Without a doubt, motherhood is one of the most challenging feats in life. However, preparing for fatherhood isn't a walk in the park, either. There are a lot of mental, emotional, and relationship changes that new dads will experience. The transition to parenthood can be daunting for many, but don't worry; you can take the proper measures when preparing for fatherhood.

In this episode: Preparing for Fatherhood, Growing Self marriage and family therapists Jessica Small and Seth Bender talk about how postpartum experiences affect both parents and how to prepare yourself for them. You will also learn how to conquer common relationship challenges after having a baby. 

If you want to know more about supporting your wife, maintaining healthy relationships, and preparing for fatherhood, then tune into this episode! 

In This Episode: Preparing for Fatherhood

  • Find out what mothers experience postpartum aside from “baby blues.”
  • Discover how fathers can also have their own postpartum experience.
  • Become aware of why mothers tend to be angry toward their partners.
  • Understand why sexuality can decrease after birth.
  • Know how to connect with your partner in small and manageable ways.
  • Recognize the importance of validating negative emotions and experiences.
  • Learn how to maintain a healthy and enjoyable marriage after having a baby.

Episode Highlights

The Postpartum Experience when Preparing for Fatherhood

The months leading up to birth are challenging, but the journey doesn't end after the baby is born.

The postpartum experience is something that couples and families face together. Couples usually worry when they don't experience the romanticized story of having a baby, but every woman’s postpartum recovery timeline is different. That's why it's essential to shed light on the truth about the postpartum experience.

Jessica explains that the “baby blues” often happen during the first two weeks after giving birth. This phenomenon is when mothers have frequent emotional shifts. Upon giving birth, they also may experience:

  • loss and grief around their old life,
  • lack of sleep, and
  • being overwhelmed with the identity of being a mom.

Although they don't experience the same biological changes, the postpartum experience also affects the male or nonpregnant partner. Seth says, “[having a baby] is an incredibly difficult life transition that happens before you know it.” The postpartum experience affects nonpregnant partners in the following ways: 

  • They feel loss and grief over their old life. The change of lifestyle is difficult for men, especially for first-time fathers. Having a baby affects a father’s work schedule, self-care, and support that they used to get from their partners.
  • They feel isolated and not looked after. Usually, it's mom's job to take care of the baby, and it's dad's job to care for mom. However, Jessica asks, “Who's taking care of dad?” In a society that conditions men to become independent, people think men should power through all the challenges. The journey is also tricky for them, and they need support. 

Why Does My Wife Hate Me After Baby?

“It is hard for dad. But let's be honest, it is harder for Mom,” says Jessica. Moms get exhausted and frustrated with all the baby work, leading them to feel tenser and emotionally fried. 

Most of the time, moms are not mad at their partners. She might project the exhaustion and frustration she experiences from motherhood onto a safe person like her partner. 

Sometimes, however, moms can also be mad because their partner isn't stepping up the way they need them to step up. There needs to be involvement from the partner to anticipate the mother's needs and take on some emotional energy. 

Decreased Sexuality in Marriage

Dr. Lisa and Jessica brought up John Gottman‘s ideas on marital crises. One of these crises is a decreased sexuality among new moms. Sexuality may not be compatible with mothers as they're adjusting to their new role. Here are some possible explanations as to why this happens: 

  • Issues such as sleep deprivation and hormonal shifts make it harder to have a desire for sexual intimacy.
  • Mothers may also experience insecurity about the postpartum body. 
  • As biological evolution has prevented mothers from getting pregnant immediately after having a baby, sexual desire naturally decreases. 
  • If the mother had a difficult pregnancy, it takes much more time to recover fully and be sexually active. 

These problems also affect the fathers because they don't get what they expect. Seth says, “I think the misconception is that for some men, it's like, ‘okay, after two or three weeks, things will be back to normal.' And that's not really how it works.”

In Seth's experience working with couples, fathers work hard to understand the mothers' struggles as much as they can. 

How to Build a Healthy and Enjoyable New Normal when Preparing for Fatherhood

The usual advice for married couples with kids is to “go on date nights.” But Jessica offers a more robust perspective: start with small and manageable ways to connect. Examples of how you can do this to keep your relationship strong after having a baby are the following:

  • Physical connecting such as hugging
  • Conversing around topics that are not about the baby
  • Watching a TV show together while nursing

Seth says that those smaller bits of connection are often not present before the child. That's why he works with couples on building those even before the baby is born. His advice for couples is to do premarital counseling before having a baby to ensure that they're in an excellent place to take that step in their relationship. 

