The way you talk to your partner and what you talk about changes after you have a baby. Know what to expect and how to handle the change with this expert advice.
Every mom knows that a new baby brings serious change to a household. It’s all part of the cycle of life. But sometimes new moms get a bit despondent when they’ve been in “baby land” for a while. In particular, they can find themselves mentally comparing the conversations they used to have with their partners, pre-baby, to those they now have post-baby. The latter are usually lacking a certain something.
Relationship counsellor Flicky Gildenhuys, and counselling psychologist Tiffany Gregson, analyse some typical post-baby conversations in the early years and the issues they highlight, then offer advice on how communication could be improved.
The conversation (some time around about 4:45am)
Her baby in her arms, the woman comes through to where her husband is sleeping in the spare room. She shakes him awake and says briskly: “Okay, I’ve been up 4 times already so far. Your turn now. She might need a bottle and she probably needs changing.”
The woman feels that she is taking care of the baby at night on her own. The couple now have an arrangement that from 4:30am onwards each day, he’ll take over and she’ll go back to sleep – alone. They aren’t sleeping in the same bed right now, because this way he’s fresher when it’s his turn. But intimacy is being lost.
One wonders how this arrangement came into being. Are they both happy with the arrangement? It sounds as if Mom is still feeling resentful and Dad probably feels unappreciated. This couple needs to find a way to work together so that whatever happens, both of them feel and appreciate the support of the other. After all, they are both in this for the long haul.
Temporary sleeping arrangements may be a solution for the short term, but if Mom and Dad are both left feeling unsupported more trouble may be on its way. How much better it would be to be woken up to a whispered, “My love, sorry to wake you. Its 4.45am and I’m afraid it’s your turn. It’s been a difficult night.”
The early period after bringing baby home is often one where both parents are in “survival mode”, focused on meeting the practical aspects of making it through each day. Their previous closeness while they waited for their baby’s arrival is dissipating, as conversations now revolve around logistical planning.
Sleep deprivation makes everything seem more intense and less manageable. It’s easy to become emotional and lose your temper quickly over small irritations. Often, when we’re feeling so overwhelmed by all the changes in our lives, we’re unable to notice and appreciate what our partner is contributing.
Instead, we resent others for enjoying what we’re missing, such as sleep or the freedom to leave the house at a moment’s notice. Both parents then end up feeling unappreciated, neglected and lonely. They miss the feeling of being truly connected to their partner.
It’s vital that at some time in the day they find time to talk, to stay in touch with how the other is coping. At this point, understanding that they are both in the same boat and feeling that they are working with, and not against, each other makes all the difference.
On sex - or its lack
Him: “I miss you. I know you’re tired, and I am too, but I miss you. It’s been such a long time.”
Her: “Yes I know. I miss you too. We need to make a plan. I don’t know how, but we need to make a plan. The trouble is when? We can’t in the mornings because of getting ready for work, and in the evenings we’re too tired.”
He doesn’t want to be reminded that there is little time available for sex. He just wants to know that she is still in the game, that there could be some action sometime soon! A hug and a “Oh yeah baby, you’re in so much trouble one of these days,” would give him the hope that he needs.
She on the other hand doesn’t want to feel that she is the one responsible for making that time, along with everything else. He could also plan time out alone together or help create intimacy by running her a hot bath and taking out the massage oils.
It’s not unusual for a mother’s sexual desire to decline right after having a baby. Moms are “programmed” to be besotted with their babies, to promote healthy bonding, and ensure their baby is well looked after. Add exhaustion and it’s easy to understand how she can have little physical or emotional energy left over for dad. But with time, it is important that couples re-establish the sexual intimacy in their relationships.
Finding time to focus on your relationship with your partner can seem impossible, but it’s helpful to ask yourselves why everything else is given a higher priority than you give yourselves.
Remembering that one of the greatest gifts that you can give your child is the experience of living with parents who are happy together can help clarify things. Modelling for your child a relationship of parents who are not only partners, but love and value each other is also very important.
As you begin to prioritise your relationship, you’ll become more comfortable and confident to organise dates and babysitters. It’s not an imposition on friends and family, nor is it an unwarranted expense or your being selfish or self-indulgent. It’s essential for your happiness and marital health, and thus for you as an individual too.
