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When Baby Makes Three

By Juliann R. Ambroz
Carthage, North Carolina, USA
From: NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 12 No. 6, November-December 1995, pp. 164-67

Ask any couple you know how their life changed after children, and they are apt to look at you with some bemusement and exclaim, "Everything changes, absolutely everything. Your life is just never the same again."

Unfortunately, many couples are completely unprepared for the totality of the change. As a result, many relationships begin to deteriorate following the birth of children. In fact, research shows that marital satisfaction often decreases when children are born, and continues to decline until the children are fairly self-sufficient.

According to Keith McDaniel, a marital and family therapist, "The greatest injustice we do to new parents is not telling them the truth. Typically, nobody tells you what it's really like." What exactly is the truth? What changes should a couple expect when children enter their life? Is it inevitable that the marital relationship suffer as a result?

First, parents and professionals agree that the postpartum period can be stressful. These stresses are aggravated by the fact that most new parents are completely unprepared for the experience. Alison K. Hazelbaker, MA, a lactation consultant in Columbus, Ohio and former La Leche League Leader, says "Parents tend to be focused on the birth event instead of what comes after. They don't give a lot of forethought to postnatal adjustments. This poses an additional stressor that challenges even the best of relationships."

Sadly, some couples, unaware of the universality of their experience, will attribute many of their difficulties to the breastfeeding experience. "Mothers think if only I wasn't breastfeeding things would be okay. Weaning is a tangible thing and they are so anxious to do something to make things normal," says Lynn Ficorilli, a lactation consultant and nurse who founded The Care Connection, a breastfeeding support center in Buffalo, New York, "But what they have to realize is that their experience is not a breastfeeding problem, but an adjustment problem." The fact is, the months following the birth of a child are characterized by change regardless of infant feeding method.

For example, there are definite shifts in role that have to be negotiated. There are increased demands on the time, energy, and emotional availability of both partners. Career choices and expectations may change, and these changes may impose new financial restrictions. "I wanted to stay home with my baby," says Susan, a new mother from Massachusetts, "but we had this really high mortgage payment. After I left my job, we were broke. All of a sudden going out for pizza was a big deal."

In addition, family of origin issues are apt to surface as the extended family becomes more present in the lives of new parents. For example, when disagreements arise regarding caretaking, the issue of control may begin to supersede the actual conflict. At a time when emotions are already running high, and both partners are feeling vulnerable, the atmosphere is ripe for these power struggles to occur. In addition, either partner may experience jealousy, anger, or frustration when their own needs are not being met. Finally, fatigue and physical changes may mean that parents must find more creative ways to be intimate. According to one new father, "Your sex life comes to a screeching halt. Sometimes it's hard to keep in mind that this isn't going to last forever. It's not going to last forever, right? Please tell me it's not going to last forever!"

The fact is, when couples are ready to resume intercourse (often some time following the proverbial six-week checkup), their sexual interaction may be markedly different than before. For instance, a new baby's sleep patterns might necessitate a change in the time or place of lovemaking. (One experienced father commented that you also learn to do it a lot quicker!) Other things, such as breast tenderness and/or vaginal dryness, may require certain modifications. Fortunately, a little sensitivity and a tube of K-Y jelly can go a long way in enhancing the sexual experience. It is also important to realize that due to factors such as episiotomy-site pain, postpartum adjustment, or just feeling all "touched out," intercourse may need to go on hold temporarily. If this is the case, each partner must be sensitive to the other's need-whether that need is for intimacy or space. Such respect will ultimately result in a deepening of the bond between the couple.

The decision to breastfeed may actually mitigate the effect of some of these changes. This is particularly true when breastfeeding is viewed as a family experience. "You need to have a breastfeeding family," says childbirth educator Richelle Molesky, "not just a breastfeeding mother." The fact is, father's support is crucial, and may be the deciding factor when it comes to whether or not a baby is breastfed. Brenda Tripp, an LLL Leader and experienced mother of three says, "My husband is the one who convinced me to breastfeed, and encouraged me to keep going when I wanted to quit. If it hadn't mattered to him I might have given up because those first few weeks were hard. Without his support I would have missed out on this really incredible experience, and my children would have been denied access to the benefits of nursing."

