AND BABY MAKES THREE
How do you cope with the changes a tiny person has on the relationship between you and your partner?
Coping with the relationship changes a baby brings
Having a baby turns your life upside down: your bundle of joy demands constant attention, growing and changing at an incredible rate. They are the new, endlessly fascinating, incredible centre of your world. They’re also endlessly, incredibly exhausting work and it’s no surprise that a baby strains your relationship. You’re tired, hormonal, there’s a million things to do, all that (sometimes conflicting) advice to follow and every time you try to leave the house a nappy needs changing or you find goo on your shoulder. Your finances are almost certainly constrained and there’s a whole new person you have to share your partner with. Each of these circumstances would be plenty to cope with even without extreme lack of sleep. It’s no wonder the two of you snap at each other. The newborn books and apps say vague things like “be kind” when discussing what new parents should do when the going gets irritable, but that’s easier said than done. Sometimes you can get to the end of the day wondering how you liked each other enough to make a baby in the first place.
“My partner, Hamish, and I were in love with our son, but we had a hard time with each other after he was born,” says Kerry Mulligan* from Auckland. “Before we had the baby we had quite spontaneous, unstructured lives. Parenthood meant planning everything and taking a mountain of baby stuff with you even to pop to the shops. After the exhaustion of the first few weeks I felt I was doing really well – our boy was growing and doing all of the things he should and I was part of a group of mums all with babies the same age who were great to talk to. “Then, when he was about four months old, it all seemed to fall apart. The baby was going through a growth spurt so wanted to feed all the time and I was so drained. Hamish and I were arguing about everything and I seemed to be crying constantly. Things that were easy pre-baby felt impossible: I’d be in the supermarket trying to think about what to buy and just panicking because my brain wouldn’t work. “I saw my ‘mummy friends’ going out for dinner and seeming so content and it wasn’t the way I felt at all. I felt like I was great at being a mum but terrible at every other part of life and I was so anxious and exhausted and annoyed at Hamish – he seemed to be doing just fine. He said he didn’t know who I was any more and I honestly thought we were going to split up, but I thought if I pretended hard enough that everything was okay then somehow it would be. Hamish said later he felt like I was having an affair because I had fallen in love with someone else: our infant son.”
Get a handle on the hormones
“I wonder whether anything can prepare a couple for having a child,” says Steven Dromgool, a specialist relationship counsellor at Relate Counselling in Auckland. “The stresses that a new baby puts on a relationship are completely different from those people have without children.” He says it helps to understand what’s happening to our hormones, which are operating in new ways for mothers as well as partners in that first year. “From a ‘falling in love’ process, one of the main hormones that triggers the ‘honeymoon phase’ of romantic love is phenylethylamine, or PEA. It affects the awareness centres in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, so people falling in love will often say the sky looks bluer or the grass is greener. PEA is also produced when mothers – and fathers – gaze at their babies. That’s why you have that blissful feeling that yours is most beautiful baby in the world and no one could be as precious and lovely. It’s a big part of that imprinting process in romantic love but it’s also what happens with the baby. “So when Kerry’s partner says he felt like she was having an affair, that’s surprisingly accurate from a hormonal point of view.” Dromgool explains that oxytocin - the social, bonding hormone - is at play. Mothers and babies are having their fill from contact with each other, especially if breastfeeding, while partners often don’t get enough. “Oxytocin tends to drive down testosterone, which fuels sex drive for both men and women - and often the woman is full up of oxytocin because the baby can take as much love as she can give. Meanwhile, their partner is dealing with tiredness and a less available partner – they’re also likely to be more stressed and working harder than before the baby arrived. The (mostly male) partner has a build up of testosterone, which they would normally discharge and convert into oxytocin through sex. When that’s not happening, they’re often approaching the mother for comfort, to try to help regulate their own stress levels, but effectively the woman’s response is, ‘Oh just leave me alone, I’m exhausted (and by the way, I’m full up of oxytocin so I feel secure already).’ It can be pretty easy to cast the partner as being all about sex, when often they are trying to get that feeling of connection and bonding produced by oxytocin, which occurs after sex. “That can create a cascade effect where the partner feels like the mother is having an affair, building resentment and a sense of alienation. That leaves the woman feeling unsupported by her partner, yet feeling quite nurtured by her relationship with the baby, so she might overcompensate: thinking, ‘You’re not loving the baby right, so I’m going to spend more time feeling connected to baby.’ In this scenario, she is still getting topped up with oxytocin, suppressing further the need for a sexual connection. She’s still misreading her partner, thinking all he cares about is sex, and that can create quite a negative cycle and end up actually blocking the partner forming a connection with the baby.”