Being okay with not being okay and prioritizing emotional safety is also key to a good relationship. Jessica emphasizes the importance of holding safe spaces for each other to talk about the whole experience of parenthood transparently. 

Jessica recounts a typical conversation between couples: “One person says, like, ‘I miss getting to go do this.' The other person tries to fix it and ends up invalidating their partner.” It's normal to have moments of sadness, grief, and loss. None of it means that you don't want your baby. 

Marriage Problems After Having a Baby

A listener asks how she can restore the once fabulous marriage she had with her partner before having their baby. Here are Jessica's answers to her question:

  1. Identify the things that used to work for your marriage and start to apply that to your current situation. If you and your partner used to cook dinner together every night and suddenly stopped, you could agree to cook dinner again two or three times a week. Or, if you used to walk in the park and suddenly stopped, you can try walking again with your baby in a stroller. 
  2. Attend to attachment wounds and move forward. Partners can hurt each other unintentionally, and that can build much resentment and distance. It's essential to improve communication and have a safe and empathetic space to talk about how the partners have hurt each other openly.
  3. Build a vision for what you want your family life to look like. Imagine your family life as something that you truly desire and create a path towards achieving that.

Resources

Jessica and Seth shared many insights about what it takes to be the best partner and father. Which of their ideas resonated with you? Feel free to share your thoughts by leaving a comment down below.

Did you like this interview? Subscribe to us now to discover how to live a life full of love, success, and happiness!

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Preparing for Fatherhood

The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

Music Credits: John Lowell Anderson, “A Father's Wisdom”

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Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby: This is Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby, and you're listening to the Love, Happiness and Success Podcast.

That was “A Father's Wisdom” by the artist John Lowell Anderson, which I thought was a perfect transition for our topic today because today we are going to talk about preparing for parenthood — what to expect after the postpartum period, which can be kind of surprising for people and what we can do to prepare for that mentally and emotionally. We are going to be talking about the female experience of this. But more importantly, in some ways, if you're in a heterosexual relationship, we also need to talk about preparing for fatherhood and some of the mental and emotional changes that new Dads can expect as they make this transition. Because I think that doesn't get talked about enough, and that has a huge impact on the quality of relationships, after baby. Many couples struggle in the first couple of years as they transition from being two to being three and eventually more. On today's podcast, we are talking about all of it for your benefit, and I hope we leave this time together today with you're having some good takeaways for not just what to expect but what you can think about and do in order to prepare for this transition personally and also as a couple and a family.

So with me today are two of my colleagues — I have invited Jessica Small to join us today. Jessica is a marriage and family therapist here at Growing Self. Jessica and I have been colleagues for many years. Jessica, you are so knowledgeable about this; you work with many couples through this transition. You're also a Mom with two young kids yourself, so you're living it. Just recently, you let our whole team through this magnificent team training on the postpartum experience, so you're kind of the woman. Thank you for being here.

Jessica Small: Thank you, Lisa. You're far too kind, thank you so much. I’m happy to be here.

Dr. Lisa: Oh good, I don't know Jessica, you're pretty great. Also joining us as another colleague of ours, Seth Bender. Seth is also a marriage and family therapist here on the team with us at Growing Self. Seth, you work with a lot of couples who are making this transition into parenthood. I know you also have a lot of individual clients who are grappling with some of the mental and emotional, and identity changes that come after becoming parents. You too, are in the thick of things — a married guy with a toddler. So, I'm sure you'll have a lot to share as well.

Seth Bender: Yeah, thank you for having me her Lisa and I am very happy to give what insight I do have. It's true I do have a lot of couples and individuals who are both in both areas who are dealing with this, I have in the past as well. This is definitely a topic that I have worked with couples, with individuals in some detail. I'm very happy to be here.

Dr. Lisa: Well, I can't wait to get your insight today, so thank you. To start, I was wondering if we could first talk a little bit about this whole idea of the postpartum experience. And what I’d really like to talk about is to get the inside scoop from you guys about some of the emotional changes, the ways of thinking that can shift after we bring Baby home that are sometimes surprising to people. I think many times in our culture there's sort of this like it's magic, it's the most amazing time of your life. Sometimes when men and women have a different experience, they can worry that something is wrong or that they're not doing it right. Jessica, I was wondering if you could just start our conversation by sharing with us, just from your perspective, what are some of the things that particularly women can face in the weeks and months after having a baby that sometimes surprise them?

