Sex and relationships

Keeping relationships strong after children

Having children will change all of your relationships. Arlene Harris finds out how to strengthen your ties with the key people in your life before and after baby arrives.

Keeping relationships strong after children

There is little more exciting than the discovery of a much-wanted conception. That moment when a couple realises their family is about to expand is truly magical. Likewise, passing on the happy news to family and friends always makes for a joyous occasion. But while for the most part, joy trumps every other emotion, being pregnant can be exhausting and coupled with nausea, sleep issues and anxiety, many women can feel vulnerable and may appear to be irritated with their partner or those around them. So while pregnancy obviously brings couples together, it can also cause some tension and relationship expert, Joanna Fortune of the Solamh Clinic says emotional turmoil is all part and parcel of the experience and couples should not worry if they aren’t feeling rosy all of the time.

Physical changes

“Pregnancy will, at times, bring you even closer together but at other times will leave you both thinking that the other person is on another planet entirely and both feelings are very normal,” she assures. “Creating a life together is a magical and awefilled experience but then, because of body changes beyond your control, you can be prone to things like burping or breaking wind, so I would encourage couples to develop a sense of humour about these things and embrace this newfound level of intimacy about all things body related.

“Sexual drive may increase or dramatically decrease as hormones take over and as it’s important to invest in a variety of ways to keep intimacy alive in your relationship so that you can stay connected. This could be romantic meals, a massage, cuddling up on the sofa to watch a movie together or holding hands on a walk. Keep talking about what is happening during your pregnancy, it helps your partner understand it from your perspective and also keeps them involved as they may feel left out of it at this stage. Remember you are still a couple as well as a parents-to-be, but your family is expanding and it will no longer just be the two of you.”

Support is important

Bernadette Ryan, counsellor with Relationships Ireland agrees and says while every pregnancy is different, most couples will benefit from being in tune with each other. “Some women sail through the physical aspects of pregnancy and some are not so fortunate,” she says. “Initial morning sickness can cause havoc in the life of the pregnant woman, disrupting her work routine, eating, socialising or even the ability to get out of the bed.”

“Would-be mothers have to make many adjustments to their lives so a loving supportive partner is essential throughout all stages of pregnancy. Some women may be apprehensive and fearful about the birth or the health of the baby, so it is important for her partner to listen and, while not exacerbating her concerns, not to fob her off either.”

“It can be most helpful if the partner gets proactive with small caring gestures without having to be asked – such as a cup of tea or a back or foot-rub. Some couples’ sex lives can be disrupted with perhaps one or the other apprehensive about the possible effects on the baby so patience may be required here. Yes, by all means talk about what is going on for each person. It is a good time to slow things down and tune into each other. Share dreams about the future and remember it is ‘we’ who are pregnant, not ‘you’.”

Fortune agrees and says it is important to look after each other as much as possible during this time: “Try to keep some of the pregnancy business mixed in with pleasure stuff, which allows you to focus on the new arrival while investing in each other and your relationship – so go for the ultrasound but then arrange lunch in your favourite restaurant,” she advises. “Find five minutes each day to say “how are you doing?” This baby is joining your family and making your family circle bigger, but remember the two of you are already a family and you need each other now more than ever.”

Keek talking

Psychologist, David Carey also believes talking is crucial for keeping relationships on an even keel during pregnancy. “Once a child is conceived everything in the parental relationship changes forever and communication is critically important,” he says. “Expectant parents need to talk about how they feel; their hopes and wishes and yes, some of their worries and fears. As long as communication remains open the love will continue and, most importantly, be transmitted to the as yet unborn child.”

Keeping relationships strong after children

Ryan says pregnancy news can also have an impact on other relationships, so it is important to be aware of friends’ feelings. “Happily, most friends and family are delighted with the couple’s news and do what they can to support them,” she says. “But while it is natural to want to share all the milestones of the pregnancy, not everyone will be as enthusiastic and overawed as the excited couple.

Sometimes, others can be a little taken aback at this turn of interest in their friends and may even be fearful of how the friendship is changing. “Really that is their problem, but perhaps a little self-awareness of over-sharing all the intimate details is needed. Particularly in this day and age of social media there can be a tendency to over-share around life events that are very important to the individuals concerned but not to the world at large.”

She also says it is important to be mindful of others who perhaps can’t have children themselves. “There may be cases where others can’t or choose not to have children,” she says. “So when people are happy they usually want to celebrate the news – but for others the choice may have been taken from them or they may be desperately trying to get pregnant, so some sensitivity may be required. That said, we all have to take responsibility for our own feelings and I’m sure those friends, even though it may be painful for them, wish the couple well.”

