Relationship advice for new parents

Priscilla SimTo coincide with the launch of The 3 of Us, a government-funded service to help couples avoid relationship difficulties after the birth of their first child, Relate counsellor Priscilla Sim answers Mumsnetters' questions about the relationship problems that can arise after couples have a child.

Relate is delivering some of The 3 of Us sessions to help new parents, along with the Fatherhood Institute and the Tavistock Centre for Couple Relationships (TCCR).

Priscilla is a Relate counsellor and its resident blogger. She has a background in writing and work with children and young people. She began her training as a counsellor with ChildLine and then went on to train and work with Relate. 

Parenting roles | Tiredness and stress | Extended family and boundaries | Infidelity | Postnatal mental health | Sex after children | About The 3 of Us

Parenting roles

Q. Xiaoxiong: How do you get your partner to understand just how hard it is being at home with a child all day and how much work parenting is?

I have an unusually empathetic, emotionally articulate and communicative husband (his father was a counsellor). We talked incessantly before we had a child about parenting styles, division of housework, and even how our relationship would change. We even had a very helpful NCT teacher who basically said to the men in our class that if they were expecting 1950s wife, they had another think coming.

And yet...there was a definite sense when I was on maternity leave that he expected to be greeted with smiling faces, dinner to be ready and waiting, and the house to be tidy. He felt I was the lucky one to be 'having fun' with our son all day and, since he slept so well in the sling, I could do loads round the house while he was sleeping.

No matter how much I explained to him how much I did, how tired I was, how much work our son was to look after etc, nothing seemed to get through until our son turned six months, I went back to work full-time and my husband became the stay-at-home-parent (SAHP) for the summer and realised what it was really like to be at home with a baby all day and be expected to do everything. He rose to the challenge magnificently though and we haven't really had any issues since, as we both understand exactly what is involved in being the SAHP.

I think requiring all fathers to be the SAHP for a significant period of time in a child's first year would do wonders. The system they have in Sweden sounds ideal - parents are granted 16 months of leave and I believe fathers must take at least three months of that on their own.

A. PriscillaSim: I agree more paternity leave would be great. It sounds like your partner is very supportive and has gained real empathy for your role since he had to fill your shoes himself.

You did answer your own question in a way, you can't ever make anyone else truly understand or know what you are feeling or going through, unless they have been through it themselves. All you can really do is to communicate your feelings as best as you can and ask for what you need.

"An idea could be a grading system for how bad or good your day has been, so your partner can quickly understand where you are with things."

An idea could be a grading system for how bad or good your day has been, so your partner can quickly understand where you are with things. For example, a red day would be very bad, amber OK and green good. Or scale it from 1-10 and compare those numbers with experiences he could relate to. That way if he knows where you are emotionally, he can have more or less sensitivity to your needs.

Parenting is all about teamwork and partnership and it sounds like you are fortunate in that your husband is a conscious communicator. The fact that you did a lot of talking and figuring things out before the arrival of your baby is a great sign of the strength of your relationship.

Q. singledadoftwo: I have been the typical husband - work, work, sleep - I have been there physically but not emotionally for my family, as I worry about providing for them.

My wife now wants to leave to get her life back. We have not had a day alone together in three to four years; we have very little support from family and friends. My wife has developed an online life for herself and is now wanting this in real life, too. I don't want forgiveness I want a chance to woo her back.

I have made changes - cut my work hours, arranged a babysitter two evenings a months and a cleaner - and I am doing as much as I can to support her (cooking, cleaning, washing) when I can. But says she can't forgive me for not being there for her. Where can I start? We are still the lovers underneath - we just need to stop being mum and dad every once and a while for each other.

A. PriscillaSim: It feels like a painful place you are in, as I can hear you are doing everything you can and trying so hard. You can still see the woman you fell in love with, but she is closed to you.

You are absolutely right, when you have a child your priorities shift. You are no longer solely focused on each other and sometimes couples lose connection during this time. It sounds like you felt your role in the family was to provide and you worked very hard on achieving this goal. You were just doing what you thought was right. However, perhaps your wife felt neglected and so found companionship online.

