Navigating Parenthood While Maintaining Intimacy

“The babies are both asleep.”

That remains one of my favorite quotes from a friend when discussing how to maintain a sex life after welcoming a baby (babies) into the home.  They were arguing about their low-frequency sex life when her partner complained that she never initiated.  She argued back that she had initiated just the night before.  “How?!  I know I’m sleep-deprived, but I would not have missed that,” the partner responded.  She replied by explaining that, in her opinion, it was a very clear invitation to fool around when she had told her partner, “The babies are both asleep.”  She couldn’t believe her partner had missed that!

This couple was simply trying to navigate their way through the adventure of parenthood while hoping to maintain their friendship and intimacy along the way.  Research findings are clear that most couples report a decrease in relationship satisfaction during the early years following a child entering the home.  Far too many couples separate or divorce during those years as well (25% of married couples divorce and 50% of unmarried separate within 5 years).  And it’s understandable to anyone who has had a child—parenting is rewarding and often hilarious, as well as exhausting and sometimes terrifying.  It’s easy to lose one’s sense of individuality as personal hobbies and goals may be put off for family needs or basic survival.  Not to mention the partners’ identity as a couple—two people who laugh and love and play together.

There are several reasons why couples struggle during this period, and most people could list off a good number of them: sleep deprivation and fatigue, feeling overwhelmed, losing the freedoms and spontaneity they enjoyed.  But it’s also due to an increase in conflict in the relationship and a struggle to repair, particularly given the sleep deprivation.  There are also significant identity issues at play.  How does one navigate through maintaining some sense of individuality and couple identity while also figuring out how to become a mom or dad.  Not to mention all of the (normal) doubts about whether one will be a good parent.  (Yes, it is normal to lose track of all the ways in which you’re sure that you broke your baby!)  We often have unspoken expectations and needs that can be incredibly painful or lead to conflict when they are unmet.

Research by John Gottman, PhD and others has shown that couples that exhibit contempt, defensiveness, stonewalling, and criticism are at a significantly higher risk for separation and divorce.  And with a mindful effort and/or couples therapy, many people can learn how to minimize their use of these behaviors.  But it’s not just about preventing the negative, there’s a wealth of connection and intimacy that comes from the presence of the positive—shared laughter, compliments, intimacies, flirting, supporting the others’ dreams, and taking a risk and finding your partner there to catch you if you fall or celebrate with you if you succeed.

I wish for every expectant or new parent a tribe of supporters—those who have gone before to share their wisdom and support, and to normalize that you likely won’t ruin your baby no matter which brand of diapers you choose.  Groups like Full House Moms and Dads is a great example of this—making the joy and challenge of raising multiples a little bit more sane and enjoyable.  (I can still remember vividly getting online to check the FHMD forums during 3am feedings and finding comfort that there were many others awake and chiming in at the same time.  My favorite topic at that time of night was the many posts that were trying to decipher the words spoken through the whir of the pump!)

When that’s not enough, I hope couples will seek the support of a couples therapist or other who can provide a safe environment in which to repair their bond and remember why they truly do like one another.  There are also some great books on the subject, such as “And Baby Makes Three” by Drs. John and Julie Gottman.  I also recommend “Hold Me Tight” by Sue Johnson as a great resource for couples who want to secure or repair their attachment.

Finally, in addition to all of the great baby care preparation and childbirth classes a person can take, there are also classes geared toward the couple’s relationship.  I teach one with a colleague called, “Bringing Baby Home.”  It’s a two-day workshop for couples expecting or with little ones which is shown to lower the incidence of postpartum depression and anxiety, improve relationship satisfaction and decrease conflict, and improve parent-child bonding.  We talk about the importance of play and intimacy as well—tackling head on the issues that are under-addressed regarding how to maintain a satisfying sexual relationship.  While there is a section that covers infant communication and bonding, most of the workshop is appropriate for parents of toddlers or young children—not just babies.  Our next workshop is in June and if you would like any further information, feel free to contact me at drkbrooke@brookepsycholotists.com or check out the Bringing Baby Home website at www.bbhonline.org.

Enjoy the journey!
Kari (Mom to 5-year-old daughter and 3-year-old girl/boy twins, wife, and psychologist)

FHM does not recommend or endorse any services or products. It is up to each member to verify references and make their own informed decision, especially with regard to childcare. Also, any medical advice provided on the forums is the opinion of a member and is not a substitute for consulting with a physician.