And baby makes three

Once the baby has been born, everyone will naturally be overjoyed with the new arrival. But sleepless nights, the ‘baby blues’ and even a barrage of unwanted advice can cause new mothers to feel fractious with those around her. Dr Carey says as long as everyone is patient and looks after each other, everything will be fine.

“Mums, you need to look after yourselves and dads, you need to look after your partner,” he advises. “Both of you need regular and reasonable exercise and to eat properly. When a new mum’s energy is low, they should let partners know and ask for some help. And on that note, dads, be aware that your partner has gone through a lot physically and emotionally. Be sure to be there for her, help around the house and help with the newborn. A good dad always looks after his partner as much as he does himself.”

Friends and advice

The psychologist also says friendships may suffer due to lack of time, but in this instance, technology can take some of the pressure off and he says if advice is not appreciated, it’s sometimes best to grin and bear it. “Necessity (spending time with the baby) may mean you lose some contact with friends and family but remember, social media is a big help for keeping in touch,” he says. “But be sure you have some time for real-life face-to-face, as nothing is a substitute for a real chat among family and friends.”

“And on that note, when good advice is given freely it needs to be accepted,” he says. “If bad or unwanted advice is given the best thing to say is, “You’ve given me a lot to think about. Thanks.” and then walk away and don’t look back.”

Accept help

While social media can be a helpful means of keeping in touch, Joanna Fortune says it can also put pressure on new parents. “First and foremost, new parents should be kind to themselves and each other and not expect too much,” she advises. “I think the social media bombardment of celebrity parents back on the red carpet or in their skinny jeans within three weeks of giving birth can create an unrealistic ideal for people. This is a new experience and you will be overwhelmed and exhausted, which is entirely normal.”

“If people offer you help, say yes and be specific. I suggest when a kind family member or friend asks, “Is there anything I can do to help?” you say ‘Yes, it would be great if you could put a load of laundry on for me or empty the dishwasher or wipe down my kitchen counters’. You are not a superhero and you cannot do this alone so take help that is offered. ”

Keeping relationships strong after children

“I would also suggest that the partner who did not give birth show compassion and understanding for what is going on for the other partner – which may involve smiling and biting their tongue, it may involve providing meals and cups of tea as well as plenty of hugs and gentle touches to soothe them. The role of the other parent is very important because the mother needs to be supported so she can be as available to the baby as much as possible in these early months. It is also important that parents can talk to each other about issues other than the baby and try to maintain something of their life and passions before baby arrived.”

Maintaining your other relationships

Counsellor Bernadette Ryan agrees and says while the early weeks need to be all about the nurturing and bonding between mother and baby, there are ways in which other relationships can be maintained:

  • The more the other parent can support mother and baby the better the outcome for both, as bonding develops through feeding and holding and this needs time and space.
  • New parents need to slow things down if they can and enjoy time with their new baby and with each other. Don’t be in too much of a rush to ‘get back to normal’.
  • When children come along, the relationship can take a back seat for a bit while mother and baby are bonding, but if the partner has a supportive role in this early phase, this can help.
  • Take offers of support from family and friends. Let them come in and tidy up or cook meals if they offer.
  • Over enthusiastic grandparents may be another matter. Just try to bear in mind that the baby is entitled to her/his grandparents and will thrive under their loving gaze.
  • There will be lots of offers of help and advice, some helpful some not, above all trust your instinct. Nature has a way of taking care of things and all first time mums and dads are on a learning curve. Enjoy the journey.

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Q My son is 18 months old and has just started saying his first words. It is an extremely exciting time in our house and my husband and I are eager to encourage his speaking as much possible. What advice would you give us on how we can foster this without bombarding and confusing him?

AThere is nothing better than hearing your baby begin to talk. All the hard work you have put in over the last two years is coming back tenfold.
Toddlers will vary significantly with ability and speed of which they talk however a guide would be about 50 words by 2 years of age. The most important thing to watch for is that your baby/toddler is cooing and babbling and begins to string sounds together like “Mama/Dada” They should have a wide range of speech sounds and like to imitate you and things they hear.
There are many ways that you can promote Speech and Language development at home:
1. Slowing down your own speech and taking time over conversations with your little one. Every day is a new experience when you are 18 months, nappy changes, bath time, baking a cake brings endless opportunity for you to interact and offer new words for them to hear and repeat. Make eye contact, smile and use exaggerated tones to keep things interesting and fun for your tot.
2. Review the toys that you have on offer to your tot and ensure that they give plenty of open ended play opportunities. Role play is a wonderful way to allow children to take the lead. Kitchens with lots of plates, cups and pots. Fill the pots with dry pasta and allow your child to cook and serve you. Playdoh, painting, gardening and sandpits are also great for allowing your child to take the lead and babble about what they are doing. Read plenty of books together and point and allow them time to answer any questions that you ask.
3. Limit screen time. Overuse of televisions and iPads do not give your child opportunity to interact in a two way manner.
4. Ask your child lots of open ended questions “What’s that?” “Where are we?” Point at things they know the answer to for boosting confidence (Car/ Car, etc.) When they don’t know the answer, explain it to them. Limit baby talk and speak clearly with good pronunciation, remember you are the teacher and they will copy you.
If you are concerned about your child’s speech and language development, be sure to speak with your GP or developmental Health Nurse. They are very skilled at understanding the difference between speech delays and spotting something that may require professional attention.
Enjoy watching their little brains absorb the world around them and listen to what they have to say. It won’t be too long before they won’t stop talking to you, asking “Why Mummy/ Daddy?” every 5 minutes….


