How to survive relationship strain during your first year as parents

Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock 

When Abbey McKenna fell pregnant with her first child in 2014, she and her husband were loved up and excited.

"I thought having a baby would be easy. We'd be the happy family, spending time together, laughing and revelling in each other for hours on end," she tells Essential Baby. 

"I couldn't have been more wrong." 

The first major fight occurred when their daughter Ayla was just a few days old. Abbey's in-laws came to visit and wanted to spend time alone with her husband. She felt that their chance to bond as a new family had been hijacked.

She recalls that a common argument was over clashing expectations – both as parents and as husband and wife. Abbey felt that her husband didn't prioritise spending time at home with his new family as much as she did. They also fought about sex – specifically her husband's desire for it and the exhaustion that prevented Abbey from wanting it.

"We both thought that we were right and the other was wrong. We found joy in our baby, but our happiness with each other decreased dramatically," she says. 

The arguing continued after their second daughter was born in 2017. By the time she was nine-months-old, the couple decided to separate.

Abbey is now engaged to a new partner, has a blended family of five children and runs The Parenting Co website. 

How to survive relationship strain during your first year as parents

Photo: Abbey McKenna separated from her ex-husband after relationship issues when her second daughter was nine-months-old / Supplied.

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The first year is the toughest

The kind of relationship ruptures Abbey experienced with her ex-husband are common during the first year of parenthood. It is a time of intense change and the stresses and burdens can feel overwhelming, while the opportunities for arguments seem limitless. 

"Most, if not all couples, have some difficulty in adjusting to their new roles and responsibilities when they have a baby," says Jane Fisher, a professor of Women's Health at Monash University.

"It's very challenging for a relationship largely because there's no precedent. In other life situations, you can usually think back to something similar, such as when you started a new job. But those adjustment experiences aren't as permanent. If you enrol in the wrong course at university, you can go back and change it. The birth of a baby isn't reversible."

What's more, we are often unprepared for how emotionally attached we will be to our baby, and how much work caring for it will involve. 

"It's a shock to discover how unrelenting the demands are, and how socially isolating it can be," says Fisher.

After becoming concerned about the mental health of women who'd recently given birth, in 2005 Professor Fisher began devising a program to help new parents learn to settle their babies so that everyone gets more sleep, as well as to avoid some of the common relationship problems. 

So far, 2,000 couples have completed the 'What were we thinking?' program, which is run by a maternal and child health nurse in small groups when babies are around six weeks old. 

Its website has worksheets that parents can download, and an online learning package is being developed so that more couples can access the program. Fisher says she would love to see state governments outside Victoria roll it out. 

Mothering is work too

It may come as no surprise that when parenting gets divided along traditional gendered lines and the work of the mother isn't recognised as such, relationship problems arise. 

"There's often a presumption that the mother is somehow involved in a leisure activity and the father is the one who is working," says Professor Fisher. 

"Couples who make it always say from the beginning, 'We're both working. Let's discuss how we're going to divide the work up. And that work includes keeping the baby alive, the household clean, stocked with food, and administratively functioning.'"

She says that while there isn't a magic rule about how the workload should be divided, if one person doesn't feel it is fair, the result will be irritability, anxiety and distress.

She encourages new parents to make an effort to get to the bottom of what's bothering their partner if they don't seem their usual self.

"Get very good at asking questions like, 'You seem to be irritable. What is it that's going on? Can we discuss it?' Developing those capacities for careful, respectful inquiry from each other is important, as is giving feedback on how the other person's behaviour affects you." 

Let your partner be a true partner

Sharing the workload means allowing your partner to make mistakes, or to do things differently. This can be difficult because the emotional attachment between a mother and her newborn is often very powerful, but Professor Fisher says it's worthwhile trying to curb any criticisms.

"When we're learning to do something new, criticism is especially psychologically harmful. We know that if fathers are mocked or laughed at, they will withdraw. Fathers need opportunities to learn and develop confidence. The best way to do that is to be given hands-on opportunities." 

She points to studies that show the benefits for early childhood development when fathers are very involved in caring for their child. 

"Couples should feel that they each bring capabilities and competencies to being parents, and that they trust each other."

And when maternity leave ends, the decision about the type of care and the day-to-day responsibilities for drop-offs and so forth should be shared.

"It shouldn't be presumed that it is the woman who will work part-time and resume things in a lower level way. Both people need to make some alterations in their professional lives to accommodate the baby," says Fisher.

Always remember your baby 

Maintaining harmony at home is important not only for your own happiness, but for your baby's wellbeing. According to Fisher, there is growing evidence of the adverse effects on babies who witness conflict between parents – even when a baby is very young.

"When a baby is exposed to something frightening, it doesn't have a means of escape and it can't seek care from somebody else, so it's especially frightening. That fear arousal has an impact on their emotional capacity: it does seem to underpin anxiety in older children." 

Fisher says it's important to think about how any major decisions will impact the baby, and that if separation feels necessary, to try to do it in a way that is the least disruptive. It's also worth getting professional help to try to work through the problems together. And remember: the first year is the toughest.