Any parent will agree that the transition into parenthood with your first baby can put strain on even the most solid of relationships. Sleep deprivation, uncertainty and anxiety are common experiences for first time mums and dads, not to mention the upheaval of life as you knew it and a sort of grieving process for the social life, professional life and freedoms that you’ve lost. This cupcake of emotions is then delicately iced with the guilt of feeling anything other than pure elation, joy and gratitude for your new baby, knowing full well that others around you might be struggling to conceive. The fact is, it’s okay to feel all of these emotions and they are all completely normal.
For some couples, the added cocktail of postnatal depression may inflict itself on one or even both of the parents. While more common in women, due to the hormonal rollercoaster of pregnancy and childbirth throwing those brain chemicals out of balance, postnatal depression also affects men and often goes undiagnosed. If you think you or your partner may be suffering from postnatal depression, seek advice from your local health professional.
HOW A NEW BABY AFFECTS A RELATIONSHIP
The Gottman Institute (based in Seattle) is dedicated to educating both couples and therapists in the best practices to support and strengthen relationships and families. Their studies showed that 67% of couples become unhappy with each other in the first 3 years after their baby is born. Only a third of couples remained content. Motivated to improve relationship outcomes for new parents, the Gottman Institute developed their Bringing Baby Home Workshops, designed to help couples not only survive, but thrive during the transition into parenthood. Their workshop has seen a 77% improvement in the relationship outcomes of their attendees.
It’s easy to see how damaging behaviours can develop during this period of a relationship. Often the previous work/life balance of a couple is thrown into disarray. In Australia, 95% of primary carers leave is taken by mothers, with only 1 in 20 fathers accessing primary parental leave. (Australian Bureau of Statistics). This may be personal preference, for breastfeeding or perhaps the mother is on a lower income than their partner so it makes more sense for them to take time off work.
This new dynamic of one parent working full time and the other being at home can cause all sorts of negative feelings.
The working parent may feel:
– jealous of the bond that may be developing between the other parent and child;
– like they are doing all the work and the other parent is “on holiday”
– reluctant to get involved in housework and tasks like cooking as that is the responsibility of the parent who is “at home all day”
– resentful at the fact they are having to get up and go to work after a broken night’s sleep due to a crying baby.
The stay-at-home parent may feel:
– jealous of the working parent being able to interact socially with colleagues during the day
– lonely and isolated, particularly in areas where they may not have many close friends or family living nearby
– exhausted physically (sleep deprivation, breastfeeding, stress if baby is unsettled, recovering from a traumatic birth experience)
– exhausted mentally (learning new skills, constant doubt over parenting ability, simple tasks like leaving the house now seemingly overwhelming)
– guilty for the working parent having to get up and go to work after a bad night’s sleep
A common scenario for new parents
Here’s a scenario: Let’s take John and Jenny with their 4 month old baby.
John has returned to work after a week of parental leave and Jenny left her full time job a few weeks before giving birth. Jenny is taking 12 months maternity leave, but only 6 months are paid, so John is working extra hours where he can to help with the income shortage.
Their baby is waking through the night and although John gets woken up frequently, Jenny is the only one who deals with the baby at night because John has to get up for work the next day. John comes home from work exhausted from a combination of poor sleep and extra hours. He expects Jenny to have done any housework and cooking that needed doing because she’s been home all day while he’s been working. The kitchen is a mess and there is laundry piled up, but Jenny tells him how she met a friend at the park today so she’s obviously been out enjoying her time off. He eats dinner and sinks into the couch to watch a bit of television to unwind. Jenny gets upset at John for sitting on the lounge instead of helping in the kitchen and asks him to bath the baby instead. John feels annoyed at being asked to do chores after being at work all day, because she’s had the whole day to get all of this done.
From Jenny’s perspective, John got to grab a coffee on his way to work and read the paper while he drank his coffee on the train. She hasn’t finished a cup of coffee while it’s still hot in months. She got out to the park in the morning to meet a friend and her baby, which other than grocery shopping and doctor’s appointments, is the only sort of social interaction she gets during the day. Between the two of them changing nappies, feeding and attending to their little ones, they didn’t really get to catch up. The baby wouldn’t go down after lunch and she tried the ‘controlled crying’ technique that the community nurse had showed her but felt so distressed at letting her son cry, she sat on the floor and cried as well. She ended up driving around aimlessly for 2 hours while he slept in the car as a last resort. She hadn’t showered that day because she couldn’t leave the baby unattended and spend the only time their son slept hanging out washing and vacuuming (because the vacuum cleaner makes him scream.) She was excited about John coming home from work because he could take over for a bit while she had a shower, but he just said he was tired and sat on the lounge. She felt resentful because she hasn’t sat on the lounge all day and she let him sleep all night while she dealt with the baby.
The feelings experiences by both John and Jenny are understandable, but a breakdown in communication has lead to conflict between them. Through a better understanding of your own communication styles, you may be able to create a stronger, happier connection with your partner.
BRINGING BABY HOME WORKSHOP IN WOLLONGONG
Bringing Baby Home Workshops are now facilitated across the world, including right here in the Illawarra. Local couples can access this course through Mind Mode Psychology in Wollongong. They are running a small group workshop in the first weekend of May 2021. For more information, contact Mind Mode on (02) 4288 4667.