Life isn’t always a bed of roses once children come along, says Erin Kelly
Having children is supposed to be the ultimate destination of a relationship – the thing that brings you closer than ever, the most unbreakable of bonds.
The media is full of pictures of glossy, happy families, whose parents look like they still have regular hot sex and have never had a row about whose turn it is to do the night feed or the school run. In a world where perfection is presented as the norm, if your relationship has been affected by having children it can leave you feeling alone and confused.
Until now, this has been the last taboo, with parents all over the UK having to pretend that life’s all roses since their children came along. But a Yano survey suggests that feelings of frustration and loneliness are far from unusual.
More than a third of parents questioned say they argue more with their partner since having children, with 6 per cent of couples splitting before their child is born. The most common flashpoints are parenting style (61 per cent), financial pressures (53 per cent) and chores (41 per cent). Much of this information is confirmed by the Sex Census commissioned by Relate and Ann Summers of 25,000 people. They found that the main negative impacts to sex for women were body confidence (22 per cent) and for men tiredness (24 per cent). While in an earlier survey Relate found that children (35 per cent) were a negative influence on sex.
The truth is that no relationship is babyproof. No matter how in love you are, and no matter how wanted your children were, the minute you bring that baby home, everything changes. It’s like your house has been knocked down – the bricks are all around you, but you’re going to have to work out how to build it again yourself.
TV psychologist Jo Hemmings says that this dissatisfaction runs deeper than just tiredness and lack of time. ‘You’ve got to deal with a huge change in your identities,’ she says. ‘When you make that transition from lover to mother or father, everything changes. The way society views you to your priorities to the amount of freedom you have. Many new parents report that while they have gained a huge amount in terms of love and fulfilment, a part of them still feels lost, and is wondering where the “real” them is buried underneath the bustle and juggling of parenthood.’
It’s this idea that one day things will get back to normal that is responsible for a great deal of dissatisfaction, says Hemmings. ‘You must accept that your old “normal” is a thing of the past, or you’ll be miserable. Couples who are waiting for a return to the freedom and spontaneity that characterised the early days of their relationship will naturally be disappointed when that never happens. Parents who shift their focus to having fun within this new family unit will report greater satisfaction and fewer arguments.’
“Parents hover over their children like helicopters but neglect each other”
Lifecoach and relationship therapist Patrick Wanis says that much of the tension between modern parents stems from one major problem: we are effectively sacrificing the relationship for the sake of the children, doing the wrong thing for the right reasons. ‘In almost every case, today’s parents put their children before their marriage,’ he says. ‘It’s done with the best of intentions – perhaps parents are trying to make up for their own neglectful childhoods, or they feel guilty about the long hours they work and so they hover over their children like helicopters, but neglect each other. And then they’re surprised when the relationship loses its passion and crumbles into flatmates or business partners. Parents fail to realise that a loving, happy and fulfilled marriage and relationship is the critical foundation for the health and happiness of their children.’
Adult time alone is gold dust once kids are on the scene. Only one in 10 parents makes room for a weekly ‘date night’ while less than half (46 per cent) get to spend one kid-free night a month together, and 3 per cent only managing one evening out together a year. Wanis says that, although it sounds counter-intuitive, the best thing parents can do for their children is to put their marriage first. ‘Schedule regular date nights, continue sharing hopes and dreams, and devote time and energy to keeping alive the romance and passion,’ he says.
Making time for all this doesn’t imply that you are neglecting your child. In fact, the best thing you can do is to live the example of a happy, loving relationship, understanding that as parents you mould your children’s views and beliefs about love, relationships, self-worth and the world around them. And instead of hiding arguments, parents can learn to negotiate in front of their children, thus teaching them that differences are healthy and necessary for creating balance in life; teaching children to listen to respectfully, acknowledge differences, and seek solutions to problems rather than simply seeking to be right or vindicated. Remember, children notice and pay attention to every detail and every emotion in the home – even if they do not tell you so.
“63% of parents say their sex life has deteriorated since having children”
This area is where the negative impact of children is most often felt, with 63 per cent of parents saying that their sex life had deteriorated since having children. Added to this, the Sex Census found that only half those questioned said they were very open even when talking to a sexual partner. Hemmings says that, again, the trick is not to try to change your circumstances but to reframe your attitude to make the best of what you’ve got.
‘We think that the only good sex is the wild, spontaneous kind, but that’s hardly practical when you have young children to look after,’ she says. ‘Over time, the initial passion wears off for all couples. Those who survive move onto a new stage of intimacy and deep understanding. This means thinking about sex differently. Set aside time for it; turn the TV off one night a week and go to bed early. When the grandparents take the kids to the park, agree to leave the chores undone and climb into bed together. This goes against the grain with so many couples that I counsel. They see making space in their diaries for sex as deeply unromantic but in fact, it becomes something precious and special to look forward to. Just the act of prioritising sex sends a message that you both care.’
But what if you’re one of the 7 per cent of couples who haven’t been intimate at all since becoming parents? Hemmings says that communication is vital and that, ladies, the ball is in your court. ‘I see so many men who say that they would have understood if she was feeling shy or insecure or run-down, if only she had told me. Instead, the tendency is to keep quiet and hope the problem solves itself on its own. That’s not going to happen. Open up, reassure him that you still love him. He’ll probably be as relieved as you are. Choose your timing carefully for this conversation, though. Somewhere neutral is best; not the bedroom, and certainly not after you’ve just rejected him. If the pressure’s off for you to actually have sex, it’s’ much easier to talk about.’