women’s wellbeing website The Luna Hive.
“There’s little time and mental space left for each other. Lack of sleep and the demanding schedule of meeting your child’s needs (along with everything else you still have to do) can cause stress and arguments to build. It’s easy to start seeing each other as just co-parents rather than partners, and when you’re mainly living in the parent role it can be hard to move back in to a space of intimacy and connection,” she says.
So, what can you do about? We’ve asked the experts how they suggest dealing with some of the most common issues new parents face.
"I feel as though I do all the chores”
Sure, housework existed before your baby came along, but now your free time has been severely cut and the load has increased significantly. An unequal division of labour can often appear in the first few months after your little one is born, especially if one partner is at home more than the other due to parental leave. But, this isn’t necessarily fair, nor conducive to a happy relationship.
The key, says psychotherapist and couples counsellor Hilda Burke, is not to express your discontent by simply saying, “I do all the housework” but instead talk openly with your partner. “When I work with one party who feels they do way more than their fair share in the home, I'll ask them to focus on making specific requests,” she explains. “So, rather that complaining about how they do everything, I suggest they make direct non-critical requests such as: ‘It would really help me if you took care of the laundry this week’ or ‘Can you please make dinner three times a week?’ When requests are made simply, directly and non-critically the other partner is much more likely to listen and agree to what's being asked of them.”
It sounds tedious, but as experts agree, making a list and being clear about the division of tasks is a good way to avoid conflict.
"We disagree about parenting styles”
So, you thought you and your partner agreed on all the important stuff – who to vote for in the next election, where to go for dinner and what flavour ice-cream should be on the shopping list – but it turns out that your ideas on parenting aren’t exactly the same.
According to Clare, this is a common source of conflict for couples. She says that it’s important for both of you to really understand what sort of parents you want to be in order to properly discuss this with each other.
“Get to the core of what your values are as a parent: write down what’s important to you, what you want to role model for your child and what style of parent you are. If you and your partner aren’t sure of what your parenting styles are, do some research online,” she says.
“Once you’ve figured out what’s important to you on how you raise your child, ask yourself why. Question where your beliefs come from. Do they come from ideas you’ve learnt about and explored or are they set-in beliefs from your own model of being parented that you’ve never stopped to think about? Once you know why you believe what you do, you can better explain it to your partner. Together you can start to have a conversation that’s based on sharing knowledge and rationales rather than arguing about right and wrong.
“As you start to uncover what’s behind your parenting styles and learn other possible ways of doing things, you can start to figure out what sits within the zone of what’s acceptable to you. What are you and your partner both prepared to shift or compromise on and what are deal breakers? Look for things that could be a happy medium for you both.
“If you’re adamant about an approach that your partner doesn’t subscribe to or you feel strongly that your partner’s way has possible consequences that you don’t agree with, try to educate your partner on your thinking and views. Explain the reasoning behind what you’re saying. Talk through your differences, try to find common ground and clear up any misconceptions that one or other of you might be holding.”
“I never have any ‘me’ time”
In between sorting the washing, sterilising bottles and dummies, feeding and changing the baby and, of course, trying to get some sleep, there’s little time left for you to actually be, well, you. New mums often complain that they lose their identity once they have a child, and have very little time to do the things they want to. This can be particularly hard if your partner is at work and able to have a hot cup of tea in peace, while you’re having to go to the toilet with a screaming baby on your lap.
“Focus on what it is you need,” Hilda advises. “Is it a night out once a week? Is it a weekend break with your friends every couple of months, or something else? Rather than blaming your partner for what you're not getting, take responsibility for what you are missing and figure out what you may need to allow that to happen. In some cases, you may be surprised that what you want is actually what your partner wants for you too!”
Talk openly and honestly with your loved one and be aware that they may want some time to themselves too.
“I love my baby more than my partner”
Having a baby can be disorientating in terms of your current relationship. You’re used to prioritising your partner, but when your new bundle of joy comes along, suddenly all your love is poured in to them, and it can be hard for both of you to adjust to having this new mini intruder around.
Dr Natasha Bijlani, consultant psychiatrist at Priory’s Roehampton Hospital (www.priorygroup.com), says that making time for your partner and remembering why you love them can help you navigate this issue.
“Do things as a couple and enjoy time together, whether it be going out or watching a film together uninterrupted, or dressing up and going out to dinner,” she says. “Having an ‘adult’ agenda where you focus on each other’s needs is crucial. Go for a walk together and let your partner know that he or she is a priority to you.
“Some therapists like David Code say that if you want the best for children, you should spend less time trying to be the perfect parent and more time striving to be the perfect spouse. That is the premise of his book To Raise Happy Kids, Put Your Marriage First. It is true that strong relationships make happy children, so you need to remember what brought you together with your partner in the first place. Even sharing early memories of how you met, cooking special meals together, and getting friends round who treat you as a couple first, can all help.”
“We never have sex anymore”
Sex is a big deal after a baby arrives. For many women, it can feel like a long time before they’re ready to get back under the sheets, and even after then, trying to find the time and energy to keep up a regular sex life takes effort.
For Dr Bijlani, it’s no wonder that intimacy can often take a back seat. “Women’s bodies undergo many physical changes during pregnancy and following childbirth, including weight gain and possible perineal damage, which is likely to leave some feeling unattractive and lacking in interest for sexual intimacy. Tiredness doesn’t help either,” she explains. But not all is lost. “Couples in this situation could consider other ways to be physically intimate and demonstrative about mutual love and affection until they feel ready for traditional sexual intercourse again,” she advises. There’s no specific time-span that a woman has to wait before having sex with the partner after birth – for some, it may be relatively soon, for others, it may be months. And there’s no set amount of sex you should be having once you resume love-making. Everyone is different.
As Dr Bijlani advises, “remember it isn’t all about sex. Enjoy small physical pleasures such as hand-holding, hugs and kisses and make the time to be more affectionate when possible.
If either of you are feeling unsatisfied, talking is key. Hard as it can be to sometimes vocalise your emotions, even with your partner, doing so can be very effective especially if it is expressed and received in an open and positive way,” she adds. “Intimacy and love can also be expressed verbally.”
“I resent my partner a little”
Your body is recovering from one of the biggest events it will ever undertake, your hormones are acting like they’re on a rollercoaster, and the words ‘feeling tired’ have just taken on a whole new meaning – and then your partner dares to comment that they too are suffering from a lack of sleep. Inside you’re probably screaming ‘But I was the one up all night!’, and it’s here that resentment settles in.
“Often there’s a lack of communication that goes on between couples about the roles and responsibilities of parenthood. One party often feels that they’re carrying the lion - or lioness’ - share of the work and mental load,” Clare says. So what’s the answer?
“Talking is key,” she advises. “Discuss how you’re feeling with your partner. Let them know the things you’re struggling with and the emotions that are coming up for you. It lets you be vulnerable with them and can help you to both re-connect and deal with resentments as a team together.
“Being explicit about the support you need and how you prefer it to be demonstrated can help create space for change. Try to focus on what you need rather than what you feel your partner is failing to do - it will make it easier for you to be heard and listened to.
“Also think about what your expectations are within the family unit. What roles do you believe you and your partner should take as parents? Ask your partner to do the same and then compare. Are they in line with each other or are you holding very different ideas of how family life should work?”