In April 2016 I really felt I was winning at life. My career was where I wanted it, I was on a trip of a lifetime in Brazil and I had my boyfriend of seven years, Matt, by my side. The only downer was that he had to fly home a week before me, but the amount I pined for him just made me realize how in love we still were. He was the kindest person I knew, he was my best friend and he was hot. There was no 7-year itch here. Then, the day before I flew home, I found out I was pregnant. I really could not have been happier.
Yep, a beautiful baby had come along, but it had torn us apart along the way.
We’re definitely not alone in this; studies are constantly finding kids to be a massive strain on a relationship. Research published in the American Psychological Association found relationship satisfaction declined twice as quickly for couples with children than for those without, while just recently a Pennsylvania State University study found nighttime arguments in particular are a real sticking point for many parents. Mums tended to have stronger opinions on how to deal with a crying baby at night, the study found, and if the dad felt differently, it led to more than just a fleeting disagreement; the mum often felt unsupported in her parenting decisions, which could lead to a drift in the relationship itself.
Toxic nighttime arguments were a very real problem for us, as was the ultimate ‘couples-with-kids complaint’: lack of sex. Ironically, in the first few days after birth I was really keen to have sex again: I was euphoric (if a little manic) and felt full of love. But I’d heard it was best to wait until my eight-week check up, so we held off and I actually started planning a weekend away to coincide.
But eight weeks came and went, along with my sex drive. Sleep-deprivation had caught up with me by that point, and as our baby slept in our room, there was no way I was doing anything that would risk waking him up.
But it was more than that. My body had become functional. I didn’t feel remotely sexy. When you’re wearing breastfeeding bras, stuffed with damp nursing pads, it’s hard to get ‘in the mood’. Plus, i was worried sex wouldn’t feel as good anyway – I hadn’t exactly been great with my pelvic floor exercises.
Then there was the tiredness. Everyone tells you how little sleep you’ll get, but what I hadn’t been prepared for was how strangely it affected me. I was serene one minute and vicious the next. And while I was totally in love with my little boy, I seemed to feel little but frustration towards Matt – for not helping enough, for patronizing me, for just not getting how I felt. And I vented. A lot. He, on the other hand, resented how I was making him feel, but rather than shout back, became moody and passive aggressive. A gulf grew between us.
I was serene one minute and vicious the next.When Matt took shared parental leave, I became a lot less sleep-deprived and could see more clearly that we just dealt with frustration differently. And while it had always been a latent issue between us, it manifested badly post-baby. So one night, we talked and agreed to try and meet in the middle. I had to be more level-headed, rather than throw insults and accusations. And he had to tell me how he was feeling.
Things got better… but we weren’t cured.While Matt was on leave I worked from home, which I thought would be the perfect set-up: he’d be on baby duty, but i could still breastfeed on demand. However, I soon discovered it also meant Matt could pop his head round the door and ask if I ‘could just quickly watch the baby’ so he could shower/go to the loo/pack the car. Yet, at the end of the day, he would still complain about how hard it all was.
I tried to be level-headed but, I couldn’t help it, I yelled at him. I had managed alone when he was at the office for 10-hour days for the first six months. He had no right to complain.
One morning, post-row, I was listening to the radio and heard the term ‘competitive tiredness’. It was so simple but such a ‘light-bulb’ moment. I needed to stop trying to prove that I had it harder than Matt did. Yes, Matt would never understand the toil of breastfeeding for instance, but that also meant he could never soothe our crying son like I could. We both had our challenges. And whenever I had found full-time parenting too much, he had always tried to make me feel better. So now, when the tables were turned, it was totally unfair of me to make him feel worse.
It’s hard. Harder than I had ever anticipated. But if there’s any advice I could pass on to other new parents, it would be to try and appreciate what the other person is going through and be as open, honest and understanding as you can. In fact, relationship expert Olga Levancuka says communication can make all the difference.
“The problem is often a lack of honest communication between parents. Say what you need and say it clearly – this is not the time to expect your partner to just understand what you’re going through,” she says. “Keep that in mind at all times and always keep the lines of communication open.
“Be very clear about your responsibilities and openly talk about what each of you can manage. You have to remember, this is not a competition between you, you are a team and should try to tackle everything together. Talk to your partner if you’re struggling and let them know your needs.”
She’s right, of course. In time, if we were pissed off about something, rather than stew on it we just came out and said – ‘I’m struggling, can you give me a hand?’ And instead of bristling each time we thought the other was being critical/over-dramatic/passive aggressive we just asked – ‘Are you OK? How can I help?’ Understanding between us grew, the gulf started to close and we became a team, which felt great.
A few months down the line, we even managed to Netflix and chill. And it wasn’t on a weekend away or after a ‘date night’ – it was a random Thursday morning when I felt good, he looked good and the baby was asleep in his own room. That reminder that we’re not just ‘mum’ and ‘dad’ but lovers, like before, was so needed and now, while sex is more something we have to ‘make time for’, rather than just ‘do’, at least it’s back on the table. (And, I promise, it all feels exactly the same as before.)
So, those heady days of Brazil still feel like a long time ago. But now, they’re not entirely out of reach.