Preparing for Fatherhood: Postpartum Depression

Jessica: Sure, I think that the initial weeks after having a baby are hard — I don't really know a better way to say that, but hard. The first two weeks, especially, are significant, and that a lot of women experience what's called the baby blues, where they are seeing a lot of hormonal shifts, crying, irritability, feeling like their emotions are out of control, just adjusting. If there are no issues around postpartum depression or distress, we do typically see that even out. But I think the biggest thing that I hear Moms talk about that is surprising, and not something that we've talked about enough, is that there can be grief and loss around their old life, that Moms, and actually couples will say, “We came home with Baby and we love our baby, but part of us was like — what did we just do?” Because it changes life quite significantly.

Dr. Lisa: Where's the receipt?

Jessica: Yeah, when can we take this back? It's hard, you're not really sleeping very much, you're trying to adjust to a new normal, you're trying to incorporate a new family member into your life. I think there is some genuine sadness around the previous life, that life where there was the ability to grab your purse and walk out the door and go to the store and not worry about, “I have to be home in 30 minutes to feed my baby,” or, “I'm leaving my partner home and they haven't slept all night, and I need to make sure I'm back for them.” I think there's a lot of that. I think there's also a lot of identity development in becoming a mom that moms can feel very overwhelmed by the identity of Mom and feel like, “What about the rest of me? Where else? Where did I go about just me? What about me as a partner? What about me as a daughter myself? What about me as a friend?” that I think the initial stage of being postpartum can feel a bit overwhelming in that role of just being a Mom.

Dr. Lisa: Yeah, there's so much. I mean, like the early days of this, emotional storm, and trying to figure out, “Okay, is this normal? Is this postpartum depression?” Really, like, feeling sad, can be a very expected part of this experience. Plus, that all-encompassing, all you do is Mom things now, and trying to reconcile and rebuild some of that. But this is just a huge amount of emotional work at a time of life when there's a lot of physical work, too, and things like breast feeding and not sleeping — like this is it's a lot. The other thing I want to talk about too, is  again, this is largely for the benefit of well, either opposite sex couples, or in a partnership where one person physically had a baby, how does this sort of crisis impact the partner who has not just had the baby? Because I think sometimes, some of this can really catch male partners or nonpregnant partners off guard as they are trying to figure out how to be supportive to the person who's experiencing, at least the physical aspects of it, the hormonal aspects of it. Do you have any insight into that, Seth, about what you've heard from your clients as being the most challenging things there?

Seth: I would say it's a mixture of a few things. First off, just to echo Jessica, it's a incredibly difficult way transition that happens before you know it. You're going from being single or being a couple and doing whatever you want, whenever you want to do it, to not having that anymore. That's a jarring shift for many men, especially in our culture, where men are conditioned often to be type A, and go, go, go, and take care of yourself, and things like that. And that really, really changes very quickly. I would say that the change of lifestyle is really, really difficult for men, especially for first-time fathers, where they're not used to that change. You can read all the books that you want, but many of my clients worry about how their wives are going to change when they have a child. But you don't know until you're in the thick of it. With all the prep, there's still such a jarring shift in lifestyle, and in every single way that you can imagine — in terms of your work schedule, in terms of your self-care, in terms of the support that you used to get from your partner that is now being focused on your child. It's very, very difficult. And I think the — how do you say it — I think the assumption is that men just power through that, and it's fine. And that's not the case.

Dr. Lisa: I was just thinking the same thing as you were sharing that I think we're, have a lot of awareness around postpartum depression or baby blues. Jessica, as you shared, which is something that we kind of would expect women to go through, or somebody who just had a baby, maybe not that depression part, but certainly like the hormonal experiences. But Seth, what I'm hearing you say is that there's potentially a lot of grieving and a lot of loss that new Dads experience, or partners experience that they may not have been fully prepared for. Like even a few sort of intellectually knows something's going to happen, it's not until you have that experience. There's an emotional component of that, I'm guessing, a lot of sadness, loss, are those the right words?

Transition to Parenthood

Seth: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, there's a loss of freedom. That's not necessarily a negative thing. But if there's a loss of the life that you once had, if before, if you wanted to go with your buddies, and have some fun, you could do that. Or if you wanted to go to the gym, you could do that. Or you could do whatever you needed to do when you needed to do it. For older fathers, like myself, I had my first child when I was 41, I've been taking care of myself for 20 years. Having that change, and it was a very difficult transition. It took some time for me to get used to it and to understand it, and to understand what was happening within me as well. I mean, we don't have quite the same hormonal changes that a woman has. But a lot of the emotional component to it, I would say is likely similar, regarding what was and what's not going to be anymore.

