Navigating postpartum relationships

by | Mar 7, 2022

I absolutely love this article, I can definitely relate to most of it. It’s really so hard to find your groove again once baby is there, especially if you’re a 1st-time mom. I’ve had to adjust to the house being untidy most times with toys all over and YouTube has changed from RnB music to Coco Melon lol. All part of this fun, blessed but draining journey.       – Guest Editor Candice Manuel.

While the birth of a child is much celebrated and the culmination of an extraordinary journey that a couple embarks on together, a new baby can be such a drain on the mom that the relationship between the parents suffers until they can find their feet.

Maintaining a healthy relationship after birth takes a lot of time and effort, at a time when you have the least of either. However, working on it, will pay off in the long term, with the added bonus of setting an example for your growing baby. Transitioning from a relationship between two people to a relationship between three is hard and unique to each situation. Nonetheless, there is hope, and a few tips, that can help make this journey smoother and easier.

Here is a sneak peek into the challenges that relationships are faced with after the birth of a baby and some tools for you to implement:

Time Pressures

Parents are usually so busy looking after their newborn that they tend to neglect each other’s needs. This often leads to a breakdown in communication, misunderstandings and the product of resentment is born alongside the newborn.

Sometimes, with the baby receiving all the attention, the less involved partner feels left out and experiences jealousy. This is part of the adjustment phase after the birth. Parents have to come to grips with the changes that come with a new baby, although many of these are just temporary. There is less time to spend with your partner, and then when you throw exhaustion into the mix, the time pressure can feel overwhelming all of a sudden. The most important tool for managing this is finding a balance between baby and life.

I know it’s easier said than done, so here are a few suggestions:

  • Remind yourself that, as parents, you are both on the same team. You both want what’s best for the baby. You may just have different ways of doing it, which is okay.
  • Don’t make it personal. As an example, ‘you are not helping much!’ Rather, be specific about your needs and communicate these clearly to your partner. Like, ‘Please, can you hold the baby so that I can have a shower and get dressed?’
  • Don’t assume that your partner knows what you are feeling, rather try to openly communicate this with them.
  • Solve one problem at a time. Being overwhelmed as a new parent is normal and expected, therefore breaking down ‘challenges’ one at a time will lessen anxiety levels.
  • Apologise sincerely when in the wrong. This forms part of the trust in your relationship, and will need to be worked going forward. Own your mistakes and, above all, be kind.

Sexually speaking. 

After a birth, a mom can specifically feel uninterested in intimacy. The most common reasons cited in the first six weeks are:

  •         she is still physically  tender,
  •         her hormones are in disarray,
  •         she is too sleep-deprived to remember that she ever had a libido
  •         she simply suddenly feels ‘unsexy’ as a mom.

Many new moms remember how much they loved sex prior to giving birth, but now have the overwhelming feeling of loving sleep more. This is understandable as many changes have affected both mom and dad.  Sex after birth can be a bit uncomfortable and not feel as good as before, however by implementing a few tasks and working on them consistently, sex may become better than it ever was before.  Some simple tasks that can reignite your sex life are:

  • Bonding is key and part of this journey. Connecting with one another can be done over daily chores, showing interest in each other’s lives.  This reminds each person, that their individual identity still remains, and that they are not just parents.
  • Make time for sex each week; make it special, like a date night. Send each other naughty messages during the day, as this build-up usually leads to a heightened pleasurable experience.
  • The environment should be baby-free, as there is nothing worse than finally getting into the moment and experiencing excruciating pain, as a dummy digs into a knee cap.
  • Start with kissing and touching each other and then work your way up, or down.
  • Experiment with different positions to find one that is most comfortable for mom.
  • Keep lubrication close by, as hormonal changes affect vaginal dryness, which will impact the overall sensation and pleasure for you both.
  • Sometimes mom or dad may not be in the mood, but by taking a chance and trusting your partner, you may just be absolutely thrilled by the experience.
  • Keep the intimate part of your relationship interesting and exciting. Fool around with each other, flirt, have fun and, of course, get naked.

