Becoming a new parent is such a time of change. You’re not just transitioning to parenthood but you’re also learning how you engage with each other in your altered relationship. You’re not just partners or lovers now, you’re co-parents too. You are both learning the ropes of caring for your baby, but in relation to supporting each other. And it can be a big change. Suddenly, one of you may not be working and the dynamics of your day can be very different indeed.
It’s normal for this time to feel really challenging. A lot of adaptation is going on, and the dust needs to settle on your new normal. Although not all couples feel this way, it is common for relationship satisfaction to decline slightly after having a baby. You might find yourselves arguing more, which is unsurprising really: everyone feels more on edge and everything feels much worse than it is when you haven’t had much sleep.
Research shows that the most common arguments among new parents are based around money, sleep, task sharing and sex – although many people find that these arguments are interconnected. Take sex, for example. Sometimes arguments about sex are about sex and sometimes they’re actually about connection and intimacy… and sometimes they’re about who hasn’t taken the bins out.
Many people find their sex drive changes after birth, and not just women. Men can feel reluctant, worried or exhausted too, even if social media articles try to make out it’s just women feeling this way. Of course, not everyone experiences this, and there is no one right way for every couple, but if you are struggling, here are some things that can help make things better.
Talk to each other. Don’t try and avoid talking about the fact that you are having less sex. Talk about how you are feeling and what might be affecting your lack of interest. It might be a simple case of both going, ‘Wow we’re exhausted, aren’t we?’ or it could run much deeper than that. Memories of birth, fear of it hurting or worries about feeling different now, as a parent, can all play a role. Tell you partner how you feel without accusing them. Listen to your partner when they do the same.
Go slowly. Some soreness or discomfort can be common at first. Go gently and talk to your partner if it hurts – and by that I mean physically or emotionally. Recognise the role trauma from birth can play here. Always remember you can stop at any time. Sex doesn’t have to mean penetration – there are many different ways and stages of being intimate! And if something feels wrong, talk to your GP.
Recognise the role that hormones play. Hormonal changes after birth can really affect how we feel about sex – for both women and men. For women, oestrogen levels quickly fall and can stay low, particularly if you are breastfeeding. Men also experience a drop in testosterone when their baby is born, especially if they are closely involved with caring for them, which can reduce sex drive. Always talk to your GP if you have any physical concerns as there might be something else such as a nutritional deficiency playing a role.
Think about whether you’re feeling touched out. Feeling touched out – not wanting anyone to touch you or even be near you – is common for new mothers, particularly for those who are breastfeeding. Your baby has perhaps been glued to you all day, or will only stop crying if you hold them while standing up. Then just as you get them down, your partner comes home and tries to hug you and bang… you recoil. But obviously this can have the effect of making them feel rejected or unloved.
It might seem odd, but the solution can actually be to spend time being more physically intimate with your partner. Feeling touched out is often blamed on too much touch, but actually it’s about a baby’s neediness. In fact, being touched in a nice way – a massage, a hug or whatever you fancy – can help, as long as it is focussed on what you need. It can also help if your partner gives you a break – some time alone when no one is asking for anything from you. This can act as a reset, making you more open to feeling intimate later.
Is it about intimacy rather than sex?
Saying all this, sometimes if you’re arguing over sex, or indeed just feeling distant from your partner, it’s all too easy to blame this on not having enough sex, or to think having more sex will fix things. But actually, a lot of the time, it’s more about connection than sex itself. Sometimes just focussing on each other and giving each other time can go a long way to help.
Talk, hug, sit together on the sofa. Make time to be together. Maybe that’s about having a deep talk about your new relationship or maybe it’s about sitting together cuddled up in companionable silence while you both read a book. Netflix comes into its own here – a regular time at the end of a long day (or whenever works for you) when you make time for each other but don’t have to think too much. Prioritise it as something important; other stuff can wait. And as intimacy and affection builds, your libido may too.
Some more ideas for strengthening your relationship
Finally, whether you’re arguing or you simply need to reconnect, here are some more ideas for helping you navigate those early months of being new parents together – and beyond.
- Be kind to each other – realise you are both on a huge learning curve. Remember you love each other and are both trying to do the best you can in the situation. Also remind yourself it is the situation not each other – things will change and pass.
- Keep talking to each other. How is your partner feeling? What are they stressed about? What do they hope for? How do they see the future? Really listen and be supportive (where possible!).
- If you need to discuss something difficult, talk more! But play nicely. Stay calm, don’t accuse the other of ‘always acting in a certain way’, and try to focus on how you feel and what you need rather than direct insults and accusations – not easy after a lack of sleep, I know.
- Read about love languages. Although this can be overly simplistic, think about how you feel loved and express love – and how your partner does too. The love languages idea is based on the concept of five ways of expressing love – through words, gifts, acts of service, physical touch or quality time. We each see different options as being a sign we are loved or a way of showing love. Talk to your partner – what makes them feel most loved? Words about what a good job they are doing? A surprise gift? Time focusing on you? Responding with what they feel shows love has a higher chance of making them feel important.
- Find a shared goal you can both work towards in the future even if your current days are exhausting. This especially works well if you feel your daily lives are now very different. It might be a plan to move to another area, pick up a new hobby or simply for a holiday or night out once your baby is sleeping more. See yourself as a team with shared goals.
- Finally, do consider external relationship counselling as an option if you are struggling. Relate provides counselling, as do private counsellors. Try the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy to find support local to you.
Amy Brown lives with her three children and Instagram-star cat in South West Wales. Her work is based at Swansea University where she leads the new research centre ‘LIFT’: Lactation, Infant Feeding and Translation. Amy has over 100 academic publications and is author of seven early parenting books. Her book, Let’s Talk About the First Year of Parenting, is published by Pinter & Martin. professoramybrown.co.uk and on Instagram @prof_amybrown
FIND OUT MORE
Illustration by Anke Weckmann • ankeweckmann.com
First published in Issue 70. Accurate at the time the issue went to print.