Dr. Lisa: Yeah. Well, that's so insightful. This is actually making me think of something, Jessica, that you shared in this team training that you hosted for our group the other day, which was just so wonderful. But in it, you made a point around Mom's job is to take care of the baby, and that so much energy. Then you said, and Dad's job, our partner's job is to take care of Mom so that she can take care of Baby. But then I was thinking, yeah, who's taking care of Dad? And what does that do, in some ways? How does that sort of balance out? Jessica, can you maybe first of all, just talk a little bit more about what you mean by that? Because the visual I got is sort of like, water flowing downhill, like the sort of nurturing energy flows from Dad to Mom and Mom to Baby and Baby into growing and developing. Is that kind of what you are meaning?

Jessica: Yeah, I love that analogy. I think that is what I was talking about. I think that Baby is typically pretty reliant on Mom for basic life, especially if Mom is breastfeeding, then Baby needs Mom to eat. There's just this requirement that Baby has a Mom, maybe a little bit of a different way than Baby has of Dad. Mom is really focused typically on Baby. We want Dad to really focus on Mom, and help Mom make sure she's hydrated and eating. And if well, I guess, regardless of what labor and delivery look like recovering because your body has gone through such a major trauma in childbirth. And I love this point of well, who's taking care of Dad? And as you were saying that I was like, “I guess no one sometimes,” that Dads are, I think often in a position of feeling really isolated and having to take care of Mom. And also, of course, Dads are engaged with Baby as well. Having to take care of everyone and feeling like they're on their own doing that, and I think it is hard. I don't know that we have enough supports in place for men to feel like they can turn towards friends or family members and say, “This is a lot.” And I think to such point, which was, to me, a pretty important point is that Mom often doesn't have the capacity to give support to Dad in those moments. The person they typically have gone to and have this intimate bond with, is really not available. I think we're also talking about Dads can feel pretty isolated, and also feel like the person I have gone to I don't have and they also sometimes have this experience of really missing their partner. Because partner’s very focused on Baby, which is a develop mentally appropriate, but still hard for Dad.

Dr. Lisa: Yeah, yeah, no, thank you so much for acknowledging that and just like the loss, to your point, like it's a loss of life and of identity. But also in some ways to lose at least to the partner that you have known, in the way that you have known them, and that maybe the partner is going through sadness or, Jessica, like you said really like focused on keeping this Baby alive. And also the really challenging aspects of this, like in your training the other day, you mentioned like even breast feeding — sounds simple but no, it can be so difficult and painful, and have all these emotional things attached to them. I mean there is a lot going on and then, you have this poor man over here and like, “Hi, yeah. You want to talk?” “No!” And that's just so hard, yeah. We talked the other day about feelings that men might have through this experience, like missing their wife, or feeling like they can even be a little bit jealous of all of the time and attention that their wife is giving the baby and some men feel like their wives are angry with them sort of inexplicably in the first few weeks and months after baby comes, or longer. Well let's just go into these one at a time. I mean, can you say a little bit more about why men may experience their wives as being angry with them, in a way that feels surprising to them?

Seth: I would say that that's a great question, and I think it's unique for every couple. But I would say, the early days of being a mom are very, very difficult. The breastfeeding, the constant changing of diapers, the burping, the sleep schedule. And I would say Mom gets very, very exhausted and frustrated, and that can lead to trigger behaviors such as anger or such as criticism or whatnot. Because especially for Mom, you’re so emotionally fried because you're trying to keep your baby alive, you see or you're very worried that you're not doing a good job. There's a lot of doubt that can come in and a lot of fear that can come in, especially in those early, early days of having a kid, where Mom is just trying to keep it together the best they can.

Dr. Lisa: Yeah, and not sleeping, like just as you were saying that, like the whole, the feeding of the baby around the clock and it's not just the first few months, I mean for many women that can be many months through it but that is a real struggle. There's all stuff going on that makes Mom more tense, shall we say, is that the right word?

Seth: Tensed, escalated, fried — whatever word you want to use, that's what Mom is going through. And I think that's what fathers need to be able to access going into this, is that, hey as rough as it is for father, and it's plenty rough, it's that much more difficult for Mom because like you said, Mom is the point person, Mom is the one doing the feeding, and Mom is the one who joins first, and if there's troubles with that, that can be really scary and really anxiety-producing, and in whatever words you might want to use. I think in those early days, Moms are just trying to do what they can to feel connected and to feel like they're doing what they're supposed to be doing.

