baby

'Before the baby, we were equal.' Why so many couples break up in the year after having a baby.

Heather had her first baby in May 2020, smack bang in the middle of a global health pandemic. 

The first year of parenthood for any couple is tough, but suddenly Heather and Jason were navigating the world of newborn craziness with very minimal support - and no real opportunity to take a break from the small apartment they were forced to live, socialise, work and now parent from. 

"It was certainly a challenge and definitely took a toll on our relationship. We found ourselves not really having much to talk about, given we were with one another 24/7. Intimacy gets neglected, and we have found ourselves bickering a lot more than usual," Heather told Mamamia

"Oh, and I certainly found myself resenting him for being able to sleep through the night. It's really tested our communication and conflict resolution skills that's for sure."

Sidenote: Horoscopes as new mums. Post continues after video.


Video via Mamamia

Pandemic or not, these pressure points are not new.

In 2019, a UK study found that a fifth of parents break up in the year after having a baby, citing a lack of communication, a dwindling sex life and not having time for each other as the primary drivers.

Most breakups occurred around the six-month mark, and more than one in ten resorted to a trial separation for 12 months after their baby's arrival, but later got back together.

According to Heather, Jason was "a bit naive about how his life would change", having never been around babies before becoming a parent himself. 

"He expected that we'd still have so much free time because babies just sleep all of the time... ha! I think the most challenging part has been dividing up the chores and baby duty, especially given he has still had to work 9-5, albeit from home," she shared.

But thanks to their strong relationship base, Heather and Jason have been able to talk through their struggles and agree on a system that works.

"We are still happily together and in love, but I can definitely understand how a lot of new parents would separate in these early days," she told Mamamia.

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A fifth of parents in a 2019 study broke up in the first year after welcoming a baby. Image: Getty.

For Mary, these statistics are way too familiar. She watched a new baby break not just her own relationship but saw it happen to "every one of us in my mother's club". 

In Natalie's case, she and her partner broke up every time after the birth of their three children, before finding their way back together once the child had grown up a little bit.

"I had PND (post-natal depression), and he had suffered with addiction and it was too much. Not enough sleep from my end, and no healthy coping mechanisms from his end," she told Mamamia"The first break up was when the baby was eight months old. The second break up was when the baby was three months old, and the last time the baby was 12 months old."

Grace also left her husband when their baby was only a few weeks old.

"There were cracks appearing before we got pregnant, and we did separate briefly while I was pregnant, but the stress of a newborn really made it clear that we were not on the same team," she said.

"We didn’t have the love for each other that we needed to support one another through that tricky, emotional and sleep-deprived newborn phase. And I quickly realised that our relationship was not a healthy or positive one for each other and especially not for raising a child. Both of us were much happier once we split and we're better parents because of it."

As clinical psychotherapist and clinical counsellor Julie Sweet of Seaway Counselling tells Mamamia: "As human beings we can often struggle with change. Even if it’s a positive change.

"As we are all individuals and therefore arrive at parenting with our own histories and attachment styles, our reactions to pressure (whether placed upon ourselves or by others) can differ. So what usually would be considered a small or minor issue, can escalate and be amplified with added pressure upon couples.

"They can feel as though they have one foot in one world, their old life, and one foot in another world, their new life." 

"If things weren't great before they will be even worse once the baby arrives." Image: Getty.

This was exactly the case for Shelly and Mark, who both found themselves in tears at the six-month mark, lusting after their old lives.

"[Mark] had PTSD from watching me haemorrhage during birth, and I was an exhausted mother just trying to find her way," Shelly told Mamamia.

For Sascha the unhappiness she felt in her relationship post-baby wasn't something she saw coming. She went from living in a professionally and domestically equal partnership to what she describes as "living in Mad Men overnight".

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"Before the baby, we'd been equal with respect to careers and domestic duties. Once the baby arrived, my husband shocked me by making it clear he thought that the baby was my responsibility. His role in his mind was to keep earning the money. Full stop. So I went from being an equal in the relationship to the overtired, overstretched mother who just 'wanted too much'," she said.

An unequal workload was the clincher for Amy too. 

"I was already expected to do everything; cook, clean, laundry, and look after babies. I was also back at work when each of our children was six months old. I broke, and he didn't understand why," she recalled. 

Sociologists theorise that in heterosexual relationships mothers are more unhappy with their marriages after they have children, because they tend to take on more "second shift" work like child care and housework, and can't shake the feeling of their relationship no longer feeling "fair". 

But for others like Rae, the problems were a little more subtle: "A baby comes and your body changes, sex is tiring and can become a chore. You just drift apart..it's weird but it happens. Your kids become your main focus," she said. 

There's no 'induction period' for parenting.

Mother-of-two Kate has a theory as to why the first year post-baby can be such a shock. 

"I think part of the issue is that we tend not to have large families anymore, and so many of us haven’t ever spent much time with kids before we have them," she shared with Mamamia

"Lots of people seem not to really want to have 'real life' kids who need parenting overnight, test boundaries, and require consistent responses from caregivers to develop solid attachment patterns. They get frustrated and angry when their toddlers are climbing on the dining table or won’t stop banging doors, and think it’s a travesty that they aren’t getting a solid eight hours of sleep. We have, in general I think, lost touch with what parenting and being a baby is like, so it’s a rude shock." 

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As Sue added: "Sleep deprivation is a form of torture for a reason." 

"When people are at the brink and completely depleted [to the point] where their basic needs aren’t met. You can’t expect them to bring their best foot forward. I honestly think there should be much more hands-on support for parents."

Unlike a new job, there's no 'induction period' for parenting. Image: Getty.

When you start a new job, you get an induction period. But as Karen explains, "If you were starting a new job you’d have more of a 'handover' than what you get as a parent. It’s insane and it’s constant and it’s hard work and no one says thank you which can lead to resentment - and can lead to the feeling of being trapped and stuck in a rut."

In heterosexual relationships, a woman's experience can be world's apart from her male partner's.

"The woman's world, life, perspective - everything is thrown completely upside down. You lose your old identity, and have to forge a new one amongst sleep deprivation, often loneliness, and having no idea what you're doing. Whereas the man's world doesn't change that much. They still go to work, and while things are different at home, it's not the monumental shift that it is for the woman," Kelly reflected.

"You've got sore nipples, they want to have sex. You were up 14 times last night, they want to have sex," adds Mary.

A 2019 German study, which followed couples to two years after the birth of their first child, found the first year of birth reduced happiness by an average of 1.4 points, which is considered very severe. Only 30 per cent remained in the same state or became 'happier' during the period after having a baby.

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As Sophie told Mamamia, her psychologist gave her a nugget of advice that she now passes on to all of her first-time parent friends struggling in those first few months.

"She told me to never make a life decision with a child under two years old. I always tell everyone don’t leave in the first year. Once you get past that one-year mark it all settles a lot."

But if time isn't healing the stresses of parenthood, psychologist Julie Sweet advises: "If something doesn’t feel right within ourselves, we need to stay close to that and get curious about what’s going on for us. That could mean opening up to a trusted friend, or engaging with a therapist to get underneath the persistent feeling, to the core issue."

The feature image used is a stock photo from Getty. All names have been changed for privacy reasons.

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