Though they are often not the focus of postpartum care or at least not as much as mothers or birthing parents, the “other parent” can also face challenges after the baby is born. Providing therapy for both partners individually, as well as couples, in their work with Tribeca Maternity, Senior Therapist and Director of Tribeca Maternity Rachael Benjamin and Therapist and Tribeca Maternity team member Emily Stuart had a conversation about the postpartum adjustments and struggles of the other parent:
Rachael Benjamin: After a baby arrives, a lot changes for a family, for a relationship, and for day-to-day life. The other parent can sometimes go through a period of grief postpartum. You can grieve that life is changing and that your partner or you don’t feel the same, known, or seen. While sex is a big part of our relationships with ourselves and our partner, it may suddenly feel not a part of it postpartum as the newborn takes priority. The other parent also has to reconcile a new identity as both a partner and now a parent.
What do you think goes underrecognized about the challenges for the other parent that can be hard for them to tolerate?
Emily Stuart: There are a lot of challenges postpartum for the other parent that are less talked about than those faced by the parent who carried the baby or mothers in general. For all its excitement and joys, postpartum is, of course, a time of upheaval and major transition, including a significant identity shift and a life that looks entirely different than it did months or weeks before. It’s only natural for both parents to feel unmoored. I fear our culture primarily focuses on mothers and birthing people. By all means, let’s not take away that support, there’s not enough of it as it is, but let’s expand it to include the other partner and the family system as a whole.
Rachael Benjamin: What you said makes me think about how we, at Tribeca Maternity, want to hold and help the patient as both an individual and the system as a whole. I think about how the other parent may have to consciously work on bonding and attachment with the baby for some time. This may make them feel left out if their partner feels easily attached or has the physical attachment of being pregnant, childbirth, and potentially breastfeeding (if they choose to breastfeed).
Emily Stuart: It can be a common experience for the partner who is not carrying the baby to feel less connected to the baby before it arrives. This may continue in early infancy, especially if this parent experiences their partner bonding and attaching more to the baby. They may feel left alone, particularly in cases when the mother or birthing parent may be getting their need for touch and affection satisfied by the bond with the baby and sex has dropped out of the partner relationship, at least for now.
It’s also important to say that breastfeeding is certainly not for everybody, nor should it be. But I do think about how, for birthing parents who choose to breastfeed, the other parent may feel some sadness or jealousy at not being able to bond with the baby in this particular way, guilt that they can’t share the burden of breastfeeding (its own full-time job), pain at witnessing their partner experience difficulty with breastfeeding, or any complicated mix of emotion that they may feel isn’t deserving of airtime. The other parent is, of course, invaluable in caring for their baby and supporting their partner, but it can be difficult at times to feel like a second fiddle and/or that what they’re experiencing doesn’t matter as much as what the baby and birthing parent are experiencing.
Rachael Benjamin: The other parent is essential. And part of this is understanding: How are they feeling? How are they embracing the role, for lack of a better term, being less front and center? What is coming up for them that’s different than their fantasy of how they wished new parenthood would go? What is it like for them to spend time with a newborn who is completely dependent? It’s also worth noting that a newborn cannot give much back yet. This shocks most new parents. This can leave the other parent with a host of feelings: listless, purposeless, angered, wanting to just check out, etc. They may not be sure of their role or place unless they or their partner planned a bit for this transition. New parenthood is a hard one to fall into if this wasn’t talked about explicitly.
I’m also glad you brought up sex, which is usually under-discussed. New parents are often asked to cut that part out of the early postpartum period and maybe some of the pregnancy. Partners need to talk about how this affects them and their relationship (one partner may feel over-touched, while the other feels under-touched, for instance). Sex isn’t something that couples simply turn off or on. It has to become something a couple explicitly discusses and navigates together rather than just taking it off the table.
Partners need to name that sex is part of the relationship they can pause in collaboration or be active in through new ways that are less performed, known, or scripted. Sometimes this means talking more openly about the various ways they can have sex with more vulnerability (for example, collaborating around porn, active masturbation, handjobs, kissing, cuddling, spooning, or just talking). Other times, it could be embracing that, for the first time, sex is awkward or isn’t an active part of the relationship. Couples can plan for this change or, as they enter the early newborn days, name it directly. If there is a breakdown fight, utilize this to organize (and reorganize) talking about what sex means, both individually and collectively.
Emily Stuart: Exactly right. I would recommend that before having the baby, couples talk about their expectations and fears around changes in their own relationship, including sex. At the same time, I don’t think couples can plan for the change because until they’re in it, they don’t know yet what those changes will look like. But establishing and fostering an open line of communication about the relationship and sex before the baby helps make space for it after the baby so neither partner feels like sex isn’t a priority, even if they’re not having it right now. And I love the creativity you’re suggesting around sex and intimacy – either choosing not to have sex as a named and collaborative decision, or exploring new ways of having sex or being intimate.
I do think it’s important to identify another big component of sex: bodies. If this is a family where one partner gave birth, that partner’s body looks totally different than it did before and during pregnancy. That change, and the feelings and questions it may give rise to, matter. For example, the birthing parent may feel some combination of wishing to have their old body back, or guilt or shame that they want their old body back, or excitement and curiosity about their new body, or wondering if their partner still finds them sexy. For the other parent, they may be experiencing what it’s like to get to know their partner’s new body, wondering how to talk about that with their partner, and how to express love and sexiness and make room for their partner to have their own set of feelings about their body. It all needs to be talked about and not experienced alone.
