A new mother on maternity leave paces back and forth with her newborn trying to soothe her to sleep. She’s exhausted and needs a break from the constant attention and nurturing she has been providing all day. She did not have a chance to shower, and was only able to pick at dinner. Her partner is doing dishes in the kitchen, watching her pace out of the corner of his eye. He feels the stress, but also feels lost about what to do. The new mother, exasperated at her partner’s distance, finally comes into the kitchen exclaiming, “I’ve been home with her all day, I haven’t even showered - thanks for all your help!” Dad takes the baby from her, saying defensively, “Go take a shower then!” By the time the night ends and baby is asleep, mother and partner are tired and frustrated, not just with the stress of parenthood but with each other. Too tired to process what just happened, they fall asleep believing at some point this will get better. Without realizing it, though, months go by during which they do the same dance over and over until their stress begins to turn to resentment; that resentment now fuels more distance between them.
Who is at risk after the birth of a baby?
This scenario plays out in many different ways. No matter whether this is the first child or the fourth; different types of couples with various work and child care arrangements experience some version of this stress. The famous relationship psychologists, John and Julie Gottman, found that ⅔ of the couples they studied reported “a decline in relationship satisfaction” up to three years after having a child. How couples adapt to parenthood, and the beautiful, messy, and stressful vulnerability that comes with it determines the health of the individual parents, the couple, and the children.
Why does a couple struggle after having a baby?
Before children, or even with additional children, the couple has been used to a certain level of closeness, an unwritten bond between them that they knew what to expect from. When this changes, it is another life adaptation that requires time and energy. Even if the couple does not identify this change as negative, it is still a change. We are creatures of habit. If different ways of interacting or changed expectations are not discussed, they can quickly lead to relationship dissatisfaction and resentment. Sleep deprivation and lack of self care, often correlating with the newborn period, can override our self-regulation and ability to communicate effectively. Add to this already complicated mix the fact that there is the unspoken expectation that life with baby should be joyful, and a couple can struggle to even ask for help.
So, what can a couple do?
Unfortunately, the early years of parenthood and its effects on a couple is still a topic that is not given adequate attention. Many themes emerge that, if addressed early, can buffer the long term impact on the marriage. Common topics include: the father or non-gestational parent feeling left out, decrease in couples time and growing distance, disappointment regarding how one parent is fulfilling their role, renegotiation of careers and financial roles. This is not an exhaustive list but represents a handful of common themes. The good news is that proactive attention to these themes can be extremely helpful.
Couples who acknowledge the shift that early parenthood has on their relationship are more likely to address the changes rather than ignore them. Finding ways to stay connected despite the lack of personal time is key. A few simple ways to practice this is by dedicating a few minutes every night to check in with each other, apologizing when you’re abrupt or short with your partner, and doing something kind for your partner, however small. Engaging in couples therapy is a way to set aside a predetermined time to reflect on topics that are emerging and ongoing, worsening, or that couples find themselves stuck in. Working on these themes and staying connected in the process will allow couples to create a new foundation of teamwork and strength during this new phase of their lives. This foundation then has lifelong impacts on the health of the couple, and the children they are parenting.