How can you maintain your relationship after the birth of your first child? Dr. Rachel Vanderbilt, the Relationship Doctor, looks at the research.
When my husband and I got married, it was for purely practical reasons: we wanted to put my husband on my insurance plan. We knew we wanted to get married and start our family, so it seemed like a great time to just get the formality out of the way. We had a small, courthouse wedding with a few friends and our parents in attendance. It was perfect.
We made the decision to try to start our family. Like many first-time parents, I had a plan for when it would be ideal to get pregnant. This plan would allow me to work from home for several months, and I would receive a release from teaching if I were able to complete some of my graduate school milestones while I was pregnant. This timing would give me as much time at home with my baby as possible.
Life ended up working out according to plan, which really was just a matter of pure luck. We welcomed a daughter together right on schedule, and I was able to spend the first eight months of her life at home with her. Sometimes she would come to collect research data with me or attend a seminar with me at school, but I was able to spend that time with her. My husband received one week off of work and had to start traveling pretty quickly after that. He is an exceptional dad, and in the early days, woke up with me at night for every feeding. Where I was really anxious about parenting, he was really confident. We grew into parenthood together, and although that time was difficult, it was so incredibly special.
What does the research say on transitioning to parenthood?
All transitions create the conditions for us to experience disruption in our relationships. Basically, change is really hard. As humans, we are pretty averse to experiencing change. Parenthood is one of the biggest transitions we can face in our relationships—we are no longer just two independent people, but instead have added a stranger into our lives that is completely dependent on us. We know nothing about who they are when they're born, so it is a whole new getting-to-know-you process for both parents.
Studies have shown that the transition to parenthood is associated with a decrease in relationship satisfaction for both mothers and fathers. Partners who experience depression during their pregnancy, are in shorter relationships before getting pregnant, and engage in less constructive communication experience the greatest declines in relationship satisfaction over the three years following the birth of their first child. For first-time mothers, especially, relationship satisfaction with a partner steeply decreases around childbirth.
So what is it about the transition to parenthood that makes it so difficult?
1. Actually taking care of a baby.
Let’s be honest, taking care of a baby can be difficult. Babies cry all of the time, and sometimes, children are predisposed to experiencing colic, which is a condition in which they are inconsolable for a large portion of their waking hours. According to research, crying stimulates a biological response in mothers, which can create a sense of physical distress until the child calms down. Mothers are often responsible for the physiological comfort of the child, particularly when they are breastfeeding. Between the constant crying and potentially learning how to feed a child with your body, mothers experience a great deal of change immediately after birth.
If the mother is taking on the bulk of the childcare duties, falling into a more traditional gendered expectation of household responsibilities can substantially impact relationship health. Studies have found that mothers nearly universally take on the bulk of parenting responsibilities in the first 12 months of a baby’s life. If other household tasks aren’t proportionally shifted, then this can take a toll on relationship satisfaction and overall happiness on the part of women in these relationships.
2. Mental health challenges
We commonly hear about the “baby blues” as a common experience for postpartum mothers. After women give birth, mild feelings of sadness are extremely common. More prolonged or intense experiences of sadness are known as postpartum depression.
One study found that when women felt like their partner was able to provide a social outlet for them, rely on their partner for childcare support, and feel as if their partner agreed with their parenting plan, they experienced reduced severity of postpartum depressive symptoms. Women who experience postpartum depressive symptoms are more likely to feel like their partner doesn’t support them, both about their whole relationship and during the postpartum period, and they are more likely to report experiencing relationship conflict. In addition, some research finds that women experience decreases in their self-esteem around six months after childbirth, which is also associated with relationship dissatisfaction.
These depressive symptoms aren't limited to mothers. For fathers, experiences of depression and relationship satisfaction have been found to impact their ability to effectively co-parent with their spouses. In addition, fathers who experience more negative communication with their partner report increased anxiety symptoms in the 3 years postpartum.
Fatigue is also a commonly reported issue for both parents during pregnancy and in the postpartum period. One study found that fathers will report greater changes in their level of fatigue after the birth of a baby compared to mothers, likely because mothers have more interrupted sleep during their pregnancy. For mothers, this fatigue was found to have some impact on their marital satisfaction, whereas fathers did not have significant associations between their fatigue levels and marital perceptions.
3. Sexual well-being and intimacy
After having a baby, it is not uncommon for parents to report struggling to regain feelings of intimacy. For most women, it is advised to not resume normal sexual activities until at least six weeks after having a baby. Indeed, it is really important to not do so before the six-week mark because of the need for wounds from the placenta in the uterus to heal after childbirth. Having sexual intercourse too early can introduce infections into the body.
Having concerns about intimacy and sexual well-being after having a baby is really common, with over 80% of new mothers and fathers expressing some concern about the sexual health of their relationship postpartum. Concerns about these issues may include questions about when to resume sexual activity after childbirth, the pain associated with resuming that activity, changes in sexual desire or desired frequency of activity, or body image issues. These concerns are felt fairly equally by both parents, and they can impact perceptions of relationship satisfaction, particularly for fathers.
How can we be better partners after welcoming a child?
There are a few things that I would recommend trying when transitioning to parenthood to help protect your relationship.
Both partners should wake up with the baby at night. One person changes the baby, one person feeds the baby. Even if the mother is breastfeeding, there are other ways to be a support during the night and those moments spent together can help bring intimacy to your relationship in a time that can feel particularly challenging in that department.
If one partner is taking on the bulk of childcare responsibilities, the other should help take on other roles around the house. Reallocating chores should be a common process throughout your relationship because sometimes change in that area can help reduce dissatisfaction with our roles in the home. The time after having a child is the perfect time to reassess how much of the housework burden is being lumped onto each person.
Find intimacy in new and exciting ways while you aren’t able to be sexually intimate. Create new fun routines, start watching a TV show together, have movie nights, or make dinner together. Having a baby doesn’t mean you can’t still maintain the social elements of your relationship together, it may just mean finding new, more low-key options.
The transition to parenthood is hard, tiring, and sometimes frustrating. Take on this challenge together as a couple to help keep your relationship in good repair. Remember that you are a partnership, and navigating this transition successfully requires open communication and effective support from both partners.