On being intimate
Her: “I have to tell you this. When we were sitting on the couch together and I was stroking your hair and you pulled away, it really hurt my feelings. I wasn’t trying to initiate sex at the time, but it made me feel like you don’t want to have sex with me at all because I’m still carrying some excess baby weight.”
Him: “Well that’s not true. That I don’t want to. I was just really tired and planning on getting up to go and brush my teeth. And I was stressed about work.”
She’s worried about her weight and post-baby shape. In the prolonged absence of sex, they seem to be losing intimacy as well.
She is communicating openly to him but probably making huge assumptions about his behaviour. All she really wants to hear is that she is still desirable to him. She wants him to grab her, pull her into his arms and be told that she’s still a sexy babe! She could state that more directly. He could then respond to her fears rather than defend his behaviour. It seems as if he also needs some attention and needs to talk about his work stresses instead of withdrawing from her.
After giving birth, many women feel insecure in terms of their view of the changes in their bodies. They need their partners to reassure them that they are still as desirable as they were before baby came along. Being honest, but gently so, with your partner is extremely important.
It is worth noting that emotional intimacy is the foundation of sexual intimacy. Concentrating on your friendship, respect for one another and appreciation of each other promotes emotional intimacy. The most critical element is that you continue to communicate with each other. Rather than sitting alone with your doubts and fears, find an appropriate time for this discussion as this is the only way to ensure that you avoid potentially damaging misunderstandings.
No conversation at all – the silent treatment
The woman reports: “I’m so annoyed with my husband that I’m withholding sex from him and giving him the silent treatment. He seems to have no idea why or what he’s done wrong, despite all our conversations about how he doesn’t share the load! I’m just so tired of having the same conversation over and over again when it never actually produces a result. And, we both work full-time so why should I be the one to bear all the burden of the children too?”
Sharing the workload and setting boundaries that are acceptable to both adults. Being able to communicate in a way that’s acceptable to both.
This way of relating could be the most damaging of all. It’s based on false assumptions and expectations. Both of them are not listening (even silence speaks). They would both benefit from learning how to express their feelings and asking for what they need in very specific ways. They might need some professional help in establishing some basic communication skills.
She could say, “When you sit and read the newspaper when we all get home, it makes me feel angry and resentful. I would like you to help cook and bath the kids and then have you sit down together with me for a while.”
He could say, “When you glare and shake your head at me it makes me feel unwelcome in my own home. How do you feel about me unwinding for 10 minutes when I come home, and then we could sort out the children together?”
When your baby is born, you now view yourself and your partner not only as husband or wife but now also, as a father or mother. You already have expectations about what mothers and fathers are supposed to be like, and how they act and what they do. Unfortunately, very few couples share these expectations with each other. What then happens is that reality and expectation clash, and confusion and conflict occur. Without resolution, each partner just becomes more entrenched in their own position and less inclined to even hear what the other is trying to communicate.
It’s so important that we make the time to sit with our partners and really talk about how we’re feeling, and what’s happening that causes these feelings. It’s simply not enough to continuously complain about what you see as your partner’s shortcomings.
You need to have a suitable time, to explain in very concrete terms, what isn’t working for you in your relationship. From there, you can start exploring alternatives, and decide on a new plan of action. Once you’re really talking to each other, and truly connecting (being on the same page and understanding the other’s point of view and feelings) you’re in partnership together, and both of you feel understood and supported.
It’s so important to remember, that if you’re not talking now, how can you hope to have any parenting plan for the future? Imagine yourselves a couple of years from now and think about where your children will be, and what challenges they will be facing then. Now imagine how you and your partner will be positioned to meet the parenting demands of that moment. Also, try to picture what the marital relationship would be like, and how this would impact on your family.
No conversation at all - feeling guilty
The woman reports: “Because I had resigned from my well-paying job after my baby was born, I didn’t feel that I was within my right to demand that my partner help me around the house. So I kept quiet for a few months until I almost broke down one day.
When my partner realised how overwrought I was and how I wasn’t asking for help when I needed it, he was horrified. I’ve since started freelancing and working from home, and feel a lot easier about asking for help around the house now that I’m also contributing to our finances.”
She felt guilty because, after the baby was born, she asked her partner to completely shoulder the family’s financial responsibility. But she wasn’t coping on her own with both housekeeping and her baby. The lack of communication was a big problem.
