Transitioning to being new parents in addition to remaining lovers and friends can be challenging. It is difficult to anticipate all the changes a new baby will bring to your lives as a couple and as a family. Many new parents have admitted to me that they felt more than a little bewildered by the amount of time caring for an infant requires, how being a new parent affected the sexuality of their relationship, and how they often felt they and their spouse misunderstood one another, and how distant at times they felt from their spouse. Some parents confessed to me at some of the three in the morning sleep-deprived feedings, they just wanted to be as far away as possible from the other parent because they were driving each other crazy!
Most parents go into their first pregnancy and having children because they have a deep love for one another and wanted to add to their family. So, given all the challenges mentioned above, is it still possible to maintain your deep connection to and love for your spouse in the first year of parenting? I think it is possible, but it does take some time and consideration.
Beth Muscov wrote an article for La Leche League’s NEW BEGINNINGS magazine entitled, “Surviving the First Year of Parenthood While Growing Deeper in Love.” This wonderful article was published in March-April 2000 and can be viewed through this link: http://www.llli.org/NB/NBMarApr00p36.html . In the article, the author writes about how many family therapists use Systems Theory in their practice and how part of Systems Theory includes the idea of an equilibrium point in relationships. She points out how the first thing many couples do when that equilibrium is disturbed is to try to go back to the way things were before the change and how this may not always produce the desired result or it may create additional stress for one or both parents. And besides, once, you have an infant in the house there is no going back!
The article points out that one simple tool new parents can use to help is the use of normalizing statements. Normalizing statements, to me, are almost “rationalizing” statements (uh, statements you would make if you were not so sleep deprived and could make sense and be rational?) The article points out a few of these, such as “ Emotional ups and downs during the first year of parenting are completely normal”. You can view more of these normalizing statements at the link above.
I think normalizing statements in some ways are a good start, but in some ways, this is a coping mechanism that perhaps hides what is underneath the feelings of isolation, separation from one’s spouse, frustration or being overwhelmed that can happen during that first year of parenting.
I offer this to you: a series of questions for you to ponder; because as usual it all starts with you and your inner work. You are now the mother of the home, the keeper of the home and the person who will bring peace into your home. So here are some questions and some thoughts:
How do you feel about being a mother? How do you feel about being a wife on top of being a mother? If you have taken some time during pregnancy to ponder this (see the three part series on this blog entitled, “Pregnancy is Preparation for the Soul”), and believe in this idea of being called into motherhood, as motherhood being a very important thing that you were made to do and called to do, then this can help carry you through some of the rockier moments in parenting a newborn.
The more difficult part for many women is to make that transition from being a mommy to being focused on their spouse, to being able to be absorbed in the intimacy of the spousal relationship emotionally or physically once again. How do you feel about having an intimate relationship with your husband and your baby? What would this look like? Have you discussed this with your spouse?
Dr. William Sears in The Baby Book, mentions this: “Your husband can sense when you are physically connected to him but mentally connected to your baby. He does not expect you to be thinking primarily of him during breastfeeding; should you be thinking about your baby during lovemaking?” He goes on to point out these are normal feelings for a new mother. I would gently add that a baby is small only once, and that getting to be able to balance motherhood and being part of a couple takes time to adjust to, and practice.
How much do you understand about newborn babies and how newborn babies are? How much help is Dad with the newborn baby and how will Dad and the baby connect? All of you out there will smile when I tell you I remember thinking when I was pregnant with my first that having a newborn baby wouldn’t be easy, but really, how hard could it be? The baby would sleep a lot and there would be some kind of rhythm to it, right? I would have time to keep the house clean, cook meals and probably work out as well!
Um, yeah. In reality, my first baby was a baby who nursed about every hour or so, who needed to be held much of the time, who was not very content out of arms. The reality of parenthood did not meet my expectations. There were many things I had read in books, but none of it really sunk in until I had spent time with my own newborn and we learned about one another. Every baby is different, and no matter how many babies you have, you still have to learn each other. Newborns require much time and care in order to achieve that connection and the feeling of one-ness that a newborn baby and a mother can have. In our society, too many mothers are missing the opportunity to fall deeply in love with their baby and also the opportunity of deepening their relationship with their spouse through the love they have for their whole new family. Too often in our society we are willing to put the needs of being a couple above the needs of a young baby.
Many mothers who are planning to solely breastfeed ask about when they can feed the baby a bottle so the dad has “be connected to the baby.” This may be what happens in your family and what you choose as a family, but something else to consider is that if the dad can take care of and support the mother while she takes care of the baby, if he can cook and clean while the mother is consumed taking care of the baby, this is being connected to the baby through the baby’s natural habitat – the mother. More about this in the paragraph below.
