How do you cope with the changes a tiny per­son has on the re­la­tion­ship be­tween you and your part­ner?

Little Treasures - - CONTENTS - BY PENNY MUR­RAY

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.

Kerry’s story

“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.” 

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