Becoming parents, and doing it together so that your relationship thrives, may be one of the biggest challenges a couple can face. During pregnancy attention tends to get focused on the birth itself. You anticipate it with such anxiety and excitement that it can be very hard to look beyond that experience and really imagine what life will be like once your baby is born.
It's even harder to imagine what can happen to your relationship if you don't give it some care. The research is pretty much in agreement. Studies of marital satisfaction show that the pre-school years are one of the toughest times for many relationships.
People's lives often change dramatically when they become parents. The lack of sleep, the sheer drudgery, the days that leave you feeling exhausted without achievement, the huge responsibility you've taken on; all take their toll.
Your familiar patterns of work and social connection are disrupted. You probably have less money, less time and more expenses than you thought possible for one tiny person.
You are also likely to be experiencing a different kind of emotional bond than any you have felt before. It's easy to be so filled up with the experience of becoming a parent that we forget to also be a partner. Yet, perhaps one of the most valuable things we can offer our children is the chance to grow up as a loved and valued member of a happy family.
Sharing the Experience
So how do you go about nurturing your relationship when the expectations are all about nurturing your baby? The most crucial step is to make parenting something you do together. It's common, especially with new-borns, for one parent, often a breast-feeding mother, to become utterly engrossed in the experience of bonding with this baby. Wholly absorbing and exhausting, this experience may leave little time over for the partner.
This won't go away in a hurry. Parents who are not the primary caregiver may find they feel lonely, left out, or neglected. To maintain the closeness of the relationship, both parents need to be fully engaged in parenting, making it a shared focus of the relationship.
A primary caregiver is in a position to develop a level of confidence and skill with the baby more quickly. It's important to resist becoming the expert. Both parents needs to find their own comfort with handling their baby, with changing, bathing, burping and comforting.
Breast-feeding may not be very sharable. But expressing some milk, enabling the other parent to bottle-feed may be an option. Or perhaps the other parent can be included in the ritual of feeding by collecting the hungry baby and bringing it to mum.
So how does this help your relationship? If only one of you really engages with the child, you get a kind of 'us' and 'them' scenario where the relationship and the family are in competition. If both of you engage, then your relationship acts as the stable basis that expands out to include your child in a family 'we'.
It also offers you shared experience and commitment as a foundation when resolving the differences you will inevitably have about child rearing.
Keeping "in touch"
Your relationship will almost inevitably change with a baby, but it doesn't have to be a change for the worse. It's an opportunity to share new experiences, and to increase the range of ways you can support each other and be intimate together.
There are many jokes about how relationships with a new baby become sex free zones. And quite often that is the case. The chances are you will both be sleep deprived. That doesn't do much for the libido. Nine months of pregnancy followed by breast feeding can leave some women feeling that their body has been doing overtime on others behalf and they'd just like to have it to themselves for a bit.
If you can stay 'in touch', physically connected and familiar, that will help the level of intimacy you maintain. Now is the time to be offering each other undemanding physical attention and affection. Offers to run your partner a bath, make them a cup of tea, rub their back, fetch them a book demonstrate a practical appreciation of their physical state. Laugh together about how your current fantasy is for an early night with no interruptions, rather than for a long night of passion.
Time for Yourselves
Talk about how your social needs are being met. If you are at home and desperate for adult conversation, organisations like Parent Centre or Plunket may be able to connect you with other new parents in your area.
If you don't get much social stimulation from your workplace, maybe you need to build in an evening when you do something with a friend. Make sure you keep planning to meet both of your needs.
You can give each other the precious gift of a little time to yourself. "You get some sleep, I'll take the baby out for a walk". Give some consideration to the range of activities you are involved in. This is a pressured and demanding time in your lives. It might be a good time to re organise your priorities. Maybe some of those clubs and committees could have less of you, so you can make more room for your partner and child.
Think about keeping on a few roles or activities that you really enjoy. Consider letting go roles that are hard, or where you feel an obligation. You need things in your life that nurture and support you now, not things that burden you.
You do need some time together without your baby. Think about things to do that feed your closeness. If you are talkers, then going out for dinner or a coffee is probably good. If you are inclined to be quiet, then activities like bush walking or gardening where you can appreciate each others presence without needing a lot of conversation might work better for you.
If you end up talking about your baby, that's fine. The point of time away from your child is not to forget that you're parents. It is about remembering that you are partners, so include yourselves in the conversations about the baby: "What I notice is...", "what I feel is...","what I worry about is...", "how about you?"
Getting and Staying Connected
One of the most useful things you can do is tell each other how its going, what you're discovering, what drives you crazy, what job you'd like next, who you talked to today. Make a point of telling your partner how much you appreciated that cup of tea, that nap, the phone call. Think about questions to ask your partner, and follow up on what they've told you. Try for a mix of daily details with heartfelt hopes and dreams.
It's not that you need to know everything about each other. It's not about keeping tabs, it's about connection. It's about being alert to the way you both change and grow as you add parenting to your lives. It's about keeping your respect, appreciation, curiosity and tenderness alive.
You do that by tending to it, just a little every day will be fine. It's a useful thing to do in any relationship, and if you are thinking about having children start now, get in practice.
Those small, inexpensive gestures of connection build up your confidence in each other's good will. The more good will you can build between you, the better your chances of brewing a stimulating blend of parenting and partnership.