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From Couple to Parents
affection and sex
division of labour
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When Partners Become Parents
Parenting changes both parent’s lives and becoming parents inevitably puts stress on couples – all couples. Having to factor-in the baby complicates everything they do.
A baby is demanding and there is often more to do than seems possible. The ways that the couple spend their time changes. And the amount of affection the couple shared with each other has to extend to include the baby, who may vacuum it all up so that there is little left. The paid work arrangement for the couple commonly changes, as one often stays home with the baby and money gets tighter they go to one income. Decisions that (before the baby) the couple could easily compromise on, may seem more important because they also affect the baby. Couples with babies are more prone to argue or become annoyed with each other.
Parenting is stressful. Way back in 1957, a study claimed that 83% of new parents went through moderate to severe crises in the transition to parenting. This was hotly disputed at the time, but since then there have been 16 long-term international studies that have shown that the initial research was true. Parenting is tough and if couples expect it to be easy, they are likely to be disappointed – and this may lead to trouble in their relationship.
Affection and Sex
Almost all couples have sex less frequently after the baby is born, even after the woman’s body has recovered from the pregnancy and birth. Part of this is due to fatigue, but it may also be because so much attention and affection is directed towards the baby that there is less available for each other. A mother who is looking after the baby is getting lots of physical contact and is less likely to welcome as much physical attention from her partner as she previously did. Many couples touch less, feel less connected and feel less in tune with each other after the baby arrives.
A father may see his partner as being preoccupied with her role of being a mother. He expected the baby to become the focus of their life, but he may be surprised at how little attention he now gets from his partner. He may find his partner is far less interested in what he is interested in (his work, his opinions, sex), and some men may feel pushed aside by all the other women who appear in support of the mother and baby.
Mothers experience huge changes, too. They may feel lonely and isolated because of what they see as their partner’s self-focus: he appears to be doing all the things he always did (go to work, TV, sports, go out with his mates) while her world has closed in. She might think his concern about sex is all about him and he doesn’t consider how she feels. Or he may be spending extra time at work because they agreed need the money, but this can leave her feeling even more alone and isolated. These and other factors commonly lead to a very changed version of their previous couple relationship.
Division of Labour
The couple’s perceptions of the division of labour at home may be at odds because they use different measures:
A woman may measure a man’s contribution by how much work she does - while the man may measures it by what he used to do before the baby arrived
A man may consider the time he spends at work as a big part of his contribution - while a woman may experience him going to work as him just being away from the house
Fathers need to know that men who take a more significant role in running the household and rearing the kids feel better about themselves – and are likely to get on better with their partner. Assuming traditional gender roles (in which he does the paid work, she does the housework, meals and baby) is less satisfying for both mothers and fathers.66
Couples adjusting to having children may disagree about how to spend their money. This may be based on their differing priorities. Mothers may want to buy things they feel will safeguard the child or make the child look good – because she is highly invested in the baby and wants people to think her baby is gorgeous.
Fathers may see this as frivolous and think that it would be more sensible to conserve their limited financial resources. Fathers may not see the logic in buying things that they don’t need (or don’t need immediately) or that only serve to make the baby look good. The mother may experience the father’s attitude as not caring enough or not taking the baby’s well-being seriously.
Couples tend to find there is a sharp decline in the things they did before the baby, like going to the movies, visiting friends, going out to eat, going to the pub, playing sports or spending time on hobbies. Lack of contact with other people can feel stifling. At-home mothers tend to get the worst of this because they are probably at home much more than ever before, but fathers with a paid job work can also feel like there is nothing to life except work and the baby.
Fathers and mothers need to maintain their couple relationship. Seeing friends, having people around (even if the house is a mess), going out, or arranging a babysitter (even if it’s only for an hour) can ease the couple’s sense of feeling trapped and isolated.
A Positive Transition to Parenthood
The transition to parenthood is challenging and it tests all couples’ relationships, sometimes beyond the skills or commitment of one or both partners. Some women may not understand this because they find themselves utterly absorbed with a baby who meets most of their emotional needs and takes all of their energy. If the mother allows the baby to replace the couple relationship, the longevity of the couple relationship may be in jeopardy.
Father Being Involved
It can be an effective relationship-supporting strategy for the father to be highly active in infant care. A mother whose partner is very involved with the baby will feel more satisfied with her couple relationship and is more likely to describe the family unit as being solid. And fathers who form an early bond with the baby are unlikely to drift away as the child gets older. A father may need to be assertive about taking an active role in infant care if his partner is a mother who wants to do all the caring herself.
People strengthen their relationships by talking to and listening to each other. New parents’ lives are constantly changing and talking things through as they go will help them make the adjustments. Couples who have a positive transition to parenthood tend to be those who know each other well, communicate with each other honestly and care deeply about each other. If these aren’t all present before the baby is born, they can be expanded on after the baby arrives.
