RELATIONSHIPS can seem rock solid – but throw a baby in the mix, and it’s extremely common for things to get strained.
Rachel MacLynn, psychologist and CEO of MacLynn matchmaking consultancy (maclynninternational.com), believes couples often go onto parenthood blindly, unaware of how the shift to parenthood might affect things.
“Ignorance can be bliss,” she says. “All the books in the world can never prepare you for parenthood, but the shift in the relationship dynamic between you and your partner can sometimes be the biggest surprise of all.
“Any couple that can openly communicate about their feelings and worries before and during having children will thrive. You will likely both have to make compromises, so working out where you are willing to compromise can also be key,” MacLynn adds.
“The best thing you can do for your relationship is allowing each other the space to talk and be heard.”
Liz Ritchie, an integrative psychotherapist from St Andrew’s Healthcare (stah.org), says: “A lot of parents can get swept along with the euphoria of the baby, particularly as how long they’ve been trying for a baby can impact their feelings and the excitement. So what does tend to be side-lined are all of those practical things that really must be also taken into consideration.”
So, to help avoid more arguments, confusion and resentment down the line, what are some of the key conversations to have now?
1. How will we cope with the nights?
There are two elements here: the practicalities of feeding, changing, burping and settling, and then sleep deprivation and what can be done to help.
“There are a few factors to take into consideration, firstly if the [birth] mother is going to breastfeed, then the [feeding] responsibility is on her, and really a conversation should take place about how she can be supported with that – and what that looks like,” says Ritchie. “There is absolutely nothing wrong with asking a partner to get up with you to support you.”
Partners can get babies back to sleep, do nappy changes, prepare bottles (if using) or simply keep the other company – “so both parents are involved in the process.”
Another factor is the kind of work the partner does, and how you can both manage sleep deprivation around that, says Ritchie.
“If it’s a high-intensity job where they definitely need that sleep, then that may have to be discussed and planned out in a way that the mother feels supported. And at times when she doesn’t have that support, she knows why.”
Talking about it beforehand can ensure neither parent carries guilt that they aren’t contributing as much as the other, because practicalities have to be considered as well, she explains.
“It’s important that guilt is taken out of the equation for everybody concerned,” Ritchie notes.
Plus, there are other means of providing support: “It could be preparing things at the end of the day or first thing in the morning – not just to help out the mother but to bond with the child.”
2. What are our expectations for a social life and ‘me time’?
There’s no getting away from the fact that a child leaves less time for hobbies, socialising and time for yourself, but how any spare time is used is worth discussing. Ritchie says it depends on what kind of social life you had before.
“But for those who have had a healthy social network, that will change shape. It will mean that social lives will probably have to be streamlined a little bit. How do both people feel about that? What would that look like for them?”
Do you have any hobbies, what’s a fair amount of time to be spent on them? Could that be paused for a few months? How can you each fit exercise and self-care in?
Ritchie says it’s about “making both feel comfortable and that they are understood”, while MacLynn stresses: “It’s important to allow each other and encourage each other to have some ‘me time’ and maintain your individual identity.
“But don’t compare yourselves to other couples – do what is right for your relationship and your family.”
3. Are we on the same page about finances?
Children come with additional costs and, particularly in today’s destabilised economic climate, it’s key to ensure you’re on the same page about how you’ll pay for things.
“Money can be a leading cause of arguments between couples,” says Ritchie, “and when a newborn comes into the equation, emotions are running high. It [may] seem like it will spoil the whole euphoria by thinking about money, but it’s a really important thing to have discussions around. What will the monthly budget look like? How will that weigh in on income against expenditure now?”
If those conversations haven’t taken place before baby arrives, couples will end up having to be “reactive rather than proactive” when it does eventually come up, she explains.
“And when they start discussing it, they may feel like their back is against the wall – and it can cause real issues.”
4. How will additional household chores be divided?
Even if you’ve lived together for some time, a baby introduces a whole load of new household tasks – from additional laundry and sterilising bottles (if using), to making extra food as they wean and tidying toys as they grow.
Rachel FitzD, parenting expert, ex midwife and speaker at The Baby Show (thebabyshow.co.uk), says that “at times of change and stress, we tend to fall back on relationship behaviours we have witnessed growing up” – and for many in heterosexual, heteronormative relationships, that means very traditional gender roles, where a mum takes on more chores than the dad.
“If we want to create new behaviours then ideally we should talk and plan before the stress hits us. This is actually easy when a new baby is expected because you get nine months warning,” says FitzD.
“Agree a time to sit down and talk, and block out a couple of hours – this is too important to rush. Write down everything you can think of that needs doing, right down to emptying the bins.”
She advises each signing up to the parts you want to take on.
“This is teamwork, you are aiming to make life with a young family easier, not score points,” she says. “You’ll [then] see those things neither of you particularly want to do and can spend some time negotiating and compromising, so each of you feels involved and heard and respected.
“Make sure to write up your agreement and then re-visit it every few months – babies change and needs within the household evolve.”
5. Can we both take on the emotional labour?
Parenthood comes with a lot new things to think about – from feeding decisions and nap schedules to all the additional planning and remembering for things like medical appointments, childcare arrangements, sorting clothes that are outgrown and researching the latest advice for development, sleep and nutrition.
“The burden of invisible labour is a big deal,” says MacLynn. “Often the mental load does tend to be dumped on the person who has not gone back to work immediately. That tends to form habits, behaviours and default roles, which continues even when both parents are back at work.
“It’s very easy to build resentment,” she says. “So it’s important both parents recognise when the load is not being shared equally. If there are open conversations about what stresses can be shared, however small, that can also help.”