Sometimes when people say, 'I can't forgive you', perhaps at a deeper level what they are really saying is, 'I can't let you hurt me again'. You say you don't want forgiveness, and I can see why you feel that, as in a sense you haven't done anything wrong, but perhaps in order to woo her back, this is something she needs to give you first as part of the process?

Forgiveness is a process and will take commitment and faith on your part. There will be good days when it feels you are winning back her heart, and bad days when she is angry and cold; two steps forwards, four steps back. If you truly believe you have a relationship worth fighting for, prepare yourself to push through the tough times and hold onto hope.

If your wife wants to work on your marriage, I would suggest contacting a counselling agency like Relate or TCCR for some relationship counselling, so you can have a safe space to express your feelings and explore your options.

Q. BessieMcBean: Why did our children whinge, whine and quarrel when with me, but behave well with their father. It might have been that on the odd occasions he looked after them he didn't really engage with them, so didn't hear the whining etc and so they didn't bother trying it on. Or he had a sterner demeanour and they just didn't start. But they were dreadful some days with me. I was a SAHM and they could never let up all day sometimes in the school holidays, it was exhausting.

I am going back 30 years now, and I was a SAHM and my husband was the 'breadwinner', so he was a hands-off father, but that was more the norm then. I had better add that our children are happy, normal adults who show me love and respect.

A. PriscillaSim: This is both a parenting and a relationship issue, and my sense here is that you felt some imbalance and perhaps unfairness that you got the short end of the stick. The kids played up with you, yet with their father they were well behaved.

Did you ever talk about how he could lend support to you when they were testing your boundaries and together hold a united front? Parenting is always half the work if you are singing from the same hymn sheet and supporting each other. If you were to repeat the experience, what do you think you might have done differently?

Either way, it sounds like you did a great job raising your children, as it's the formative years that really count in a child's healthy emotional development. The relationship they have with you now as adults is totally testament to that fact.

Tiredness and stress

Q. MadhouseMama: My relationship is at breaking point and sometimes I think I might be about to have a breakdown, or maybe I already am but am too busy to notice. I am always exhausted, as is my partner. I can count on one hand the number of times I have slept six hours straight in the last five years.

I run my family business and it has been tough in the recession. Between the lack of sleep, challenging parenting, financial strain and basically zero relationship time, things have fallen apart badly. I don't even get time to think about what is going on. Before children, I could process thoughts and come up with solutions. Not any more. When I finally sit down, it's brain-dead TV time or books (clearly any escapism that involves no effort whatsoever). We're both miserable and grumpy and that will start to affect the kids, which just must not happen.

A. PriscillaSim: It sounds like you feel overwhelmed and verging on breaking point. What kind of support do you have in terms of family or friends? Who could help to take some of the strain from you by watching the kids, even if it's just a couple of hours a week?

When children come along the couple relationship often suffers, as there is little time for anything else. However, as I'm reading this, I'm wondering when was the last time you connected with yourself, let alone your partner?

It is hard because you are multi-tasking and trying to fulfil so many roles. Give yourself permission to do something for yourself. Even if it's just getting your partner to watch the kids while you enjoy a bath for 20 minutes, or meeting a friend for coffee, it is really important that you make and take time for yourself, because if you do have a breakdown, you won't be able to do anything at all.

If you are really struggling, I'd definitely recommend getting some external support, for example from a professional counselling agency like Relate or TCCR. See for details of services on offer.

In terms of your relationship, finding some childcare will also give you a little space to relax as a couple. What did you used to enjoy doing with your partner? It might feel like a lifetime ago, but if you can take baby steps back to reconnecting again, it will make a huge difference in changing the direction you are currently headed.

Maybe you could send him a sweet text message or make a gratitude list of all the things your partner does do for you and that you love about him. It doesn't have to be a massive effort; sometimes it's the small things that make the most difference.

Q. Cbeebiesatemybrain: How do I stop being so irritable with my husband all the time? I'm exhausted from looking after two little ones all day (three and six months) and snap at him a lot, which I feel terrible about. He is very hands-on with the children and he will help out with the housework but only if I ask him, which annoys me because I think he sees it as my job and him doing me a favour.

The youngest is not a great sleeper so we don't get much couple time and we don't have any family nearby to watch the children for the occasional night so we don't get to go out together.

