New Baby? How to survive, thrive, and avoid the divide
I vividly remember the panic, joy, lows, highs and general confusion of being a new mum. It’s a challenging time all round and the one thing that can make the difference between heaven or hell is your relationship with your partner. As a relationship coach I have the privilege of working with couples and individuals looking for support and guidance during this very stressful and emotionally charged time. Here are the main issues I’ve been presented with over the course of speaking to many different clients, and some suggestions and solutions to help guide you through to the other side. (You might even find that these apply outside of parenthood!)
Remember what came first:
You’re both falling in love with a new person at the same time! How beautiful and amazing. Here’s a gentle reminder of the key to keeping your relationship going strong: Your baby is only here because you both made it, together… (just like your relationship). Nature wants us to ensure the survival of our race, so we are programmed to protect a baby at a physical level at all costs. What nature didn’t gift us all with is the ability to keep our perspective when it comes to introducing a child into our relationship. When the baby is placed at the centre of everything, the power shifts from the solid unit (of two people who love each other, who are adults, able to communicate, house, provide etc.) to a single, vulnerable, and unpredictable unit (the baby, who can’t walk, talk, or get a new mortgage). The paradox is that in trying to ensure our baby is cared for in every way, we often end up neglecting ourselves, and our partners, and therefore our relationships, and it is our relationships that really care for our children. This is why holding the perspective of “our relationship came first, and it still does now” is so vital for established couples.
Be honest with yourself and your partner:
This can be a tough one to consider, but it’s worth thinking about. Due to the baby being a neutral party, it is easy to unwittingly use the baby to meet your own emotional needs. This applies to both partners. For example, if either partner is experiencing a lack of love and affection within the relationship, they will easily be able to turn to the baby to fill up their cup. Cuddles are expected, welcomed and encouraged when it comes to babies, unfortunately, for many different reasons, adults are often less capable of asking for (or realising that they need) affection and attention, so over time the attachment to the baby grows stronger, while the partner attachment weakens. Another example – a partner may blame the baby coming along for a rift that already existed within the relationship … it’s a much more convenient place to lay blame than to look deeply (and often painfully) into why the rift was there before the baby came. To add to this emotional mix, having a baby often triggers our own histories as children, and things can come bubbling out of nowhere and be attributed to having the baby around when actually there are issues there that have needed addressing for many years. Being honest with yourself about what you need, and taking some time to grow your awareness about where your feelings are coming from, will help you support each other, and allow the baby to exist as themselves, a beautiful and clean slate, rather than becoming a cover up for things that need to be healed.
Not taking things personally
It’s all too easy to take things personally in life, especially when you are already stressed/overwhelmed. Taking some time to understand your partners perspective will make a huge difference to your tolerance and compassion levels.
For those of you who are partners to new mums – I recommend you read this next bit, take it in, and use it as a conversation starter. Go through it with your partner and ask them which of these apply to how they are thinking and feeling. I think you’ll be surprised at the amount, and intensity:
- I don’t know what I’m doing.
- I must get everything right or I’m a bad mum.
- What if I accidentally hurt or kill the baby.
- If I can’t get the hang of breast feeding I’m not a true mother or woman.
- If I didn’t give birth vaginally, I haven’t really had the true/correct/real experience, I’m not a true woman or mother.
- When the baby cries I can’t think straight, it scrambles my brain and it makes me panic, and it sometimes makes me feel like crying too, and sometimes I snap.
- I have made a huge mistake, I wish I could turn back time.
- I can’t bear people watching what I do, or trying to help, because it makes me feel judged and useless.
- Other mums are better at this than me.
- I don’t know why the baby is crying, and I can’t stop it.
- If breastfeeding: I just wish I could get some physical space/I’m fed up with being needed all the time/this is amazing!/I feel bad about having a stronger bond with the baby than my partner does/I hate breast pads/I feel like a cow being milked when I use a pump/ my boobs are totally off limits for sex, that’s not what they’re for at the moment.
- If bottle feeding: People are judging me about bottle feeding, I have to find somewhere to warm this up NOW, I must not get behind with the sterilising, which brand really is the best milk.
- I must be loving, connected, interacting, and paying attention to every move all the time, otherwise I’m not a good mum, and the baby might be affected and grow up to have problems.
- When the baby sleeps I sort of want it to wake up, but when it wakes up sometimes I want it to go to sleep.
- I wouldn’t do it (feed/change/clothe/bathe/hold etc.) like that …
Can you imagine having this stuff thrumming through your brain and having any headspace left ? (this is where the term “nappy brain” comes from). If ever you feel neglected, or forgotten about, or less important, please remember this list, and it will help you not to take it personally.
It’s also important for new mums to be open to what their partner is feeling and thinking. Here are some possibilities, again to use as a conversation starter:
- When people are watching what I do, or trying to help, I feel judged.
- Women are better at this than me.
- I want to protect my sleep.
- She’s telling me I’m doing it wrong. She’s the mum/she’s emotional so I won’t argue, but it doesn’t feel good to be criticised.
- I don’t know why the baby is crying, and I can’t stop it, it only wants its mum, so I’m a bit pointless.
- If breastfeeding: I wish I could comfort the baby that well.
- If bottle feeding: Oh good, I get to get that look of love off the baby.
- The baby looks pretty relaxed right now, so I’ll relax too.
- Why is she so worried about all these things?
Hopefully from reading through this article you’ll have noticed a few themes. Here’s a summary, and what you can do about them:
Strategies for success
1) Identifying unrealistic expectations – Take time to sanity check each others expectations of being a parent, you’ll find lots of them are unrealistic and therefore cause more stress than you can shake a stick at! Talking through these is a great way to get supportive, so next time your partner has that look of “oh no I’m rubbish at this” you can nip their worries in the bud with a hug and a reality check.
2) Focusing on and supporting each other – Next time the baby is asleep, write up a list together of what you need from each other and what you can give each other. E.g. each of you needs one big hug a day, or to go shopping, or to get some free time, or to watch a particular film together, or to get support with housework etc. It’s a great reminder that you’re in this together and both learning, put it on the wall in a prominent place as a reminder for you both.
3) Applying different approaches – If you and your partner have different preferences e.g. pack nappy bags differently, then accept and recognise this and set things up to work accordingly. E.g. have two nappy change kit/bags, one for mum, one for partner - (remember there is no right or wrong way, as long as the nappy is changed!)
Make sure you have lots of whatever you need (one bottle/tippy cup/dummy = stress, having loads = you’ll be able to find one somewhere) Set yourself up for success by working out a way that both of you can do things your way without feeling that you’re not as good at parenting as your partner. Avoid criticising, remember a little bit too much nappy cream, or even not enough, is not worth conflict with your partner.
One of the greatest gifts you can give your baby (apart from life!) is to show them what a healthy, loving relationship looks like. Put in the work at the beginning, be honest, hold each other when it’s hard, show each other that you appreciate each other, pick your battles wisely, and remember – you were here first!