How do we balance our needs as a couple with the needs of a breastfeeding baby? Babies have intense needs connected to the mother. The mother is the baby’s natural habitat, an idea originated and developed further in the book, “Breastfeeding Made Simple :Seven Natural Laws for Nursing Mothers” by Nancy Mohrbacher and Kathleen Kendall-Tackett. A baby and a mother, if given a chance, often feel and function as one unit in the early years. This is normal. Fathers can do lots of things in the postpartum period and in the early months of the baby’s life, but they cannot breastfeed. However, as mentioned above, fathers can get involved with their baby in plenty of other ways from diapering to bringing the baby to the mother to nurse to supporting the mother with meals or in housework or care of older children. Mothers and fathers can use this time to connect more deeply if they plan it out right.
There is no doubt that a baby is a baby only for a short while, and many parents accept that this is a season in their marriage that involves putting the baby first. Dr. William Sears, in his book The Baby Book, writes; “For three or four months after childbirth (and sometimes not really until weaning) most wives do no have the energy for a high level of intimacy both as a mother and a mate.” He adds, “Dads, appreciate that a new mother is biologically programmed to nurture her baby. You are not being displaced by the baby, but some of your wife’s energies previously directed toward you are temporarily redirected toward your baby. This is a time primarily to parent and secondarily to mate, and ideally a time to find opportunity and energy for both.” He talks about how wives need to be treated in the postpartum stage in a progression similar to courtship, but he also points out that men experience no hormonal shift in parenting a new baby such as women experience and therefore men still need to hear they are needed and wanted as well.
How do we balance our needs as a couple with the needs of an older baby, toddler or preschooler? As the baby grows and settles into a more rhythmic pattern, perhaps then there will be time for sitting together , and even finishing sentences! With an older child, it does become okay to say that mommy and daddy need some time together and the child can play. Many parents work hard to have at least one night a week where they focus on each other after the children are asleep. Even if your child only stays asleep for an hour or so after they initially go to bed, this is still usable time for your needs as a couple.
How do we combine the roles of parenting with the roles of being friends and lovers to one another? Like everything else in life, both of you have to put effort forth. It does take commitment and planning to be friends and lovers throughout the parenting years. Do not let yourselves drift apart, but build each other up. Assure your husband what he means to you, and tell him what you need. You may be surprised what happens!
What does emotional intimacy mean to you? It has been said that men use physical intimacy to feel close to their spouse, but women have to have the emotional intimacy in order to get to the physical intimacy part. What is true for you? Can emotional intimacy include just saying “I really love you and miss spending time with you”? Have you talked about this with your spouse?
What about physical intimacy? How do you think parenting affects this? Does co-sleeping affect this? Many couples still find times and places to be intimate, even with co-sleeping and multiple children! There can be romance even while parenting!
And most importantly, how do you communicate with one another? Respect for one another’s feelings and needs are so important during times of change and finding a place in new roles within the family. Finding time to communicate is important – sometimes with attachment parenting one feels that the baby or children are always there and it is difficult to find the time to talk about things…Yet this is imperative!
And HOW we say things makes such a difference!In the book “How to Listen So Kids Will Talk and Talk So Kids Will Listen”, Faber and Mazlish discuss an office situation and the responses to this situation by seven different friends. From this scenario, they detail ways we can respond to one another, including: Denial of the other person’s feelings, being philosophical about the other person’s situation, giving advice, asking questions, defending the situation/accusing the person to whom you are speaking, pitying the other person, giving out amateur psychoanalysis, blaming and accusing, name calling, giving threats, commanding, lecturing and moralizing, giving warnings, responding with martydom statements, providing comparisons, or sarcasm. (This is from pages 51-56, Faber and Mazlish’s How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk). See this book for other examples and details!
Whew! Imagine if we lived in a world and had relationships where we could have authentic communication. So, if all of the above is ineffective communication that just puts up blocks in our efforts to be authentic with one another, what IS effective communication? Effective communication is compassionate communication, and here are some tools to get you started! Faber and Mazlish suggest the following ways of communicating in their book: describing a problem in neutral terms, giving information in neutral terms, talking about your own feelings and needs and I would add asking what your spouse’s (the other person’s) feelings and needs are.
NonViolent Communication (see www,cnvc.org for more information) includes the following steps to compassionately communicating:
- Observation – the CONCRETE actions we are observing that are affecting our well-being
- Feelings – How we FEEL in relation to what we are observing
- Needs – The needs, values, desires that are creating our feelings
- Request – The concrete actions we REQUEST in order to enrich our lives, understanding that a request is different than a demand.
Hopefully by communicating in an authentic style, we can grow deeper in love during the early years of parenting and have a marriage that lasts and stands the test of time.
Just a few thoughts from my little corner of the world.