Keeping The Love Alive After Baby
Seven expectant couples sit around a makeshift conference table in the bowels of Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital at childbirth classes. Some hold hands, wordlessly radiant about the new life growing within bulging bellies too large to fit beneath the table. Others verbalize intimate feelings to relative strangers, their hopeful anticipation tempered only by anxieties about delivery. The couples practice newly learned breathing techniques together -- "who-who-haaaa" -- to prepare for the contractions of childbirth, a long awaited but nebulous event. Their marriage is at a high-point. But nothing prepares them for the life-long contractions their marriage must endure long after baby makes three.
True, becoming parents is among the most thrilling experiences a couple can share. Lynn, of Northboro, Massachusetts, describes the depth of emotion she experienced when her daughter, Caitlyn, was born. "It was like falling in love again, only better," she recalls.
Nevertheless, the responsibilities of parenthood can be overwhelming, causing new and experienced parents alike to make the shortsighted decision to "put the marriage on hold." It is precisely during this period of transition, while couples are redefining themselves as individuals and forging a new way of relating to one another, that it is critical to nurture the marriage.
Attack problems early
Studies on new marriages have found that one in eight couples divorce or separate before baby reaches 18 months of age. Chronic problems develop in still other marriages during this period, laying the groundwork for divorce. An awareness of the changes and taking a positive approach as your marriage morphs may help thwart trouble early on.
While it's no surprise babies are hard work and require round-the-clock care, when new parents experience this first hand, it still comes as a shock.
Lois Freedman, M.Ed., facilitates new mothers groups at Newton-Wellesley Hospital in Massachusetts, and has a private practice in Sharon. She says that while most parents expect to be tired, "people have no experience being up all night then having to function the next day." Even after babies sleep through the night, some parents remain on alert, never sleeping quite as soundly as in their pre-baby years.
It is no wonder that the effects of sleep deprivation and caring for a newborn, combined with demands of household and work make parents feel as cranky as a tired infant does. Tired people, young or old, are just not themselves. As new parents learn to recognize the signs of a sleepy child, they must also learn to recognize and take in stride their own and their spouse's sleep-deprived, less than perfect behavior.
In contrast to the feelings of delight many proud parents experience, feelings like sadness, disappointment (about the birthing experience) and self-doubt are not uncommon. In fact, they may be closer to the norm. "It's important that couples know that the feelings they are experiencing are OK," Freedman says.
Hormonal changes, issues surrounding breastfeeding, financial stresses, daycare and other concerns may all contribute to the emotional roller coaster.
Take time to talk
To make matters worse, couples may suffer a temporary loss of intimacy and sexual relations due to the episiotomy or c-section, or a hormone-related waning libido. The good news is, this usually passes within a few months. But sometimes, residual feelings of anger, resentment or self-consciousness delay the return of a healthy sexual relationship. Freedman suggests couples spend more time communicating.
"It's more important for a couple to just sit and talk than to read every book about child care to bring the love that brought them together in the first place back to the marriage," she says.
She adds that little things, like sharing the day's frustrations and thoughtful gestures, are key to reinforcing the importance of the marriage.
Freedman also stresses that it is important for the new mother to find time to take a walk, jog or just take a bath. Most new moms balk at this idea, barely having more than a moment to shower. But Freedman says taking time for oneself is an important part of a healthy marriage.
"If she can nurture herself," she says, "she can come back to the relationship in spirit."
Most partners bring preconceived ideas about the role of "mother" and "father" to the relationship. They may reflect or oppose the roles of their own parents, or be based on a fictional image of the family. In any case, falling short of these expectations can lead to unnecessary stress, and possibly feelings of inadequacy and disappointment. When a couple discusses the roles they've internalized, there are bound to be some disconnects. However, it provides an opportunity to jointly define more realistic roles.
Myla Kabat-Zinn, co-author of Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting, suggests couples focus on things that are most important to them by rethinking their values.
She points out that family life is "more than just a well-run business, or an efficient family." Kabat-Zinn suggests simplifying life in ways possible for the couple, such as by designating a time and place that is a "technology-free" zone in the home, or by minimizing household chores and social obligations time to allow couples or a family to come together without interruption.
"We all have this yearning for getting connected and being close and it can so easily get lost," she says.
Carve out time together
While it is important not to rush new mothers into separating from her child, couples do need time alone together. Kabat-Zinn explains that "(couples) need to recognize the infants needs come first, but also make space for two to connect, to come together as a couple." She reinforces that time together as a couple does not have to be away from the baby; it can be when baby is sleeping, or when the couple is taking a walk with the baby.
"It's important for our children to see us finding ways to take care of ourselves and not losing sight of them, to see that it's not a choice of them or us," she says.
But with more than one child, or with older children, it can be increasingly difficult to find those quiet moments. Two mom's at a preschool birthday party collaborate on the importance of "dates," or time away from the children to experience each other as a couple.
"Even if you have to roll your pennies, you need to get out once a month, or once a week," commented one mother. By making a commitment to quality time alone as a couple, children bear witness to a lesson that can't be taught elsewhere.
The transition from a childless couple to a family takes a lot more than good breathing techniques (although a periodic cleansing breath does help at times). Over time and as the relationship matures, the marriage that is born out of hard work and understanding will be more rewarding and provide a more stable foundation upon which the family rests. It will have been well worth any pain endured.