I believe a lot of the hurdles to connecting as a couple are a result of our culture's postpartum practices. Individualism keeps us from supporting family and friends and so, few families expect much outside help. Work places expect parents to be back at work within a few days or weeks. There are often expectations about getting babies on a schedule of eating or sleeping that are unrealistic for many families.
Without outside help, the workload of mom fully recovering, nourishing and tending to baby, meals and housework, as well as keeping income flowing, can be heavy burdens for parents to bear. There are plenty of opportunities for friction, especially if expectations are unclear.
I heard a postpartum counselor last year talk about the delicate state of a family when a new baby is welcomed into the home. She discussed three common stressors for parents, and how important it is to communicate before birth and after about these:
1. A traumatic birth experience.
There are varying degrees of "traumatic." From my own observations, this seems better defined by how parents feel about the birth than what actually happened. If a couple feels respected, informed and involved, they seem to handle even deviations from their birth plans well. This is one reason why I believe birth education is so important - so parents can be involved in the decisions made during birth.
When couples prepare for birth together, they can bond through pregnancy and can both be reassured they are on the same page. If a birth involves serious health complications, couples could benefit from joint counseling to fully process their thoughts on the experience. No matter the outcome, each parent's feelings should be heard and validated by the other.
2. Un-met expectations with breastfeeding.
Many moms expect breastfeeding to come easily, but often there are serious roadblocks like: latch issues, supply issues, tongue and lip ties, clogged ducts, and mastitis. If there were complications from the birth, or mom and baby were separated after the birth, some of these issues are more likely to arise.
Moms need to know they are not alone in their struggles. Support like breastfeeding education, support groups, lactation consultants and supportive pediatricians, makes all the difference, but no one's support matters more than mom's partner.
Mom's partner will be the one who sees the struggles between appointments and in the middle of the night. Whether she needs encouragement to push through the struggles, or support when exclusively breastfeeding is not possible, the partner's involvement can impact not only her emotional well-being, but the partner's, as well.
When mom knows she can confide in her partner and receive compassion, the experience can bring them together regardless of the outcome.
3. Lack of sleep
Some of the sleepless hours may be unavoidable, but when couples are open about needing rest, they can help each other catch up. If parents do not communicate about their sleep patterns, they will not be able to support each other. Both parents may be surprised to know that moms' bodies will need as much rest as possible during the first few weeks while the placenta wound is healing and the uterus is returning to its pre-pregnancy state.
Even if she feels great, her body needs rest. Pregnancy and birth take a real toll on the body and the recovery process should be taken seriously so moms can heal fully. Often moms feel guilty about not accomplishing housework or not getting out of bed for days but that time is meant to be spent resting. Plenty of skin to skin and relaxation with a newborn also helps promote a good breastfeeding relationship and bonding, so the whole family benefits.
Consider room sharing (at least in the beginning) to help keep nighttime wake-ups less disruptive. During the day, try to sleep when the baby sleeps, if at all possible. And show compassion to your mate as you alternate taking up the extra work with baby, the house or jobs.
I heard a great suggestion once for couples who just became parents: Think of gestures that re-energize you or refill your cup, and ask for those from your partner. That may be taking an evening walk together, getting to take a long, uninterrupted shower, going for a drive to get a treat, the occasional date night - whatever gives you something to look forward to.
In our home, my husband needs a few minutes to transition from work mode to dad mode when he walks in the door. So he goes to a back room for a few minutes to unwind, change clothes and transition, then he can come out ready to play or help out with the kids. Pinpoint what might help you recharge and then ask your partner what might do the same for them. Then do all you can to provide that support.
Share all the joys of parenthood to remind each other that all the work is worth it. Send photos and videos to each other of the day with the baby, celebrate each successful feeding or sleep. But also allow for some time to only focus on each other. Touch each other affectionately, even if not sexually (as that will not be an option for the early weeks,) throughout the day.
Give verbal praise to each other for all the hard work you know each is doing to support the family. Be specific and tell your partner exactly what you appreciate about them, and how much it means to you. These practices will continue to bring parents closer together as they grow and change through parenthood.