How Having a Baby Changes a Couple’s Relationship
When a man and a woman have a baby, it is a profound transition – the most important change in their adult lives. How becoming parents can affect them as individuals and as a couple is still not well understood in our culture. Of all the Western industrialized countries, the United States offers the least support for family adjustment and development. Politicians would like us to believe that we put a priority on family life, but the reality is just not so. How a man makes the transition to parenthood, and how a baby changes a man’s relation to his wife, are very important areas for us as men to understand.
When a baby is born, the focus of the new mother’s attention is on the baby. This is part of the normal developmental process. Mothers become preoccupied with the baby’s needs, often to the exclusion of everyone and everything else. This is part of her biological makeup. Most new fathers are unaware of this normal maternal preoccupation and are often surprised and frustrated at how abandoned they may feel. We have no information about what to expect after a baby is born. Men have very little preparation for this intimate part of life. Childbirth preparation classes often help us share with our wives the experience of pregnancy, but we are unaware of what to expect emotionally after the baby arrives. So what’s a dad to do?
As a new father feels the emotional withdrawal of his wife’s attention, he can take comfort in knowing that her total attentiveness to their baby is normal. He can begin to notice whether he has feelings of anger and hurt. Often the time after birth may stimulate unconscious feelings that remind the father of his own childhood. But what about his normal needs for attention and intimacy?
Intellectually, a father can become aware that he is participating in an intimate, common and normal experience of the biological foundation of life. He can take comfort in knowing that as their baby adjusts to being outside rather than inside its mother, this intense connection needs to sustain itself for a while.
He can also be active in sharing and bonding with his wife and baby by participating in this great mystery of getting to know himself and his wife in their new roles as parents, and becoming acquainted with this new being called their child. He can begin to get a glimpse of his own vulnerability as the uncertainty of his new role and relationships emerges.
Often the new feelings a man discovers when he becomes a father press him to overwork, perhaps to drink more or to have an affair – all of them ways of trying to escape from the pain of feelings he may be having about the change in relationship with his wife. Even when he is aware of the biological calling for his wife’s intense intimacy with the baby, he still feels his own intimate needs neglected.
What I found in my research on new fathers is that throughout history men have had other men – other fathers – with whom to share the transition to parenthood. The joy and loneliness, the fear and confusion were emotions men were able to experience with each other. This was a natural intimacy that men had between them. It is something we have lost in Western industrial countries. Historically, we have always had a community of male friends to turn to at the critical times in our lives. Without this important relationship in a man’s life, all his intimacy needs, especially for understanding and comfort, are demanded of his wife and his marriage.
The stereotype of men persists that “they don’t share their feelings.” What I have found in my work and research is that men don’t have opportunities to share their feelings. In my fathers’ groups and my all-day workshops we never seem to have enough time to talk, discuss and share all that we want to. The fathers comment on how, unlike their wives – who have many groups available – they have no place to go to specifically talk about the changes they are going through as men and dads.
Not only do we need to be able to establish an intimate relationship with a group of men when we become fathers, but throughout our lives we need the companionship, intimacy and support we can offer each other. Building and maintaining relationships is not easy with the pace and mobility of life today. For us as men to value our male friends, and to work on developing our relationships with each other, takes commitment. Finding ways to create opportunities to be together to talk about the important experiences we are living is of immeasurable value. Having a community of male friends can profoundly affect the quality of our marriages and how our children feel about us as fathers and men. Maybe the loneliness we feel after our babies are born is not just the change in the relationship with our wives, but the sadness we feel at being without any close men to share this most important time in our life.
For further self-reflection and discussion:
- How has your relationship with your partner changed since you became parents?
- Do you feel jealous of your partner’s relationship with your child?
- Talk with some other dads you know about how you feel.
- Interested in being in an online Dad’s Group join us at The New Dads Network.