A new bond
How do you get around that? New parents can’t fight the effect hormones have on their brains, or the fact that they’re lacking sleep, but, says Dromgool, resentment and alienation aren’t inevitable. “It works properly when there’s a space made in the relationship for the partner to form a bond with the baby. When that happens, the male partner will be getting the PEA, so they start falling in love with the most beautiful baby in the whole world. Once they fall in love, they want to do all of the things they can for baby, they also get all of the cuddles and are more involved, meaning they’re getting oxytocin as well. Now both people are still super-sleep deprived but the female partner is happier about her partner – she sees them as more supportive – and because there’s more of a parity in terms of the couple’s oxytocin need, that will actually give him the relief he needs. So he’s possibly not getting as much sex as he wants, but the oxytocin will help his testosterone level come down, meaning he can actually cope with less sex.”
Make time to play
That’s the biology behind the bickering, but even if you and your partner are on the same page hormonally, you’re still exhausted beyond belief, with no time to do anything except be parents. That’s not how you pictured living happily ever after. So what’s the solution? Squeeze in some fun, even if it’s just a little bit every now and then. “Date night” may seem like a far-off dream when just washing your hair is a huge achievement but, says Dromgool, “You’re not just parents, you’re also a young, hip couple that fell in love and like doing cool things. You don’t need to do it a whole lot, but even in the first six months, every fortnight or every month get dressed up and have a babysitter and have a night out.” Crucially, he adds, “Get a babysitter in the morning, too, because it’s going to be in the morning when you’re ridiculously tired that you need someone.” That sound heavenly, but what if you can’t afford that kind of childcare? “This is where extended family and friends are so helpful - to have a grandparent involved or to share it with your friends. If you’re going out once a month and you have some close friends who can help share that load, everyone finds time to play.”
Celebrate your body
It’s worth remembering what a huge upheaval mothers’ bodies go through during pregnancy and the months afterwards. You have changed shape dramatically as you’ve grown and birthed a human (maybe more than one) and then changed again after they were born. Then there’s the seemingly endless postpartum bleed, the fluid frenzy of feeding, the hair loss, this different body that you now inhabit… This is an area where partners can play a major role, says Dromgool, and it’s also an opportunity to bond and make each other happy. “One of the biggest issues for all women about pregnancy and having babies is body shape. So one thing that I try to say really clearly to the guys – starting in pregnancy – is that you should start getting ready for a new body every day and celebrate the fact that your partner has a new body every day. Become a very appreciative student of your partner’s body, affirming it, adoring it and experiencing a real body. “When partners make a conscious choice to really adore the changes, to enjoy everything about the woman’s body, the more their brain literally changes structure to increase their pleasure, to increase their enjoyment. That will also boost the woman’s testosterone, making them way more likely to want to physically connect, to cuddle, to play and to make love. Having loving sex is good for women, because once women have sex more, their testosterone level is higher, which is a preventative feature for depression, and creates a positive cycle of wanting more connection and sex.”
Ask for help
Sex was mostly off the menu for Kerry, who felt miserable and alone. “I was afraid of asking for help,” she says. “But when our baby was about nine months old, I remember sitting in bed one morning, weeping as I read about postnatal depression. I went to my GP. I sat in her office and cried for 10 minutes before getting any words out. Even just telling her about it helped.” Dromgool suggests that Kerry’s doctor’s care and listening was an important element in her recovery. He says, “When we feel overwhelmed and alone, life is really hard, sometimes we just need someone to listen, to give us a hug and let us know they care.” “I didn’t know if I had ‘proper’ postnatal depression,” says Kerry now, “but when I heard about the idea of postnatal depletion, that made total sense: my resources were drained, everything I had was focused on the baby and I had nothing left for my partner. “Looking back, lack of sleep probably accounted for a huge amount of it, but it was a cocktail of things. I changed the kind of contraception I was using [from the mini pill back to condoms] and it was like a light switched on: suddenly I didn’t have that Pmt-like combination of irritation and paranoia. I started taking omega-3 supplements and going for a walk each day. Hamish and I made a point of being more patient, saying good things about each other, sending each other little texts during the day, and holding hands. “Things got better. Slowly. There were times when it all went wrong again and we still have our moments, but we’ve both learnt a lot and when we get it ‘right’ I feel like we can do anything.”