Ask Allison

Q My sister-in-law and I both work three-day weeks and we help each
other out with child minding on our working days, which up until recently has worked out really well. Between us, our kids are aged between five and nine years – the problem is that it’s now become quite apparent that we have very different parenting styles. I prefer my two daughters (seven and nine) to have a structured day. For example, in my house, we have allocated times for television and iPads, etc. My sister-in-law, however, lets the kids run loose after school – homework is ignored and my kids end up wired after eating sugary treats all afternoon. I am considering looking at after-school childcare for the kids, but I’m worried that this is going to cause a family argument. Is there a diplomatic way that I can ask my sister-in-law to introduce some discipline into her child-minding days? It certainly doesn’t do her two kids any harm when I am minding them in my own house!

In a word, no, there is no diplomatic way to do this as it may very likely seem like your saying that your parenting style is better than
hers. As L’Óreal says, ‘now here comes the science bit.’ Dr. Kaylene
Henderson, a child psychiatrist, wrote a very interesting blog about ‘the
science behind the Mummy Wars’. She explains that before she had
children of her own she hadn’t been aware of how parents have a
very specific sense of the right parenting style. She also found that parents could be very definite in defending their chosen parenting style. Dr. Henderson, who describes herself as a curious, scientific, open-minded person, was surprised at how defensive parents could be and, at times, of their judgemental attitude towards each other. She explained the neurology of the Mummy Wars; okay, I’ll need you to bear with me for a second. Warning; I’m about to use some neuro-techie language.

Why do we judge each other?
As we have all had different experiences, this means that we all have very different memories stored in our brains. Most of our memories are ‘explicit’ memories – these are ones that we can recall easily such as important dates that mean something to us; important birthdays, special events or stories of and about our lives.
There is another type of memory called ‘implicit’ memory that plays a
key role in our parenting. This type of memory is the stuff that you do on autopilot. Psychologists call these heuristics or rules of thumb –
such as tying your shoelace, or driving your car (once you have learnt
to do both first!). Otherwise we’d really waste a huge amount of time
pondering over tasks that we have readily available to us. This seems to be where the science bit of our parenting style kicks in. This implicit memory goes all the way back to when you were an infant being parented by your parents. This is when you started the process of storing up how they did it into your memories.
Unless you make a conscious choice and effort to parent differently, what you saw and unconsciously learnt will be your automatic go-to parenting style.

We learn habits
This can really kick into gear when we feel our parenting style is
being mirrored or highlighted by disapproval from another parent. I know the cold sweat you feel when your child decides to make their outstanding bad behaviour performance at, of course, the most public and worst time. The implicit autopilot of how your parents dealt with these outbursts will flow unconsciously from you if you haven’t worked super hard to be aware and consciously change the old habits.
What’s happening for the on-looking parent is that they see you doing something they are used to doing, but you are doing it all wrong. Simply, because that is not how they know how to do it.

Find a way that works
You both have different parenting styles – who is to say which type is correct? You just need to know what works best for your family and that’s the bottom line. The irksome feelings won’t go away. You can talk to your sister-in-law, but I’m adding a caveat that it would be hard not to hurt her feelings. What we’re possibly looking at is that you prefer a more structured form of parenting, whereas your sister-in-law has a more permissive style. I’m not sure the two styles can mix, the mixture is a bit like oil and water.
If a collaborative shared form of parenting style can be agreed upon, then that is great, but our learnt hardwiring may prove difficult to change despite the intent to do so.
Perhaps, your own instinct of changing childcare might work best for you. In terms of making childcare work; the fit is ultimately the most
important aspect as you want a cohesive congruent feeling of the other caregiver to just ‘getting it’, like in any good partnership. Best of luck
with this and I wish you both well.