TLDR: As a couple, you face lots of new challenges after you welcome a baby, including sleep-deprived fights and issues with the division of labor. We asked a psychologist to explain why couples have such a hard time in the first year of parenthood, and what advice she has for for re-connecting and strengthening your relationship.
Before giving birth to my daughter Annabell, I never once thought about how my relationship with my husband, Alex, might change when we became parents.
Our connection was relatively strong, we communicated well, rarely argued, and had only gone through a few minor bumps throughout my pregnancy. All in all, I felt we were capable of overcoming anything, including parenthood.
However, when our daughter arrived and we were hit with the sleepless months of having a newborn, things became rocky.
We started bickering, had less time to communicate, and were often too exhausted to work on resolving our own issues because all of our energy was being poured into our daughter.
As a result, I felt alone and resentful toward Alex. This was partly because my transition into new motherhood was much more challenging than I expected, and partly because the one person who I knew could pull me out of my internal struggles was battling his own.
One morning after Alex and I argued before he left for work, I called my good friend to vent. I expected her to tell me I was right, but instead she said something to me that changed the whole way I looked at my husband and our relationship.
She said, “What if instead of speaking about the fight when he gets home, you just openly sit down and tell him how scared you are of losing him?”
I had never thought about approaching communication with my husband in this way. It had always been about proving that I was right or showing him how he made me feel this way or that. I had never once thought about speaking to him from a place of pure vulnerability, but when my friend suggested that, I knew she was right.
That night Alex came home, we put Annabell to bed and we sat down on the couch to speak. I started by saying, “I’m going to speak to you from a place that’s really difficult for me to speak from—the side of me that’s terrified of losing you.”
I went on to tell him how scared I was of us drifting apart, of him not loving me anymore, and of our relationship not being as romantic as it once was. In return, Alex opened up, too, and reassured me that we were going to get through this.
Seeing how much this little shift transformed my relationship, I couldn’t help but want to learn more about how couples could navigate the first year of parenthood together with more ease and guidance. This is why I decided to reach out to psychologist Dr. Nicole Pernod1 to interview her about our community's most pressing questions when it comes to the first year of parenthood and your relationship.
Read on below to hear Nicole’s advice for how to keep your relationship strong during the first year of parenthood.
Expectful: Many women on our platform speak about feeling guilty after giving birth because they put all of their energy toward their baby, putting their relationship on the back burner. What can women do to feel less guilty about this, and how can they make sure their partner doesn’t feel neglected?
Dr. Nicole Pernod: For parenthood specifically, there are two schools of thought: do everything for the baby and the relationship will follow, or do everything for the relationship and the baby will be okay. My advice to the Expectful community is that it’s really a little bit of both.
Do your best to stay away from thinking that it has to be one way or another, and recognize that you’re going to do the best you can. During this time, do your best to communicate how you feel with your partner. If you feel guilty, tell your partner, “I feel guilty about x,y,z—how do you feel?”
Having a five-minute conversation of just noticing where the two of you are at as a couple might be enough to bridge the two of you and have you share the experience together.
Expectful: A big shift that happens after you become a parent is that there’s always something that needs to be done, whether that’s changing a diaper, attending to a crying baby, doing dishes, cleaning, etc. Many times, couples get frustrated because they have expectations around who should do what, but they don’t discuss these expectations with one another. What communication advice do you have for couples in regard to splitting up responsibilities?
NP: Expectations are great to have for one another, but when life happens, sometimes reality isn’t going to match the expectation that each partner will have for the other. If you have a story in your head of how things ought to be, and then that doesn’t happen, then a further story could emerge that could become catastrophic for a relationship. “My partner doesn’t care as much as I do. My partner doesn’t care about the baby as much as I do.” In reality, one thing doesn’t equal the other. I think it’s really smart to have these conversations beforehand, but there needs to be flexibility within the expectations because each day is different.
You have a voice and you should use it. Say what you need instead of just sitting there and getting frustrated in your head. Communicate how you feel and what you need in the moment so that you are both on the same page.
Expectful: Time is very limited as new parents, but as we all know, self-care is important for physical, mental, and emotional well-being. How do you balance each other’s hobbies and make sure you both get time for yourselves when baby-free time is so limited?
NP: I’m so glad to see that more people are understanding the need for self-care, because the more your tank is filled, the more you’re going to be able to be present and healthy for your baby and present and healthy for your partner as well. I think what it comes down to is that there needs to be a commitment between partners that you’re going to go to your yoga class and I’m going to watch the baby—and I’m going to go play golf and you’re going to watch the baby, etc.
Each partner needs to support the other and say, “We know this is important for us because we know if we do this we’re going to be able to be better parents and partners.”
Expectful: Some of the women on our platform expressed feeling annoyed at their husbands in the first year of parenthood and not being able to control their frustrations. Why do you think this is, and what advice would you have for these women?
NP: In my opinion, mothers nowadays are facing more challenges than ever before. They go from having a full-time career where they’re used to their independence, and then they have a baby and they’re either home, working, or a mixture of the two. This leaves them feeling like they’re constantly juggling both sides of their identity. So many of my patients say that they have days where they feel like they’re killing it, while other days they feel like they’re failing.
So I think first, it’s important to accept how you’re feeling. Of course you’re frustrated. Take a step back to look at all the things you’re doing. Parenting can be really hard because you’re most likely sleep deprived and your hormones are trying their best to recalibrate. This increases your emotional stress and makes you feel out of control.
Second, try using “I” language. Tell your partner “I feel really frustrated right now” or “I miss this part of my life” instead of “You don’t know what this is like” or “You don’t support me.” Using “I” statements helps to put you into a more vulnerable place and allows your partner to feel less defensive so you can have a more productive conversation.
