Becoming a parent does a lot of things to a relationship – ‘improving it’ is not necessarily one of them. Long-term, having a child might cement you together as a family unit, but on a day-to-day basis it can be a pretty tough ride.
Sure, it’s a time when plenty of heightened emotions come out – love, pride, a desire to nurture and protect – but it’s also bloody knackering. A proper night’s sleep becomes a pipe dream and even the most basic of tasks can spiral into full on stress.
Figuring out how to look after this new person can easily mean neglecting to look after one another. Niggles and resentments end up getting blown out of proportion and before you know it, you’re at each other’s throats after a minor misunderstanding involving the location of the nappy bag.
“It’s very tough, especially at the beginning – sleeping for an hour, feeding for half an hour, sleeping for another hour, and so on,” Danny Matthews, dad to eight-and-a-half-month-old Zachary, tells HuffPost UK.
It’s not a surprise, then, how quickly arguments add up. A study of 2,000 parents carried out by OnePoll found as new parents, you can expect to have seven spats a day – adding up to more than 2,500 in the first year of your baby’s life. Sex is a big source of upset: 16% of couples reported arguing about not having enough of it, and 17% argued about a general lack of affection.
What’s more, one fifth of couples surveyed split up in the first year, the survey found. Some of these relationships may have been struggling even before the baby arrived, and breaking up can ultimately be the healthiest option. But for most parents, it’s about learning how to adapt to your new ‘normal’.
“We never stopped checking in”
Matthews says he can see why some families don’t make it to a year. In the past eight months, managing expectations has been crucial to him and his wife maintaining a healthy relationship.
“We opted for over-communication,” he says. “You go about your day to day trying to raise a child and can forget that there are two adults who need to eat, sleep and live as well. We make a conscious effort to stop and actively make sure the other person’s okay. It might be mid-feed at 2:30am, but just checking in – how are you finding this? Do you think we’re doing a good job?”
Matthews says it’s difficult to wait for a “natural point” where a big conversation about feelings is perfectly-timed: “you’d end up waiting so long there’d be a blowout.” If life is too complicated for connections to spontaneously occur – whether conversational or physical – some kind of system that nudges them into happening could benefit.
“We had date nights with a twist”
Halima Khatun, whose daughter Hannah is two, said while her relationship didn’t change when she and her partner became parents, the dynamic of it did. “Gone were date nights, date days, lie-ins on the weekend, and basically looking after yourself and putting yourselves first,” she says. “Literally overnight, there’s a tiny person that becomes more important than both of you.”
To get through it, Khatun said they made sure they had time for one another – even with a baby in tow. “We had a cup of tea at the end of every evening, and we would have date nights with a twist – which was essentially going out to dinner as we normally would, but with a small baby sleeping away in her pram.”
This worked well during Hannah’s first six months – before the bedtime routine kicked in. Now, they still eat out with their daughter, but pick more kid-friendly restaurants. Khatun also says her partner supported and encouraged her writing career, which kept her brain fresh and motivated.
“We told ourselves it would get easier”
Kelly Pike, a mum-of-three whose husband works in another city – which means he’s away from Monday to Friday every week – says she has got through the tough parts by reminding herself things get easier.
“I was told once not to make any decisions of that magnitude [such as splitting up] until your child was three, and it really stuck with me,” she tells HuffPost UK.
Pike says she can remember times they struggled. Her youngest, who is now one, doesn’t sleep much and she felt resentment that her husband slept in a quiet hotel room four times week.
“Being able to think about that in a rational way – ‘this is really hard right now, but will work out in the end’ – isn’t always easy, but can be a source of comfort in stressed times,” says Pike. “Grit your teeth, but also remind yourself and each other that however fried you might feel, things won’t always be that way.”
Relate, the national relationships charity, says that if you feel frustrated or overwhelmed, the worst thing you can do is keep it all to yourself.
“Talk to your partner and other parents – you’ll find that many of them are experiencing the same mixture of conflicting feelings,” the charity advises.
“Take turns with the baby. And be kind to yourself and each other, knowing that lack of sleep causes lowered tolerance and frayed tempers.”
Most of all, work with your partner to support each other through it. “Sleeping separately can help to keep at least one of you from falling apart, but don’t do it for too long,” says Relate. “Sharing a bed is an important part of being a couple.” And there’s always the sofa when you really need a break.