Dr. Lisa: Yeah well and you put such a good point and Jessica, I'd love to get your take on this too, is that the emotional experience of a Mom, is you’re going to be like hanging on by the skin of their teeth, maybe shorter communication, like there's tension. But Seth, I think what I’m  hearing you say is that they might not actually be mad at their partners, they’re just sort of might be an expression of what they're going through. Would you agree with that Jessica? Or do you think that no, no, actually, sometimes she actually is mad at you.

Jessica: Yes, yeah that's what I was going to say, yes and no. I mean I think Seth hit on some great points, and I loved and appreciated his acknowledgement that it is hard for Dad. But let's be honest, it is harder for Mom. Mom is recovering from the trauma of childbirth. Mom is the one that's typically in charge of feeding, as Seth said, mom is trying to keep baby alive. And I was thinking, “And herself.” Sometimes those two things feel like a lot to really accomplish in a day. I do think that, yes Mom, I think the term emotionally fried is really a perfect way to capture what it feels like to be newly postpartum. I think that sometimes Mom may actually not be mad at her partner, she may just be projecting maybe some of the anger and frustration she's feeling around trying to take on this new role. Maybe it's the exhaustion, maybe it's struggling with breastfeeding and projecting a little bit onto the safe person who is her partner versus onto Baby.

And sometimes, Moms are mad at their partners. Moms really do feel angry that their partner is not stepping up in a way that they need them to step up, whether that's taking on additional household responsibilities, attending to her a little bit more, really making sure she has what she needs, that she doesn't feel totally in-charge of all nighttime feedings, of all diaper changes, of all washing, of all the pumping stuff and all the bottles and making sure formula’s in the house if a baby is formula fed, that sometimes Moms are really wanting and needing more from their partners, and struggling to maybe express that in a way that their partner can hear or maybe partner is struggling to actually hear the need.

Dr. Lisa: Yeah, you're speaking to that, Jessica, that the word that's coming up is the emotional energy that can lead relationships to feel out of balance sometimes. And what you're saying is that Mom can't be the one who does all the things and thinks about everything and asks for everything, that there needs to be this involvement and attention from her partner to kind of anticipate needs and take on some of that emotional energy. And when that feels out of balance, that is one big reason when anger can show up.

Jessica: Yes, that's exactly what I'm talking about, that emotional labor and really needing it to feel — I wouldn't even hesitate to say balanced because I think for a period of time, it will feel out of balance. And that Dad may take on more because Mom is doing more than her fair share, but it's around keeping Baby alive. Yeah.

Dr. Lisa: Yeah, that makes a ton of sense. And I think that this is a nice segue into talking more about the challenges of maintaining a healthy relationship, which I mean, you guys have all said, both people are going through so much all at the same time. Like who's taking care of who, and then there's this whole reshuffling of the entire family dynamic. Jessica, you mentioned the other day in your training that John Gottman calls this the marriage crisis. Now, what did you say, post-baby marital crisis? Is that the term?

Jessica: That sounds about right.

Dr. Lisa: So many things and one of the points that often comes up, I think, in my couples counseling sessions, is the impact of the change in sexuality. In not just the weeks, but oftentimes months or longer after a baby is born, that a couple had connected around specific things, like sexuality being one, going out and doing fun things together, just them could be another one that all of a sudden, they don't have. But going back to the sexuality point, and a lot of men, I think, seek to reconnect with our partners, sexually. But this becomes very fraught for many women in the postpartum period. And Jessica, I'm wondering if you can speak a little bit about why that is from the female perspective?

Jessica: Sure, I think there's a lot of reasons why that is true. I mean, I think some of it is that as Moms are adjusting into that role of Mom The role of Mom and sexuality are not always a great match. In order to feel sexual, often Moms need to be able to exit out of their Mom role and into their marital role. And when you are deep in the trenches with new Baby, it's very hard to make that transition. And then we also have these other basic issues of sleep deprivation, feeling agitated or irritable because of emotional hormone shifts, that these things make it harder to have desire for sexual intimacy with their partner. There's also something to the fact that your body changes pretty dramatically with pregnancy and being postpartum. And that I think there is often insecurity. And some, feeling of hesitation around being in your body postpartum and having your partner see your body postpartum, touch your body postpartum. Also, I think, I often hear Moms talk about this experience of feeling being touched out, that they're like, I've had a baby on me all day. And the last thing I want is your hands on me as well. Really wanting to feel in control of their own body and feeling they get a say over, being touched. And then I think also, it is a little bit uncomfortable for many women to be nursing and feeling like, actually, my boobs are off limits. These are mine.

