Now we are three

How do couples keep their relationship strong with the arrival of a newborn?

Friends of mine have a favourite anecdote from the days following the birth of their first child. Charlotte, up with her wakeful baby in the wee hours, had finally succeeded in getting him to sleep in his carriage in the living room. It was a restless, light sleep, though, and she didn’t want to move him. “So I decided to just spend the rest of the night on the couch,” she recalls, “but I didn’t dare leave him for long. So I literally sprinted upstairs for a blanket.”

Charlotte nearly collided in the hallway with her husband, Alan. “He was standing there, half asleep, mumbling, ‘Sorry. Sorry. What was I supposed to do?’ He’d heard me storming up those stairs and jumped up, assuming I was mad about some oversight!”

It’s a funny story, but it illustrates how easily couples can cross wires during this intense period. “I was taken aback,” recalls Charlotte. “I wondered, is that how I’m treating him? I realized we needed to take care of each other, not just the baby.”

The postpartum period is a time of upheaval for new parents. Mixed with joy at the baby’s arrival, new parents may experience some pretty uncomfortable — if perfectly normal — emotions: resentment, jealousy, anxiety.

As you each struggle to become comfortable in your role (and keep up with the laundry and get a little sleep), it may seem there isn’t much time or energy left over for your relationship with your partner. Yet, many couples say they have grown as a result of the parenting experience. How can couples stay in touch when baby makes three?

How to stay close
What helps a relationship flourish during parenthood, despite the stressful periods?

• Talk to me. Susan Peacey, clinical supervisor at Halton (Ontario) Family Services, says the biggest problem she sees is that “people think they have the same values and theories about raising kids, until they have kids. Assumptions are dangerous. Communication is critical.”

• What should a couple discuss? Breastfeeding, returning to work, the role of extended family, babysitting, how your parents brought you up and where you will seek advice are some topics Peacey suggests. Other potentially “hot” issues are each parent’s role in caring for the baby and doing household chores, how you will deal with crying and nightwaking, and the family budget. It’s all right to disagree, but it’s important to respect each other’s feelings and search for common ground.

In the whirlwind days after the birth, intimate moments with your partner may be few and far between. But keeping in touch now is worth the effort — take time to talk (about the baby, of course, but also about how you’re feeling), to hug, cuddle, nurture and support each other.

• Share the care. If both parents are involved in caring for the baby, that shared experience may bring them closer together and help them weather the transition to parenthood. In their landmark book When Partners Become Parents, researchers Cowan and Cowan write, “In marriages where the men are more involved in the care of the children, they have higher self-esteem, and so do their wives. Both partners describe their marriage as more satisfying, their families as more cohesive, and their parenting stress as lower.” (For tips to help fathers get involved with their babies, see “Hi, Dad.”)

• Don’t panic. Couples who’ve been there reassure others that building new family relationships takes time. “The first six months are almost chaotic.” says Don Leslie. His wife, Karen, agrees: “Your sense of routine is shattered, and you need to get used to a new norm.”

Together time
With a new baby to care for, finding time for your relationship as a couple can take some creativity. “People always focus on their time together after sunset,” says Karen Leslie, “but this is often when the baby is fussiest and needs the most attention.” Instead of lamenting that it’s hard to go out for dinner, creative couples find other ways to spend time together.

The Slocombes have hired a sitter so they can go cross-country skiing for an hour near their home. Some couples have their best talks while walking together, with the baby in the stroller. And they learn to make love on a Saturday afternoon while the baby naps, instead of at bedtime when mom is desperate for sleep.

Still, the frequency and quality of sex often decline during the postpartum period. This is a normal and temporary change: Fatigue, hormonal changes and stress all play a part. Recognizing this, then seeking ways to meet each partner’s needs (see “Sex After Baby”) can help a couple through this rough patch in their sexual relationship.

Once they’ve opened the lines of communication and rekindled their sex life, most couples find that their loving relationship happily coexists with parenting. But sometimes things don’t work out so easily. When should couples seek help? Marilyn Belleghem, a therapist in Oakville, Ont. says that point arrives when “you feel you’re holding an unhappy secret that you can’t talk to anyone about.” Some parents may get advice from a close friend or family member. Others seek professional help. Many family service agencies operate on a sliding scale fee schedule, so finances are not an obstacle.

Finding the delicate balance between meeting your baby’s needs and your needs as a couple is a challenge, but juggling is a skill that parents soon master. As Karen Leslie says: “Parenting is a growth experience if you don’t fight it.”

Sex after baby
by Marianne Brorup Weston

Childbirth can profoundly affect a woman’s sexuality, and it sometimes takes longer than expected to re-establish a satisfying sexual relationship. The following tips may help you both adjust:

• You can get pregnant before you get your period, even while you are breastfeeding, so it’s important to discuss birth control with your partner and your doctor.

• Be patient. Many women are not ready for intercourse even after they have physically recovered. They often need more time to get aroused during love- making, too, and can experience vaginal dryness. A good-quality genital lubricant can help.

• If there is soreness or pain at the site of an episiotomy or tear, alternative positions for intercourse, such as side-lying or woman-on-top, may be more comfortable.

• A new mother who feels exhausted or overloaded may need time to renew herself before she can focus on her partner. A sleep, an hour with a good book, a shower, or a relaxing massage may help her rediscover her sexual energy.

• Talk about sex together. Remember it’s no one’s fault if your sexual feelings have changed. If one of you is feeling reticent, try using “I” messages, (“I would like to make love, but I’m scared it will hurt,” or “I’m just so tired that I can’t find the energy for sex. Can we find a way for me to rest up a bit?”) to initiate discussion.

• Chances are, what you are experiencing is normal. If you have questions, don’t be afraid to ask your doctor, public health nurse, best friend or sister.