“When you hear couples say that their separation has been a long time coming, it usually starts right after having a child,” explains Dr. Darshana Lele, PhD. “The biggest challenge in a relationship is the first child.”
Dr Lele, Director of Psychology and a Licensed Psychologist at the Art Center College of Design, has met her share of couples in all stages of their relationships, while overseeing all of the counseling services at a large organization and through direct counseling in her prior private practice work. She shares her tips on what to expect in your relationship—and what to do about it—after having your first child. You can expect:
- A tendency for the mother to neglect her own needs. Many mothers find that they’re constantly giving to the baby and giving to the father, and they don’t end up leaving any time for taking care of their own needs. But if the mother isn’t happy and healthy, she’s not going to be able to take care of the baby’s emotional and psychological health needs. She’ll just be going through the motions and the baby will pick up on it. So, it’s hard, but it’s important for a mother to prioritize her needs and take care of herself, too.
- A lot of conversations focus on the baby. Couples should be careful, though, not to forget about each other. It’s OK to spend a lot of time talking about the baby, especially initially. When you’re ready, though, schedule some time to catch up with each other. Schedule a date night, and consider trying to limit how much you talk about the baby.
- Less intimacy. Lots of couples don’t want to have sex for the first 6-12 months. Mom still doesn’t have her body back and isn’t feeling great about herself. She’s still hormonal and emotional, and everyone’s tired. Even at six months, for some moms, it still hurts. If you don’t feel like it yet, you can focus on bonding over the intellectual stuff you guys used to like to talk about, like politics, your field, or hobbies.
- Resentment. “Very, very often I see resentment in relationships, when there’s uneven distribution of the work with the child”, explains Dr. Lele. Stay-at-home moms often feel frustrated that the father doesn’t see the mother’s day as work, then the father comes home just wanting to relax. Working moms often feel that they’re working just as much as the father, so they shouldn’t have to take care of everything. Either way, if the woman is starting to feel resentful, that means the workload is stacked too much on one side. As a first step, it’s a good idea to have a conversation about it. Aim for a 60/40 split, that’s the gold standard. Creating a chart can also help show which chores need to be done and who’s doing them. You can also try switching chores to build empathy.
- Not knowing what’s stressing each other out. Dads often feel exhausted from going to work, thinking about being the financial provider, and thinking about their increased financial responsibilities. Meanwhile moms often feel like the dads should just know how much work they’re doing—that’s a great fantasy. It’s a good idea to have a two-way conversation about it, regularly. You could potentially schedule an hour weekly, then go out on date night after, to reconnect. Any time there’s a shift in relationship dependencies there tend to be more arguments, so Dr. Lele suggests having a conversation about those dependencies.
- The father may feel neglected. This also means the mother is feeling very overwhelmed. So Dr. Lele suggests pooling resources and seeing where you can start getting help with the baby. The father needs time to focus on his needs and to again start bonding with the mother. You may be able to see if friends are willing to trade babysitting. If family is nearby, you may be able to drop the kids off at the grandparents’ house for a night. Or if not, you may decide to plan a trip to see the grandparents, and tell them in advance that every night, while you’re there, you’re going on date night.
- When intimacy returns, it’s different. It’s normal after having kids for intimacy not to reach the same level as before. It may also feel different, because for the rest of your lives, you have a third person depending on you. If you’re still not satisfied, though, Dr. Lele would first ask, “Is the love is still there?” If it is, then she asks both partners to put in increased effort into trying to understand what the other person needs. She also reminds couples that they need to communicate what they need. Last, she points out that there often isn’t less intimacy overall, because there’s so much more intimacy from this third member of the family.
So the bottom line is: try to really listen to and understand your partner’s needs and put in the effort to meet them.
If all else fails, one mother stumbled on another strategy for building empathy. She needed to travel for three days, after having her first baby. So, her husband took care of their son. When the mother came home, her husband looked like a train wreck and their son hadn’t been bathed in three days. However, now when he comes home from work, he immediately drops everything and takes over.
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