The final task for keeping the spark going is having a ‘Quickie’. Quickies are spontaneous and adventurous, as they can be at any time, day or night and any place, within your home. The best part of a quickie is that it forces both mom and dad to stay present in the moment and enjoy it.

Preconceptions

After 9 months of anticipation and excitement, a couple sometimes has a preconceived idea of what it will be like to become a family – a rather more idyllic idea of domestic bliss than what it turns out to be. The reality of painful labour, episiotomies, nightly disturbances, sore nipples and changing diapers can be a bit of a letdown and may lead to resentment from one or both parties. Babies seldom follow the “baby book rules” and the reality of an infant can test a couple’s relationship, particularly if one person feels that the partner is not contributing sufficiently.

Preconceptions are part of the journey to becoming a new parent. It is reality versus fantasy, and the only way to differentiate is once the baby is born. It is important to remember when this reality sets in, is that are always two circles in life. The things we can control and the things we can’t. The sooner new parents adapt to this way of thinking, the more control they will have to make changes to things that are within their control and accept the things that aren’t.

These are often the thoughts of becoming a new mom:

  • What if I make mistakes?
  • What if I cause harm to the baby?
  • Will my partner, family and friends, I think I am a bad mother?
  • Will things ever go back to as they were?

The thoughts of a partner becoming a new parent:

  • I want to help but I don’t know how and I don’t know what to do.
  • How am I going to manage work, family and relationship commitments?

 Ways of protecting and growing the relationship include:

  • Making time for each other; doing little things that make your partner feel noticed, cared for and included.
  • Communication is key; listen actively to your partner rather than holding resentment. Partners are more likely to respond better to direct requests, so let go of expecting them to volunteer for the task.
  • Be honest about what you need at that moment, like a hug, a cup of tea or a foot rub.
  • Share housework equally. List daily chores so that each parent knows what they need to do, as this leads to less complaining and scorekeeping.
  • Share baby duties too! This will assist with both parents having the opportunity to form a bond with their newborn.
  • Parenting styles differ naturally as two individuals raise a child together. This may not be a bad thing as often where one person’s parenting style lacks, the partner’s style will make up for it. Meet halfway, compromise, and allow each person to parent in the area of their strength.
  • Alone time, like mom or her partner spending time away from baby and the other parent, should continue once things have settled in the first few weeks. As much as the role of being a parent has been added to your individual identity, you should still feed your soul with the things you love independently. Spending time away will allow you to return home feeling refreshed and recharged. Examples are like going to the gym, attending a weekly book club or playing a round of golf. Your partner should have equal opportunities to do what they enjoy and you can work out a routine around these times.
  • Lastly, it is important to give thanks to your partner, as resentment is a negative emotion and cannot thrive in an environment in which true positive feedback is given on a daily basis.

Leave

The more involved both partners are in overcoming the challenges of a new baby, the more their relationship strengthens. Discuss the importance of your partner taking leave from work to fully participate in the postpartum period, and to ensure that the relationship is mutually supportive.

Leave can be a sensitive topic for many couples becoming new parents.  Leave should be discussed with each other, on an individual basis, rather than making a ‘one size fits all’ recommendation.  This is dependent on the parents’ employment contracts, on how much how much maternity leave they are entitled to, and whether this is paid or unpaid.  Mothers usually get four months of maternity leave and partners get ten days. If allowed, partners are encouraged to take their leave to support the new mom, encourage her and help with the baby. Spending time with the newborn will allow the partner to get to know the baby and bond.   During this leave period, it is important to note that the partner should assist the mom, rather than doing everything for her.  One of the biggest anxieties a mom has is being left alone with the baby once the partner returns to work. Moms will cope better if they have had the opportunity to find their feet, with the baby and related chores, with their partner by their side.

Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, many new parents find themselves bound by financial constraints. Remember that not taking your full maternity leave does not make you a bad parent.  The fact is that you are putting your baby first by financially providing to make sure all their basic needs are met. If this is your reality, work with it and make the most of the time you do have together.  Bonding time with your baby is more about the quality of time spent, rather than the quantity.

