Relationship satisfaction can take a nose dive when your first baby arrives demanding milk, cuddles, burping, more milk and a dozen nappy changes a day. The stats say four out of five relationships suffer during a baby’s first action-packed year. Just quietly, we reckon the other couple is lying. Raising a bubba is exhausting work and can shelve romance and intimacy. There’s not too many couples that won’t feel rocked by the complete lifestyle overhaul that new parenting brings. Especially if you’re used to doing what you want, when you want – including jetting off on impromtue holidays or drinking a half dozen cocktails on Saturday night, followed by a lazy cafe brekky on Sunday. Some couples may find themselves overwhelmed by the reality and relentlessness of parenthood – after all, even the most easy-going baby will take nine hours of hands on care in a day (double that if they’re colicky or a fussy sleeper) according to baby guru Pinky McKay. So how can you keep your love strong when baby makes three? We talked to McKay and came up with this must read survival guide for first time parents.
1. Plan ahead for how it might be.
Don’t leave it ‘til the baby arrives’ to work out how you’ll handle things. “Talk beforehand about your expectations,” suggests McKay. “It may well be, that it makes more sense for the mother to get up if she’s breastfeeding and the dad’s working. Maybe he can get up at 6am and do something with the baby then, and she can sleep in for another couple of hours. Toss around the possibilities, but realise it might be completely different once the baby arrives – it might not fit the schedule you think might work for it. Having a baby is a huge lesson in being flexible and supporting one another.” It’s also important to discuss your thoughts on child-raising, she adds. “You may get on wonderfully well and have loads in common but a baby can bring up things you might not expect. One partner might think, ‘Oh I was hit when I was kid and there’s nothing wrong with me’ whereas the other was smacked and doesn’t ever want to smack his or her own children. Or, one of you might be fine leaving the baby to cry while the other isn’t.” Pre-baby counselling can help if you feel you need a third party.
2. Realise that rocky patches don’t spell the end.
“I see people from very different backgrounds who get on brilliantly until they have a baby – and all the frozen casseroles in the world won’t prepare you for how your relationship will change,” says McKay. “Some people think having a baby will be like the ads on TV; you’ll be all starry-eyed and it’ll be a lovely addition to your relationship – but it may not be. And people don’t warn you. They’ll tell you to stock the freezer but no one tells you to look at what stresses might be about to hit your relationship. And there will certainly be times when you’re sleep-deprived, times when your partner has stress at work, and throwing a baby into that – well, it’s going to go up and down between you. You mightn’t have had really big barnies before you have a baby but you both need to realise that you’re adjusting to a new lifestyle and it’s not the end of your relationship or your marriage if you do have a few arguments.”
3. Once baby arrives, share the load.
We know it’s not rocket science. Still, many studies and surveys show just how happier couples are when the parenting load is shared equally – because they both get a sense of just how hard it is to look after a child. For couples in traditional set-ups – mum stays home while dad goes to work – resentment can build on both sides, says McKay, with mum thinking, ‘He’s off with adults all day and I’m stuck with the baby’ while the dad thinks, ‘The house is a mess, there’s no dinner, what HAS she been doing all day?’ It’s essential to consider each other’s point of view, and for the partner who’s not the prime carer to care for the baby for a decent stretch, too. “They might actually think, wow, it’s actually more work than I thought it was, she’s not actually sitting down having a latte,” she adds.
4. Say thank-you. Even if you think they should’ve done it anyway.
A hug, a kiss, a smile, a gesture of gratitude costs zip, but it might make your relationship happier, according to a 2011 study that found a spouse’s feeling of being appreciated was directly related to marital satisfaction. And maybe, high-fiving each other’s efforts when you’re in a flat spin of sleeplessness and baby-poo may be especially important. “It’s nice for any of us to hear that we’re doing a great job,” says McKay. “I think for dads to say, ‘You’re a really great mum and I like the way you do X’ – and for her to say, ‘You’re a great parent and thanks for supporting me when you do Y’ or, ‘I appreciate that you thought of doing that’ doesn’t take away from the fact that you feel he or she should’ve done it anyway. It’s about acknowledging that person. It sounds manipulative but people will do more if they feel acknowledged and appreciated.”
