By Andrea Mechanick Braverman, M.S., M.A., PhD
Before you have a baby, it is easy to wonder how parents are not able to do simple things – like put on real clothes, take a shower, or even eat a full meal. Then your baby comes along and you quickly realize that, perhaps, you didn’t have a clue about what it was going to be like. Yet with the support of friends, family, and Dr. Google, we figure it out. However, who helps us navigate the relationship with our partner or spouse? Who helps us figure out how to integrate the change from romantic relationship into co-parents with new priorities and life demands??
As a couples counselor, I often hear a couple’s fear about how their relationship may fare poorly after the long awaited baby comes along. Time for the relationship gets squeezed as a couple’s time fills with caring for a baby. Many couples forget or ignore that their relationship needs time and care too. Without time communication decreases and creates room for misunderstandings, miscommunication, misinterpretation of behavior, and resentment. Usually, it is not that a couple’s love has diminished, but that time is less available to do the sharing, fun, flirtation and acts of love that were practiced before the baby arrived. Love gets hidden behind the practical demands of a growing family. Yet, as a family grows, so can love.
Incorporating your love for your partner as the parent of your child is new territory. It creates opportunity for growth but can also generate some confusion. When we are dating and getting to know each other, we see our potential partner through many lenses – friend, lover, partner, and – potentially – parent. The initial excitement of discovery of shared interests, goals, sexuality, and values is exciting (intoxicating?). If we want to stay up all night talking or enjoy sex on demand we can. Nevertheless, when the new baby comes along those patterns may change. Some parents feel definitely “unsexy” as they find little time for spontaneity among feedings, diaper changes, and juggling the needs of an infant. Scheduled sex may feel “less than” if expectations are that your sex life may not change and adapt.
For some, maintaining the sexual excitement within a relationship can feel different when seeing your partner as a parent. For others it is just time and energy. Where you might not have had to think actively about sex and intimacy being a part of your relationship, the demands of parenthood may mean that sex has to be more planned and chosen. Sex, talking, sharing, and caring all may have to be put on the “to do” list and consciously made to happen.
Once the baby arrives, let go of all the “shoulds” in the relationship. No “my partner should know what I need” or “my partner should know how I would feel about this”. Change your language – I am going to ask my partner to do (or not do) this for me and give them a chance to know and meet my needs. If they still do not respond then you can have a more productive discussion about what happened and how it made you feel. An ask usually gets a better response than a demand.
Try going for the larger picture to get a different perspective. In other words, instead of getting stuck in your own perspective (which, we all believe, is 100% accurate) try very hard to think about how your partner or someone else might see or feel things differently. If you can accept that there is more than one way to look at something, then maybe you can move the emotional needle from irritation or hurt to something less toxic. We’re human and we can get frustrated. But a start from a place of love, for example, “my partner loves me and wants the best for me,” helps calm the frustration and goes a long way to make it possible to work together.
Spend time together! There is no substitute for time in a relationship. You can’t phone, text or tweet it in. Although a little sexting can be a continuation of fun or a new way to interject some new fun. Date night is important to schedule and that means making the effort to find reliable and good childcare. Try swapping babysitting with trusted friends or family. And then turn off the parent brain and be present with the partner you love and enjoy. It takes energy to be present but the rewards are worth it. And the investment in the relationship is important for the now and the future.
So set realistic expectations. Things don’t have to “go back to normal” to be good. Life is changed and expectations have to change too. Your world has expanded. Think of it as getting new colors to fill your world – it takes some experimentation to learn how to use them but think of how much more beautiful your world can be.
Finally, put love on your “to do” list. Think about how you want to love and be loved. Then put that plan into action and reap all the new rewards.
About the Author: Andrea Mechanick Braverman, M.S., M.A., PhD is the Associate Director of the Educational Core, Clinical Associate Professor of Obstetrics & Gynecology, and Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry & Human Behavior at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, PA. She is a licensed psychologist practicing in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Connecticut.