Baby in the middle: When a new arrival turns your relationship upside down

A new arrival can take its toll on couples — especially in terms of sleep, stress and sex. Stretched first-time-mum Sharon Ní Chonchúir talks to experts about how to make the transition easier.

You've decided on a name, bought the buggy and decorated the nursery. But have you taken time to consider the toll your baby is about to take on your relationship?

Sharon Ní Chonchúir, her partner Richard Smallwood and their son Milo from Dingle Co Kerry pictured at home. Pic: Domnick Walsh © Eye Focus LTD

Probably not. Few prospective parents realise just how much a tiny tot can change their lives. They imagine the bliss of gazing at a slumbering newborn. 

Little do they anticipate the body and spirit-sapping exhaustion caused by being woken multiple times a night for months on end and then having to cater to the relentless demands of a baby all day long. 

It’s a stress that’s likely to turn them into that couple they never thought they’d become, the couple who constantly bickers over who does what next.

Seventeen months into parenting my son Milo, I feel as though I’m on the front-line of this particular battle. I’m trying to combine being an almost-full-time mum with having a freelance career, which means I’m either in ‘mum mode’ or ‘work mode’. 

My partner Richard works hard at his own job. He’s picking up the slack with the housework and is just as tired as I am.

We often squabble and rarely have the time or energy to be the romantic, laughing couple we used to be. I miss the way we were before our son was born.

In 1957, sociologist EE Le Masters published the first research paper on the impact a first baby has on a relationship. His study showed that 83% of new parents experienced a moderate to severe crisis in their marriage, with both parents becoming increasingly hostile to each other in the first year of baby’s life.

Fast forward to 2001 and marital researcher Dr John Gottman had slightly less alarming findings, showing a slow but growing equality between the sexes. His study, published in the Journal of Family Psychology, found that 67% of couples report a decline in relationship satisfaction in the first year.

More recently in a 2013 poll of 3,000 first-time parents in Britain, couples said they argued 40% more often after their child was born. They argued over whose turn it was to change the baby’s nappy and who was going to get up to do the night feed. 

One in five in the Morrison’s survey said they argued because they felt they did not receive enough attention from their partner after the birth of their baby.

Some might think this is an inevitable stage of parenthood but what if it isn’t? What if there are steps we can take to baby-proof our relationship?

Psychologists Philip and Carolyn Cowan, retired professors at University of California in Berkeley, believe there are. 

This husband-and-wife team have carried out studies for the past 40 years proving that relationships don’t have to suffer as a result of parenthood.

“It started when we were new parents and had just moved to California,” says Carolyn. “We found ourselves knee-deep in parenthood and wondered what had happened to our relationship as a couple.”

They set up the Becoming a Family Project, a longitudinal study of partners becoming parents for the first time followed couples from late pregnancy until their child was of school-going age.

As part of the project, couples came together in small groups to discuss the challenges of parenthood in an attempt to resolve them together. The result was that they didn’t experience that sense of dissatisfaction with their relationship that is common to most new parents.

“There are now more than 50 studies worldwide showing satisfaction declining throughout the early childhood years,” says Carolyn. 

“But our group maintained their satisfaction because they worked through their issues together. That positive effect lasted for the five-year duration of the study.”

This wasn’t their only significant finding. 

“Ten years later, the children of these relationships did better socially and academically at high school,” says Philip. 

So you could consider tending to your relationship as a gift to your child. Your relationship is the environment they grow up in and the more secure it is, the easier a start they will have in life.

How can parents do this? How can they wade through the nappies and sleepless nights to find their way back to the couple they used to be?

Paediatric sleep consultant Lucy Wolfe says many struggle to get by on too little sleep. If the Morrison’s poll is anything to go by, new parents typically get four hours and 20 minutes sleep a night, far short of the recommended eight hours.

Wolfe thinks that the most effective way of getting through this is to share the workload. “Parenting is a two-person job if at all possible,” she says.

It can create resentment if one person consistently does more than the other. 

“If you can, take it in turns to get up during the night,” says Wolfe. “One person can have the night off one night and be on duty the next. 

"If you can’t do that, maybe you can get up early with baby in the morning or make the dinner or deal with the washing. Support each other.”

Finances can cause particular stress. Last year, a study by AA Life Insurance Ireland found that between maternity healthcare, baby-proofing and essentials such as car seats, Irish parents can expect to spend an average of €14,532 before their baby’s first birthday.

While this can put a huge strain on couples, Dr Colm O’Connor, a clinical psychologist at the Cork Marriage Counselling Centre, thinks it depends on their outlook.

“What matters is the distance between their dream and their reality,” he says. “The further the distance, the more stress. 

"But if the dream and reality are close enough, a struggling couple can be as happy as or happier than a wealthy couple who are striving for more.”

Pic: Domnick Walsh

He has practical tips for overcoming these and other parenting challenges. The first is to anticipate being stressed.

“Everyone finds the early years taxing,” he says. “It’s more than a full-time job and can [take] up to 100 hours a week.”

