How to Keep Your Relationship From Derailing
It should be wonderful, shouldn’t it? You’ve worked incredibly hard to become pregnant and become parents.
Maybe you’ve had one year or ten years of treatments at the doctor’s. Maybe you’ve lost precious pregnancies and then had to summon the courage to begin again. Maybe you had to choose new plans that you had hoped you never would have needed to choose in order to become parents.
You’ve lived this journey on a minute to minute, hour to hour, appointment to appointment basis. You’ve planned and researched and dreamed and here you are!
Now the pregnancy, the adoption or surrogacy is complete and baby is here! Whatever your long journey, now you are a parent for real and this time should be glorious. So why is there so much stress and anxiety and even outright conflict in your home and relationship?
Now was supposed to be wonderful forever. You have worked as a team to negotiate all of the scheduling, the treatment and the decisions. There couldn’t possibly be anything that could cause this stress or sadness now that the baby, or babies, are here.
Parenting after infertility carries with it a list of specific relationship dynamics. Understanding these patterns holds the key to letting go of much of it and restoring and increasing the closeness of a couple.
First please allow some clarification for the sake of this article.
Although this article refers to husbands and wives for the sake of consistency, I very much want to acknowledge that both unmarried straight couples, as well as gay and lesbian couples who are either married or unmarried have similar dynamics if infertility or extended treatment has been part of this experience. For sure, some treatment has been necessary and pregnancy or parenthood cannot come easily and without intervention.
In addition, single moms and dads also suffer from emotional highs and lows which impact relationships with their significant friends, family and colleagues.
My work has been comprehensive with families created in every and all ways. Families are precious. This is why it might be helpful to think of some ways to understand and address the stress that accompanies parenting after infertility.
New parents after infertility are card carrying members of the anxiety club. Every single part of the universe carries danger which could harm their long fought for tiny bundle of happiness wrapped up in pink or blue or both.
Who to trust about what is best for baby? Who knows best about how to take perfect care?
How can a relationship survive this stress? Just about every situation brings a high level of anxiety to new parents. By definition, anxiety is a feeling that comes from any sense of impending danger or loss. It carries an intensity that can be identified by feeling tense or irritable, having nightmares, heart palpitations, headaches or stomach aches. There is a heightened hyper vigilance that accompanies anxiety. Sometimes it feels like you will explode from the stress of the anxiety. The main symptom is the almost constant presence of worry or tension.
One of the most common ways of handling this stress and anxiety is to attempt to control anything and everything that is present in the situation. Conflict in the relationship can stem from an anxious parent or both anxious parents, displaying over controlling behavior. Sometimes we see a new mom anxiously parenting in a way that could be called “over protective”. We understand it comes from fear and worry that something terrible could happen. Often, mom can become highly critical of dad and how he handles feeding, diapering or overseeing their child. These minor differences can often lead to major conflict when dad tires of the criticism and wants to feel good as the dad he is.
When it unbalances in a way that dad has become very controlling then often mom feels as if she cannot do anything right or correct for her baby. Then she is vulnerable to depression as well as anxiety as she tries to perfectly parent.
The adjustment to parenthood can be difficult for partners. The demands of the new baby along with anxious or insecure feelings, can bring a high level of stress and unbalance the couple and family dynamics.
Please do not underestimate the toll that sleep deprivation takes on each of you. Before baby came, it was always possible to find a way to catch up on missed sleep. Individuals and couples without children at home typically find a way to accommodate their schedules and plan for quiet down times after busy work , travel or even illness, strains and stresses their schedules. Now, as new parents and working parents, there are no breaks and the physical demands are exhausting. Couples are stretched to the maximum of their endurance to perform without restorative sleep.
When irritability follows sleep deprivation, intolerance of one’s partner can become harsh and critical. Being cognizant of this is the way to consciously be aware of this hurtful pattern. As new parents, you dreamed of a loving family. Sleep deprivation can veer you off course until you recognize it and change direction.
