27 June, 2011

Having a baby is a life changing event. Whether the decision to start a family was planned or unexpected, the impact of rearing a child can rattle even the most stable individuals or relationships.

In some circumstances, couples choose to have a baby to celebrate their stability or to strengthen their relationship. There are thoughts that building their own family will bring them closer together, and that life after childbirth will be a time of tenderness, intimacy, and maturity. The reality is however, that for most couples, the impact of lifestyle adjustments, role changes, changes social networks, and the need for stability and responsibility around child rearing all impact on their relationship.

More couples today are seeking relationship counselling after having a baby than ever before. This does not necessarily mean that the stresses are greater now than in previous years, but rather that more couples are recognizing when they need help.

Mothers and fathers respond and adjust to their newborn baby differently. Misunderstandings, conflicts and expectations can affect the relationship as a result.

A Mothers’ Stress:

New mothers are generally overwhelmed by the experience of child birth and their changing role in life. Before the pregnancy, they were individuals whose lives revolved around their social networks and careers, now their needs are secondary to those of the newborn child. Career women can go from high pressure deadlines and challenging projects, to days filled with nappy changes, feedings, washing and numerous other household duties. Most of these jobs are time consuming and repetitious which may lead to frustration and other negative emotions.

Fathers can assist the situation by trying to understand the pressures and demands on his partner in rearing a newborn. Simple chores can take much longer to complete due to regular interruptions.

After the birth of the child, a new mother experiences a sudden change in hormone levels which can leave her feeling out of sorts. Many new mothers can also have concerns relating to their body image. Some bodies transform overnight to their pre-pregnancy state, while others may never return to that state. Breasts look and feel different, especially if breast feeding, hips are wider, and it may be much harder to loose those extra kilo’s from around the belly and thigh regions. Most new mothers need reassurance from their partners that they are still attractive.

A women’s libido generally is fairly low after birth, as muscles are stretched, and the stress and fatigue of caring for the newborn can reduce feelings of intimacy..    

A Fathers’ Stress:

Many fathers have difficulty making a connection with an unborn child. It is sometimes difficult for them to imagine the impact that the child will have on themselves and their relationship with their partner, until the infant is tangible and present.

Some new fathers sometimes feel left out, isolated, and may even see the new baby as a sort of competition for attention and affection. As a result, they may withdraw and may become depressed. Mothers can help by including the father in the care of the newborn baby. It is important for mothers to take advantage of his offers to spend one-on-one time with the baby. Fathers may do things differently, but with time and practice, they will find their own way of tackling situations. Taking care of the baby alone, is the best way for fathers to get to know their newborn child and establish a strong bond.

Postnatal Depression

Coping with the day-to-day demands of a new baby and adjusting to a major life change, can make some women more likely to experience depression or anxiety at this time, particularly if they’ve experienced depression and/or anxiety in the past. Around one in seven Australian mothers experiences postnatal depression. Anxiety is even more common and both anxiety and depression can occur during pregnancy.

Fathers can also suffer the symptoms and effects of PND. Feeling out of control, sadness, tearfulness, overwhelming sense of worthlessness, sleep disturbances, changes in eating habits, loss of sexual energy, withdrawal, and feeling that you may hurt yourself or your newborn child, are all signs and symptoms of Postnatal Depression. Should you or your partner be experiencing any of the above signs or symptoms, you should seek medical assistance immediately.

Getting back on track

It is important for couples to still spend quality time together. Communication and compassion for the other partner is vital for the relationship and their new family unit.

Here are a few helpful ways that you can improve your relationship with your partner after having a baby.

  • Find time to connect with each other. Simple plans are often the best. Make time alone together a priority and you’ll find a way to make it happen.
  • Talk to each other. Let the other person know the good and bad aspects of your day. They can’t care if they don’t know.
  • Both parents have to care for themself, so that they are able to care for their baby in a better way. Take turns in taking a break from caring for your newborn baby as and when you need.
  • Walking is the best exercise, If you can, 30 minutes everyday, can boost endorphin levels, which in turn relieves tension.
  • Eating regularly and nutritiously. Consult a health professional for information on healthy eating, particularly if breastfeeding.

When you are busy with a new child, it can be difficult to find the time to get to either a doctor or a counsellor, but relationship stress, conflict, or postnatal depression should not be left untreated for a prolonged period of time. 

Relationships Australia has branches throughout Australia which assist couples to refocus on their relationship and what is important to them. You can make an appointment at your nearest Relationships Australia branch on 1300 364 277.  Or you can access ParentLine telephone counselling between 8am to 10 pm, 7 days a week on 1300 30 1300 for parenting difficulties. For more information on Postnatal Depression, visit the Beyondblue website at www.beyondblue.org.au