Dr. Lisa: Do not touch my boobs, under any circumstances.

Jessica: These are not for you, anymore. I think, there’s a lot of components to it. And then also, depending on how some of that emotional labor is being handled. That if there's additional components of feeling resentment, of feeling like, hey, I need you to actually take care of me, in order to feel like I can have space for desire, and that's not happening. That could be impacting things as well.

Dr. Lisa: Absolutely, yes. And also, too, I think this is true for other people. Nature does not want you to get pregnant immediately after having a child for very, very good, biologically reasonable reasons. Hormonally, I know that many women can experience a real difference in desire for all of the reasons that you described, but also, hormonally, it's like, “Mm-hmm, no, we're just not going to do that for a while.” But Seth, I'm wondering if this is a topic that's come up, either with your individual male clients in therapy or in couples counseling, how do you think male partners perceive this? Do they get all of that that Jessica is describing? Or do they just feel like they're being rejected?

Seth: I would say the vast majority of my male partners, my couples, have been understanding about that situation, but not necessarily… They’re understanding of the situation, but not at the magnitude. And something else I want to add to what Jessica was saying was, if the mother has had a difficult pregnancy, like hours of labor, C-section, infections, things like that, it takes so much time for the body to heal from that. And, I can say, from my own experience, our doctor said, “Well, a C-section is the only time when someone experiences major surgery, and then is expected to go home and take care of someone else.” I think there's a lot of factors involved. 

But there are certain clients where that is a big problem, though, and I think it goes back to the piece of your old life, your wife before Baby. It was much easier to initiate sexual contact, it wasn't much easier to have that accepted, or vice versa. And it's not like that anymore, it takes time for that to come back. And if you've had a difficult delivery, then it takes even more time. And I think the misconception is that for some men, it’s like, ”Okay, after two or three weeks, things will be back to normal.” And that's not really how it works. I mean, if things are never exactly the way it was before, and there's always some sort of change, whether it's minute or whether it's very, very visible, it's not the same.

I think, what I generally work with my couples and with the male partners, and the situation is acceptance around the idea of like, it's going to be different. That doesn't assume it's going to be worse. But it's going to be different, because it has to be different. Because everything has changed. It also goes back to a fear of change that's just in general that many men do have. I think that there's a lot of components to the question, but I think overall, and perhaps I've been lucky, but that the majority of my male partners have at least worked hard to be as understanding as they can.

Dr. Lisa: Yeah, that's great. And I think, what you're beginning to sort of talk about, and we should talk more about this, but how do you rebuild a new normal that incorporates the realities of this life, but are also good and enjoyable for everyone? And Jessica, you brought up something the other day and I was like, “Oh so glad you said that.” We were talking about how couples bond and build relationships many times around time together and shared activities, doing fun things and for many couples, after the birth of first child is like hard stop on that. And Baby is one thing but we all know it doesn't get better when you have a toddler, it's like you're trying to have a conversation with your partner. One of, I think, that the common pieces of advice particularly from — and I’m using my air quotes here — are “couple’s counselors,” who oftentimes that, I hate to say this, but really do not have a strong background in marriage and family therapy, is advising couples to, “Oh. Just go on a date night. You guys need more time together.” And Jessica, you had just such a wonderful perspective on this and why it really needs to be a little bit more robust. Would you mind sharing your perspective?

How to Keep Relationship Strong After Having a Baby

Jessica: Sure. I really struggle with that advice of “Go on a date.”

Dr. Lisa: So bad.

Jessica: I think I had it in capital letters in five presentations like…

Dr. Lisa: Bold capital letters.

Jessica: “Do not tell couples to do this.” Because we're just setting them up to feel unsuccessful, that you have such limited resources typically in those early years truly, of being a new parent. Date nights, while lovely, are not what's required in order to create reconnection. I think starting with really small manageable ways to connect. Sometimes it's truly having a moment to give each other a hug, that's where this starts. It's not about spending $100 on a babysitter and going out to dinner and feeling like you're going to fall asleep through the whole meal. It is about just having a hug, having five minutes where you look at each other and have a conversation that's not about your baby. That sometimes it might be something along the lines of saying to your partner, “Just sit with me and watch the show with me while I nurse.” Or that your partner supports you by washing all the pump parts and bring them to you. And then you can have a quick conversation as you're feeding a baby a bottle. That these are just these little tiny Moments for connection between couples and finding five minutes, 30 seconds, not looking for hours.

