All relationships change when a couple decide to have a baby. In the first instance, they have to prepare themselves psychologically for a baby. Pregnancy brings more concrete changes. As well as making regular doctor's visits, most couples will be busy decorating the baby's room, buying baby clothes and organising baby shower parties. While these preparations are often exciting, pregnancy can be physically and mentally challenging. Many pregnant women suffer from nausea, vomiting, headaches, fatigue, and swollen hands and feet. Some women gain weight and feel they look ugly during this period. However, the real test begins with the birth of the child.
As parents get used to life with their newborn baby, they must also adjust to the demands of motherhood and fatherhood. A typical day can be gruelling. Usually the father goes to work, while the mother stays at home to look after the baby. This period is more difficult for working women. They must get used to being with their baby, doing the housework, and not being out at work. During this period, many women make the mistake of trying to be a “perfect wife”, “perfect mother” and “perfect housewife”, which can lead to huge anxiety. There's no such thing as a “perfect woman”. The more women try to do everything perfectly, the more conflicted and guilty they will feel about not living up to an impossible ideal. They should avoid perfectionism, make time for themselves and simply do their best.
One of the most challenging issues that new parents face is a dramatic change in responsibilities, coupled with an increase in domestic obligations. There is probably a long list of friends and well-wishers who want to come and visit the new baby. Keeping the house clean and ready for guests, at the same time as meeting all the baby’s needs, isn't easy for new mothers, so it's important that relatives and friends support them during this period. Sleepless nights are another challenge. Especially during the breastfeeding period, babies wake up frequently. Many parents take their babies into their own bed to make their lives easier. However, although this might solve an immediate problem, it can have long term detrimental effects on the couples’ relationship.
New mothers will often complain that their partner isn't helping them enough with the baby, and this is one of the most common sources of conflict between new parents who come to therapy. Babies are completely dependent on their mothers at first, and fathers can feel excluded. The reason for feeling excluded might also be not knowing what to do as a father. While women feel they're not understood when their calls for help aren't responded to, men struggle with feelings of inadequacy and hopelessness in the face of all these new responsibilities. There should be a realistic division of labour and outside help should be considered if necessary.
Another issue I've observed in therapy is that couples tend to forget that they are still a couple when the baby arrives. Their priorities, the way they communicate, and the things they talk about start to change. Suddenly, everything is about the baby. Understandably, new parents have to severely curtail their social life. Despite this they should go back to being a couple as much as possible, by spending time together when the baby sleeps, and chatting about all the things they used to.
Some couples have sexual problems after the birth of a baby. In the first 6 weeks after birth, women bleed. Known as the postpartum period, this is the time when the uterus recovers so sexual intercourse is not recommended. However, some women still lack sexual desire even when this period is over. Factors such as weight gained during pregnancy, a child-focused relationship, and chronic fatigue can reduce women's sexual desire. Men can face problems too. Many new fathers start seeing their partners as mothers rather than sexual partners. These problems can also lead to vaginismus in females. Sex therapy should be considered in cases where lack of sexual desire continues.
It's quite stressful having a new family member and it's perfectly normal for couples to argue. But if there is conflict, it's important to both take responsibility for the issue and talk it through rather than blaming each other. Child care isn't easy; fighting with your spouse makes it even harder. Dealing with these changes and challenges requires effort and patience. The support of grandparents and other family members is crucial. If you still feel stuck, it's best to get some outside help by consulting a professional.
Gözde Bilenser, Couples and Family Therapist