Tuesday 20 August 2019

When two becomes three: how to babyproof your relationship

The arrival of a baby can shake even the most solid of couples, but there are plenty of things you can do to strengthen your relationship when two becomes three, writes Deirdre Rooney

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Preparing for the birth of your first baby is a special time. It's full of hope and expectations; it's having fun imagining what your baby will look like; and it's a time when your partner is extra attentive. But often, pregnancy is also the time that couples experience the first signs of conflict in a relationship.

For me, the first real disagreement I ever had with my husband happened during my first pregnancy. Before I was expecting, I'd never once thought about what I might name my child. But it turns out, my husband had. He felt strongly that our child should be named after a family member, and I wanted to broaden our options. What started out as a playful back-and-forth continued as the due date neared. I just presumed he would eventually come around to my view, especially as I was the one growing the baby and the one who had to birth it, but he would not budge. Countless times I would storm out of the room, often in tears, when we discussed names. With just days to go, we reached a compromise. Our daughter was named after a family member, but from my side of the family.

Our baby had not even arrived, and already we'd been confronted with a task that sparked our first standoff. And this despite the fact that we consider ourselves easy going and willing to see each other's point where possible. Extensive research has shown that once a baby comes along, a couple's relationship can change significantly.

Matthew D Johnson, Professor of Psychology at Binghampton University in New York, and author of Great Myths of Intimate Relationships, has studied the subject for years. "For around 30 years, researchers have studied how having children affects a marriage, and the results are conclusive: the relationship between spouses suffers once kids come along. Comparing couples with and without children, researchers found that the rate of the decline in relationship satisfaction is nearly twice as steep for couples who have children than for childless couples. In the event that a pregnancy is unplanned, the parents experience even greater negative impacts on their relationship," he has said.

This nosedive in happy marriages is understandable when you take into consideration sleepless nights, new expectations, the demands of a new baby, and also trying to balance a job or career outside the home.

Joanna Fortune, psychotherapist and author of 15 Minute Parenting, further explains why a couple's relationship is vulnerable to changes when they have a baby.

"Pregnancy is so all consuming, physically and emotionally, that it is not uncommon for a couple to not really think about what it will be like when pregnancy ends and baby comes home," Joanna tells Mothers & Babies. "It is rarely spoken about when we discuss parenting, but the transition from two to three (or more) is a big one, be it your first child or not. There is a huge adjustment within your intimate partner relationship to accommodate the role of parenthood. Becoming parents is the hardest thing a couple will go through together and expectations rarely align with reality."

The instant worry that comes with a new baby, changing roles for the mother and father, a lack of sleep, and maybe even financial strains, often go hand in hand with growing families. Any one of those is enough to introduce stress in a relationship, never mind all of them simultaneously. What is vitally important, says Joanna, is to remember to value one another.

"Children, should you choose to have them, should be an important part of your family but not the most important part. Children should grow up seeing that every member of their family is valued, appreciated and important. How we treat and feel about each other as parents models what a relationship is for our children."

Joanna says that most couples have to renegotiate their relationship after baby arrives, which is especially difficult to do during the post-partum period (first eight weeks).

"A large percentage of parents report relationship dissatisfaction during the first three years of their child's life. A baby can bring you closer or drive a wedge in your relationship and this is not the fault or responsibility of the baby. This is about how we adjust to being parents and our focus moving away from ourselves and even each other," says Joanna.

There is no lead-up to the change in relationship, it is instant, and can even start in pregnancy.

"When it becomes an issue will depend on different couples and how they tend to communicate and negotiate change together," says Joanna. "We can become consumed with responding to the needs of our babies at a cost to responding or even recognising our own needs and those of our partner."

Everything to do with parenting is a learning curve for couples, and how they adapt their relationship to suit their new circumstances is no different. In fact, Joanna believes it is so important that classes should be given on the subject.

"Birth preparation classes stop with the delivery of your baby," says Joanna. "Unless you pro-actively undertake to source and take a parenting course, which you're unlikely to do when you are in the throes of your post-partum experience, you will not have this kind of extra support. My wish for everyone is that they are encouraged to childproof their relationship and prepare for parenthood rather than spending thousands of euros on top-end buggy systems. There are stages in the process of blending parenthood into your relationship. Pre-conception, you are trying for a baby; while pregnant it is about nurturing and growing a healthy baby and adjusting to physical and hormonal changes. Antenatal classes focus on delivering your baby and then the focus shifts on how you will feed your baby. But nobody talks about how your relationship with each other will feel once the baby comes along. I would love preparing for parenthood and childproofing your relationship to be part of the antenatal classes."

Joanna stresses the importance of working at maintaining a strong relationship, for everyone in the family's sake.

"While it may feel like the baby is master of your home, remember, you and your partner's relationship is the glue that holds the whole thing together, so we must take a breath and learn to reach out, share our vulnerability with each other, say what you need, empathise and support one another, and take up those babysitting offers so that you can take space for yourselves and each other," says Joanna.

In our own house, thankfully my husband and I mastered childproofing once our daughter was born. And I was also better prepared for the name game when it came to two more daughters who followed soon after the first - there were plenty of grandmothers' and great-grandmothers' names to go round.

Joanna Fortune, solamh.com

Steps to babyproof your relationship

Expect and accept role changes

It’s important to acknowledge how roles might change and how this can make both parents feel. It’s also helpful to talk through each other’s day together to find out what’s been positive or challenging and gain an understanding of the other’s day.

Discuss parenting choices/expectations

Discuss your ideas about parenthood before the baby is born. What are your hopes and expectations? Some parents find that they have different views on parenting which can cause conflict. It can be easy for one parent to become the ‘expert’ and undermine the other’s confidence. It helps to discuss each other’s views and try to develop a joint approach.

Explore new ways to be physical

The physical side of a relationship can also change dramatically — thanks to exhaustion, dealing with the physical and emotional impact of the birth, and the demands of life with a newborn. Sex is often the last thing on a new parent’s mind. 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.

Keep communication clear

Open and honest communication is vital in any relationship, especially for new parents. If there is tension, make time to talk when you’re both feeling calm; listen and try to understand your partner’s perspective; avoid criticism or blame.

Make ‘couple time’ and ‘me time’

Looking after yourselves as a couple and as individuals is important. It may be simplistic but if you are happy you are more likely to be happy in your role as a parent too. Even something simple like watching a film together or having a takeaway is important. Take some time out with friends or on your own, doing something you enjoy or find relaxing.

Ask for help from friends and family

For many parents the support that may be offered by grandparents, other relations, friends and even neighbours can be invaluable. Social support can be hugely beneficial to a parent’s emotional wellbeing in the postnatal period so don’t be afraid to ask for or accept help.

Source: NCT (National Childbirth Trust, UK)

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