The birth of a first child and the process of becoming parents is a major turning point for most relationships.
The birth of your first child will cause major changes to you and your partners' lives. You can prepare for this change in several ways, such as:
- learning about childbirth and about being the parent of a young baby
- making practical arrangements for when your baby comes home
- making decisions about your work arrangements and finances after your baby is born
You may not have thought how becoming a parent will affect your relationship with your partner. Children affect their parents' relationship. Couples often overlook this in the busy time preparing for their child's birth, and in the excitement of becoming parents.
Each person's experience of becoming a parent is different. Whilst for some it will be an easy transition, for others it may create some unexpected problems.
During pregnancy, both partners must adjust to the woman's physical changes. Each person's experience of pregnancy is affected by:
- how the woman feels about herself as her pregnancy develops
- how her partner reacts to her being pregnant
- how both partners cope with the changes in their emotional and sexual relationship.
The effect of pregnancy on a couple's relationship can vary enormously. One woman describes:
"The best part of pregnancy was the common interest between my husband and myself ... I couldn't imagine the experience without him. No one else was as interested in every tiny detail of the experience."
This is very different to another woman's experience:
"My husband did not understand how the pregnancy affected me. He seemed to think that because pregnancy is a 'natural' state that I shouldn't be uncomfortable or have any trouble coping."
Men also have emotional needs during pregnancy. These may include a need to be able to express their concerns and to be reassured.
"There was no fun or sharing, no recognition that I also needed reassurance and support. Instead she expected me to give in to all her needs. I felt lonely, angry and hurt."
For some men it is easier to 'opt out' and to be busy with work or other interests:
"... it was easy for me to lose touch with the daily changes in my wife ... I was always too busy keeping up with the day's action."
Pregnancy often puts new emotional demands on men - demands to show patience and tenderness, to mop up tears and to give gentle encouragement. This can be a difficult role for some men.
One area in a couple's relationship often affected by pregnancy is the area of sexuality. For some couples pregnancy is a time of heightened sensuality, a time when love-making takes on a new intensity and a new importance. Others find that during pregnancy their sexual needs diminish and that other ways of expressing intimacy and affection become more important.
Birth - and afterwards
Many fathers are able to be present at their child's birth. Some choose to be present, others feel that they have to be present because it is expected of them. A generation ago fathers were firmly excluded from the birth.
For some couples, sharing the experience of their child's birth can be very special.
"Witnessing the birth of our baby was the best thing I've ever done in my life"
"My husband was the support I looked to during the labour - he knew better than anyone else what I wanted and how I felt."
Some fathers, however, find the experience more upsetting than they had expected. It can be difficult for men to find someone they can talk honestly with about the childbirth and the feelings it aroused.
"The pressure to be a strong husband and a proud father is great. Admitting to more complex feelings like fear, horror and revulsion is very difficult."
After the excitement of the baby's birth comes the task of settling down to parenthood. Parents' experiences will vary. For some couples the transition is easy.
"I was happy that he was at home so much and I enjoyed watching him in his new role as a father. I guess I fell in love with him all over again."
For others, it can be a difficult time. A time of tiredness and emotional stress, when couples become distant and withdrawn.
"I found I sometimes resented him relaxing and playing with the baby while I was madly trying to do a million things at once."
Or as two fathers expressed:
"In the beginning everything was going fine, but as time went on I got angry for no reason at all. I guess I was jealous because everything centred around our child and his mother."
"It seems that the mother has a complete bond with her child during breastfeeding. It was like witnessing an affair ... I wanted the breastfeeding to stop, even though I knew it was important."
Many couples experience uncertainty, and sometimes difficulty, in their sexual relationship after the birth of a child. For some, it is a matter of quickly picking up where they left off, but others find that the demands of parenting affect their sexual needs and their lovemaking for a long-time. Honest and open communication is vital to avoid pain and misunderstanding between couples.
Now we are three
The physical and practical aspects of becoming parents presents couples with many new experiences to share and challenges to overcome. The most difficult can be learning to make room in their relationship for the baby.
Before the pregnancy, couples could give all their attention and emotional energy to each other. In many ways, a relationship before the birth of the first child is like an extended honeymoon.
The arrival of the first child means that time and emotional energy will be taken from the couple's relationship and put instead into parenting their child. Most couples are happy to make this change. Some partners, however, can feel left out, unappreciated or not as loved as before. This can distance the couple from each other.