There you were, happily married (or well established in your relationship), planning the next chapter of your lives together—having your baby. As a team you decided you were ready for this step. You were so excited when the pregnancy test was positive. You charted the baby’s development on the app—now he/she is the size of a plum, now the size of a bunch of celery! Now the first ultrasound and you see your baby for the first time. You share the news with family and friends and everyone is excited for you. Together you plan for the big event; you decorate the nursery, share the baby bump growing and the physical discomforts, but you are ready!
Sure you are both going through some worries. Typically mom to be will be wondering ‘will I be a good enough mom?’ and may also be grieving for the anticipated loss of career, and possibly “will I lose my place in the promotion line?”
Dad to be may also harbour some doubts about whether he will be up to the job of parenthood, but he will typically also be feeling the heavy responsibility of being the protector and provider for your family as you stay home with baby.
The truth is, nothing really prepares you as couple for the changes that come with the baby coming home. The first worries come about the baby– the uncertainties of what the baby needs when it cries, the fear of SIDS, whether there is enough breast milk, whether you are doing a good enough job. Then for you Mom, what has happened to your ability to be organized as your babies needs seem to be 24/7 and you are still in your pyjamas at 11o’clock, and realize when you are at the supermarket that you still have your slippers on! For Dad, he may be finding that shouldering the burden of bringing home the bacon means he is working longer hours, seeking promotion, or working a second job, then returning home to the baby being put into his arms by you – the exhausted other parent. Both of you may be craving more sleep, more alone time, more appreciation and more support.
As a relationship counsellor for over 30 years I have of course seen many couples going through the shattering of their dreams of how it will be ‘now we are three’.
What Mothers often tell me:
Mothers often feel overwhelmed with baby’s demands, and with varying hormone levels, and the lack of sleep. They look desperately to their partners for not just physical, but mostly emotional support. If it is not forthcoming they feel isolated and alone. Requests for help, if not responded to, can become critical or sound like nagging. They need their partner to bring news of the outside world, and interest in what they have done during the day (fascinating topics like how many feeds, how much washing, and how little housework has been achieved) is of paramount importance. Mothers will also be looking for chances to have a sleep, or a sharing of looking after night feeds. Mostly she will be wanting reassurance that her partner sees her as a great Mom doing a sterling job. She most probably will not be looking for connection through sex—the last thing on her mind when she falls into bed physically exhausted. Mother’s groups, and support from her own mother may be a great help, but she looks to her partner as the most important lifeline for her wellbeing.
What Fathers often tell me:
Dad’s, too, often come to me overwhelmed. He is working so hard—for the family! He is exhausted too from the broken sleep. He comes home from a hard day and there is no reprieve. He is expected to then work at home, (sometimes thinking this is her portfolio, not his). He often feels lack of appreciation and respect for his contributions. He also misses his wife who is now giving the love and attention he used to get to the baby. She snuggles her baby, breast feeds him/her, responds to every need, while he, the partner, feels (maybe) left out, and lonely. He tries to be a good dad, and wants some feedback about this. When he tries to reclaim closeness through physical touch, she turns him away. He may well be providing physical support around the home—doing some household chores, and taking his turns when the baby wakes up. He too has sacrificed his individual interests such as team sports and bike rides. Sure he is out there in the world mixing with others, and having time to achieve at work—but it’s not self-indulgence—it’s his job. He looks to his partner as his most important lifeline for his wellbeing.
What I hear in my counselling room is a cry from both —Yes, we are now co-parents—BUT WHERE HAS MY PARTNER GONE? This is not the future picture we envisaged.
What I have found is that these issues need to be addressed as early as possible, or the hurts, misunderstandings, and resentments tend to grow. This leads to a pulling apart of the couple relationship, and both partners become the worst of themselves. Surprisingly, at the same time each partner can be praising the other as a great parent. Negative cycles of criticism and withdrawal can become well established and repeated with monotonous regularity. Over the weeks, months and years these cycles can lead both to wondering whether they need to separate. So what can be done to prevent this downhill journey of destruction of the love and the couple dreams?