Again we have assumptions being made in the absence of communication, and there is little sense of a partnership in the home. In spite of her partner being horrified at her feelings, she persists with her inaccurate thinking. He on the other hand, assumes that everything is fine and does little to ascertain how she is coping.
Whilst “rights” and “demands” may be appropriate for the workplace, at home “needs” and “wants” are more important and should be expressed openly and honestly.
It’s often only after choosing to stay at home with a baby, that many women become aware of their personal feelings and beliefs around the issue of money. Similarly, staying home brings to the fore women’s concerns about independence, social and professional status and sense of personal identity.
But what’s important to note is that there is no “ideal” situation for any family. Each couple needs to find their own balance between work and family roles that meets the needs of all family members. This may change over time, as the needs of different individuals within the family change. Finding this balance may take some “fine tuning”, and will definitely require honesty and a willingness to compromise.
On being empathetic
Him: “I’ve got a toothache so I don’t think I’ll come to your mother’s house for lunch today.”
Her: “Well, I’m meeting a friend for coffee so the two toddlers can play together in the little play park, so could you meet me later and take the baby back home?”
Him: “Can’t you just have them both for the whole afternoon? I’m in pain!”
Her: “Well, when I’m sick, you don’t offer to help me out very much with looking after the children! Please just help me out here and make my coffee date a bit more manageable!”
Him: “ALL RIGHT, I’ll fetch the baby!
Resentment that life with children is harder than it used to be. Sharing the workload and being aware of each other’s needs. Communicating pleasantly.
Negotiating a win-win scenario when both parties are wanting the same thing (a break from the baby) is a tough one to work out. What makes it much more difficult is when it’s done with a “win-lose” attitude, and we know what they say about a bear with a sore tooth! Acknowledging the other partner’s difficulty and making or asking for suggestions is far more likely to assist in reaching an amicable and helpful outcome.
A hug, a “Is there anything I can get you?”, a “I really need this coffee break, do you think you will feel better later?”, a “What about if I take both the children tomorrow?”, are far more likely to get an outcome that suits both Mom and Dad. The children also benefit as they learn firsthand how to deal with conflict and communicate in a healthy way.
Couples often find the lack of freedom and potential for spontaneity very difficult to adjust to once children come along. Adding to the unhappiness is that at times conversations are less understanding or caring and more about logistical planning.
And this is where conflict and resentment flourish and this then becomes a kind of “template" for future conversations, where the focus is on “my side of things”, “and last weekend you...” and less on "how can we work this out?" Constant wrangling can lead to parents feeling that their contributions aren’t being noticed and appreciated; and that their needs are seen as less important than their partner’s. From this viewpoint, it’s difficult to feel empathetic or willing to compromise.
Sometimes, it’s worth trying to put yourself in your partner’s shoes and seeing and hearing yourself from their perspective. It’s also worth noticing whether we’re doing those things that we’d like our partner to do. In this regard, all the “little things” make all the difference.
Hearing “please and thank you”, being aware of your tone of voice, looking at your partner when they are speaking, and sharing a smile, all help to make you feel that you’re appreciated, supported and loved. These are the details that build emotional closeness and that lay the foundation for successful and enjoyable parenting partnerships.
Communication that works: pre- and post-baby
You could take direction from this real-life couple and try out their daily communication ritual. Remember that as parents of a young baby you might both be sleep-deprived and grumpy, so the first time you try this, you should both be in a good head space.
Jenny says, “My husband and I haven’t changed our style, intensity or frequency of communication since the birth of our son. We’ve always ‘cleared’ issues on a daily basis. We made it a ground rule of our relationship - even in those beginning days when we were still on a love high. This means that at the end of the day, we sit down (maybe even over a glass of wine) and tell each other what didn’t work about the other person that day. Then we balance this out by reporting back what did work.
"This way, you and your partner both get both ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ feedback. You get to hear what you’ve done or said that was difficult for your partner to handle – and vice versa - but you also get to hear the good stuff.
“We continued this tradition after our son was born. I love having this alone time with my husband. I know that if I don’t plan for these ‘us times’, it’s very easy to get swallowed up by the events of the day, which with a baby in the house can seem endless. I’d hate not knowing what my partner was thinking and feeling, and not being able to share my views and dreams with him.”
Flicky Gildenhuys: Family and relationship counselor, and parenting educator, 083 358 6883, email@example.com.
Tiffany Gregson: Counselling psychologist in private practice in Durban, (031) 572 2167