Dr. Lisa: Yeah, that is such great advice.

Seth: And what's interesting about that point, Jessica, is that that's often what's missing in the relationship before the baby comes.

Dr. Lisa: Oooh, Seth, say what?

Seth: Well, with the whole lovely “Which is peace is really no physical touch, acts of service, time together, words of affirmation, giving gifts — small gifts, and things like that. That's often what's missing before the baby even comes, and when the baby is there, it takes up so much attention, it becomes much more glaring when that's missing. Those bits for connection that we assume couples have before the child is even born, often aren't there. With our work with couples it's often about building that before the baby is born, just so it doesn't come down to hiring a babysitter and spending $100, and with the chance of not having a good time at that dinner because we're worried about Baby, right? The smaller bits for connection are really crucial, and I totally agree with Jessica, with that point. But that's often what's missing in the relationship anyway.

Dr. Lisa: Wonderful, and going back to that idea about many times when people unfortunately come into couples counseling it is that crisis — they've had a baby and they're six months into it and there wasn't that before, Seth, and there is definitely not that now, and it feels like a major issue. But I’m hearing you say, wouldn't it be wonderful if people almost did premarital counseling except before Baby to make sure that they're in a good place before welcoming a child, and those are wonderful pieces of advice. And I’ll add too as I’m sort of scrolling back through some of the couples that I’ve worked with on this issue. I think it can also be really helpful to help couples and just in that rebuilding of connection after Baby, to really prioritize emotional safety, in the sense of having it be okay to not be okay. Like, is it okay to say, “I really miss our old life,” and not have somebody freak out and be mad at you for saying that, or be like, “What do you mean, are you sad that we had our baby?” Like, how do we sort of hold the space for each other to talk about the full experience that we're having even that. And Jessica, going back to what you're saying, a 10- or 15-minute conversation, but when you're talking about those real feelings can be enormously reconnective. And to your point, Seth, really deepen the relationship, maybe even deeper than it was before, because you're talking about the shared experience and really, real things. Yeah.

Jessica: Yeah, I couldn't agree more, Lisa. I just want to touch on that for a second. Because I think this is one of the things that couples struggle with is that one person says, “I miss getting to go do this.” And the other person tries to fix it and ends up invalidating their partner, and it’s a missed opportunity for connection. Because there's going to be moments of sadness and grief and loss, and all that is normal. And none of it means you don't like your baby or want to have your baby still. Finding those opportunities to align and connect are huge.

My Husband Ignores Me After Having Baby

Dr. Lisa: Well said, yeah. I know that we don't have a ton of time left together. But I wanted to run something past you. We had a listener question come through, I believe this one came through on Instagram. I'm going to throw this one at you. And I want you to think about and of course, again, solving this is beyond the scope of a podcast. This is what we might do over several weeks, if not months of actual couples counseling. But here's the question, “My husband and I had a fabulous relationship and marriage until the birth of our son about two years ago.” The writer says that she experienced baby blues, perhaps kind of venturing into postpartum depression territory. And she says, “We've really struggled as a couple to manage this transition to becoming parents.” She says,  “It stops feeling like we're good partners for each other, we're having trouble working as a team. And I feel like we can't keep going like this, I want to improve our communication. I want to feel like we're in love again, and work together, and be this happy little family that we always dreamed about. But it feels so hard just to reconnect and get back on track.”

This is a very common feeling for a lot of couples in the situation on both sides. If you were starting to see them as a marriage counselor, or relationship coach, what do you imagine the arc of the work forward would involve?

Jessica: I can speak to that a little bit. I'm trying to process. The first thing that really stands out to me is that, when a couple comes into me and says,  “We had this fabulous marriage, and we've struggled in the transition.” the piece that I would focus on is, where are all those strengths? Because if you had a fabulous marriage, it means it's all in there somewhere — that the things that you probably were doing when you felt like you had this fabulous marriage are maybe not happening anymore. Looking at, and this is something this particular person could do potentially without a therapist, at least to begin the work, is to think about what was working for us then? And how do we start to transition that now. Maybe they recognize, “Oh, we cooked dinner together every night. Well, let's see if we can figure out a way to cook more together. Or maybe one day a week, we find a way to do that with one another.” Or, “We were taking walks regularly. Well, babies go in a stroller. Let's put that baby in a stroller and take a walk.” Really trying to find those strengths and seeing if you can bring them back into the relationship. I would also imagine that there's been — some maybe what we would term — like attachment wounds and the relationship over the past two years, which are these Moments where you felt hurt, invalidated, felt like your partner struggled to be there for you, to see if you can attend to those wounds and actively heal them in order to move forward. And I think also start to build a vision for what you want this life as a family, if I'm imagining three of them, now together to look like, and creating a path and steps forward to creating that — this family that you really desire.

