Along came baby

A new ar­rival can take its toll on cou­ples — es­pe­cially in terms of sleep, stress and sex. Stretched first-time-mum Sharon Ní Chonchúir talks to ex­perts about how to make the tran­si­tion eas­ier

Irish Examiner - Feelgood - - Cover Story -

YOU’VE de­cided on a name, bought the buggy and dec­o­rated the nurs­ery. But have you taken time to con­sider the toll your baby is about to take on your re­la­tion­ship?

Prob­a­bly not. Few prospec­tive par­ents re­alise just how much a tiny tot can change their lives. They imag­ine the bliss of gaz­ing at a slum­ber­ing new­born. Lit­tle do they an­tic­i­pate the body and spirit-sap­ping ex­haus­tion caused by be­ing wo­ken mul­ti­ple times a night for months on end and then hav­ing to cater to the re­lent­less de­mands of a baby all day long. It’s a stress that’s likely to turn them into that cou­ple they never thought they’d be­come, the cou­ple who con­stantly bickers over who does what next.

Seven­teen months into par­ent­ing my son Milo, I feel as though I’m on the front­line of this par­tic­u­lar bat­tle. I’m try­ing to com­bine be­ing an al­most-full-time mum with hav­ing a free­lance ca­reer, which means I’m ei­ther in ‘mum mode’ or ‘work mode’.My part­ner Richard works hard at his own job. He’s pick­ing up the slack with the house­work and is just as tired as I am.

We of­ten squab­ble and rarely have the time or en­ergy to be the ro­man­tic, laugh­ing cou­ple we used to be. I miss the way we were be­fore our son was born.

In 1957, so­ci­ol­o­gist EE Le Masters pub­lished the first re­search pa­per on the im­pact a first baby has on a re­la­tion­ship. His study

showed that 83% of new par­ents ex­pe­ri­enced a moder­ate to se­vere cri­sis in their mar­riage, with both par­ents be­com­ing in­creas­ingly hos­tile to each other in the first year of baby’s life.

Fast for­ward to 2001 and mar­i­tal re­searcher Dr John Gottman had slightly less alarm­ing find­ings, show­ing a slow but grow­ing equal­ity be­tween the sexes. His study, pub­lished in the Jour­nal of Fam­ily Psy­chol­ogy, found that 67% of cou­ples re­port a de­cline in re­la­tion­ship sat­is­fac­tion in the first year.

More re­cently in a 2013 poll of 3,000 first-time par­ents in Bri­tain, cou­ples said they ar­gued 40% more of­ten af­ter their child was born. They ar­gued over whose turn it was to change the baby’s nappy and who was go­ing to get up to do the night feed. One in five in the Mor­ri­son’s sur­vey said they ar­gued be­cause they felt they did not re­ceive enough at­ten­tion from their part­ner af­ter the birth of their baby.

Some might think this is an in­evitable stage of par­ent­hood but what if it isn’t? What if there are steps we can take to baby-proof our re­la­tion­ship?

Psy­chol­o­gists Philip and Carolyn Cowan, re­tired pro­fes­sors at Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia in Berke­ley, be­lieve there are. This hus­ban­dand-wife team have car­ried out stud­ies for the past 40 years prov­ing that re­la­tion­ships don’t have to suf­fer as a re­sult of par­ent­hood.

“It started when we were new par­ents and had just moved to Cal­i­for­nia,” says Carolyn. “We found our­selves knee-deep in par­ent­hood and won­dered what had hap­pened to our re­la­tion­ship as a cou­ple.”

They set up the Be­com­ing a Fam­ily Project, a lon­gi­tu­di­nal study of part­ners be­com­ing par­ents for the first time fol­lowed cou­ples from late preg­nancy un­til their child was of school-go­ing age.

As part of the project, cou­ples came to­gether in small groups to dis­cuss the chal­lenges of par­ent­hood in an at­tempt to re­solve them to­gether. The re­sult was that they didn’t ex­pe­ri­ence that sense of dis­sat­is­fac­tion with their re­la­tion­ship that is com­mon to most new par­ents.