Without enough sleep, each of us can be difficult, quick to become angry, sad or depressed, and have difficulty concentrating. In addition, sleeplessness can weaken the immune system creating more problems. Seasoned family, friends and co workers often laugh and joke about the demands of getting up many times with a new baby during the night. It feels lighthearted, but it can be a serious challenge for new parents trying to make it all work without totally falling apart. Do not hesitate to try all of the recommended ways that new parents can use to get more sleep. Planning for naps as a priority over other tasks whenever possible, hiring temporary baby nurses or nannies, asking for some family assistance watching baby, and taking turns waking and sleeping are the most common and the most successful. Making sure to implement these can prevent an exhausted parent from spiraling down into a post partum depression.
In addition to anxiety and sleeplessness, the expectations that new parents may hold can be troublesome for each other as well as the complete family. When a new parent holds expectations that all family members will completely reorganize their ongoing plans in order to accommodate to strict scheduling or long lists of rules around being with the baby, conflict again can surface between partners who may or may not agree with the rules as established by one of them for being with the children. One partner may challenge the other. Then arguing and dissatisfaction starts to hang around the couple at what they expected was going to be a joyous time.
Adding a precious child to one’s family means giving up a lot of individual free time and social time in exchange for the demands of parenting. It is not uncommon for one parent in the relationship to want to restrict social plans more than the other. One parent may feel much more comfortable allowing babysitters to watch their child or children. This often leads to conflict for the couple to manage.
What can new parents do to help stay in tune with each other? How might they recognize the conflicts that are escalating and causing so much stress?
Firstly, realize that this can be normal behavior and part of all new parenting, not just parenting after infertility. Accepting that there are stresses and strains that come with this huge change in your lives helps you to begin to do the communicating that leads to a smoother path.
Communicate with the Purpose of Increasing Understanding. When we communicate, we usually want the other person to hear what we need to say. Communicating with the intent that the listening part is as important as the talking part, is the skill that is most important here.
This is the perfect time to share feelings and to really hear your partner’s deep feelings as well.
Empathy for the anxieties, stresses, insecurities that are part of new parenting as well as parenting after infertility, will bond you together as you work to stay balanced in your new roles as parents
Make time just for each other. When the new baby comes, there is a risk that mom or dad will begin to feel left out by the other parent, their original partner, now that the baby has taken the number one place of honor in the family. Respect your partner and their importance as your partner, and be sensitive to the possibility that this may be happening in your relationship.
Hire a babysitter at home and don’t leave the house. If the stress of leaving the baby without a parent is too much for starters, you can hire the sitter to watch the baby at home or a walk near home .You can take yourselves to a private place in your home for special talking or intimate time.
All of these stresses and all of these resolutions are tightly woven.
Setting aside time to meet with a professional counselor can help unravel the stuck parts and help your relationship to be strong again. Carving out the time and commitment to go with each other to improve your relationship is the best gift you can give yourselves and each other. When one stands outside the forest they are more apt to see where the streams of light are illuminating the path. Standing in the middle of the tall trees in the forest doesn’t allow us the ability to see the path to exit the forest. Your counselor is that person that can help you get clarity, increase empathy and feel closer than ever as a couple. The American Fertility Association has a list of mental health professionals as a place to begin. Your physician is often a reliable source of professional referrals as well.
Remember also that infertility is an issue that individuals and couples revisit many times. When the feelings come to the surface, one can re- experience all the sadness or anger he or she felt they had worked through already, all the time possibly feeling ungrateful or disloyal because of the precious child they do have.
Wanting another child or sibling for your child and being with friends and family who have no problems steadily increasing their families are the most common situations that lead to the reopening of the older wounds that seemed healed with the arrival of the new baby. At this time, all of the skills of communicating together with the purpose of understanding and sharing empathy will be most important to focus on. One or both of you may feel as if you are unbalancing again. Maintaining your emotional and physical intimacy will keep your relationship close while you work through any difficult situations and any possible new decisions.
You have done it and you are doing it! Congratulations!
Enjoy each other and your family. It has been a challenging road. Practice coming back to the present when your strong feelings may take you away from what is real and good within your family now.
Ellen Speyer, MFT has been a licensed psychotherapist for twenty seven years. Committed to reproductive health counseling, Ellen works with individuals and couples facing infertility, pregnancy loss and choosing third party reproduction.
Ellen has been the chair and co-chair of the education committee of the Mental Health Professional Group of the American Society of Reproductive Medicine. Ellen is pleased and honored to be a contributing advisory board member of the American Fertility Association.