How babies change your relationship

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Make no mistake, first-time parenthood is a thrill. But even a wondrous miracle can shake up your world, and that includes the kingdom of couplehood. Like many other brand new parents, Darlene Tandon of Vancouver was taken aback by how the arrival of baby son Ravi affected her relationship with her husband, Amit. “I was surprised,” she admits. “People had warned me, but it’s not until you’re actually in the situation that you realize the complete impact. We always had regular date nights and time to catch up. Now, all of a sudden, everything was about the baby.”

Caring for a baby is exhausting, new household expenses are constantly cropping up, and together time is almost impossible to come by. All of this can introduce unforeseen problems. But the Tandons found solutions that cemented their marriage, instead of splintering it. And you can, too. Read on for strategies about coping with some of the most common post-baby bumps in your relationship.

A mind and body you don’t recognize

Giving birth certainly takes its toll: A new mom is physically healing, her hormones are unstable, and chances are she’s so sleep-deprived she’s forgotten where she keeps her pillow. If she’s feeling fat, tired and cranky, it won’t do wonders for her relationship. To make matters worse, “the father can take it personally,” says Michal Regev, a registered psychologist and marriage and family therapist in Vancouver. “He may escalate the situation by making comments.”

It’s important that moms remember to look after themselves, as well as their child. Of course, this is easier said than done. “There were days I wouldn’t shower,” recalls Tracy Rumble, a new mom in Aurora, Ont. “You start to think, what’s the point? They’re just going to spit up all over you.” But, Regev says, “if you spend your whole day in a bathrobe, you’re going to feel lousy about yourself, and you’re going to be short-tempered.” Partners can help by taking the baby off mom’s hands and encouraging her to spend some time on herself. “When you take care of yourself, you have more energy for the relationship, as well as for the baby,” Regev says.

Fatigue can be devastating to physical and mental health. Vanessa Huizinga and her husband, Gordon, circumvented this problem by sleeping separately for the first few months after daughter Éowyn was born. “It was a big decision,” she says, “but if Gordon and I sleep in the same space and I’m getting up every two hours to breastfeed, neither of us is sleeping.” With the new arrangement, Gordon slept better at night, and Vanessa caught up on her sleep with intense naps in the late afternoon, when Gordon got home from his teaching job. “Being well rested was one of the key things to us being happy as a couple,” she says.

A load of responsibilities

Meeting the demands of a newborn is overwhelming and often catches parents off guard, explains social worker and marriage expert Gary Direnfeld of Dundas, Ont. You are fully responsible for the life of another human being, and you have no training for this, which can cause a lot of anxiety. Many moms feel added pressure to know instinctively how to breastfeed or soothe the baby which, unfortunately, isn’t the way it works.

What really brings parents together, say experts, is when you both participate in baby care right from the start. Now, whether or not you know what you’re doing, at least you’re on the same learning curve. But it means moms have to get comfortable letting go. “You have to share some of the joy of child care, not just the poopy diapers,” says Direnfeld. “Let him coochy-coo the baby, take him for a walk, do a special bedtime routine. That allows the father to bond with the child.” The bonus? “It helps him understand the challenges of meeting the needs of the infant.”

Before baby’s arrival is a good time to plan for how your partner will get involved and for him to discuss arrangements with his employer about parental leave, job flexibility or vacation time. He might take time off after the baby is born or adjust his hours for the first few months.

With less energy to get things done and a shorter fuse due to the round-the-clock demands of their new life, parents may start to pick at each other over things like piled-up laundry or whose turn it is to do the dishes. But new moms and dads can help themselves by lowering expectations. Recognize that the added work of a baby requires both of you to do more than your fair share at times, and might mean more takeout meals and mess than you’re used to. If you’re not the primary caregiver and you come home to a pigsty of a house and a shrieking infant, bite back criticism and find out how you can help — by taking the baby, picking up a broom or getting dinner ready.

A communication gap

Your adorable new baby is designed by nature to absorb your attention so that her needs will be met. But the downside is she does draw her parents’ focus away from each other. “Your partner suddenly becomes sort of secondary,” says Halifax birth doula and sex educator Shannon Hardy.