Because breastfeeding demands the involvement of both partners it has the potential to enhance the marital relationship. For example, when a father takes on the role of protector, shielding mother and baby from outside criticism and supporting the intense mother-infant bond, there is apt to be a great deal of spousal admiration. However, according to Denise Cote Arsenault, PhD, a lactation consultant in New York, the opposite is also true. "If a husband is not supportive of the breastfeeding relationship then both the mother's relationship to the baby and to her spouse may be affected. This is difficult to work through."

Yet when the couple operates as a team, the relationship can deepen due to the feedback mechanism that is set up by breastfeeding. "For the most part, when baby's needs are met you have happier babies," says Hazelbaker, "and when you have happier babies you have happier parents. This sense of satisfaction allows for a much smoother transition into parenting and a unique opportunity to grow as a couple." Polly DeSherbinin, EdD, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Amherst, Massachusetts, agrees. She says that nursing provides the potential for an ongoing sense of nurturing within the family. "The father can enter into the nursing experience, and it can enhance the quality of the couple's relationship and the richness of their life."

Of course, for this to occur it is important that mothers make an effort to allow fathers into this traditionally female domain. This does not mean that fathers need to give bottles to their babies, which can interfere with a baby's ability to breastfeed properly as well as the delicate mother-baby interaction that breastfeeding facilitates. Rather, a mother can nurse and encourage the father to take over other baby care tasks - burping, changing, rocking, etc. Some fathers like to talk while mother nurses or rub the child's back (or the mother's if he is really terrific!). "The important thing to remember," says Dr. Les Strong, President of the Connecticut Association for Marital and Family Therapy, "is that nursing can be a time of bonding for everyone. And when you have both mother and father involved in relational tasks you avoid some of the traditionalization or splitting of roles that typically occurs after the birth of a child. I think this can be an important way to operate as a team and keep misunderstandings and resentments at bay."

Unfortunately, in today's fast-paced world, making the time for family bonding can be difficult. In order to increase their time for closeness many families are returning to the familial bed of yesteryear. This option allows more opportunity for togetherness, and may also help fight the fatigue associated with new parenthood. "Allowing the baby into our bed made nighttime feedings a breeze," says Caroline. "I didn't have to get up. I didn't have to prepare anything. All I did was roll over and Allison's meal was there. I don't even know how often she nursed because I slept through most of it. And my husband really appreciated having some time to cuddle with the baby. For us, the family bed was a lifesaver."

According to Sandra Rigazio-Digilio, PhD, assistant professor in the Marriage and Family Therapy Program at the University of Connecticut and board member of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, co-sleeping is becoming increasingly popular in this country. "We are finding out that children are often staying in bed till age three or four. But people don't talk about it because there is this Western-American tradition implying there is something wrong with that. The fact is that in healthy families, this nighttime togetherness can be a bonding experience for children and parents. If this is something both partners agree will make feeding easier and make a child feel bonded, then this can be a practical set-up that increases the well-being of family members. However, if cosleeping is being used as a way to keep parents apart or otherwise ignore relational issues that need to be addressed, it is inappropriate."

Exploring various sleep arrangements and taking advantage of nature's feeding system may be particularly important for the dual-earner couple or for those parents with older children. For these mothers and fathers "napping when baby naps" is apt to be impossible, and nighttime sleep becomes even more important. Breastfeeding (particularly in the family bed or with a side-car arrangement where a crib or mattress is placed alongside the parent's bed) can increase overall sleep time and thereby contribute to the health and vitality of family members.

In addition, for the dual and single-earner families, breastfeeding provides essential benefits. First for those families living on one income, breastfeeding is cost-effective and can represent substantial savings. For those parents who work outside of the home, breastfeeding can provide intense moments of physical and emotional bonding that are unavailable during the day.

Ficorilli notes that for mothers who prefer to be home with their baby but can't be, breastfeeding can lessen the regrets about having to go to work. Terri, the mother of two young girls, works as an x-ray technician in a community hospital. She says "I hated leaving my babies, but I had to work. I felt better knowing that at least they were getting my pumped milk when I couldn't be with them. And I loved being able to nurse them when I was home. It made me feel closer to them."

