How parents can get over post-baby struggles

How parents can get over post-baby struggles

“Sometimes couples don’t even realise they would have strongly believed in this stuff until they have a baby,” says Shaw. “It also brings up issues for the couple around problem-solving, how they manage under stress, really being there for each other, and equity and fairness.”

The more children a couple has, the more likely their relationship is to take a hit – at least temporarily – but second children specifically are a common low-point in many relationships. But why? And how can new couples safeguard their relationship?

A period of flux

Shaw points out that resilient couples understand there are natural ebbs and flows in all relationships, including those without children. “It is going to be more intense, less intense, more close, less close: that is how relationship life goes,” she says.

Close couples accept that some of the intimacy elements will be put to one side temporarily after a baby and are confident they are just waiting for the opportunity. They might acknowledge a shift in their relationship, but it is a different kind of dissatisfaction to those who feel like they are living parallel lives after having children; that their relationship has become transactional; or who had children as a conscious or unconscious attempt to resolve underlying problems.

“Those are the ones who are at more of a risk,” Shaw says.

If couples don’t have the strength in their bond to stretch through this period of flux – if one partner doesn’t step up to pick up the slack, is gatekeeping the other from helping more by not allowing them to parent in their own way, or they are not on the same page about parenting – a wobble can escalate into the wheels falling off the relationship.

Research suggests that, if we can make it through the early wobbles, the relationship satisfaction of parents often increases again over time. If we can evolve through the changes that come with parenting – which, it should be noted, are proportionately as joyful and enriching as they are challenging – our relationships can deepen and strengthen. The shoreline comes back into sight, and it might not look the same as it once did, but it can be just as profound.

The second child struggle

By the time my second baby came along, almost two and a half years after our first, my partner and I felt more relaxed and confident. Parenting felt easier.

“We tell parents, ‘You’ll be fine, you know what you’re doing, you’ve adjusted to a baby before. So you’ll be busy, but you’ll be fine’,” says social worker and parenting educator Genevieve Muir.

But this, of course, is not reality for many people.

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After having my second daughter, I thought newborns were a breeze. However, parenting a newborn, as well as a toddler, was not. Unable to give my oldest the same attention as before, I grieved that relationship, while trying to navigate the big emotions she was experiencing as she longed for her mum’s attention, adjusted to having a sibling and dealt with all the change that comes with being two years old.

“And it’s not just the juggle,” says Muir, who offers one-on-one sessions as well as an online course to support families through the first year after a second baby. “They’re learning how to set boundaries, deal with meltdowns, they’re still feeding a baby at night and there’s no village. It’s really intense parenting.”

Often, parents enter this phase of intense parenting on the back foot. “Your first pregnancy, you probably rested yourself – your second pregnancy, you’re chasing after a toddler. You turn up on day one tired.”

Muir also found the year following the birth of her second of four sons was hardest. Her “perfect” first baby grew into a normal two-year-old who pushed and snatched and had meltdowns. Meanwhile, her second baby had reflux and cried constantly. There was also a loneliness she wasn’t expecting. “As a second time mum suddenly you’re bound to home by sleep schedules and meltdowns.”

As parents’ time and energy centres on the baby, the toddler, running a household and often work (about half of all mothers in Australia with children aged 0-4 are employed), little is left for themselves or for each other.

How to make it through the wobbles

Let go of your expectations of being a perfect parent, Muir advises. “Kids don’t need perfect parents. They need good-enough parents.” And the same goes for being a perfect partner.

Taking the pressure off one another to get everything right and reflecting on how you are showing up in your relationship can help, as can putting your hand up for help in whatever way you need it. “First-time parents think they have to do it alone,” Muir says. “Really, we’re much better to have a bit of help.”

Small acts of kindness, recommended by experts

  • Make your partner a cup of tea or coffee in bed in the morning
  • Cuddle daily
  • Help tidy up
  • Put your phone down and pay attention to each other
  • Write them a note
  • Take over the morning or night routine to give you partner a break
  • Kiss hello and goodbye

Putting our hand up and communicating can be hard when we’re in the trenches, but both are key to ensuring resentments don’t build up. This means talking about inequity, finances and the fact that it’s normal for your interest in sex to take time to return after having a baby. Intimacy is not just penetrative sex, so experiment with other ways to be close. And stay connected in other ways, whether it’s a regular date in or out, a walk together or a catch-up on the couch.

It’s worth coming up with small ways to support each other having time out, whether it’s designating time regularly where each other can exercise, see friends or to have a bath in peace.

Finally, remember that it’s natural to go through a phase where you don’t feel as connected as a couple. But if the state of your relationship is affecting your mental health, speak up and seek support.

Sometimes relationships don’t work out, but other times an arguing couple just need to learn new skills to manage their conversations better, Shaw says. “And once the conflict dies down, they see they have a lot between them.”

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