Dr. Lisa: Yeah, yeah. So you're saying reconnecting with a strength and what are the easiest things that you can do just to begin to draw some of that back in. But Jessica, you said something so insightful, which is, where's the hurt? We're going to have to talk about how we hurt each other over the last couple of years, maybe without meaning to. But that is so important, because that can really rid  a lot of not just distance but resentment. And then, once that's done, then we can talk about what we want this to look like going forward. Seth, I see you nodding your head. Is that what you would do with those couples, or something different?

Preparing for Fatherhood: Improve Communication

Seth: I think the strength space focus is definitely creates a really good baseline of, okay, this was what was going well, but jumping off the attachment wound piece, I would assume that this couple that discussions and conversations about the problems that they're having are not going well. A lot of the work that I would do would be to help the couple map out these interactions together. And basically, okay, so during your disagreements, this is happening, this is happening, and it's surface level, and you're bouncing off of each other, and there's no validation here. What can we do to change that? Basically, think going back to how we hurt each other. Those are tough conversations to have, that's a really scary conversation to have. Creating a safe place and a safe framework to be able to express the pain and own the pain and to have it validated by your partner, without resorting to defensiveness or criticism or anything like that, which is not an easy task.

But I think, a lot of the work I would do with this type of couple would be to slow down the interactions, slow it down, process, and find out what's actually fueling these disagreements — what's actually happening here? And a lot of that may have to do with the hurt, there may be some fear involved with that. There may be some past trauma regarding family involved with that. So that there's a lot of things that you can build empathy on, rather than build resentment about as long as the couple can work on having those conversations in a safe and healing way.

Dr. Lisa: Yeah. Well, you bring up so many good points. And I think that sometimes couples can have these conversations on their own. People don't always need marriage counseling. But I think Seth, you bring up such a good point, is that if it always sort of disintegrates and turns into something either unproductive or not resolved.You create that safe space, where people can talk about the really hard things, and have it be productive. Going into those hurt places for the purpose of healing them. But Seth, you also talked about something which I think is phenomenally important, which is figuring out where, in that communication, are things going astray? Like okay, so you said this, and then this happened. Unpacking it like, what were you telling yourself in the Moment when your husband placed the glass on the counter? What meaning did you make of that? And really kind of unfolding it so that people can see what is actually happening in those communication patterns, and then be able to make intentional choices. Because you’re right, Seth.  I think, sometimes when couples, particularly when there’s  just sort of resentment and limited time together, things happen so fast, and people just have these knee jerk reactions to each other. And all of a sudden, you're yelling at each other, or somebody's slamming the bathroom door, nobody quite knows how it happened. But Seth, I'm hearing that that would be a really powerful area to work in is what is this attached to? And how can we understand this and do it a little bit differently in sort of practicing it in our conversations and couples counseling? But okay, go try it at home. Yeah, is that?

Seth: Absolutely. The meaning and the symbolism of things or things that happen or things that don't go very well between a couple, no matter what the topic is, the meaning and the symbolism is usually more emotionally important than the actual topic. It's really not about taking out the trash, it's about what it means when you don't take out the trash. And there's so much that could be involved with that, and with the work that I would do, it's to help get that out and to help get heard and to help get empathy into the equation rather than my partner's always getting angry at me for no reason.

Dr. Lisa: No reason. Good advice. And this is what we do with a lot of couples, but how vitally important to be having these kinds of conversations in, ideally, that's to your point the days leading up to having a new baby. But certainly, afterwards because there's so much to talk about.

Yeah, thank you both so much for spending this time with me today and talking about this incredibly important topic. I know that we were looking at some of the darker aspects of this and there's a lot of joy and wonderful things about having a baby too. But thank you for illuminating your perspective on some of the realities of it that can catch individuals and couples off guard. I think that you probably really helped a couple of young families that may have listened to this podcast today. And I hope it sparks some discussion around the kitchen table.

Jessica: Thank you, Lisa.

Seth: Thank you, Lisa.


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