Now is the time to make that extra effort to praise your mate and show appreciation for the little things he or she does. Because you may tend to be more reactive with each other, Regev suggests consciously practising positive communication skills. For example, try using humour to lighten up a tense situation, and make an effort to give compliments much more frequently than criticism. Taking care of each other is also good for your baby, says Regev: “Babies thrive when parents have a harmonious, loving relationship.”

Your new threesome may also mean you’re just not spending the alone time together that you used to. Since having a baby meant Tandon and her husband were no longer free for spontaneous evenings out together, they started arranging date nights at home. “On Friday nights, we put Ravi to bed around seven, then watch a movie, talk or do whatever we feel like doing,” she says. “It’s nice having the time to be focused on each other.”

A no-show sex life

After baby is born, there are so many reasons why sex falls off the table — not to mention the bed, the sofa and the bearskin rug by the fireplace! For one thing, you’re utterly pooped. And maybe your body just doesn’t feel all that sexy, or the baby wakes up every time you and your partner reach for each other. But according to Hardy, you gotta use it or you lose it. “I think the fallout can be big. If we let it go too long, it just gets easier and easier not to go there.” Understand that your sex life is not going to be the same as before and try to take it in stride. For example, if Sunday mornings don’t work anymore, figure out a new time that fits better with having a baby in the house.

But keep in mind that it takes time for new moms to feel ready for sex again, and it helps if partners don’t pressure. Hardy’s suggestion? Make plans for cuddling. There are lots of ways to stay intimate — hugging, kissing and caressing — that don’t necessarily lead to sex.

Regev agrees. “What I find with many couples is they seek each other physically only for the purpose of sex,” she says. “Then when sex goes by the wayside a little bit in the beginning, there’s absolutely no touch. And that can create more distance.”

Keeping up that physical contact will also make it easier to get in the mood when you finally have the opportunity, Hardy notes. “Otherwise, if you’ve spent the entire week bickering — and not touching — and then your planned Monday afternoon romp comes, you say to yourself, ‘I’m supposed to have sex with this person? Why would I want to do that?’”

Financial fretting

Another post-baby lifestyle change is the new cost of diapers, furniture, clothing and child care. Money worries can put more pressure on your partnership.

Do as much advance planning as you can, say experts. The Tandons made up a budget before Ravi was born and have managed to stick to it, even though it’s meant cutting back on extras, such as gifts and entertainment. “We got all of our baby gear second-hand, including the crib,” Darlene adds. That’s smart thinking, says Hardy. “Babies don’t care.”

However, Direnfeld cautions that even with a budget, you and your partner will not be able to anticipate every expense, so it’s worth having regular money meetings after the baby is born to assess your spending and decide on your priorities. “What we want quickly comes off the table in favour of what we need,” he advises. “It takes a good deal of maturity, but if you go with what you need, you’re not compounding your stresses.”

The need to network

The care of a newborn is definitely more daunting when you feel isolated. Now’s the time to reach out to your network of allies — family and friends who can support you in your new role. That extra support can, in turn, ease the strain on your relationship, giving you an alternate outlet for blowing off steam, sharing concerns or getting out of the house.

After Rumble’s son, Oliver, was born, she came to rely on long-distance calls to her sister, who’d already had four kids of her own. “I literally had her on speed-dial,” says Rumble. “Advice from her was really helpful.”

Rumble also realized that although she and her husband, Mike, enjoy each other’s company, it was good for their relationship when she didn’t depend on him for all of her adult social time. “Mike is in sales and he’s on the phone talking all day. Sometimes the last thing he wants to do when he comes home is talk, but I’d be so starved for adult conversation,” she says. “The better balance for me was getting out to a class or playdates. And social networks like Facebook have been awesome.”

Regardless of the little bumps that new parenthood may bring, a baby often brings couples closer, especially if your bond was already strong. After all, you and your partner are doing something breathtaking together. “Éowyn is just so wonderful,” says Huizinga. “I look at her and feel so happy, and I can look at Gordon and not say a thing because I know he feels it too.”

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