Q. Jacqueslepeacock: What MadhouseMama asked. What do you do when you're both doing as much as you can but long-term sleep deprivation, work overload and high needs baby/child mean that most days neither of you can remember your own name, let alone how to have a civil conversation where you enquire about each other's day?

A. PriscillaSim: At times it can feel like the demands are endless and your 'to do' list infinite, but try to hold on to the knowledge that this is a life stage and it will not last forever. Everyone finds this phase of parenting challenging and you will get annoyed and snappy, because that is what happens when you are exhausted. This is all normal.

"Ask for tolerance and patience, and the specific help you need, rather than expecting your partner to know, or criticising them for not knowing."

Can you have a conversation with your partner where you acknowledge that this is a trying time for both of you and now is the time to really pull together as a team and support each other. Ask for tolerance and patience, and the specific help you need, rather than expecting your partner to know, or criticising them for not knowing.

Make necessary apologies quickly and try not to harbour resentments that may come back to bite you later. You might find The 3 of Us service really valuable to help structure your discussions.

Once your children are older, it will get easier, as you will be able to get more couple time together. Three-course meals and dancing all night might no longer be an option, so do what you can. A note on your pillow, a chocolate bar, a hug; small and significant is key to keeping the connection between you strong.

Extended family and boundaries

Q. Vikkiseed: We have a three year old and a one year old. My in-laws live quite a way away but the issues they cause are pushing us apart. They never come to be with our children, yet they spend months with my sister-in-law's children.

I am running a business, the household, looking after the children and completing my degree. They come twice a year for a week in my exam period and apart from having the children, they do not have to do anything else (ie cooking, cleaning, etc). This lack of interest in their grandchildren is getting me to the point of closing them out of my children's life

The other issue is the way my father-in-law talks to me. He called me a "stupid bloody woman" on my daughter's birthday, in my own house. He walks in without even a hello. I can't say anything as I dont feel it is my job. I have been raising these issues with my husband for a few years now, he sees them, agrees with me, yet will not do anything. It makes me feel unvalued, not important and makes me very angry.

The fact that my husband cannot put his foot down, protect me and his children is making me resent him. I now often think life would be easier without him. My friends all say how they could not cope with this either. I love him, can't imagine my life without him, but there are days when I cant even look at him anymore. I feel alone and not valued at all. Please help!

A. PriscillaSim: Parent in-laws can be tricky as they are also experiencing a transitional change with the birth of their grandchild. Your husband's parents are his family of origin; but his own family is now you and your child. This is all about boundaries and I can hear your frustration around the lack of recognition of this. It does sound like your poor husband is caught in the middle of all this push and pull.

"There needs to be a boundary set around your family. You and your husband need to be on the same page with this, or there will be resentment further down the road."

From what you write about your sister-in-law, I'm wondering if your parent-in-laws offer her more support because they feel she needs it more than you? Do you think they consider you to be capable and coping well, but are more concerned about their daughter's capabilities?

Your husband needs to learn how to say no to his sister and back you up when his parents overstep the line, but in regards to closing your children off from their grandparents, I would say it wouldn't be fair to your children to have that taken from them.

Either way, there needs to be a boundary set around your family. You and your husband need to be on the same page with this, or there will be resentment further down the road. It really does need to be a partnership with shared values for how you want to protect your family, or again this will lead to resentments later on.

If you find these conversations too emotional or difficult to have on your own, it might be an idea to work with a counsellor who can help defuse the intensity of the issues being discussed and support you to come to some agreement of how to strengthen the partnership between you. See more about how counselling works in this blog post I wrote.  

Q. Blondesthanna: In an argument the other day, my partner said that he thinks I will let my son get hurt. We were both tired (it was 4:30am and baby was playing up) and the previous day my son had fallen sideways in his bumbo and hit his head on the skirting board, getting a bump. Yes, these past few months he has had a couple of falls off the bed or sofa, as he has taken us by surprise learning to roll/crawl early. He's OK.

But it could have happened to my partner as well and he admitted as much once we'd both calmed down. But he's at work and I can't have baby in my arms 24/7, or don't want to. The argument got very heated, which is unusual for us. A lot of it is tension between us caused by his mother's negative comments and thoughts on our parenting and this is feeding my belief/self-consciouness of being a bad mum.

