Babyproofing Your Relationship
Prior to becoming parents, it is not uncommon to fantasise about what life would be like with children. We can conjure up blissful images of family picnics, taking a child to the zoo or park, and sweet cuddles with a sleeping infant. Parenthood can include these moments, although the reality of being a parent tends to be far more complex – many difficult lows to go along with the joyful highs. A significant factor in determining how smooth or rocky the transition to parenthood will be is the relationship with your partner. For some relationships, the addition of a child creates a tight-knit, happy family unit. For others, the relationship deteriorates and, ultimately, breaks down as both parents struggle to cope with the challenges of caring for an infant.
What determines the difference between a happy, stable relationship post-baby and a breakup? As it turns out, one of the biggest predictors of the quality of your couple relationship after becoming parents is the quality of your relationship before becoming parents. Research on this issue suggests that 2/3 of parents experience a dip in relationship satisfaction when the baby comes along, and this dip can last up to three years. This makes intuitive sense. You’re tired from sleepless nights, stressed from a lack of time to rest and recharge, often overwhelmed with uncertainty, having way less sex, and unable to make quality time for each other. Of course, your relationship is not going to feel as close and happy as it was. If you add a baby with health issues, colic or difficulty sleeping, postnatal depression, financial stress, or any of a host of other worries, this can compound relationship difficulties. Interestingly, though, research suggests that for relationships that were functioning well prior to baby, satisfaction gradually starts to improve as time goes on and returns to pre-baby levels. For relationships that were not functioning well, however, the dip in relationship satisfaction typically continues its downward trajectory. Therefore, if you’re wondering if a baby will improve your troubled relationship, the answer is a resounding no – this is highly unlikely.
If you are struggling in your relationship and want to improve it before starting a family, or if you are in a stable relationship and simply want to ensure as smooth a transition as possible, there are a number of things that you can do to minimise the stress of the transition to parent. Being a parent can be one of the most enjoyable, rewarding and enriching parts of your life, but you would be hard-pressed to find many parents out there who describe it as easy. Here are a few tips for babyproofing your relationship.
- Improve communication and conflict management. There are many books and online courses that you and your partner can do to learn new strategies for your relationship, and a detailed description of those is beyond the scope of this article. If you try to do this and find that you are still stuck in old patterns, see a couples psychologist.
- Be clear with each other about your expectations about parenting roles. It can be easy to assume that your partner knows what you expect of them as a mother or father, but it is an issue that comes up time and again in couples therapy. Perhaps a mother assumed that the father would be home from work earlier to help out with the baby. The father may assume that the mother will return to work earlier than she had planned, or give up a career when she always wanted to be a working mother. Discussing these issues calmly and negotiating expectations is critical. How will the baby’s arrival impact your careers? Social life? Who will be the primary caregiver? How much will each partner get up in the night? What role will extended family play in the baby’s upbringing? What will be the financial impact? Answering these questions can be very valuable in preventing conflict after the baby comes and the need for an answer is more urgent.
- Carve out time for each other. This is way easier said than done, but it is very important to continue to nurture your relationship. Early on, parents can feel guilty about leaving their infant with another person, even briefly. However, it can be helpful to think of it as an investment in your child’s future. After all, a child with two parents in a functioning, stable relationship has significant advantages. Think about who you might be comfortable with watching the baby before the baby comes, and approach that person about providing some regular help. This may be a family member or friend. It is best to have a few people in mind if you can manage it. If you do not live near family, it may be helpful to get to know a professional babysitter prior to the baby’s arrival.
- Remember that you’re on the same team. It can be easy to snap at each other or to assume the worst about your partner’s intentions when you are tired and stressed. Try to assume the best possible motivations behind your partner’s words and actions, even when they drive you crazy. Err on the side of being kind and forgiving.
