Something we don’t talk about enough as new moms is the absolute bonkers shift in dynamic that occurs between couples after bringing home a baby. Seemingly overnight, your doting partner becomes a sleep-deprived nightmare, while you’re touched out and barely hanging on to your own sanity. Think about it: you’ve just added an entirely new person into your relationship—one who loudly demands your round-the-clock care and attention. You probably barely recognize yourself, let alone the person sleeping (using that term loosely) next to you. With all of that going on, it’s no wonder you have nothing left to give to each other at the end of the day.
“Couples can feel like there's less energy for each other, there's less time for each other, and it can sometimes feel like the baby is really getting in the way of them being able to connect as a partnership,” says Vanessa Marin, a sex therapist and author of the book Sex Talks: The Five Conversations That Will Transform Your Love Life. 1 “It's just really a milestone that can rock a relationship to its core.”
If you are currently staring across the room bleary-eyed, wondering if it’s normal to feel so distant from this person that you (in theory) love, we are here to tell you, yes, it is absolutely one hundred and fifty million percent normal to feel disconnected from your partner during this very rocky time. But that doesn’t mean you have to stay in that place permanently.
Now for the good part. There are a number of ways to get out of this new-parent rut, says Marin, who spoke with Expectful to break down some common relationship challenges and offer actionable tips to shift back into a more collaborative mode. Taking small steps with your partner can lead to dividends in emotional intimacy, a path back to a deeply connected partnership, and a more active sex life (if that’s your end goal).
Challenge: You Feel Guilty or Ashamed About Where You Are
When you’re in the new parenthood season, it can feel like everyone else is in emotional lockstep with their partner and enjoying a great intimate life, while you’re sitting on your couch in your spit-up-stained college sweatshirt, wondering when you showered last. That can bring up feelings of guilt and shame, particularly if you’re not feeling great about yourself or your relationship with your partner. “The pressure that women have to not only snap back physically, but emotionally and relationally as well, is so unrealistic, and it’s really damaging,” says Marin.
Tips to make it better
Above all, be gentle with yourself, and give yourself permission to recover, says Marin. “Pregnancy and childbirth are enormous tasks that you’ve taken on, and there is actual trauma to the body,” she says. “Moms need to be gentle on themselves and recognize you’ve just done something tremendous.”
Basically, don’t beat yourself up, and try to release outside expectations for how you should feel and what your relationship should look like. Repeat after us: It’s okay if you don’t feel like yourself right now, it’s okay if you don’t feel like the best partner you could possibly be right now. You have permission to just be.
Challenge: You Don’t Recognize Your Body Anymore
This is a hard one for a lot of women, especially since we are bombarded with the message that we’d better not look like we’ve had kids, even if we just had a baby weeks ago. So many things about us have changed, and it feels like we’ve been swallowed whole by our love for this tiny being. So, why do we expect to look the same? “It’s really important to recognize that you’re not going to have the same body,” says Marin, “so be really gentle and kind with yourself.”
Tips to make it better
When your body feels foreign and your entire identity is up in the air, it’s easy to worry about how all of these ‘I don’t recognize myself’ feelings will affect your relationship. Because if you don’t know who you are anymore, how will your partner? Just be honest, says Marin. “Talk to your partner about your mental state, and how they can support you,” she says, and then just give each other lots of patience and grace. It may take some time for you to feel more like yourself, but being open with your partner about all this emotional turmoil will help you settle into a new (and maybe even better) normal together.
When it comes to sex, you might try making some little changes so you feel more comfortable, like turning the lights down or wearing more clothes during intimate moments (try keeping your bra on to signal a no-touch zone). “This can help some of the anxiety that inevitably is going to come up,” says Marin.
And of course, it’s always a good thing to get vulnerable with your partner about your anxieties and insecurities. “When you keep them to yourself, they fester and only grow stronger,” says Marin. “But when we are able to bring our fears out to the light of day and share them with our partner, they actually decrease in their power and have so much less hold on us.”
