This article was originally published on kidspot.com.au and has been republished here with permission.
“We’ll never be like that,” said quietly between two people in love, usually at a BBQ while watching another couple argue over who last saw the nappy bag, is more than just a cliché - it’s a rite of passage.
It has to be an evolutionary preservation of the species thing - this idea that your child, your parenting, your relationship will somehow transcend no sleep nights and the terrible twos. It’s possibly the only thing that makes sane people procreate.
The truth is, having kids does change both your relationship and you, probably more than anything else you’ll ever do, and in ways more unexpected than you could ever imagine let alone prepare for. And honestly, watching a human come out of your partner should change both of you.
The twist is, it makes you better.
You and me and baby makes...
Undoubtedly one of the hardest aspects of a relationship after kids is actually having one.
Julie Sweet, Clinical Psychotherapist at Seaway Counselling and Psychotherapy in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs, says as counterintuitive as it seems you actually do have to put your relationship first.
No matter your family shape; queer, straight, co-parenting with a friend. You have to take care of the bond between partners to effectively parent.
“Partnership is paramount,” she says. “That doesn’t always sit well with some parents, but children are dependent upon a strong and healthy parental relationship, which in turn models a secure functioning environment for the child.”
A tune many mums will recognise, Jo says she and her husband James “lost each other” after their son Xavier was born. “I was a nervy mum,” she says. “I was too scared to even put him down in case something happened, so he never left my side.”
“Our only time together was at the end of the day and I just didn’t have anything left in the tank to give James. We were drifting apart.”
At eight months James stepped in. “I suggested we put Xavier in childcare two days a week,” he said. “I’d been working hard but Jo was working harder and we were both burning out.” The pair decided James should use some of his annual leave to spend a day a week with her.
James agrees, “You won’t ever ‘find’ the time,” he says, “you have to make time. But when you do, you realise there’s a better way to live than just plodding on, accepting that growing apart and being exhausted are just part of early parenthood.”
“We had date-days,” Jo says. “For six weeks, we spent every Monday together, went to the beach, the movies... or we just stayed home. It might have been an unconventional way to do it, but it helped us be a couple again - we got our sex life back.”
So… is anyone having sex yet?
Ahh yes, sex. “40 per cent of mums don’t want to have sex after the birth of a baby,” says relationship expert Debbie Rivers. “So many couples don’t believe it will happen to them, but they’re just not prepared for the exhaustion, and lack of sex drive that comes from this.” She adds it’s completely normal for new mums to not feel like sex, especially if they’re breastfeeding as prolactin reduces sex drive.
The theory is that it’s nature’s way of making sure mum doesn’t get pregnant again too soon, Debbie explains. The problem is many non-birthing partners - men and women - equate sex with feeling loved by their partner, so when that intimacy stops, they feel forgotten. Debbie says the key is communication. “When your partner understands what’s happening, it is much easier to deal with,” she says.
Like everything to do with a working relationship, talking is the only way through. But here you get that unexpected twist again, going through a period where you can’t or don’t bandaid-over any rifts with sex is going to make your partnership so much stronger.
Getting back to that sexy place can take time. The first step is regaining intimacy – cuddles, welcome hugs, holding hands, talking, laughing, maybe laying naked together with some light touching - just being in each other’s space.
Fact: your parenting experiences won't be the same
Father of “an 18 month old wild-child and a nine-month-old angel” Lex said figuring out that as the non-primary carer the most unexpected thing he could give his husband Paul was alone time.
“When we decided to have a family, Paul was the obvious choice as the primary. My job was our main bacon-maker and he is much more patient than I am.”
“It took me a really long time to realise that just because he wanted that role, it didn’t mean he wanted it 24/7. We had a few blow ups before he admitted we were just having totally different experiences as dads. Now we make sure he gets a few nights a week at the gym and Saturday mornings are locked out as his time and I’m on dad-duty. It changed everything for us.”
According to Beck Thompson, a relationship coach, author and founder of The Relationship Circle, the mistake many couples make is not voicing their expectations before the baby arrives.
“Chat about your expectations of each other,” she says, “how were you raised, what’s your idea of what a primary caregiver does.” Beck says often we assume what the other person’s role will be. “It’s important to get those assumptions out in the open and challenge them.”
Unexpected friendships bloom
It’s not just your romantic relationship that shifts. When you have a baby, relationships change all around you.
“I was surprised how many of my friends - who threw me a baby shower and rushed to meet my daughter in the days after she was born - just ignored me once I was a mum,” says Sophie, a single mum with a six-month-old. It made me understand why you unexpectedly end up gravitating towards other parents - making new friends you never would have before. They totally understand when you’re late, looking like death or have to cancel altogether,” she says. “I now have such amazing new friends who are at the same stage of life as me and just get it.”
Father of two Tony says it’s rough for blokes. “It’s so hard for guys to make other dad-friends,” he says, “we don’t get a ‘Mother’s Group’.”
He says he tried staying close to his old, childless mates but they didn’t understand how his priorities had changed. Instead, he became much closer to his older brother, who already had a daughter. “It’s actually amazing how kids change the whole larger family dynamic,” Tony says.
“We went from being two adult guys who didn’t hang out much to suddenly being not just brothers but uncles, with a brand new connection. Your whole family becomes that much bigger and more fun.”
Back to that BBQ, the sweet smug couple, to them we say: Kids will change every single relationship you have in your life.
It can be tough to navigate, you’re going to need your village - from friends, from family, from professionals and from each other. But you’re definitely not the first, and you’re definitely not alone. You’re just like them. And at the end of the day, being the one who finds the nappy bag is so much better than you’ll ever know.
If you’re finding that you need further support, please contact your GP or psychologist.