Clearly, when parents are well rested, have fewer financial burdens, and fewer resentments, there are going to be positive repercussions for their relationship. Nevertheless, experts agree that couples must be vigilant about maintaining their intimacy. All too often, in the face of career and family pressures, couple time is the first thing to go. Ethel Ethington, a marriage and family therapist in North Carolina says "I think it is important that people keep in mind that the marital relationship is the focal point in a family. If this suffers, then the family suffers. Couples must do their homework to keep their marriage going."

Unfortunately, many parenting magazines would have us believe that the only way to maintain marital closeness is to go out and leave the baby behind. The problem with this advice is that new parents are often uncomfortable about leaving the baby, and rightly so. They can't enjoy their time away together because they're too busy wondering if the baby is unhappy without his familiar attachment figures. Breastfed babies nurse frequently and need mother's continuing presence. A successful transition to parenthood means finding ways to spend time together as a couple while still meeting baby's needs. "Closeness is not determined by whether you have alone time," says Hazelbaker. "Closeness is fostered by the way you talk with one another. You need to be in physical proximity, but not necessarily minus the baby." Kathleen Auerbach, PhD, a lactation consultant and former La Leche League Leader, agrees. "Our society needs to support parents learning to be parents," she says, "Not learning how to get away from their baby. We need to accept the fact that we will never again be the way we were before children. Trying to get back to a norm that is no longer a norm is futile." Auerbach reminds new parents that babies are highly portable and generally can get into events free of charge. "Put your baby in a sling and go to the movies, or pack a picnic," she says. "You don't have to leave your baby behind."

The important thing, it seems, is that couples set aside time to discuss how parenting children is affecting their relationship. And luckily, the serenity of a nursing child may provide parents with just the opportunity they need to negotiate the details of their life together. Cathy, the mother of three, says "Nursing was generally a calm and quiet time for us. I mean the baby was quiet and I felt really calm because of the prolactin release. My husband and I really took advantage of those moments to talk about what was going on with us, and how we were feeling about everything." Of course, while nursing may ease some of the transitions associated with parenthood, there are always going to be challenges to work through. The days, weeks, and months following the birth of a child are characterized by change, and change of any kind can produce stress. When couples first become parents, and with every successive pregnancy, there are role changes and new demands that require fortitude, and flexibility. Parents may end up feeling they have nothing left to give their partners, and may feel that their partners aren't giving enough to them. Rigazio-Digiho says "When this happens it's important to attend to the fact that when we're feeling dissatisfied it doesn't mean we don't love. It means we are under a lot of stress. Too many people make the mistake of thinking their unhappiness is due to the demise of their relationship. The reality may simply be that life today is pretty crazy, and it's difficult to deal with so many demands."

Fortunately, despite the fact that having a baby is a cataclysmal event, couples can negotiate the challenges. "It's hard," said one new mother named Rebecca, "but at the same time you know you made this child together and you get to watch it develop, and it's something you share together. That part is pretty incredible."

As demanding as it may be to make the transition from couple to family, this is also a time of rewards. It helps to remember that parenting is a team event, and if we work through the difficulties together, the spousal relationship may actually be enhanced. "One day I overheard my husband telling his mother why we chose to nurse," says Rebecca. "It seems she couldn't understand why we would want to do that. The fact that he was running interference for me really meant a lot. It gave me one more reason to love him. I knew he was a great husband, but I found out that he's also a great father." She smiles and adds, "It really added a whole new dimension to our relationship. Our life is a lot different since we had children, but our love is even stronger."

Suggested Reading

La Leche League International. THE WOMANLY ART OF BREASTFEEDING. LLLI. Schaumburg, Illinois, 1991.

Price, Anne and Dana, Nancy. The Working Woman's Guide to Breastfeeding. Simon and Schuster, New York, New York, 1987.

Sears, William. The Baby Book. Little, Brown and Company. Boston MA, 1993.

Sears, William. Becoming A Father. La Leche League International. Schaumburg, Illinois, 1986.

Sears, William. Nighttime Parenting. La Leche League International, Schaumburg, Illinois, 1983.

Thevenin, Tine. The Family Bed: An Age Old Concept in Child Rearing. Avery Publishing Group, Wayne, New Jersey, 1977. (2nd ed.)

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