Try saying something like, “I want to be intimate with you again, but I’m really struggling with my body and it doesn’t feel like my own anymore” or “My body isn’t responding the way it used to,” says Marin. The vast majority of partners are going to reassure you that they love your body exactly as it is. That you are beautiful.
Challenge: You’re Feeling Completely Touched Out
Here’s a common scenario: You’re breastfeeding your baby, which turns into a contact nap, and then they’re right back on the boob an hour later. Out of the blue, your partner starts lightly stroking your back, and you just about lose your mind.
“This experience of being touched out is something a lot of mothers have, where they feel like their body is being touched all day long—and not only touched, but literally relied on for survival,” says Marin. “It’s this feeling of your touch tank just being full, like you cannot take any more touch whatsoever.”
This can be disconcerting for both partners. For the birthing parent, it can bring up feelings of guilt and shame. “They feel like, ‘I love my partner, I know that they’re reaching out to touch me with love, so why am I having such a strong negative reaction?’” says Marin. For the partner, it can feel like a rejection.
Tips to make it better
The first step to sorting this out is to understand this is a real phenomenon, and it’s not personal. “Knowing that being touched out is a very common thing that pretty much every mom is going to go through can really bring a lot of relief.”
Then, says Marin, make space for what your body likes and responds to—and remember that may be different from what it was before. “A lot of women will say they loved having their breasts played with before having kids, but after having kids, they hate having them touched,” she says. “So, understanding that maybe the breasts are off the table for a little while, but maybe it actually feels really good to have a back massage, or gentle caresses all over the body.”
Another practical tip she gives is to honor your need for alone time. “If you are truly feeling touched out, no touch, no matter how tiny or nice, is going to feel good,” she says. “What you need is time alone for you to come back home to your own body, and this is how your partner can really support you in creating that time.”
That can be as simple as saying, ‘Hey, I love you, but I’m feeling really burnt out from all the touching, and I just need some time to myself.’ You could even work with your partner to come up with a schedule, whatever that looks like for you. For example, maybe after certain feeds you hand the baby over while you take a break—no questions asked. Or your partner takes over baby care for a couple hours after work. “It’s a great way for you and your partner to feel like you’re teammates, so you don’t have to carry so much of the burden” says Marin.
Keep in mind, this doesn’t have to be a weekend getaway to Aculpulco. Having your partner hold the baby for 15 minutes while you sit in a dark room and close your eyes is a good start (and it may actually feel like a mini vacation!).
Challenge: You Have Built Up Resentment
So, you just fed the baby, changed their diaper, coerced them into doing tummy time, and now you’re trying to get them down for a nap. Meanwhile, you can’t help but notice your partner’s been in the bathroom for an hour (for the third time today!). These little things have a tendency to build up—you might even find yourself keeping score with your partner over parental duties. Surprise, surprise, that’s not a great path to go down and can lead to resentment over time.
“The fairness issue is a dynamic that I see a lot, because many people go into parenthood feeling like they have a partnership, but the reality is that you literally can’t share the work equally all the time,” says Marin, “and that imbalance can lead to some feelings of resentment.”
That’s exactly the trap that Jenn Levin, a mom to two kids, and her husband fell into when they became parents. “It was like we were competing over who was doing more,” she says.
Tips to make it better
First, take a beat. Feeling tense, upset, or triggered in the moment rarely helps a conversation go well. “I suggest taking some time aside as parents, when emotions feel a little bit less intense, to talk about the feelings coming up for each of you,” says Marin. Then, shift your mindset to give your partner the benefit of the doubt.
“Start with something like, ‘Hey, I know that you are doing your best to be my teammate, or ‘I know that this is really important to you,’ or ‘I know that you haven’t been happy with how things are going,’” says Marin. “A sentence like that can really disarm your partner and make sure they actually listen to what you’re saying instead of immediately getting defensive.”
