Partners and Parents
The Birth of your First Child
The birth of your first child will cause major changes to yours and your partner’s lives. You can prepare for this change in several ways, such as:
- learning about childbirth and about being the parent of a young baby
- making practical arrangements for when your baby comes home
- making decisions about your work arrangements and finances after your baby is born
You may not, however, have thought how becoming a parent will effect your relationship with your partner. Children affect their parents’ relationship. Couples often overlook this in the busy time preparing for their child’s birth, and in the excitement of becoming parents.
All relationships change over time, but some life events can have a major impact on a couple’s relationship. The birth of a first child and the process of becoming parents is a major turning point for most relationships.
Couples face two particular challenges at this time:
- Coping with the demands of pregnancy, childbirth and the early months of parenthood; and
- Expanding their relationship to make room for their baby.
Each person’s experience of becoming a parent is different. Whilst for some it will be an easy transition, for others it may create some unexpected problems.
During pregnancy, both partners must adjust to the woman’s physical changes. Each persons experience of pregnancy is affected by:
- How the woman feels about herself as her pregnancy develops
- How her partner reacts to her being pregnant
- How both partners cope with the changes in their emotional and sexual relationship.
The effect of pregnancy on a couple’s relationship can vary enormously. One woman describes:
“The best part of pregnancy was the common interest between my husband and myself … I couldn’t imagine the experience without him. No one else was as interested in every tiny detail of the experience.”
This is very different to another woman’s experience:
“My husband did not understand how the pregnancy affected me. He seemed to think that because pregnancy is a ‘natural’ state that I shouldn’t be uncomfortable or have any trouble coping.”
Men also have emotional needs during pregnancy. These may include a need to be able to express their concerns and to be reassured.
“There was no fun or sharing, no recognition that I also needed reassurance and support. Instead she expected me to give in to all her needs. I felt lonely, angry and hurt.”
For some men it is easier to ‘opt out’ and to be busy with work or other interests:
“… it was easy for me to lose touch with the daily changes in my wife … I was always too busy keeping up with the day’s action.”
Pregnancy often puts new emotional demands on men – demands to show patience and tenderness, to mop up tears and to give gentle encouragement. This can be a difficult role for some men.
One area in a couple’s relationship often affected by pregnancy is the area of sexuality. For some couples pregnancy is a time of heightened sensuality, a time when love-making takes on a new intensity and a new importance. Others find that during pregnancy their sexual needs diminish and that other ways of expressing intimacy and affection become more important.
Birth – and afterwards
Many fathers are able to be present at their child’s birth. Some choose to be present, other feel that they have to be present because it is expected of them. This is a new pattern. A generation ago fathers were firmly excluded from the birth.
For some couples, sharing the experience of their child’s birth can be very special.
“Witnessing the birth of our baby was the best thing I’ve ever done in my life”
“My husband was the support I looked to during the labour – he knew better than anyone else what I wanted and how I felt.”
Some fathers, however, find the experience more upsetting than they had expected. It can be difficult for men to find someone they can talk honestly with about the childbirth and the feelings it aroused.
“The pressure to be a strong husband and a proud father is great. Admitting to more complex feelings like fear, horror and revulsion is very difficult.”
After the excitement of the baby’s birth comes the task of settling down to parenthood. Parents’ experiences will vary. For some couples the transition is easy.
“I was happy that he was at home so much and I enjoyed watching him in his new role as a father. I guess I fell in love with him all over again.”
For others, it can be a difficult time. A time of tiredness and emotional stress, when couples become distant and withdrawn.
“I found I sometimes resented him relaxing and playing with the baby while I was madly trying to do a million things at once.”
Or as two fathers expressed:
“In the beginning everything was going fine, but as time went on I got angry for no reason at all. I guess I was jealous because everything centred around our child and his mother.”
“It seems that the mother has a complete bond with her child during breastfeeding. It was like witnessing an affair … I wanted the breastfeeding to stop, even though I knew it was important.”
Many couples experience uncertainty, and sometimes difficulty, in their sexual relationship after the birth of a child. For some, it is a matter of quickly picking up where they left off, but others find that the demands of parenting affect their sexual needs and their lovemaking for a long-time. Honest and open communication is vital to avoid pain and misunderstanding between couples.
Now we are three
The physical and practical aspects of becoming parents presents couples with many new experiences to share and challenges to overcome. The most difficult can be learning to make room in their relationship for the baby.
Before the pregnancy, couples could give all their attention and emotional energy to each other. In many ways, a relationship before the birth of the first child is like an extended honeymoon.
The arrival of the first child means that time and emotional energy will be taken from the couple’s relationship and put instead into parenting their child. Most couples are happy to make this change. Some partners, however, can feel left out, unappreciated or not as loved as before. This can distance the couple from each other.
Facing the Future
If you are expecting your first child, or if you are a new parent, there are some steps you can take to strengthen your relationship with your partner.
Share your experience
Let each other know how you feel.
- Share the positive experiences – the joy, the excitement, the sense of achievement. Also share the negative experiences – the anxiety, the doubts and the frustration.
- Try to use “I” statements which let your partner know how you feel, rather that “you” statements which are often heard as blame or criticism and can produce a defensive response. For example: “I feel a bit sad and lonely sometimes because we don’t seem to find as much time to talk as we used to “instead of “You always seem to be too tired and too busy these days. You don’t want to talk like we used to.”
Take control of your relationship
Because this is a period of change it is a good time to be clear about how you want your relationship to be, and to establish some new ways to improve and strengthen your relationship. Discuss issues with each other such as how family life was for you as a child, and how you would like your new family to be. What family traditions and values will you continue? You will find it easier to set new patterns early rather than to change patterns later when they are already set.
Give yourself time
Your relationship with your partner needs to be nurtured and developed. It is important that you spend time alone together as a couple, regularly, without your child! This is not selfish! It makes good sense – regular time alone as a couple will give you a chance to get close, to ‘recharge your batteries’.
How often you spend time alone will depend on your circumstances. You could, for example, aim at an evening a month, and a weekend once or twice a year once the baby is old enough to be left overnight.
If you can’t get help from your family, try another couple, with a similar aged child, with whom you can develop a trusting relationship and take turns.
Becoming parents as well as partners will make difference to your relationship. Couples who adjust to parenthood find their relationship is enriched and a great source of strength and support for the demands of parenthood.
If, however, you find that there are difficulties and disappointments about your relationship after you become parents, consider seeking the help of a counsellor.
Often all that is needed is to talk to someone who understands some of the changes you have been going through, and who can help you and your partner communicate more clearly with each other about your experiences.
How violence and abusive behaviour affects children
The forgotten victims of family violence are often the children in the family. Even if the children are not physically abused themselves, they will often witness the abuse of the abused parent.
Many children of abusers are scared of the abuser, and will often exhibit problems such as ‘acting out’, problems at school, and many other symptoms.
Besides being traumatised, these children are much more likely to be abusive in their own relationships when they are older, as that is what they have had modelled to them by their parents.
For many children, the first step is merely having someone who recognises that they are involved and allows them to tell their story. There are also therapists who specialise with working with children and also groups available for children who have witnessed domestic violence.