Couples in difficulty report that their main problem is that they can’t communicate. This is true in that neither feels understood and acknowledged for their grievances, and no changes are taking place, so communication has failed. It becomes a bit of a standoff—“why would I listen to you if you don’t understand and acknowledge what I have to say, and respond to my grievances?” This standoff is deadly for the relationship. What typically goes out the door from him is talk. What typically goes out the door from her is physical affection including sex. This is particularly painful when she sees him talking animatedly to his child, and he sees her giving heaps of hugs and cuddles to her child. Where have those expressions of love gone for each other? Can a relationship feel safe and secure with the endurance of such neglect? Unlikely.
We all like being given road maps for how to get to the desired destinations so here are some to consider for getting your partner relationship back on track.
For the couple
- Be prepared to let your partner know that you understand the grievances and needs from their point of view—whether or not you understand them, agree with them, think they are logical or over the top. The point is for the other they are real and important and need to be acknowledged. Slow down, pause and breathe first before you speak.
- Be prepared to see that when your partner expresses these grievances in a hostile critical and blaming way it is because they have come over time to think you are stubbornly, uncaringly, refusing to understand and respond. Under the anger or withdrawal is hurt—that you don’t care enough, that you don’t love them enough, or some other interpretation. See if you can connect to a place of empathy for your partner’s struggles as well as your own.
- Be prepared that when you express your issues to your partner that you express them in a way that is most likely to receive a good hearing (not with attacking criticism, defensiveness or silence). Again, pausing to breathe and be calm before speaking helps.
- Spend some time investing in your couple relationship. This means organising a babysitter so you two can have time out of parenting and into connecting together again. You could have a meal, go to the pictures, learn Tango or do whatever you used to do before becoming parents. These times together need to happen regularly—whatever timing you two agree on.
- On a day to day basis you need to let your partner know that he/she is a top priority. This can be done simply by making sure you warmly greet each other at the end of the day, stay up to date with what is going on in each other’s lives, and having regular times each week to get on the same page with things that need to be done. You also need to demonstrate that you care about him/her, and about what worries them, even if the same thing would not worry you.
- Recognize that you and your partner will have different ideas about how best to parent, but that both of you of course want the best for your child. Issues like how long you leave the baby cry before picking him up, and later how to discipline difficult behaviours, can often cause disputes. If you are not careful this can lead to criticisms of the other’s person, such as ‘you are too soft’, or ‘too hard’. This can sound like a personal attack, not on your parenting, but on your character, your beliefs or values. This from the person who is supposed to love and respect you can cause a rupture to your partnership. So it is vital that you each have a chance to say why you think a particular approach is wise, be prepared to hear the same from your partner, and find a compromised approach for a trial (maybe after an internet or Facebook research and/or chat to family and friends with children or a talk to a child expert), with a review of how the approach is going at a specified time.
Then you become a team again.
Rosalie Pattenden is a psychologist with over 30 years experience in the relationship counselling field. Rosalie has held leadership positions with the largest counseling organizations in Australia and is now in private practice in Melbourne, continuing to practice as a counsellor, trainer and supervisor of other psychologists.
She is unashamedly committed to helping couples work through the difficulties they have in their relationships, because generally people are happier, healthier and better off financially if they can make their relationships work. Rosalie also firmly believes that we give the best chance to our children if we can provide them with a secure and loving home and she works with parents to support them in making this possible.
The decision to separate from a long-term relationship is heartbreak for the couple, their children and extended family and friends. Helping people through the loss and helping them reclaim their lives and belief in a brighter future is also a passion for Rosalie.
Rosalie has been married herself for 35 years, has four grown children and several grandchildren.
Because she has so much warmth and wisdom to share, her guest blog will be in two parts. We thank Rosalie for generously sharing her insights with the mindfulness4mothers community.