Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Keep Your Relationship Strong After the Baby

Maintaining a good sex life is difficult when faced with the pressures  of caring for an infant. Picture: Thinkstock Source: ThinkStock

Keep Your Relationship Strong After the Baby

THE birth of a first child can test even the strongest of relationships.

Yes, there's that sheer euphoria that you've created this new human life to which you channel your unconditional love. But is there enough love to go around?

Researchers at the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute in Victoria have been interviewing 1500 new mothers about their sexual health and intimacy as part of a longitudinal study. They found many women reported feeling less physically and emotionally satisfied in their relationship after childbirth and women were largely unprepared for the changes.

"Lifestyle changes associated with having a baby, loss of freedom and loss of time together as a couple are challenges for all new parents and can be overwhelming at times," they wrote. "For some women, motherhood and sexuality are experienced as contradictory roles." And most women said they had sex less often, even after 12 months, compared to before they fell pregnant, with intimacy taking a back seat to the love and energy being poured into their newborn.

Associate Professor Stephanie Brown, head of the Mother Infant Stream at the institute and one of the researchers on the Maternal Health Study, says many women also deal with body image issues which have an impact on their relationship. Breastfeeding was seen as unsexy and the physical recovery from childbirth, tiredness, pain and loss of libido all took their toll.

"The focus of everybody's attention tends to go to the baby, but you need healthy mothers and healthy fathers to have healthy children," she says. Robin Barker, author of parenting bible, Baby Love (Pan Macmillan), says the birth of a child is one of the most testing times of a relationship.

"A lot of relationships stumble, even the good ones, after the euphoria wears off, but they tend to bounce back again," she says. "As things settle down and everyone gets a bit more sleep and works out how to share the workload, it can potentially create stronger relationships."

Couples who had rocky relationships to begin with tend to find a child only exacerbates the problems. "Everybody goes through hassles," Barker says. "Most, if you love each other and have a good foundation, will sort it out but it takes time. Try and get some time out as a couple and separately."

Anne Hollonds, psychologist and Relationships Australia chief executive, puts it bluntly: "The birth of a first child can be catastrophic to a relationship.

"It sounds dramatic, but it can be. Essentially, there is not enough emotional support to go around because both parents are completely overwhelmed. It's a real test of a partnership."

Relationships Australia runs a seminar called Expect the Unexpected, a health check-up of the relationship before the baby arrives, where couples look at their strengths and weaknesses, build on the strengths and address the weaknesses. Brisbane-based obstetrician and gynaecologist Dr Gino Pecoraro says there is life after a baby

"Things will change. The big thing is they are time poor, their sleep patterns are altered in the first few months and that's a great way to wreck your libido," says Pecoraro. "It's a challenge, but also one of the greatest things to strengthen a relationship. I tell patients their lives will never be the same again, but that this isn't a bad thing."

Some issues that cause tension, says Barker, include lack of sleep, sharing the workload, money and mortgage repayments when a couple switches to a single income, interfering grandparents and sex or the lack thereof.

"Sex is a big issue," says Barker. "It appears from many surveys that men get quite sex deprived. Women tend to not feel like it for a long time and men tend to suffer in silence. Some people go months, even years without; others start again quite early." Obstetricians generally discuss the resumption of a sex life with women at their six-week post-natal check-up. For some it's way too early, for others it's too late.

The Maternal Health Study found 40 per cent of women had attempted to have sex six weeks after birth, and after 12 weeks, that figure had doubled to 81 per cent. Three months after giving birth, tiredness was the most common issue women saw as affecting their sex life, at 88 per cent, followed by lack of time (72 per cent) and pain or tenderness (47 per cent).

Professor Brown says it's important couples agree on priorities, "whether it's about sex, sleep or caring for the child and working out where sex is in that priority list". "Women could feel guilty because they're depriving their partner of sexual intimacy but when they discuss it with their partner, the partner didn't feel that way at all. It's important to talk about it as a couple."

Sex therapist and author Dr Rosie King says there's nothing like a new baby to disrupt a relationship. "You have to recognise there is a normal lull in sexual activity after a baby is born. Try to keep the relationship going in terms of affection. Be affectionate and loving and keep the goodwill going even if sex is on the backburner."


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