I was recently asked to be a Guest Editor for the Night Feed App (https://thenightfeed.uk) and write an article for them about maintaining and improving your relationship after your first baby arrives. If you don’t have the Night Feed App already, they provide a funny, insightful, informative way of surviving being awake at all strange hours of the night when you are up with your baby. There’s a small charge to download the app but it’s soooo worth it!
Here’s my article anyway…. I’d love to hear your thoughts and what your experience of yours first baby was and the impact on your relationship…..
So you’ve had a baby! Congratulations! Chances are if you’re reading this, you’re feeling totally exhausted, drained and wondering when your day will involve more than poo, feeds and washing baby gros. The chances are also that, especially if you’ve had your baby recently, your relationship and your sex life is pretty far down your list of priorities. Even the idea of having sex, when your vagina or abdominal muscles feel like they’ve been involved in a hit-and-run is a pretty terrifying prospect. Even when you feel like you’ve physically recovered, it’s hard to feel sexy when you’ve been climbed on all day, haven’t had an opportunity to wash your hair in about 96 days, and still can’t fit into anything apart from your old trackie bums with holes in the crotch.
It seems obvious that having a baby is going to rock your entire world, and not always in a good way. Magazines are full of statistics telling exhausted parents that the rates of relationship breakdown and divorce rocket up after a baby is born. Many parents struggle to work out their new identity as being away from the normal routine of work/social life/free time/hobbies can feel very discombobulating and leave you feeling quite isolated. This can be compounded with a heavy dose of resentment if one parent goes back to work, leaving the other one at home with baby. Neither parent feels like they are getting a good deal- so resentment towards the other one can easily build up. With the addition of broken sleep, financial worries, and general exhaustion, it’s no wonder that relationship difficulties can occur.
But I’m sure you don’t need to be told that these problems can happen, but what can you actually do about it? As a Relationship Therapist with Relate and in Private Practice, I’ve worked with many parents with young children. And the good news is that relationships do recover from the mammoth impact of parenting, and even better, often end up stronger than ever. Here’s a few pointers of things which could work for you.
- Try to let go of resentment and focus on your shared feelings. You’re both feeling run down. You’re both feeling overwhelmed. Neither of you is getting a good deal. The parent at home is surrounded by monotonous routine, the exhausting responsibilities of being the primary carer, and a lack of clear identity. The parent at work is juggling a demanding job on very little sleep, and missing out on spending time with their child, often leaving them feeling useless at knowing what their baby needs when they get home. Try to connect with your partner by listening to how it is for them, what they find difficult or exhausting. Don’t jump in with “Yes but for me, I have to do XYZ…”. Listen to their story. Try to incorporate their experience into your world, eg “I hear that you’ve been feeling resentful and neglected. I haven’t meant to treat you like that but I can see how that’s been hard for you”.. It’s not a competition of who is the most stressed or getting the worst deal. You are both on the same side here.
- Schedule time for intimacy. It’s a total myth that sex or romantic feelings should just surface naturally and shouldn’t be forced. When you have young children, so much of your emotional energy is directed towards them, so being with your partner just stops being a priority. However it’s important that couples break out of the “parent” role and have time when they are adults together. Scheduling this time into your diaries can be a useful way to ensuring this happens and help you both enter into a mindset of being willing to engage with each other.
- Don’t focus on sex. Sex can lead to emotional closeness, but it’s not the only way to reach this, especially if physical or psychological reasons mean that you are not ready for penetrative sex. Instead try to think of intimacy as being a “sexual menu” with a range of options, such as holding hands, kissing, a back rub, oral sex, or just holding each other close in bed. All these forms of physical touch can help develop closeness and help each other feel loved by the other.
- Plan some child free time. It doesn’t have to be a day away from your baby, but even a 20 min walk around the block can provide an opportunity to reconnect. As your baby gets older, you may be able to rely more on family, friends or childcarers to allow you to do more things together too, so the stage of feeling trapped at home doesn’t have to last very long (even though some days feel very long indeed!). Have a goldfish bowl or old ice cream tub at home and scribble or cut out ideas of things you’d like to do- a film you want to see at the Cinema, or a café you’d like to visit. When you get the opportunity for some time together, you can then have fun choosing an activity which you can look forward to, and it takes the pressure off from one person having to plan the whole thing.
- Focus on your future goals. How do you want home life to be? Is it important for you to have children brought up by both parents together? What sort of relationship do you want to model to your children? How do you want them to describe their parents’ relationship to others in the future? Discussing your values around your relationship and your parenting can really help focus your minds and develop a shared sense of responsibility for maintaining a healthy couple life.. When you make changes and goals which are in line with your values, you are more likely to stick to them.
Good luck! It’s not easy, but lots of small steps and deciding to make positive changes to the way you interact can make a big difference in the long term.
Elinor Harvey is a Relationship Therapist and Couple Counsellor, working for Relate and in private practice. She offers face to face and online counselling sessions to couples and individuals for a range of difficulties including trust and communication issues, intimacy problems, arguments and infidelity. Please visit her website at www.hampshirerelationshipcounselling.com for more information.