If you ask soon-to-be parents how prepared they are for the arrival of their first child, most are likely to think you're asking about birth plans, which pram they've bought, or if the nursery is painted yet. Preparation in most antenatal classes typically focuses on labour, breastfeeding and providing a safe home environment for the baby, but Alison Osborne, author of The Post-baby Conversation: What new parents need to say to each other, says couples are often under-prepared in one vital area: she says it's rare for couples to have conversations specifically about what it will mean for their relationship once the baby arrives.
Indeed, rather than your pelvic floor being the first thing to go after you have a child, it seems it's your relationship. Research has shown that the breakdown of a relationship is highest after a role change, and numerous studies have found that marital satisfaction declines significantly after the arrival of the first baby. These studies have recognised that while a new baby can bring immense joy, it also brings additional pressures and tensions that are seldom discussed beforehand.
Osborne says that pre-baby, the individual lives of men and women in a couple are remarkably similar. "They are probably both working, have an active social life, and perhaps playing sport. But after the baby arrives their lives start to diverge," she says.
It's at this point that couples need to have the first of many conversations about how they're going to manage going from a duo to a trio. They need to discuss who will be going back to work and when, who will get up in the middle of the night to soothe the crying baby, and the expectations they have of each other.
Many of these discussions need to come to a common conclusion, says Osborne. "People need to have a conversation that gets to the point where they understand that if the man goes out to work and woman stays home, she is also going to work - it's just that she goes to work at home with the kids.
"If the baby was going to a childcare centre for the day, we would assume those people who looked after the child were working, whereas [people can] assume when a child is at home with mum, the mum is having a lovely time watching television and having multiple cups of coffee." Coming to a shared understanding of 'work', Osborne says, circumvents many potential frustrations of women feeling that their partners don't understand how challenging it can be to stay at home with a baby.
Another thing couples need to talk about is their family of origin; as Osborne points out, many post-baby relationship issues are influenced by how we were parented, and our own understandings of what it means to be a mum or dad. According to Osborne, individuals tend to think that the way things were done when they were growing up will be how things are done when they have kids.
"When a couple become parents, both have expectations of what their partner should do and provide, based on often unconscious models of what a perfect mother or father should be and do," she says. "The fact that we have expectations and don't talk about them means that conflict is inevitable."
Many new parents are surprised by just how much conflict there can be once the baby arrives. Couples are often tired due to broken sleep and tending to the baby's immediate needs, and frustration is common, says Osborne. She says a major source of conflict is housework and the assumption of care for the baby.
"Things related to home and children are assumed to be the woman's job 24/7, but women can resent that everything at home is seen as their responsibility," she says. The key is to have a detailed conversation about how the jobs will be divided.
In addition, coming home after their working day is an issue raised by many fathers. "I heard from a lot of men who said they have to psyche themselves into going home, because as soon as they walk in the door their partner usually dumps on them about how hard the day has been," says Osborne. While she acknowledges the importance of being heard, she encourages couples to give their partner space and time to transition from work to home.
Furthermore, Osborne found that women wanted their partner to:
- offer to help with household or child-related tasks, instead of having to be constantly asked
- have the children on his own regularly, giving her time out and to enable him to better understand her life
- understand how monotonous, boring and draining it can be being at home all day with children, and to acknowledge the effort she puts in.
She also found that men wanted their partner to:
- encourage him to go and do something for himself
- reduce the negatives and dumping on him when he gets home from work
- not ask him to do something as soon as he gets home.
The conversations that couples need to have in the days and months post-baby are infinite, but Osborne says it's vital that couples create opportunities within their daily life to keep the communication lines open. After all, she says, if you spend your children's formative years not communicating, "in 20 years' time, when the kids are gone, you're not going to have any idea what to talk about, let alone want to share time together".
The more conversations couples have about the baby, household duties, and expectations of each other, the more of an investment they are making in the future of their relationship. And it's an investment that will long outlast the choice of pram, birth plan and nursery paint.
- Essential Baby