Rachael Benjamin: I love what you’re saying about bodies and that we don’t know until we are in it how we will feel in this new family about navigating sex and sexuality and our own and each other’s bodies. Sex is developing and our bodies are developing a new shape and form postpartum.
Our culture skips a step in hanging with bodies and the sensuality and sexuality that the postpartum body can have. We don’t honor it, sit with it, grieve it, or process it as the person in that body or the partner being intimate with that person’s body. Instead, we move to get that post-baby body back. What does that do to the partner or the couple?
It’s important to note the other parent’s body may also have changed in the process. They may also be learning how many different ways they might or can find their partner attractive sexually. Or they may be learning what they’re not attracted to or are even repulsed by. They may feel grateful, but feel more like a friend than a lover at this moment. Though it can feel risky, it’s quite normal and partners need to allow themselves to feel that rather than let it fester. This way folks can get to know that rather than hiding it.
Ultimately, the other parent is not only in charge of not only getting to know the baby, but also getting to know their partner in a new way. This is not only related to bodies and sexuality, but also finding they need to be more helpful and attentive in ways they may or may not have been before. This can make the other parent feel a split in their self between old and new, as well as joy and anger or living in isolation and ambivalence of all this change.
Emily Stuart: I’m sitting with what you’re saying about the partner relationship and the idea that each partner has to get to know the other in a new and big way postpartum. Not only is having a baby a major identity shift (even if it’s not your first) for you, but it’s also an identity shift for your partner, as well as for the third entity: the relationship. So much change! Everyone is fitting into a new system, figuring out what works, and making plenty of mistakes along the way.
It seems key to say that though the relationship has changed fundamentally, how it is right now will not be forever. The relationship will continue to adapt, grow, and evolve, but right now there is just a lot of strain on it. Right now each partner and the relationship are required to adapt to the requirements of this needy bundle that yes, doesn’t give much back yet.
On the one hand, as therapists, we have to hold space for this to be the case–the baby is demanding and everything has changed–as we help patients name and talk about the effect that this had on them, their partner, and the relationship. On the other hand, the partners and the relationship still have needs that deserve to be met even if the baby has become the priority. We need to help patients get creative about how to do that.
Rachael Benjamin: We rush this transition for the other parent, moving to push past this adaptation to becoming a parent. Becoming a parent doesn’t just happen. This transition can also bring things up from the other parent’s own babyhood–their parent(s), things they got from their family as a child, and things that were not there. They may struggle with a conflict of wanting to love, hold, and bond while having another response that echoes something from the past or something that is unknown but deeply felt.
There’s especially a big thing at play with both partners being worried about messing up. We all mess up and fail a ton as people, but as parents, making mistakes can feel untenable or ungrounding. Sometimes this preoccupation with avoiding failure echoes from a parent’s past. In therapy, we need to explore their relationship with failure and why it is something to be feared, but we also need to name the struggle of embracing that as a parent, you will mess up. We help parents not fight it, but see it as a part of learning, feeling, and being in transition.
In general, we help the other parent tolerate this transition while also holding their feelings at the same time–the anger, fear, flooded memories, sadness, loss, loneliness, grief, aggression, and maybe even relief.
Emily Stuart: Yes, and all of this can be surprising I think. We are often told to expect something different and far easier, some version of feeling that love, attachment, and naturalness in parenthood right away. Not to say that’s not the case for some people. But we have to make room for people’s unique experiences, that so often complex and confusing mix of emotion you bring up–loneliness, fear, grief, anger, and flooded memory. The latter can be especially surprising. These can be memories we haven’t considered in a long time and others that we may not have conscious access to but were imprinted on our bodies nonetheless that we suddenly feel with a newborn related to one’s own experience of being a newborn.
I love the way you put it: “love, hold, and bond while having another response that echoes something from the past or something that is unknown but deeply felt.” How confusing! How scary! First, as therapists, we need to allow for all of this–give permission to feel and have a hard time, as well as see if we can identify what the problem is versus what it is not. I think along those lines is not attaching too much meaning to the thoughts or emotions. Having a flooded memory, feeling angry at your partner or the baby, or feeling scared you might fail doesn’t mean you’re a bad parent.
Then, there’s the element of tolerating that you raise. We can hold space for emotion, name, and identify it, not make false meaning of it, explore and understand it, and be compassionate towards it. And we also have to tolerate it–knowing it’s okay, even if it sucks. Knowing it will pass.
Rachael Benjamin: Tolerating looks like the other parent finding their middle ground and moving towards holding that things are more challenging or are as challenging as/than they thought. It might look like coming to terms that you too are not going to sleep well or be as well-rested. You may need to push in to support your partner, as the birthing parent, being a leader and you, as the other parent, not leading as much.
As therapists, we can hold that the other parent is feeling challenged. That is a reality and they have the capacity to both grieve and embrace the reality of these challenges in both full-size and bite-sized chunks.
Emily Stuart: I love that–the capacity both to grieve (and/or feel scared, frustrated, resentful, lonely) and embrace this new reality. Tolerating carries the connotation that there’s nothing that can be done. And yes, there is that element of embracing this new reality and we also want to help parents understand that it comes with naming the feelings and having permission to feel, to talk about it, and organizing the family system and other support networks to help you and your partner. Part of this is also accepting that it is just going to be hard and knowing that what’s happening now is okay, even though parts of it may feel absolutely terrible. And that it’s not forever.