Lastly, know that this might not be a problem that is solvable in the moment. You might just need to be supported through this, and that’s ok.
Expectful: Many couples want to incorporate date nights into their lives, but some struggle with being too tired, not being able to afford a babysitter, feeling guilty about taking time for themselves, and worrying that the date will just be filled with them talking about the baby. Are date nights important? What advice do you have for couples who struggle with guilt around leaving their babies, and how do you recommend they keep “baby talk” to a minimum?
NP: I think date night is really important. Whether you have a newborn or a five year old, I’ve personally seen that all patients, regardless of where they are in the parenthood journey, could benefit from date nights.
This is because after you have kids, things that used to happen spontaneously will take more work, like spending time together. So I advise my patients to make dates a part of their routine for the couple’s health, the relationship’s health and the baby’s health as well. It’s important that your baby sees this bond between you. The stronger the two of you are, and the more grounded the two of you are, the better your baby will feel.
Obviously, depending on your situation, there could be some conflicts with this, such as money and time, but if you can make it work, I highly recommend it. And know that date night can be putting the baby to bed and taking five minutes to sit down on the couch and talk about your day. It doesn’t have to be about going out, it just has to be about making healthy steps for your relationship.
To answer the question about trying not to talk about the baby, I say: you made that baby, it’s okay to talk about the baby! If you feel uncomfortable about just talking about the baby, say, “I feel like I don’t know what else to talk about,” and then the two of you can have a good laugh, and connect over your experience of being parents. When you’re honest with your feelings, it opens up a bigger conversation and more space to connect, which is the whole purpose of date night.
Expectful: A pregnant woman on our platform was advised to schedule time for sex with her partner but is worried that might be a buzzkill. Do you think scheduling sex is the way to go? What can couples do to make sure their physical intimacy doesn’t go out the window?
NP: Well first, let’s talk about how you define sex. Sex isn’t just one thing, it’s everything. It’s the way you look at each other, how you touch each other, etc. So I wouldn’t recommend scheduling sex, I’d recommend taking time aside to be sensual with each other. That could be just touching, stroking each other’s hair or rubbing each other’s feet. Most importantly, don’t make sex feel like a demand or another to-do on your to-do list. Let it be something that feels good to you at a time when you want it.
Expectful: After having a baby, women sometimes feel like their body isn’t their own anymore. Their hormones are all over the place, their breasts are fueling their babies, their bodies are trying to heal, and they’re going through their own identity shifts. During this time, many women have no desire to have sex, but don’t know how to communicate that to their spouse and still want to feel a deep connection with their partner. What are some alternate ways to connect as a couple, and how do you suggest they communicate this need with their partner?
NP: There’s something fascinating that happens with moms and their babies during the first year of motherhood called the erotic transference2 . For example, if a mom is breastfeeding, or spending a lot of time soothing or comforting her baby, the needs of that mother for closeness or sensuality are being met throughout that interaction with her baby. This is scientific.
However, the person that’s not included sometimes is the other parent. They’re not getting all of that skin-to-skin touch, so their needs aren’t being completely met. I tell my patients this because I think it’s good to be aware of and it helps moms to understand how their partner feels and why. I recommend taking five minutes to do something that helps to fill each other’s needs, like rubbing each other’s feet to give your partner some attention with the understanding that it’s not going to go further than that.
And of course, communicate this with your partner. Let them know how you feel, how you want to connect with them, but not through intercourse. Let them know what you’re going through and understand that most of the time what people are looking for is the closeness and the connection, which could be as simple as a conversation.
Expectful: Some advice given to new parents is to consider their relationship to be “their first baby” and care for it as such. Why do you think this might be a good approach?
NP: Everything trickles down to the family if the parents are strong. Even in utero, if the parents are fighting, the baby will receive more cortisol—the baby will feel stress and will be affected. It’s the same when the baby is born. Your relationship and the health of it has a direct impact on the baby.
So if you’re a unit that’s strong, loving, and compassionate, but also has good boundaries and makes time for one another, that’s what’s most beneficial for a child—to witness the love and connection between the two of you.
From my experience, when everything is focused solely on the child, it starts to have the reverse effect. It’s a little too much pressure for a child to be on the same level as their parents. Ultimately, you and your partner are the foundation that your child will rely on, and if you’re strong, they’ll have a firm ground to stand and grow on.
Expectful: Many couples spend the first year of parenthood focusing primarily on the baby and giving all of their attention and energy to their little one. What advice do you have for couples who are transitioning out of “survival mode” and realizing they don’t know themselves or their partners anymore?
NP: I think it might be helpful to set some goals for one another. Now that you can breathe a bit, talk about how the past year has been and about what you would like the next year to be like. Again, speak to your partner about your internal thoughts.
I also recommend couples therapy. Couples therapy is a form of self-care, and it helps to create a space for couples to open up about things and work through them together.
Expectful: What could a pregnant couple do right now to prepare their relationship for parenthood?
NP: One of the most beneficial things you could do is to have a conversation about each other’s hopes and aspirations for parenthood. This is helpful because you understand what each other wants before you get thrown into parenthood. Knowing your partner’s expectations for parenthood before the sleep deprivation starts or your hormones get out of whack lets you have a good reference to reflect on once the baby arrives. Just check in with each other to discuss what you wish for as a parent.
Expectful: Are there any rituals that parents can put into place to stay more connected during the first year?
NP: Rituals are beautiful because they root us and keep us in a state of calm. So, think about the things that really ignite your relationship and find time to do them, whether that’s meditating together, going on a walk together or grabbing a drink at your local cafe. Do things together that help to anchor the two of you.
Becoming new parents is both thrilling for your relationship and challenging at times. It’s my hope that this interview helps you and your partner find more ease and support throughout this transformational time in your lives.