Tango’s not the only thing that takes two. In most cases, it also takes two to undertake pregnancy and childbirth. Throw a cocktail of hormones, physical changes and financial considerations into the mix, and suddenly a Latin American ballroom dance is not the only thing getting fiery. It’s normal for pregnancy to have an emotional impact on our relationships, not least with our birthing partners who – by simple virtue of proximity – will typically get a first taste of all the ever-shifting ingredients of our feelings and moods. And, if they just don’t get it (which, let’s face it, is a pretty reasonable response), you’re likely to feel misunderstood, isolated and out of control.
Studies show that not enough is being done to prepare couples for parenthood, from pre-conception and beyond. So, if you could arm your birthing partner with better insight into your side of the experience before you’re both in the thick of it, what would you want them to know?
It’s normal for pregnancy to have an emotional impact on our relationships, not least with our birthing partners who – by simple virtue of proximity – will typically get a first taste of all the ever-shifting ingredients of our feelings and moods.
Together Pregnancy and Postpartum’s Gemma Smith says we need to be talking more about the dynamic of partnership in the prenatal journey and within parenthood. As an accredited social worker, perinatal counsellor and postpartum doula, Gemma sees firsthand how the birthing person and their partner undergo completely different pregnancy experiences.
“From pre-conception right through into postpartum, the journey is significantly different,” she says. “This is tricky to navigate as a couple because, while both people have often chosen to try for or have a baby, the impact on the birthing person is huge as a result of this happening within their body, as well as the cumulative smaller changes to their existing life during this time.”
Recently, Gemma published online the perspective of the birthing person. Titled, “Sometimes I wanted to be the partner,” she highlights a common desire for the birthing person to have a break and share the load of pregnancy and preparation for baby.
“It illustrated the emotions that are wrestled with as the birthing person – the whole gamut of guilt, shame, fear, rage, grief and hopelessness,” Gemma says.
Common issues experienced exclusively by birthing parents included battling through intense sickness, bearing the responsibility of caring for the health of the as-yet unborn baby and losing personal freedoms. Other concerns occupied precious mental space, and included preparing for birth, anticipating the “success” or “failure” of breastfeeding, and carrying an expectation – whether imagined or real – to instinctively enjoy and be good at parenting.
But, when it comes to sharing these concerns with our birthing partners, Gemma believes that sociocultural history has a lot to answer for.
“One major roadblock in any relationship is poor communication. We haven’t set modern couples up for success because there’s not enough emphasis on routine check-ins with your partner, especially around big decisions or life ‘projects’,” she says. “Can you imagine doing a huge project at work and having no meetings about it, but expecting everyone to ‘instinctively’ know how to work together on something they’ve never done before?
“There’s also not enough support about how or what to communicate with your partner in the perinatal period. Again, we have this notion in our culture that, in romantic relationships, there is a level of ‘knowing’, so we are often totally non-intentional with our communication, which has the propensity to come back and bite us when frustration about small decisions accumulates and bubbles over into a big deal.”
But poor communication is not the only culprit – a finger can also be very rightfully pointed at the hormonal changes experienced by the birthing person. While these hormones have noble intent in “moulding” the brain to adapt to key elements of parenthood, like reward and motivation in caregiving, and detecting emotions and threats, Gemma says they can also impact normal functions, creating a tricky cycle when coupled with other issues between birthing partners.
“Perinatal hormones have been shown to reduce the grey matter in your brain, which impacts muscle control, seeing, hearing, processing memories and emotions, as well as making decisions,” she says. “These changes often leave women vulnerable to postpartum depression and anxiety, even though, by design, they are biologically important for maternal caregiving.”
Gemma suggests being proactive in discussing your feelings and perspective with your birthing partner, and to create space for these conversations that is least likely to be affected by other stressors and the hormonal seesaw. Key things to talk about include:
- How and when to tell family and friends about your pregnancy
- Setting boundaries around information you’ll share with others
- Preparing for the financial impacts of pregnancy and parenthood
- Your respective expectations of parenting styles
- Your expectations of roles and responsibilities in early parenthood
- How and when to approach a subject that might upset one of you
- When best to discuss and make big decisions
- (and perhaps most importantly) The impacts pregnancy and parenthood will have on your relationship with each other
Though progress has been slow, Gemma has noticed a movement for partners to get educated in their support role in both birth as well as in the prenatal period as a whole.
“This is really exciting, because the existing systems of antenatal education and the maternity system in general are very much geared toward the birthing person, and often leave the partner feeling excluded,” she says.
Gemma recommends the face-to-face and online workshops and programs offered by Mr. Dad, Birthing Dads and ManTNatal in assisting fathers-to-be to understand their support role. However, she notes that non-gendered and non-heteronormative resources are still lacking in the perinatal and maternity space, and more must be done to broaden the conversation.
In her own postpartum planning workshops, Gemma provides guidance for parents-to-be on navigating complex decisions throughout pregnancy and beyond, as well as making the most of support available to them. She advocates for a systems-level approach to what might seem, on the surface, to be an individual issue.
“There unequivocally needs to be much more targeted education for individuals and couples about their individual and collective roles both before and during early parenthood,” she says. “Ultimately, my goal is to help people have a calm and confident transition to parenthood – together.”
So, what do you wish your partner knew? Get chatty!