- Show empathy for each other and practice random acts of kindness. If you are struggling, chances are your partner is struggling, too. Listen when your partner describes how exhausted he or she is and validate their concerns. Try not to let it become a competition over who is more tired. Little things like taking the baby from a parent who seems to be stressed or bringing a cup of tea to your tired partner can go a long way toward strengthening the relationship.
- Check in with each other regularly. Just asking the question, “How are you doing?” can go a long way toward making your partner feel valued. Be sure to listen to the answer, too.
- Show appreciation for your partner’s contributions. It never hurts to show your partner that you see the effort they put in and that you are grateful for it.
Topics of interest around the work of Sunshine Coast Psychology and PND Clinic
PND and a cuppa tea – Helpful tips to help you recover from PND
Wouldn’t it be lovely if all you needed was a hot cuppa tea, and all would be good in the world? Mums who are suffering from depression and/or anxiety after the birth of their baby are often told to ‘cheer up and get over it’, and that all new mums ‘feel like this’.
We know that this is just not the case, and in fact, these types of comments can prevent mums from seeking help and starting on the road to recovery. Mums try to present a happy and competent picture perfect (think happy family Facebook pics) to the world, while slowly dying inside. Mums describe to me a feeling of being utterly overwhelmed and alone with their new baby, whilst others feel a total lack of joy and crushing sadness. Alternatively, other mums feel terrified, worried and anxious about the task of looking after a baby and totally consumed with the babies sleep and feeing routines. If you have felt this way for at least 2 weeks, it is possible that you are suffering from PND.
PND is experienced by 1 in 6 mums and it is important to speak to a health professional as soon as possible. You may be referred to see a psychologist for counselling and in some instances, your GP may recommend a short treatment of anti-depressant medication depending the severity of your symptoms.
Five tips to help recovery
- Exercise - Research suggests that regular exercise may increase the level of serotonin in the brain, a neurotransmitter involved in regulating mood. Exercise can also increase the level of endorphins in the brain which have ‘mood-lifting’ properties. Walking for 30 minutes a day can be so helpful as it is a chance to get out of the house, get some sun and will increase your energy levels and improve sleep. See if you can find a friend to meet for a regular walk and a cuppa, and you will benefit from the exercise, sun and social connection.
- Ask for help – there is nothing to be ashamed of and you are not a failure. Talk to your partner, a friend, family member or your GP and ask for help. Taking that vital first step, is often a relief and certainly a step towards recovery. You are not alone.
- Healthy Eating – there is some evidence to suggest that healthy eating is good for our physical and mental health. Try to eat regularly throughout the day (3 meals plus snacks), choose less refined high sugar food and drinks, eat a wide variety of foods including lots of fruit and vegies, protein including oily fish. Remember to drink at least 8 glasses of water a day and limit your intake of alcohol.
- Sleep routine – if possible have a rest when your baby is asleep. Try to go to bed at the same time every night and follow the same routine before bed. It is a good idea to avoid caffeine and alcohol before bed, and helpful to keep your bedroom free of mobile phones, laptops and TV. There are lots of apps you can download to help you relax before bed, such as smiling mind which take you through some useful mindfulness exercises. Other helpful relaxation exercises help with breathing techniques, and muscle relaxation.
- Realistic expectations – there are so many myths about motherhood in the media and for some reason, a hesitation for society to be honest about the difficulties in becoming a parent. There is the false perception that we will fall in love with our baby at first sight, breastfeeding is a breeze, babies should ‘sleep through’ the night, and that new mummas should be able to achieve the perfect post-baby body, keep a spotless house and cook nutritious meals. Well, it is simply not true; these unrealistic expectations are not healthy, and can ultimately contribute to PND. So, let’s keep it real and be kind to ourselves and our fellow mums.
For more information, please check out our website www.sunshinecoastpnd.com.au
Lisa Lindley, Perinatal Psychologist
Sunshine Coast Perinatal Centre
Topics of interest around the work of Sunshine Coast Psychology and PND Clinic