You and me plus baby makes three, as the saying goes. But what happens to the relationship between ‘you’ and ‘me’ when baby comes along?
Study after study shows that your satisfaction with your partner is one of the best predictors of your overall life satisfaction – but while having a baby ties you together like nothing else ever before, it also shakes up the status quo, bigtime!
‘A child bonds a couple for the rest of their lives, so there are many ways in which parenthood makes a relationship stronger and deeper,’ says counsellor Jill Barnett Kaufman. ‘But you also take on new and different roles when you become a parent, so it’s absolutely normal for couples to go through a period of flux, when the nature of your relationship, and what you need from one another, changes.’ Sound familiar?
Research has repeatedly shown that most couples assume that having a baby will automatically bring them closer together. But it also picks up that couples find the old status of their relationship challenged after having children, regardless of whether they’re married or not, in heterosexual or same-sex relationships, rich or poor.
But it doesn’t have to be that way – if you’re prepared to put in a little work. Whether you had your baby yesterday, or years ago and can feel there are cracks in your relationship already, it’s never too late to make the move.
Here’s what you need to do…
Let’s be honest: a lot changes when you have a baby.
1) Be upfront about emotions
You and your partner may have been at the centre of each other’s universe for years. Of course, he or she isn’t going to be pushed out of the way now that you’re a family of three, but it can take a while to re-navigate your world so that it revolves around two suns, instead of one.
Directly after birth, new mums go through huge hormonal changes,’ says Jill. The dramatic drop in your oestrogen and progesterone levels can leave you feeling euphoric one moment, and weepy the next. If your partner understands and anticipates these changes, as well as how he can impact your mood, he can actively support you through them, and that will bring you closer as a couple.
But if not, it can confuse him and leave him feeling left out of your new world. And the way to help him understand is simply to tell him what’s going on in your head. It doesn’t need to be a running commentary, but simply saying, ‘I’m feeling pretty fragile today’ is a far more positive way of communicating your mood than snapping at him because he didn’t pass you a nappy quickly enough.
‘Once you’re past the very early days, it’s common for one partner to take on the bulk of childcare,’ says Jill. And whether it’s maternity or paternity leave that your family takes, it can create a significant change in your relationship. ‘And the implications of this need to be discussed,’ says Jill. It might not sound like the most romantic way to spend an evening together, but sitting down to divvy up household and childcare duties between you could be the secret to relationship harmony.
2) Shape your new roles together
You may not get a perfect 50/50 division of labour, and that’s ok. What matters is that you’ve worked together to set the schedule, so no resentment builds up. Having a rota or agreed responsibilities also puts the whole idea of who’s doing what on the table for discussion, so you can easily share any issues as they crop up. ‘And you may find that the stay-at-home parent doesn’t get the affirmation and praise they’re used to from working outside the house, and maybe feels taken for granted,’ Jill explains. ‘Or the parent who goes out to work may feel new pressure and anxiety about being the primary breadwinner for the family.’
Do all this, and you’ll negotiate this change in your relationship together. ‘A healthy relationship is one in which you voice your feelings and needs before they explode, in a respectful way,’ says Jill. And the result of all this teamwork? It will make the two of you a far stronger unit, capable of moving mountains, withstanding earthquakes and even changing nappies at 3am in the morning!
‘Everybody needs to hear that they are valued by the people they care about, but this is particularly the case for parents,’ Jill says. Studies suggests that many of us stop saying and doing the little things that make each other happy after having kids. ‘And in the first years of parenthood, we often doubt our abilities,’ adds Jill, ‘so it’s very powerful to hear your partner telling you you’re doing a great job.’ Be specific: saying, ‘I love how gentle you are when you dress him’ is much more powerful than ‘You’re a great Dad’.
3) Say thanks
You’re way too busy now to do the countless little things you used to do to make your partner feel special. So zero in on the things that make him feel loved, and not what you think he wants. ‘Sit down and each write a list of “The 10 things that make me feel like you love me”,’ suggests Jill. ‘People are often surprised about what their partner put on the list!’
4) Uncover what matters
The world and his wife will tell you to carve out time for date nights after you have a baby. Instead, once a week, turn off the TV, leave your phones in the kitchen and sit down for a proper chat. Set two rules: ‘The first rule is to talk about anything other than the children,’ says Jill. ‘Remembering that both you and your partner have lives and interests outside of parenthood will do your relationship a world of good. And the second rule is simply to listen – we all want to be heard by the people we love.’
5) Ditch dates for discussions
Sometimes you’re just too tired or busy to do anything other than zone out in front of a boxset. But it’s so much cosier with an arm round your waist or a hand slipped into yours.
6) Make contact
‘When you’re upset about something and need to communicate it, use sentences that begin with “I” rather than “You”,’ suggests Jill. So, rather than telling your partner, ‘You haven’t emptied the dishwasher’ try ‘I feel overwhelmed and the dishwasher needs emptying.’ Articulate your needs without apportioning blame, and everyone will emerge from the conversation happier.
7) Reframe your words
A study found that people who watch scary movies are more likely to find each other sexy, because our physiological responses to fear – increased heart rate and blood pressure, dilated pupils, flushed skin – are very similar to those of arousal. Grab a bowl of popcorn and snuggle up…
8) Watch a scary movie
In those tricky little life moments, adopting the word ‘we’ makes it clear you’re a team. So, if neither of you can do the nursery-school pick up on Tuesday, ask, ‘What are we going to do about this?’ ‘The aim is not to avoid conflict,’ says Jill, ‘but to manage it well. Working out problems together will make you stronger as a couple.’
9) Start saying ‘We’
If you find yourself feeling like you have very little love left over for our partner, pop your baby into his arms and share the emotion you have for this little bundle. Better still, get Dad to wear baby in a sling and go for a walk – you won’t help but give the pair of them plenty of hugs!
10) Share the love
When your gorgeous little newborn arrives in your home, it’s natural that you’re consumed by your role as Mum.
11) Find some time
‘And you might find you get so much emotional connection from your baby, that you don’t need or want as much from your partner,’ suggests Jill. In that busy whirlwind of nappies and feeds and sleepless nights, it’s easy to let nurturing your romantic relationship fall to the bottom of the list. And it doesn’t take more than five minutes over a cuppa, but finding the time to connect with your partner every day keeps you travelling on this journey together. Feel like you’ve got enough to do without that chore as well? Then tell your partner that you want to stay connected to him through these stormy but sun-filled days, and can it be his job to make that cuppa and find you for a catch-up?
In 2013, a study found that less than half of first-time mothers had had sex six weeks after giving birth. By 12 weeks this had risen to 78 per cent. Another study found that out of 78 first-time mothers, only 30 rated their sex life eight months after giving birth, compared with 65 who had done so beforehand. And that’s just fine!
12) Talk about sex
And if you’re open with your partner and tell him that you don’t feel like having sex because your body is recovering, or you’re wholly focused on caring for your baby – or just that your boobs hurt – he won’t overthink the lack of bedroom action as any kind of rejection towards him.
Written by Hattie Garlick
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