HuffPost | Transitioning to Parenthood: Safeguarding Your Marriage (Part 3 of 4)

MD for Moms | Peri-Natal Psychiatry
Photo attribution: Safeguarding Your Marriage

My column on HuffPost is the written counterpart to my weekly BBM Global Network and TuneIn radio show (Wednesdays 1pm), with which it shares a title, MD for Moms.

This article was originally published on HuffPost on 5/16/2017.

Women often say, “We are pregnant,” in an attempt to include their partner in the experience of gestation. Although both parents are liable to feel anxious as baby’s due date approaches, from there their emotional paths likely diverge, given that each parent’s transition to parenthood is inherently quite different.

Moms must endure many physical limitations, dietary restrictions and other discomforts, undergo bodily changes and hormonal fluctuations, and withstand strangers’ uncouth and intrusive opinions for up to 40 weeks, whereas her partner’s life remains essentially unchanged. Even if she wants to, an expecting woman cannot be identified as anything but ‘the pregnant lady’ once she starts showing given that a growing belly tends to command everyone’s attention. On the upside, mom-to-be alone is privy to the intimacy of pregnancy and the entire new world of baby moving and growing inside her. Conversely, her partner, despite having had a hand in the creation, can only feel from the outside. These conflicting experiences can understandably lead to marital turmoil if not safeguarded for in advance.

Don’t Put Your Marriage In a Corner

We all know the saying ‘First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes baby in a baby carriage.’ Unfortunately this reductionist rhyme is often acted out in real life, where rather than enhancing the marriage, baby becomes the main event, leading to strife. The marriage must remain as much of a focus as caring for the newborn so that both parents will continue to feel fulfilled and happy. This can prove challenging, but as discussed in Part 2 (of this series of four articles on the transition to parenthood), with foresight during pregnancy it doesn’t have to be. This advance work ensures that when a couple’s world expands to include baby, a road map is in place to keep their marriage healthy.

Marriage can be negatively affected easily; if a cooperative spirit and positive dynamic are not established early — ideally before the baby is born — then the postpartum can be rife with resentment and frustration. Mom resents that her partner leaves the house every day for the adult world, while her spouse begrudges her alone time with baby, feelings which can snowball if not resolved promptly.

Establishing weekly times to sit and review how each partner is feeling can reduce stress and improve communication both during pregnancy and in the postpartum period. Parents need to feel safe discussing their emotional experiences without worrying about hurting the other person’s feelings. Set up ground rules: Try to use ‘I’ based sentences and limit each session to no more than five minutes per person.

15-20% of new mothers and 10% of new fathers experience postpartum depression (PPD). Up to half of men whose partner suffers from PPD similarly experience depression. However, it can be difficult to discuss dad’s feelings if such conversations are not prearranged. Parenthood is daunting and knowing that your partner is there for you can alleviate anxiety and alienation.

As also explored in Part 2 of this series, pre-planning for date nights is hugely helpful; having logistics and the sitter all worked out for when baby arrives removes any guesswork from the process. While it is tempting to focus date talk on the baby, try to expand and share thoughts on other topics. You loved each other before you were parents for many reasons – it is imperative not to lose your unique interests, your drives and your passions once parenthood arrives.

Another important thing to remember on date nights is that your partner sees you as sexy and beautiful; the post-baby weight is not a turn-off. Embrace your curves, enjoy your breasts and love your body for all that it just accomplished. Yes, you may still weigh more than you did before you conceived, but that is irrelevant. You look like a goddess to your significant other because you just did what no one else could: birth this unique child. Own your shapeliness and try to dismiss your insecurities.

The conversation on how to safeguard your romantic connection and intimacy after baby is born is made complete once a final aspect is added: sex.

Sex After Baby

Imagine you are a few months postpartum and it is 9pm – the baby is asleep, and you and your partner are sitting in bed. It’s incredibly tempting at this point to engage in one of a handful of activities including sleep, watching TV, scrolling through Facebook, or replying to emails, but what’s clearly missing is sex. The sex life that many had pre-baby can easily go by the wayside in the face of new parenthood. Exhaustion coupled with hormonal fluctuations, bodily changes, nursing and feeling ‘over-touched’ usually leads to a notable reduction in female libido and thus less sex after baby.

Finding yourself again as a sexual being after having a baby can come naturally or can take a little time and effort. Childbirth is an incredible thing, but it often takes a toll on the body, and women need varying amounts of time before they feel physically and emotionally ready for sexual intimacy. No one should resume sexual activity until ready, but at least try to slowly reintroduce touch with your partner. Touch is an important component of intimacy, so even if you’re not quite ready to jump in the sack, or the sexual frequency is not yet where it once was, making a concerted effort to hold hands, cuddle or hug often goes a long way. Spontaneous displays of affection can reinforce the bond between two people who are otherwise feeling overwhelmed and alone.

Pain during intercourse is a fear of many women post-pregnancy, but this pain, brought on by vaginal dryness related to low estrogen levels, is often mitigated by using a lubricant. Concern about conceiving again can also hinder resumption of an active, healthy sex life. Have a conversation with your physician about birth control options in advance to relieve this anxiety.

To reduce the chance that your partner will feel rejected regarding sexual advances, honestly explain your inhibitions. Create a game plan together for how you can feel more comfortable with intimacy over time, and if things become too difficult, reach out for help. Couples therapy can prove beneficial in re-connecting two people who have transiently lost their way sexually and emotionally.

Having a baby can function to draw two people closer or push them apart. Relationships are always tested in times of stress and change, but by being proactive and engaged, your partnership can grow and evolve with parenthood. Everything in life is easier with a teammate, so be sure to hold your spouse close and face parenthood happily together.

The demands of parenthood are ever-shifting, but once you develop a strong foundation that includes your marriage and your baby, it’s time to reintroduce the outside world. Successfully navigating this new stage in motherhood can prove stressful, but ultimately rewarding. The final installment of this four part series will cover how mom can successfully adapt alongside her baby as the newborn stage and maternity leave end and a new chapter begins.

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