Having a baby is an amazingly joy-filled time and a time of immense love and connection, but the transition to parenthood is often quite difficult as well. There are some very common things that happen to couples once a baby is born that can lead couples to feel less happy in their relationship. In fact, research conducted by Dr. John Gottman, a clinical psychologist well known for his research on marital stability, shows that 67% of couples experience a large drop in relationship happiness and increased hostility and conflict within the first three years a baby is born. That’s a shocking statistic—and sad, too! My guess is that most of us don’t decide to have a baby with someone that we want to be unhappy with. The good news is that when couples understand more about what to expect during the transition to parenthood, and thus don’t blame their relationship for the increased stress and conflict, they can then learn ways to manage it effectively and remain close to one another. Your relationship doesn’t have to suffer!
So what changes?
Both mom and dad experience profound identity shifts as they become a mother and a father. Things that have previously been of core importance to your life might now take a back seat to your role as a parent. With this also comes the loss of autonomy and increased responsibility.
It’s all about Baby
Babies need their parents for everything, especially early on. Babies cry when they’re hungry, or when they’re wet, or tired, or lonely, or in pain, or want to be held, etc. New parents have to be responding to their Baby’s crying around the clock, and that naturally makes parents feel overwhelmed, tired and cranky. These increased demands make it harder for a couple to attend to their own needs as well as the needs of each other. New parents often experience decreased communication and connection with one another and an increase in stressful interactions.
Compromised Basic Needs
Sleep! Sleep is one of our most basic biological needs and it is definitely compromised when we have a baby. Sleep deprivation naturally leads us to feel emotions more intensely and be less skilled at regulating them. We feel more irritable, angry, sad, depressed, and less likely to process information well. All these things can result in poor communication and increased conflict with our partner. We are, all around, less resilient and less able to cope well with everyday things when we are sleep deprived.
Getting proper nutrition can also be difficult. With a new tiny human to attend to, it becomes more difficult to prioritize cooking and eating the way you may have before Baby. Physiologically, without regular and well balanced nourishment, blood sugar is likely to be all over the place, which also increases feelings of anxiety, depression, irritability and fatigue. Poor nutrition + lack of sleep = feeling shitty! If you can’t control how much sleep you get, try try try your darnedest to feed yourself regularly and stay hydrated!
All the feels
Mothers will experience huge hormonal shifts after having a baby. This is no joke! The tears will just come. I cried every day for the first few weeks after my daughter was born. Women often feel all over the place with sadness, anxiety, worry and depression. Most women experience some form of what we call “baby blues”, generally feelings of “blah” after birth, which usually resolve after a few weeks. About 30% of women will experience full-scale postpartum depression. If it feels like you’re having more bad days than good and it doesn’t seem to lift, get support. Also, it’s important to know that men can also experience baby blues and depression after the birth of their baby—this is not just a mom thing!
In addition to the blahs, both parents experience increased stress, anxiety and worry about everything related to their baby. “Are they still breathing?” “Are they pooping/peeing enough?” “Are they gaining weight appropriately?” “Will I be a good enough parent?” “What if something happens?” The immense love for a baby reveals a whole new vulnerability for parents.
Who does what?
When you have a baby you really start to notice the everyday tasks and house work that exists. Dividing up chores can be a real area of frustration and tension for couples. Though both parents may feel they are working their hardest, they both feel unappreciated and resentful. This comes up a lot for me and my husband (still). We both often feel we are doing more than the other, which leads to little arguments about who “should” be unloading the dishwasher or sweeping the floor. By the way, I hate sweeping the floor! Anyway, you can see how having less time to take care of household chores can lead to conflict about how they will get done.
What intimacy? It is really super duper common for sex to drop off after having a baby. This is a common struggle in a couple’s relationship. Mothers often feel like their bodies are not their own. Their bodies suddenly belong to their babies and are literally being depleted of fluid and nourishment. It’s very normal for the mother’s sexual desire to decrease, especially while she’s nursing. As long as a mom is breast-feeding, estrogen levels are low which means it’s normal for the vagina to be dry and inelastic. Ouch! Fathers often experience “breast envy”–if that’s a real term? They realize those boobs are now for their babies and they aren’t getting any! Generally speaking, men tend to feel loved through physical intimacy and may feel disconnected and lonely without sex. In my opinion, this is an important topic to talk about with your partner—find ways to communicate about what you each need and find ways to share intimacy that feels appropriate for both of you.
Aside from an overwhelming and indescribable new love, these are a few of the most common changes couples experience when they become parents—this transition is loaded with complexity! It is important to recognize that these changes are NORMAL and they do not mean your relationship is doomed. Understanding this transition can make it easier to remedy difficult situations when they occur and remain close to your partner and happy in your relationship.