A Positive Attitude
The focus of the mother and father on how interesting and challenging (rather than on how hectic, difficult and exhausting) things are plays a role in how well they make the transition from being a couple to being parents. Noticing the cloud’s silver lining (rather than a pending thunder storm) is helpful for a positive transition to parenthood.
Having Realistic Expectations
People who believe that living with a baby won’t be that much of a change or that they will be able to work around the baby without much disruption may find themselves frustrated when this doesn’t turn out to be the case. Babies tend to disrupt “life as we know it” and if it isn’t impacting on one parent, it’s probably because the other parent is doing most of the work.
Smoking and pregnancy don’t go together. Even if the pregnant woman doesn’t smoke but her partner is a heavy smoker, the child is at increased risk of low birth weight. This means a weak newborn who is more likely to develop respiratory disease.77 Even passive smoke contributes to the incidence of ear infections, asthma, bronchitis and pneumonia in the baby. If both parents smoke, the baby is eight times more likely to die of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) also known as cot death.
If either the mother or the father is a heavy smoker, the baby is more likely to cry excessively. It’s more difficult for parents to like and bond with a baby who cries much of the time. And a continually crying baby puts stress on the couple relationship.
Fathers need to know that a pregnant mother who has a smoking habit is more likely to continue to smoke if he continues to smoke during the pregnancy. If he quits smoking, the pregnant woman is more likely to quit herself.78
Fathers should also know that SIDS is more likely to occur in households where someone smokes and where the parents have been drinking alcohol or taking other recreational drugs.
Perinatal Depression (PND)
PND among mothers is common and treatable. At least 10% of women (some estimates are as high as 25%) get depression.79 It typically occurs within a few months of the birth. PND should not to be confused with the “baby blues” which commonly occurs a week so after the birth. The baby blues is about coming off of the hormonal and emotional high and is more like a pronounced mood swing. The baby blues tends to last just a few days.
Post natal depression symptoms (lasting more than two weeks) may be:
frequent episodes of crying or weepiness
feelings of inadequacy or guilt
sleep and/or appetite disturbances
overly intense worries about the baby
difficulty concentrating, making decisions or remembering things
lack of interest in the baby, family or activities
bizarre thoughts and fears, such as obsessive thoughts of harming the infant
headaches, chest pains, heart palpitations, numbness and hyperventilation.
A baby needs engaged, face-to-face responsive interaction, and it needs this often. Being talked to, played with and having eye contact with people is what stimulates an infant’s brain to throw out those synapses that connect up the neurons in their brain. A depressed mother will find it difficult to give her baby all the direct attention they needs and their neurodevelopment may not carry on at a healthy rate. To compensate, the father (or someone) will need to be there much of the time to take that role. An infant who doesn’t get that face to face stimulation is likely to have poor developmental outcomes. Getting help for a mother who is depressed is important and needs to happen soon after symptoms arise.
A mother may not recognise PND herself or, if she recognises it, she may deny it or not want to discuss it. She may feel ashamed because she doesn’t enjoy her baby or she may feel she is a bad mother.
A depressed mother is more likely to turn to her partner for help than to any other individual, including medical professionals. Her partner will often be in the best position to notice her state of mind and recognise her depression. A father needs to know it is probably going to be up to him to start the ball rolling by encouraging her to seek help for depression. She will recover more quickly if she has good emotional support from her partner and if her partner is actively engaged with her treatment.80
How the father can help if his partner has PND:
let her talk
take the pressure of housework and the baby off her
help her access professional help such as the midwife, Plunket, Maternal Mental Health, Piki Te Ora, or private counselling services
get support himself because living with a depressed partner is tough on him and their baby.
Talk therapy is usually enough to treat PND. Most women who have good support get through it without drug therapy. If it persists, her GP or other professional may consider prescribing antidepressants.
PND can be caused or exacerbated by the baby’s father if the mother has a poor relationship with him or if she experiences him as being emotionally unavailable. A new mother needs moral and practical support with the baby and depression may follow if her partner spends a lot of time away (even if it’s because he’s at work to provide for the family) or is emotionally distant. A mother is also more likely to become depressed if her partner holds rigid, patriarchal gender-role expectations or if he is critical, coercive, verbally abusive or violent.81
Perinatal Depression in Fathers
Fathers need to know that three to ten percent of new fathers get depression themselves – this is about twice the average for all men in the age group. Fathers can develop depression from before the birth to several months after the birth. Symptoms for men may be similar to those for women but he may also be quicker to anger or act more aggressive. He may disappear into his work or he may step-up his drinking or other drug taking in an attempt to feel better.
Factors that often occur alongside depression in fathers include: his partner is depressed; unresolved difficulties in the couple relationship; not wanting to have a baby at that time; or feeling isolated and not having enough personal support.
What a depressed father needs to know:
he needs to talk to someone who will listen well
he shouldn’t expect too much of himself
he should get himself to his WellChild nurse, midwife, GP or other health professional who can get him the help he needs
A depressed father is less likely to read or sing to their baby and their children commonly have a smaller vocabulary at the age of two years.82 So there are significant advantages for the both the baby and the depressed father for him to get help.