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When Couples Become Families…

the forgotten chapter of antenatal classes

Although this may appear to be about couples and families, it is really about women and mothers. What happens to the woman, the wife and the mother when the “couple” they are part of becomes a family?
My apologies to men: the next article will be about you and paternal voices. For the time being, for the sake of your beloved companion and your future family, be still and listen. Do so selflessly because at the end of the day, what makes her happy will benefit you too.

So, what happens after the crucial moment?
Here are women’s voices, some months or years after the birth.

“We were a great couple, had careers, friends together and separately and
now everything is different.”
“He wants the old me back, and so do I sometimes, but all I can think about is nappy, routine, playgroups.”
“He does not understand that I don’t want to go out and have late nights anymore,
or how my body feels to me like a stranger.”
”Suddenly my career and interests take second place, I’m the house person,
the main children person; there’s no rewards, no Xmas party, no colleagues.
Did I really choose all this?”

Did we, do we? Were we told or warned about these changes but did not listen? Or just not told?
As a couple, we become pregnant – sometimes just because we do, mostly because we choose to. This is a happy time. We want to do it right. So we prepare, we talk, we dream and we go to antenatal classes to learn what to expect of the pregnancy, the birth and the first few weeks. Most things that our parents probably never did. Some women work until shortly before the birth, often caught in a world where the maternity leave averages 6 weeks. Up to the birth, the couple continues as before, with some adjustments to what they eat and drink, varying energy levels or physical discomfort. Personally, I don’t really remember what went through my mind before I had my first child but it probably was something along the lines of: after the birth, things will be just as before pregnancy, only with a fabulous new baby. How wonderful and exciting! We will be a couple with a pushchair and a baby inside.

Most of the time, however this isn’t the case. Things change – with an impact that varies for each family. So the more we know of the possible upheavals, the more we can prepare beyond the hospital bag. Here are some areas of one’s own life and one’s couple life that get rocked.

The dynamics: One day we are 2, suddenly we are 3. The new family has dynamics that are entirely different from that of the couple. No matter how small the baby, there are now 3 people relating to each other, one of them with the ability to suck all life out of the other two. If there are tensions in the couple, the baby will feel it, and each of you will relate differently to the baby- maybe overly seeking comfort in the baby-parent dyad, or letting the other one ‘deal with it’. If one of you feels overwhelmed by the baby’s demands, it will impact your partner. The combinations are endless.

Preparation: Celebrate the end of “couple” life as you know it; be grateful for the time you had together and be excited about the next phase of your life. More than ever, this is the time to be united. Take stock of your resources- be they financial, material or psychological. Know yourself – what are you like in times of crisis? How is your partner different? Where are friends and family who are willing to help?

Multiple selves: There are exceptions to this, but let’s face it: women’s lives are the ones that get bulldozed. One moment we have work, colleagues, outside interests, the next we have a baby that demands love and care around the clock. Our bodies are in shock; we go from sexy independent creatures to breast feeding earth mothers for whom a moment of peace in the bathroom becomes a luxury. While all this might be welcomed and beautiful, as women, we need to understand and be creative about our changing roles.

Ask yourself: Who was I before the birth? Where do I get my sense of identity from? How is that going to change and for how long? Do I see myself as a full-time mother and do I know what this entails? What would it mean for me to depend financially on my partner if I am a full-time mother? Spending some time alone and with your partner to reflect on these issues may be a way of preparing for family life.

Physicality of life after birth: If it wasn’t for the incredible miracle of a new life, why else would we accept the physical changes and damages of pregnancy and birth? Our bodies are a part of ourselves; as they change we do too, in the way we experience ourselves and in the way our partner experiences us. There is no avoidance of this, but it is an area that, as a couple, you will need to care for and be patient with.

Being at home and the invisible job of the mother: There have been some beautiful writings about ‘being a mother’, emphasizing that this new role is much more about ‘being’ than ‘doing’. While this is true and there is an enormous value in just ‘being there’ versus always ‘doing stuff’, when a couple is asked what it is they do, most often, the man will answer ‘I work for x, and I am a y’. The woman, on the other hand, will usually say: “nothing, I stay at home”, or “I am a house mum” or “I look after the kids”. And immediately, an unspoken common understanding dawns: the heroic male is supporting the family while the woman has it easy at home with the children.

Think about: what is the role distribution in this relationship? Are they up for discussion? What are your expectations of your role as a mother and of your partner’s role as a father? What are his expectations?

So, when a couple becomes a family, life gets richer, and more complex. I for one, and most of the women I have spoken to and worked with, were not ready for the complexity their life took on as they became a family. Preparation is key. Out with the belief that ‘I will manage’; and in with the feeling of ‘let’s get ready for things to be complex, new, exciting and demanding’. Although we may like ready-made answers and ‘how to’ manuals, neither of them really ever works. We need good communication channels, flexibility, a sense of humor and a good support system – starting with dads. We need to know how to share the joys and the chores, where to go for help, whom to ask for support and how to keep our “couple” alive. We need to be able to recreate ourselves in the hardest job that ever existed – being a parent.

By Laurence Moriette (Psychotherapist & Counsellor) at Infinity Clinic, Dubai.

One Response to “When Couples Become Families…”

  1. Evelyn says:

    Hello Laurence,
    I love the title of your article “The forgotten chapter of antenatal classes.”
    My experience is that when you have you first child, your relationship with your partner takes a back seat.
    It is absolutely vital that new parents nurture their relationship with their partner as much as the one they have with their newborn.
    New moms especially tend to be overwhelmed by their new role and can sometimes forget or overpower their partner.

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