29 Oct A Father’s Story
“Dear Dr. Hanson,
My wife lives for our daughter and I am starting to wonder: when is it my turn? I feel like all that I am in my wife’s eyes is a means to an end. I go out in the world like a cave man, bring home meat and drop it at her feet, she looks up and says “thanks honey,” and goes back to the child. Oh, she’ll ask me about work and all but her attention drifts and I can tell she is far away. I’ve been patient, I hung in there, especially for the first months, but it’s been a long time now. When are we going to get back to normal? It’s three months past Jessica’s first birthday and we’ve had sex less than a dozen times since she was born. I love Jessica; she’s great. But Joan and I still have to have our relationship. I’m starting to get mad at Jessica, though I know it’s not her fault. I feel guilty for how how I feel.”
There are gains and losses for both parents in the arrival of their child. The summary below is a simplification and will not apply in all parts to all parents.
A normal process
Her baby is hugely important to most mothers. She has waited and suffered to bring her child into the world. Feeding, putting to sleep, play, even diaper changing all lead the mother to place great attention and energy in her child. Mothering a young child is exhausting and there is simply less to give others.
Additionally, there is a normal process of self-centeredness in which the mother’s focus narrows to the child and mothering. Mother and child can merge to some extent and become a psychological unit. The rest of the world can feel like “other” in which people and events largely fall into three categories: they help, or they get in the way, or they are irrelevant.
A father or partner usually feels a withdrawal of their partner’s attention and energy after children. This loss is especially painful because during the long pregnancy the mother typically became even more important to them, bearing their hopes for the future much as she bore the child. They see the discomfort and changes endured by their partner and feels deeply appreciative. The creation of a new life opens the heart and makes them vulnerable. Perhaps they feel (naively) that things will settle down after the birth so that things can return to their way of being together.
When their partner pulls away from them through involvement with the child, a partner can feel hurt and angry. At a time they want closeness, an important person has withdrawn. Who now will let them know they are special? Who will tell them that they matter beyond their mere function of providing or caring for mother and child?
We all have normal needs for attention and love. Mothers usually have those needs met by the cooing and attachment of their child, while partners can be left out in the cold. These losses are typically aggravated by the natural drop in sexual desire experienced by women for many months before and after the birth.
Further, as the partner watches the mother baring her breast to feed the baby, as they smell the odors of infancy, as they live again in the intimate setting of childhood, long-forgotten feelings toward their own mother may be re-awakened. Unconsciously, they may want the closeness with their partner that the child enjoys, but there is room for only one in that particular relationship: the child.
They love their child incredibly, but as a moment to moment matter the child probably does not have the same centrality in their life that he or she has for the mother. The child is not flesh of their flesh, bone of their bone. The relationship to his partner is still a top priority in and of itself, not merely as a means to the end of caring for children. They (usually) didn’t marry a mother; where did their partner go?
Their child is indeed a rival for the attention, care, and touch of the mother. They can try to separate mother and baby, or withdraw to find other satisfactions in work or perhaps different relationships. Often they will go back and forth between these alternatives while feeling hurt, angry, and guilty. They may assert their needs openly, or resent their partner (and child) quietly, or repress the whole matter (though with ‘leakage’ from their unconscious).
The mother usually becomes aware of her partner’s feelings in one way or another, which adds fuel to her normal fears that someone will try to separate her from her baby. As a result, she may tend to move even closer to the child and further from her partner.
So what’s a partner to do?
There is actually a lot that you can do. First, you can step back and understand that you and your partner are part of an ancient, universal process that is biologically driven. It’s not personal. This is mother nature’s way: your partner’s withdrawal from you gives her more resources to care for the child.
You can take pride in your contributions and the sacrifices you make. Your wounds in relationship are badges of honor, the signs of your moral commitment to your child.
Take care of yourself
In healthy ways, look outside your relationship for other resources that feed you. But beware the tendency to find solace in a bottle, overwork, or an affair. Exercise, read, go to movies, deepen your spiritual life. What’s kept me (relatively) sane is to go on a long hike with a friend nearly every weekend. I get up early and am back around noon so I feel great and it doesn’t impact the family too much. I also take about a week each year and go have an adventure with two other friends. Of course, my partner has a right to the same amount of time for herself while I watch the kids.
The community of friends
Turn to friends for companionship and support, especially fathers or partners. They have something unique to offer you. You stand in a long line of partners reaching back to times when we sat around the fire next to our women nuzzling our children while we stayed alert to noises in the darkness outside our circle of light.
Pay attention to your heart
Don’t let the problems with your partner build up to the point that your heart feels barren. Blade by blade, the fertile green of our heart can wither and grow stony before we know it. Deal with things early.
It can make a huge difference to feel that your partner truly gets how it is for you. The facts may not change, but the way you experience them can change through communication. Find a good time to talk with your partner. If things get defensive or heated, perhaps you can write them a little note. It always helps to start the conversation with appreciation for all the effort she makes; you are not the only one who is making big sacrifices.
Operationalize your wants
Translate how you want your partner to be into practical terms. It is impotent to moan and groan without proposing effective alternatives.
Don’t kid yourself: the arrival of children stresses many relationships past the point of no return. A.P.P.L.E. offers excellent support groups and low-fee counseling, and there are other resources in your community as well.
Enjoy the ride
You are participating in one of the great human dramas. As awful as it can be sometimes, you probably wouldn’t miss it for the world!
This is an article adapted from the book Mother Nurture (2002) by Rick Hanson, Ph.D., Jan Hanson, M.S. and Ricki Pollycove, M.D.