5. Expect that your sex life will change – so be adaptable and spontaneous.
So maybe you’re not swinging from the chandeliers like you used to – but you’re not alone. Most couples say things aren’t the same in the bedroom after a baby. The key is to resurrect your sex life as soon as you feel able to, rather than letting months go by, and be spontaneous – whether that’s having a quickie in the shower or a session on the couch after the baby’s in bed. “You have to make the most of the opportunities you have. Don’t just think sex is for night-time in bed. Share a bath together. Find a way without necessarily having a planned date night.” Men could also benefit from changing their idea of foreplay, adds McKay. “Do nice things for each other when you can. It’s not just the bunch of flowers because you want sex. Do the dishes without being asked. Notice the things that need to be done. Help and engage with the baby. That’s actually quite a turn-on for a woman, to find that the partner’s good with the baby. It’s probably the best foreplay a guy can employ!”
6. Create a support network.
Whether you ask grandparents, friends from mothers’ group who are willing to swap regular child-minding favours, or a local babysitter you trust, it’s important to have help to call on when you really need it. Outsourcing other services is a good idea, too, says McKay. “Parenthood is hard for everybody. Don’t feel you’ve failed if you need practical help. If you do need cleaners, or meals or babysitters or whatever, that’s fine. See it as an investment in your whole family’s sanity and mental health.”
7. Listen to each other. Keep your sense of humour. And don’t underestimate the power of a cuddle.
Keeping your sense of humour and communicating with each other is also hugely important because resentment can be the biggest relationship dampener, adds McKay. “Be prepared to listen to the other person. Even if you feel you’re being attacked, just take some deep slow breaths and listen to what they’re verbally trying to express. Even if you feel your partner’s wrong, just listen. If they feel listened to, often that conflict will disappear.” Don’t underestimate the power of a cuddle, either, adds Pinky. “When a woman cries, just give her a cuddle. We don’t want you to say, ‘What’s the matter with you?’ because half the time we don’t frigging know anyway! All we want is a cuddle. So that’s my tip for the guys. If she’s freaking out, get over it, don’t take it personally and cuddle her!”
8. Mums, keep an eye on your health.
“It’s such a big thing to grow a baby and give birth to a baby, your body’s gone through so many changes that you really need to respect that and give your body time to come back to normal. Also have a health check – get your thyroid, your haemoglobin, your vitamin D levels checked to make sure you’re in a good physical condition. Because if you’re low in iron and you’re feeling really stuffed and then you add a baby into the mix, you never catch up. And realise if you’re grumpy and shitty after having a baby and your partner can’t do anything right, it’s worth considering if you have postnatal depression. It might just mean you need counselling or possibly medication. Some men think their partners just turn into a bitch and she can’t help it – she’s verging on not being well.”
9. Let go and allow your partner parent in his or her own way.
A big cause of stress can be because you perceive your partner’s not ‘doing it right’, says McKay, so it’s important to let go of expectations. “It might be that the baby’s crying will make one parent feel very anxious and they might yell at the other to do something – or they’ll say they’re not doing it properly. Or the mother can hover over whatever the father’s doing so he feels incompetent as a parent so he spends more time at work. It’s a good out for the dad, but it’d be better if he wasn’t withdrawing. He does it because he doesn’t want the criticism.” It’s important, too, to set your own traditions as parents, she adds. “You have to let go of some of the ‘My mother does it this way and so should you’ stuff. Work it out between yourselves.”
10. Get help if you need it.
Counselling’s not just for couples contemplating divorce – it can actually teach you things about one another and help you communicate more effectively. And it pays to get help sooner rather than later – because while around one in five couples split by the time their youngest is five, many later regret it, and 40 percent feel the split could have been avoided altogether if they’d done things differently, according to a Relationships Australia study. However, says McKay, it’s crucial to find a counsellor who understands the new parent perspective. “Sometimes relationship counsellors will blame one partner or another, when it’s more about working on the dynamics between the couple, who need to adjust how they treat each other.” If your partner is dead against seeing a counsellor, level with them honestly about your need for help. “You might have to phrase it a certain way. You might have to say, ‘We need help. We both need help. And I’m finding it really hard to cope. Can you come with me because I need you to understand how to help me. I really want your help and support.’ Sometimes it’s about swallowing your pride instead of saying it’s all his fault, there’s nothing wrong with me – because if you do that no one wins. You got together because you had something special between you and you will be able to get that back again. It might be a very different way of relating – but if you’ve got a child you have to think, well I’m in this for the long haul, I can’t cut my losses because it’s not working. You have to give it your best shot.”