Take time to discuss and agree upon each other’s roles and responsibilities. 

“Balancing this can be a difficult task but it’s important that both parents feel like a team,” says O’Connor. 

“If Mum wants to be the primary parent and Dad wants Mum to be, then this can work very well. If Mum and Dad have different expectations, then you have problems.”

Couples need time out to recover. 

“Everyone needs time by themselves, even if it’s just an hour or two at the weekend,” he says.

They also need to prioritise their time as a couple. 

“Lean on family and friends and don’t feel guilty about asking them to take over so that you can get a night away,” he says.

Psychotherapist Stella O’Malley sees many parents struggling to combine work with parenting.

These days, it’s common for both parents to have full-time jobs and having a child on top of that puts people under a lot of pressure.

Asking employers for a flexible work schedule can help.

“But not if it means you go back online after putting the kids to bed,” says O’Malley, who has also written books on parenting.

“Evenings are supposed to be spent together, recovering from the stresses of the day.”

Instead of constantly alternating between work and parenting with little downtime in between (the story of my life at the moment), O’Malley recommends setting boundaries.

“Set a time to leave work by and decide to switch off some evenings,” she says. “Do what you can to look after yourself and your relationship.”

Whatever you do, try not to feel guilty. 

“Women shouldn’t feel guilty about going for a walk or meeting a friend,” she says. “It’s all part of making time for ourselves and our wellbeing. It makes us better parents and better partners.”

A couple’s sex life often suffers after the arrival of a child.

“When children are not sleeping, ill, suffering from colic or sleeping in the bed with parents, it’s common for families to play musical beds,” says Dr O’Connor. 

“Dad wakes up in the child’s bed, the child is in the parents’ bed and Mom is on the sofa!”

Factor in everyone’s exhaustion, the fact that mothers need time to recover from childbirth and that many then lack confidence in their changed bodies, it’s no wonder that the 2016 Maternal Health and Morbidity in Ireland report 2016 found that only 24% of women were ‘very satisfied’ with their sex lives 12 months post-partum.

Eithne Bacuzzi is a relationship counsellor who specialises in psychosexual therapy. She has seen all of this and more with her clients.

Her advice to couples is to acknowledge the change and to maintain intimacy, even in small gentle ways.

“Couples often take an ‘all or nothing’ approach to sexual encounters and confuse intimacy with penetrative sex,” she says. 

“Don’t do this. Try kissing or touching inside or outside clothes. Take showers together. Have sensual massages. 

"Closeness is what’s important. Couples should only resume full penetrative sex when they are ready.”

Honest communication is also important. 

“Understanding is required in order to avoid feelings of pressure or rejection on both sides,” she says. “Talk about it honestly but sensitively.”

The Cowans believe it’s important for parents to have realistic expectations. Their four decades of research can be distilled into the following:

“Becoming a parent for the first time is exciting and wonderful but along with the joys, surprises and fun, there are challenging things to deal with,” says Philip. 

“It’s good to go in with your eyes open rather than shut and do the preventative work early.”

Pic: Domnick Walsh

Taking on the advice of the experts, Richard and I have made some changes. We’re making time to check in with each other every day, even if it’s only before we close our eyes at bedtime. 

We’ve agreed to stop snapping at each other as it was having a corrosive effect on the closeness we used to share.

We’re not as carefree as we once were. We’re tired nearly all the time and we can sometimes lose sight of each other over the nappies, the piles of washing and all the housework. 

But we have created a wonderful new human who brings laughter and joy into our lives.

Nobody but Richard loves Milo as much as I do and if nothing else, that bond has made us stronger.

How to work out a win-win approach to parenting with your partner:

  • Expect to be overwhelmed. Actively parenting takes up to 100 hours a week. Anyone would be exhausted by that.
  • Discuss your ideas about parenthood before the baby is born. What are your hopes and expectations? How would you like to share roles and responsibilities? It’s best if you are in general agreement about these things in advance.
  • Once the baby is born, share the workload as much as you can, especially when it comes to night feeds. If possible, follow a night-on, night-off approach. If this isn’t possible, the partner who gets to sleep should try to pick up the slack elsewhere, by cooking or doing the washing.
  • Befriend your in-laws. Having a granny or grandad who is willing to babysit so that you can enjoy a night out together is worth its weight in gold.
  • Take some time by yourself too. Go for a walk. Take a bath. Read a book. Feeling good about yourself means you will have more energy to devote to your relationship.
  • Don’t assume that intimacy means full penetrative sex and nothing less. Closeness is what’s important at this time and a gentle kiss, a relaxing back rub or a shared bath can work wonders on reestablishing your bond as a couple.
  • Honest communication is important. Take time every day or at least every week to touch base and to see what’s happening in each other’s lives.
  • Try to bear in mind that you’re both on a learning curve. Neither of you has done this before and you’re both learning on the job, under very stressful circumstances. Try to support each other along the way.
  • Do not be afraid to ask for help if you’re struggling. Even one or two sessions of professional counselling can help to bring you closer and make you stronger as a parenting team.


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