“There are now more than 50 stud­ies world­wide show­ing sat­is­fac­tion de­clin­ing through­out the early child­hood years,” says Carolyn. “But our group main­tained their sat­is­fac­tion be­cause they worked through their is­sues to­gether. That pos­i­tive ef­fect lasted for the five-year du­ra­tion of the study.”

This wasn’t their only sig­nif­i­cant find­ing. “Ten years

“We of­ten squab­ble and rarely have the time or en­ergy to be the ro­man­tic, laugh­ing cou­ple we used to be. I miss the way we were be­fore our son was born

later, the chil­dren of these re­la­tion­ships did bet­ter so­cially and aca­dem­i­cally at high school,” says Philip. “So you could con­sider tend­ing to your re­la­tion­ship as a gift to your child. Your re­la­tion­ship is the en­vi­ron­ment they grow up in and the more se­cure it is, the eas­ier a start they will have in life.”

How can par­ents do this? How can they wade through the nap­pies and sleep­less nights to find their way back to the cou­ple they used to be?

Pae­di­atric sleep con­sul­tant Lucy Wolfe says many strug­gle to get by on too lit­tle sleep. If the Mor­ri­son’s poll is any­thing to go by, new par­ents typ­i­cally get four hours and 20 min­utes sleep a night, far short of the rec­om­mended eight hours.

Wolfe thinks that the most ef­fec­tive way of get­ting through this is to share the work­load. “Par­ent­ing is a two-per­son job if at all possible,” she says.

It can cre­ate re­sent­ment if one per­son con­sis­tently does more than the other. “If you can, take it in turns to get up dur­ing the night,” says Wolfe. “One per­son can have the night off one night and be on duty the next. If you can’t do that, maybe you can get up early with baby in the morn­ing or make the din­ner or deal with the wash­ing. Sup­port each other.” F inances can cause par­tic­u­lar stress. Last year, a study by AA Life In­sur­ance Ire­land found that be­tween ma­ter­nity health­care, baby-proof­ing and es­sen­tials such as car seats, Ir­ish par­ents can ex­pect to spend an av­er­age of €14,532 be­fore their baby’s first birth­day .

While this can put a huge strain on cou­ples, Dr Colm O’Con­nor, a clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist at the Cork Mar­riage Coun­selling Cen­tre, thinks it de­pends on their out­look.

“What matters is the dis­tance be­tween their dream and their re­al­ity,” he says. “The fur­ther the dis­tance, the more stress. But if the dream and re­al­ity are close enough, a strug­gling cou­ple can be as happy as or hap­pier than a wealthy cou­ple who are striv­ing for more.”

He has prac­ti­cal tips for over­com­ing these and other par­ent­ing chal­lenges. The first is to an­tic­i­pate be­ing stressed.

“Ev­ery­one finds the early years tax­ing,” he says. “It’s more than a full-time job and can [take] up to 100 hours a week.”

Take time to dis­cuss and agree upon each other’s roles and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties. “Balancing this can be a dif­fi­cult task but it’s im­por­tant that both par­ents feel like a team,” says O’Con­nor. “If Mum wants to be the pri­mary par­ent and Dad wants Mum to be, then this can work very well. If Mum and Dad have dif­fer­ent ex­pec- tations, then you have prob­lems.”

Cou­ples need time out to re­cover. “Ev­ery­one needs time by them­selves, even if it’s just an hour or two at the week­end,” he says.

They also need to pri­ori­tise their time as a cou­ple. “Lean on fam­ily and friends and don’t feel guilty about ask­ing them to take over so that you can get a night away,” he says.

Psy­chother­a­pist Stella O’Mal­ley sees many par­ents strug­gling to com­bine work with par­ent­ing.

“These days, it’s com­mon for both par­ents to have full­time jobs and hav­ing a child on top of that puts peo­ple un­der a lot of pres­sure,” she says.

Ask­ing em­ploy­ers for a flex­i­ble work sched­ule can help.

