This article first appeared in the April/May 2016 issue of Your Pregnancy magazine.
You have a rock solid relationship. Lucky you! The bad news is that with your family growing to a threesome, things are going to get rocky. The birth of your first baby can test even the strongest of partnerships.
The two commonest stresses are emotional and financial, says psychologist Taryn McGowan, but all relationships will experience upheaval. It’s inevitable.
“Your identity as a couple is changing. You go from being partners to being mothers and fathers,” she says. The best way to handle this is to prepare for the change, says Taryn. “Firstly, having a baby should be something you both desire and you are both ready for. You also need to acknowledge that having a baby will change things, and then talk about the impact of these changes will have on your life.”
Taryn recommends these chats should ideally take place when you start trying for a baby, although she concedes most people ‘muddle through’ and prefer to deal with issues as they arise. But having ‘pre-baby’ conversations – in those pre-baby days when you are not defensive and exhausted – is the optimal time to having challenging discussions.
- Also see: How to baby-proof your home
What kind of dad do you want?
One of the big issues many mothers face is that while their partners pampered and supported them through their pregnancy, once the baby is born they take a hands-off approach. “We often don’t discuss expectations and yet we have them. Talk to your partner about what you expect his role as a father to be.
"If this isn’t made clear and he heads off to go surfing or cycling when you really need his help at home, you’ll feel let down. These resentments build and ultimately lead to conflict entering your relationship,” says Taryn.
Who does what?
Division of labour is a common gripe. “You need to be clear about your roles. For example, do you want him to help you with bath time, or pick up some chores so you can get to the housecleaning or cooking dinner,” says Taryn.
Women need to give themselves permission to ask fathers to take their share of the duties instead of the traditional roles, she says, but it depends on the unique situation. “If the partner is in a job where he’s working long hours, but the mother is at home, it’s unrealistic to have these expectations,” she says.
Having the conversations in a safe space
Think he won’t respond? A study of child-rearing attitudes conducted by the University of Connecticut showed that fathers respond well to having their duties clearly defined.
Another way to put conversations on the table is to attend antenatal classes together. He may feel more comfortable to open up in a space where there are other dads-to-be.
You could even ask your class teacher to pose the questions you’re struggling to resolve to the group. Ask her if she can ask all the dads in the room whether they are planning on changing nappies, helping with night feeds and helping with cooking and cleaning.
If your guy’s the shy or private type, an alternative option is to buy a baby and parenting book and read it before bed each night. ‘This is a way to spark conversations about potential challenges to come,’ says Taryn. ‘For example, what is each of your views on exclusive breastfeeding? What would you do if you found you weren’t able to breastfeed?’
Taryn goes as far to recommend that you seek a few session of couples counselling before the birth of your baby, in the same way you would have premarital counselling.
Things to put on the table
If your parents will come and stay when the baby is born and for how long?
What religion will your baby be raised in?
If you have a boy, will he be circumcised?
Are there any family names that either of you want to have on the birth certificate?
Any questions related to your religion, culture or family loyalties can benefit from having a neutral person with a different perspective helping your navigate the issues, says Taryn.
Let’s talk about sex
Another trigger for resentment is that thing that got you into this situation in the first place – your sex life. Tom* admits that he was nervous about starting a family because of how it would impact his intimacy with his wife, as well as his independence. “All my fears came true and I found the first two years of fatherhood very tough. I wish we’d discussed how we would tackle the challenges before, because I wouldn’t have found it so overwhelming,” he says.
Instead, they’ve decided to stick to a one-child family because they are terrified adding a new baby to the mix will break their relationship for good.
But it’s not only men who feel unhappy with post-baby intimacy. Research conducted by the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute showed that new moms were largely unprepared for the changes and felt less happy about their relationship, both physically and emotionally.
Again, communication before and after the birth is key. Mom-of-two Anna Sutton says she eventually asked her husband to tell her when he wanted to have sex. “It was the last thing on my mind in the first few months after our son was born, but when he asked me I had the opportunity to say yes or no. Sometimes being reminded that he still desired me put me in the mood,” she says.
While you can wade through a checklist of questions, new issues and problems you had no way of anticipating will crop up.
But your pre-baby work will put in you a good position to find solutions together, as a team. “Once your baby is born everyone else will give you their opinion, so it’s important that you are in the habit of making decisions together and sticking with what you are both comfortable with. Make your own rules and stick to what works for you,” recommends Taryn.
Do break the rules!
While having pre-baby conversations to agree on your approach to the humps ahead is healthy, so is being flexible once you actually face those challenges. "One things babies don’t do is live by rules," says Taryn. "You may find that while you wanted to breastfeed, this hasn’t worked out for you.
"Switching to bottle-feeding needn’t be seen as failure, but rather adaption. It’s about deciding what’s best for baby, but also what’s best for mom," she says.
Sticking to ‘the plan’ that in reality doesn’t work for you once your baby is born can make your anxiety levels soar and set you up for postnatal depression. In the case of new parenthood, there are no rules and the ones you set up for yourself can certainly be broken, advises Taryn.
From the mouths of moms
How these baby rookies dealt with tough talk…
‘I co-slept and my partner would moan about being woken up by the baby. He only started to loosen up about it when I went back to work and was in the same boat as him. Talking about the strain we were both under helped and he began to get up and keep me company while I was feeding. I wish we had talked about what language our child will be spoken to in. He is Xhosa and I am Zulu speaking. I didn’t think this was going to be an issue, but it has been.’
– Nompumelelo Zulu
‘I was very clear with my partner that when the baby was born I didn’t think I would cope with cooking. I told him it was going to be bangers and mash pretty much every night! He stepped up and cooks for us every night, while I make supper for the kids.’
– Anna Sutton
‘I got really annoyed with my husband because I felt he wasn’t helping me enough. I realised that when I asked him to do something, like change the baby, he was happy to do it. He admitted that he felt that I wouldn’t be happy with the way he did things, so he didn’t offer to do them. I think it’s important to tell your partner that they did a good job, rather than just criticising them when they try.’
*Names have been changed
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