Now things are kind of back to normal, but I'm not sure what we should do or where this leads? And I'm always tired, this doesn't help our-time either, which annoys my partner sometimes i think.

A. PriscillaSim: It sounds like the fight you had really shook you up. Now things have calmed down between you, can you sit down and have a chat about how to manage this period of time where you are both exhausted and stressed out? Rather than fighting with each other, how can you pull together to work as a team? When you get into conflict can you agree to call a time-out, or have a code word like, 'white flag' or 'red card', something that would resonate for you both to disrupt your fight?

Being tired is a major contributing factor to arguments after your baby is born and, as you recognise, also inhibits your reconnection time. Time together as a couple is really important, so even if you can just have a cup of tea together and give each other 10 whole minutes of your completely unadulterated attention, it makes all the difference. A simple thing like checking in on where you both are can help keep the connection alive.

It sounds like you really are doing your best and when your mother-in-law offers her feedback, it pushes your 'I'm not a good mum' button. Child attachment psychologist Mary Ainsworth says all you have to do is be a 'good enough' mother and that is good enough. Take comfort in the reality that nobody knows your baby better than you do.


Q. Dozer: Relate material (eg the Baby Shock book) seems to make the assumption that both partners are 'OK' and that with better communication etc, problems can be resolved. There is little material about abuse and the strong emphasis (eg after infidelity) seems to be on staying together. Why?

A. PriscillaSim: I suppose there is the assumption that if you are reading this book, you are a healthy, non-abusive couple looking for information on how to cope with the changes in your relationship after having a baby. Baby Shock's objective is to help create and maintain strong healthy relationships, so the book holds to this agenda.

Infidelity can often happen around the time of babies arriving, as everything changes and sometimes one or both partners feel disconnected and that they have lost their partner. Not all couples will opt to stay together after the discovery of infidelity and Relate also has a book called After the Affair, which goes into more detail about this subject.

Relate has huge experience in talking to people about abusive relationships and we can support you to achieve safety and/or signpost you to other agencies that can offer appropriate help.

Postnatal mental health

Q. Boomerwang: My daughter is seven months old. I haven't made love with my partner since she was two months old. In that time I've put on weight, ceased making an effort with my appearance and spend all day at home with the baby. I can't remember if I stopped valuing myself before or after my partner stopped giving me attention.

My partner works full time, late into the night. I get up with the baby in the mornings and at around 10am I hand her to my partner when he gets up and I get a couple more hours sleep. Then he gives me the baby and goes to work. I rarely get to see him for more than 'handover' time. He's tired and stressed about work and our finances, which are dire. I am insecure and becoming increasingly more needy as I feel so lonely all the time. I have no family or neighbours nearby.

I love my daughter, but I feel that I am no longer my partner's girlfriend, just the mother to his child. I honestly think that if I hadn't become pregnant, I'd have left by now. I have no life of my own, I'm here solely to care for my daughter, who will also have no life of her own if we stay in the middle of nowhere. Without money, we cannot move. I cannot get a job because my partner's shifts are not regular, I have no means of travel within 6km and nobody to take care of my baby when I'm not here.

I'm spiralling downwards. I've been on antidepressants for three years and for the first time I think my dose isn't strong enough any more. I hadn't had a panic attack for over a year and a half, but now I feel them coming on just before my partner leaves for work. I'm afraid of the future.

A. PriscillaSim: It sounds like the whole situation is overwhelming and you really are in need of some support. I'm not medically trained so I can't advise, but you said you were on antidepressants and I'm wondering if your GP has talked to you about the possibility of postnatal depression, or offered you any sort of counselling through the NHS?

The disconnection with your partner may have begun with the lack of time and energy after childbirth, but it seems like you are now caught in a vicious cycle, where you feel unable to reconnect because you are so anxious. It sounds like it is becoming destructive to your emotional health, so I would say make an appointment to talk to your GP again for more help.

Also, don't be afraid to use services such as the Samaritans in the meantime for support, they have a 24-hour helpline and are really great listeners when you need to talk to someone. Once you feel more of a sense of personal wellbeing, perhaps you could try some relationship therapy with your partner - visit to see what's available.

Sex after children

Q. Olderparent: As older parents (with one son), we have the added complications of age-related creakiness/tiredness etc. We didn't have much of a sex life before we had him, as we hadn't been together long so didn't work through any 'issues', but it seems to have got a bit more sporadic in the few years since we've had our son, understandably.