In the same vein, Levin says the best advice she received came from couples therapy. The gist? You are both doing a million things. Let go of the competition and look at each other as a team. You are here to support each other rather than compete against each other. “That just really helped shift our dynamic a lot,” she says.
And then there’s laughing through the hard stuff, which Kassie Hanson, a mom to three with one on the way, makes a point to do with her husband. “We both try to keep it light-hearted, like in the midst of the baby crying and the toddler screaming, one of us will just say something ridiculous,” she says. “That reminds us that we’re in this together, we’ve got this.”
Challenge: You Feel Pressure to Rush Back Into Sex
A public service announcement for all new moms: the six-week postpartum check-up that clears you for intercourse does not mean you have to be ready for sex yet. “The six-week checkup is literally to say that you will most likely not cause physical harm to yourself by having intercourse, but it says nothing about whether sex might be painful or feel different from what it used to,” says Marin. Some people might be ready then—and if that’s you, great! But most couples tend to be on a months-long timeline, and others might even wait a year2 or multiple years before really getting their sex life back.
The key is to not rush back into sex if you’re not feeling it, says Marin. “What I see far too often as a sex therapist is women pushing themselves to get back to being intimate or taking care of their partners,” she says. “All that happens when you force yourself to be intimate when you don’t actually want to be intimate, is you’re going to be resentful.”
But that’s not all, she says. “Sex is going to start to have a negative association in your brain, you may even develop sexual pain, and your sex drive is absolutely going to decrease. You just can’t feel desire for something that you feel obligated to do.”
Tips to make it better
We’re starting to sound like a broken record here, but it really helps to just talk with your partner about where you are with getting physical and how you’re feeling in general. Then, experiment with what kind of touch feels good to you—and what doesn’t, says Marin. Not all physical intimacy involves sex. But if that’s the goal, don’t worry, you will get back there with time (and in some cases, some extra work in therapy).
Challenge: It Seems Like You Have No Time for Your Partner
The thing about having a baby is, by default, you throw all of yourself into it. So, when you come up for air, you might realize you’ve barely had an adult conversation with your partner in months. Here’s the truth: your relationship may never be exactly as it was before, and it may take more intentional effort to connect, at least for a while.
“In the same way that I’ll never get my pre-baby body back, I don’t think we’ll ever have our pre-baby relationship again,” says Ivy Ellis, a maternal mental health therapist and mom to two kids. “I’m so focused on the kids and their needs, that [my husband’s needs] definitely take a backseat,” she says. But she says working on their relationship is an ongoing process.
Tips to make it better
It is really important—at some point—to find someone you trust to take care of your baby for a few hours here and there. Whether that’s a grandparent or a vetted babysitter, it can allow you and your partner to have some much-needed couple time. But how you use that time is also important.
One way Ellis and her husband reconnect is by finding activities to do together that they enjoy, rather than just going out to eat for a date night. Why? They’ve found that the dinner conversation always seems to come back to their children. “We try to read the same books and watch TV together, and then we have something to talk about other than the kids,” she says.
Sometimes leaving the house will feel impossible, but Hanson has a hack for that, too. “We prioritize getting our kids down to sleep at 7 p.m., which gives my husband and I a couple of hours to ourselves every single night, and that has been wonderful for us,” she says.
When to See Someone For Help
If you find that you and your partner are really struggling to talk about these things in an open and respectful way, seeing a couple’s therapist can be really helpful, says Marin. “They can give you the tools and resources for any particular challenges that are coming up for you, and help you learn how to better communicate,” she says. If the problem is really centered on your intimate life, talking with a sex therapist may be the next step.
Regardless of the place you're in now, remember to give yourself some time and space to settle into your new role as a mom and a partner. It’s a huge shift, and that means it might take a while to feel like some version of the person you used to be. Some things may never be the same again. It’s all okay. And when you’re ready, know that it’s worth it to be intentional about reconnecting with your partner. A small shift in your mindset, giving yourself (and your partner) some grace, and being open about your struggles, can all help to right the ‘ship.