“But not if it means you go back on­line af­ter putting the kids to bed,” says O’Mal­ley, who has also writ­ten books on par­ent­ing.

“Evenings are sup­posed to be spent to­gether, re­cov­er­ing from the stresses of the day.”

In­stead of con­stantly al­ter­nat­ing be­tween work and par­ent­ing with lit­tle down­time in be­tween (the story of my life at the mo­ment), O’Mal­ley rec­om­mends set­ting bound­aries.

“Set a time to leave work by and de­cide to switch off some evenings,” she says. “Do what you can to look af­ter your­self and your re­la­tion­ship.”

What­ever you do, try not to feel guilty. “Women shouldn’t feel guilty about go­ing for a walk or meet­ing a friend,” she says. “It’s all part of mak­ing time for our­selves and our well­be­ing. It makes us bet­ter par­ents and bet­ter part­ners.”

A cou­ple’s sex life of­ten suf­fers af­ter the ar­rival of a child.

“When chil­dren are not sleep­ing, ill, suf­fer­ing from colic or sleep­ing in the bed with par­ents, it’s com­mon for fam­i­lies to play mu­si­cal beds,” says Dr O’Con­nor. “Dad wakes up in the child’s bed, the child is in the par­ents’ bed and Mom is on the sofa!”

Fac­tor in ev­ery­one’s ex­haus­tion, the fact that moth­ers need time to re­cover from child­birth and that many then lack con­fi­dence in their changed bod­ies, it’s no won­der that the 2016 Ma­ter­nal Health and Mor­bid­ity in Ire­land re­port 2016 found that only 24% of women were ‘very sat­is­fied’ with their sex lives 12 months post-par­tum.

Eithne Bacuzzi is a re­la­tion­ship coun­sel­lor who spe­cialises in psy­cho­sex­ual ther­apy. She has seen all of this and more with her clients.

Her ad­vice to cou­ples is to ac­knowl­edge the change and to main­tain in­ti­macy, even in small gen­tle ways.

“Cou­ples of­ten take an ‘all or noth­ing’ ap­proach to sex­ual en­coun­ters and con­fuse in­ti­macy with pen­e­tra­tive sex,” she says. “Don’t do this. Try kiss­ing or touch­ing in­side or out­side clothes. Take show­ers to­gether. Have sen­sual mas­sages. Close­ness is what’s im­por­tant. Cou­ples should only re­sume full pen­e­tra­tive sex when they are ready.”

Hon­est com­mu­ni­ca­tion is also im­por­tant. “Un­der­stand­ing is re­quired in or­der to avoid feel­ings of pres­sure or re­jec­tion on both sides,” she says. “Talk about it hon­estly but sen­si­tively.”

The Cowans be­lieve it’s im­por­tant for par­ents to have re­al­is­tic ex­pec­ta­tions. Their four decades of re­search can be dis­tilled into the fol­low­ing:

“Be­com­ing a par­ent for the first time is ex­cit­ing and won­der­ful but along with the joys, sur­prises and fun, there are chal­leng­ing things to deal with,” says Philip. “It’s good to go in with your eyes open rather than shut and do the pre­ven­ta­tive work early.”

Tak­ing on the ad­vice of the ex­perts, Richard and I have made some changes. We’re mak­ing time to check in with each other ev­ery day, even if it’s only be­fore we close our eyes at bed­time. We’ve agreed to stop snap­ping at each other as it was hav­ing a cor­ro­sive ef­fect on the close­ness we used to share.

We’re not as care­free as we once were. We’re tired nearly all the time and we can some­times lose sight of each other over the nap­pies, the piles of wash­ing and all the house­work. But we have cre­ated a won­der­ful new hu­man who brings laugh­ter and joy into our lives.

No­body but Richard loves Milo as much as I do and if noth­ing else, that bond has made us stronger.

Pic­ture: Dom­nick Walsh

CHANG­ING DY­NAM­ICS: Sharon Ní Chonchúir, her part­ner Richard Small­wood and their son Milo, at home in Dingle, Co Kerry.

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