Unfortunately, this subject always crops up when we have an argument and we go round and round in circles. A bit too complicated to go into here, but the bottom line is we do love each other and want to stay together, and are generally good at talking to each other, but can't always find the right words.

A. PriscillaSim: Sex is a sensitive subject and for many people it can feel like a catch-22 situation: You're not having sex so feeling physically and emotionally disconnected. When you try to talk about it, it brings up difficult feelings for both of you and turns into an argument. Or as in your case, it comes up during arguments. You then both feel even more disconnected and the topic of sex becomes a trigger point for future arguments and frustrations, as it remains unresolved.

On the upside, it sounds like you and your partner are both very committed to your relationship and I'm wondering if in your case a short period of relationship counselling would be really helpful. Counselling provides a safe space for you to both talk about difficult feelings, reconnect and work together to find a way forward. Have a look at this blog post I wrote for more about how counselling works.

If you don't feel counselling is for you, I would suggest choosing a time when you are both calm and ask if you can make an agreement not to fight about sex anymore. Maybe it's just starting slowly like taking one evening a week to just sit and hold hands or cuddle and then work from there towards more and more physical intimacy.

Q. Marmitericecakes: Why doesn't postnatal care exist for parents? I spent hours of my uneventful, perfectly healthy and normal pregnancy being checked over at antenatal appointments, but after the birth of my son I've only had one check up (at six weeks).

I felt there was a focus on my mental health rather than the physical and, as I had a pretty bad birth, I feel frustrated by the lack of follow-up treatment (such as physio) to help me recover.

The birth of my son has impacted our relationship and although we love each other and our son, our relationship will never be the same. In many ways this has been the happiest year of my life, so it's hard to admit that deep down things have changed and we've lost all intimacy because of what my husband saw. Will he ever want to have sex with me again? And if he does, how much is it going to hurt?

A. PriscillaSim: I'm afraid I can't really answer your question about postnatal care as I'm not a medical healthcare professional, but it sounds like the experience of giving birth was quite traumatising for both of you. One appointment at six weeks could be standard for your area and it might be that you need to ask your doctor for more support and information on the resources available to you.

I can hear that you are now left with questions and anxiety over how you will recommence your sex life and I can assure you this is quite normal. Sex should be comfortable and once you are healed there should not be any pain. If you do suffer from pain, it may be from nervousness or anxiety, which could cause the vagina to tighten up.

Similarly when a man feels anxious, he may find it difficult to get an erection. When the body is in panic mode, physiologically the fight/flight response kicks in and all the blood in your body rushes away from genital areas into your arms and legs, preparing you to fight or run away. It then becomes an 'anxiety - failure - increased anxiety' loop, and a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Part of The 3 of Us sessions will be to look at how you resume a positive sex life after a baby. It may also be worth looking at going to a specific Sex Therapy service where you can work with a therapist to fully focus on getting back on track with your sex life progressively.

About The 3 of Us

The 3 of Us logoQ. AndiMac: I'm looking for a sort of marriage MOT. Nothing, or nothing major, is exactly wrong, but it's not the same as it was before kids (obviously) and I just want to make sure that we don't get trapped into a lot of bad habits and situations that might lead to things being critically wrong.

Would any of the Relate courses be appropriate for this? What if we live somewhere outside of the places listed on the website?

A. PriscillaSim: Relate is just one of the delivery organisations in The 3 of Us, but I can safely say that Relate, TCCR and the Fatherhood Institute all absolutely endorse the idea of the relationship MOT. The fact that you are proactively looking to maintain your marriage and head off any sort of issues now puts you in really good stead for the future.

Your relationship does change dramatically when you have children and as you move from one life stage into another, you need to renegotiate your roles. We always encourage people to access relationship support before they reach crisis point, as it can be very difficult to get back to the root of the conflict when often so much frustration and resentment has built up.

If you live outside the areas for The 3 of Us and aren't a first-time parent, check out to see what other relationship support is available and speak to your therapist about what you hope to achieve / work on in your session(s).

There are a lot of different services available from Relate, TCCR and Fatherhood Institute, including online and phone counselling.

Last updated: over 3 years ago