Baby Blues

Differentiating between postpartum depression and the Baby Blues is the first step. Most common symptoms identified with Baby Blues are:

  • Mood swings changing throughout the day; one minute feeling happy and enjoying being a mother, the next minute feeling overwhelmed and completely lost with the responsibilities of having a baby to care for.
  • Lack of sleep, leading to exhaustion, which makes self care more difficult. It feels as if everything is an effort.
  • Irritability caused by small events, things that previously did not concern the mother.
  • Anxiety around caring for the baby and keeping up with the daily chores around the home.

These symptoms tend to be more short term and will last a few weeks at most. Baby Blues are most often caused by hormonal changes and the uncontrollable changes of routine that come with a newborn.

Common symptoms identified with Postpartum Depression:

  • Feelings of hopelessness and sadness.
  • Struggling to bond with the baby, even weeks after the birth.
  • Having difficulty sleeping or eating.
  • Unable to take care of the baby independently.
  • High levels of anxiety, which could include panic attacks.
  • Moms that have previously suffered from depression may be more at risk.

Postpartum depression is more long term than Baby Blues, and can last any time from six weeks to years,  after giving birth.

The second step is recognising that partners may also experience Baby Blues. They often feel left out and isolated, which leads to feelings of loneliness and failure. They may experience other symptoms too, as lack of sleep often causes irritability.

The third step is being aware of the emotional impact on partners when the mother of their baby is suffering from Baby Blues. They feel they can do nothing right, feel helpless, are not sure of how to help. They notice that mom tends to withdraw and shut them out. Partners often become the punching bag, as they are spoken to rudely or treated badly.

Coping mechanisms for the Baby Blues and Postpartum Depression are similar. Implementing these mechanisms should lessen the effects they have on the mother, the partner, and the baby. Here are some tips to survive the blues.

  • Lean on your support system and reach out to them for help. This could be in the form of a family member, a friend, a neighbour or your partner. Let them assist in areas that will help you on an emotional level. Examples of this could be cleaning the house, going grocery shopping, dropping off a home-cooked meal or babysitting for a short period of time so that the new parents can catch a snooze or take a quick walk.
  • Lifestyle interventions are powerful and yield positive results. This includes nutrition, exercising, getting more sleep and taking time out to rest and recharge.
  • If little or no improvement is noted by implementing the above tips, it may not be Baby Blues but rather Postpartum Depression. If this is the case, then professional help should be sought. The treatment plan will depend on the severity of the depression, which may include counselling and/or medication.
  • If in doubt, reach out!

Family and friends

Conflicting and unsolicited advice from family and friends can cause issues within the extended family. On the other hand, this is a time when relationships with supportive parents or siblings are cemented and strengthened. Accept that as a new parent you cannot know everything and it’s ok to not be able to cope alone at times. Take advantage of the opportunities presented by your network of family and friends and ask for help.

  • New parents have individual situations pertaining to their family and friends. These relationships should therefore, be treated uniquely to each person involved.
    • Some family and friends have the tendency to take over and run the show. Boundaries should be put into place with these types of family members and friends. Choose a specific time during the week, when they can visit, at a time that suits you. This will give you better control over the situation and they will feel like you are making time for them. It is a win-win for all.
    • Other family members and friends are completely absent, show no interest, and don’t offer help. This may lead to feelings of resentment by the new parents and could harm relationships going forward. Communication is most important in this situation, without making it personal. Give them specific requests, which will help, as sometimes they just don’t know where to start or what to do.
  • Family and friends may also question your way of parenting, which creates self-doubt and panic. Trust your gut and go with that. If that doesn’t work out, then ask someone you trust for guidance. This way, the advice is given on a need-to-know basis.
  • Remember that your family and friends are also adjusting to the ‘new’ relationship they have with you. Some things are going to change and others will stay the same. Most importantly, you need to communicate your needs as new parents. Make a concerted effort to keep in touch with them; their support is invaluable and usually unconditional, so keep a space for them in your life.

By Inge Gouws

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