Navigating relationships post-birth can be complicated. Your body is recovering, there’s a brand new baby to care for, and your life is totally different. Throw a romantic partnership into the mix and things can get overwhelming quickly. You may even wind up feeling resentment or anger at your partner after giving birth. As it turns out, this is actually pretty normal, and experts agree there are ways to cope with these feelings as your relationship — and everything else in your life — adjusts to all of the newness of parenthood.
“The inevitable imbalance in responsibility and recovery is a recipe for resentment. I see it in almost every first-time parent situation,” birth educator and doula Sara Lyon tells Romper. “It’s true in same-sex relationships and in hetero relationships, it’s even true in the weeks and months after newborn adoption if one parent is taking on the majority of newborn care.”
Parenting a newborn means that you’re basically in survival mode 24/7. This tiny human has sucked the life out of you from the inside for over nine months and even though they’re out now, the drain on your body hasn’t stopped. Whether you’re breastfeeding or bottle-feeding, you’re up multiple times a night to feed them, your body is adjusting to not being pregnant anymore, and your hormones, well, they’re all over the place.
Why Post-Baby Resentment Happens
The hazy fog of new parenthood is the perfect breeding ground for resentment to grow and fester, even in the strongest of relationships.
“In America, there is a huge focus on the birth experience and then almost none on postpartum. Thus, the arrival of this fraught phase is a huge shock,” Lyon tells Romper. “There is a lot of physical healing that takes a first-time mother or C-section birth weeks and sometimes months. Breastfeeding, or attempting to breastfeed, can be a monumental task and one that most of us aren’t prepared for. And then there’s the lack of sleep. If you’re the one getting up to feed a baby every two to four hours for months, you’re going to look at your sleeping partner and see fire.”
Between an imbalance of parenting duties, a hormonal rollercoaster ride, and the body’s trauma response during the recovery process (basically, you’re in “fight or flight” mode), psychologist Helena Vissing tells Romper, “Taking care of a new mother or parent who just gave birth requires a lot of understanding and sensitivity.” Most of the time, this duty lands squarely on your partner’s shoulders, but they may be ill-prepared for the task.
“For many, the needs we experience in the postpartum phase are unlike any other time of needing support in our lives. There are a lot of concrete needs, and then there are more complex emotional needs that can be hard to predict or understand right away,” Vissing says. “Partners may want to be very supportive, but still struggle to fully understand the needs of the new mother, which can be very frustrating for her. Not being supported after giving birth is emotionally painful and will often bring on resentment.”
Vissing explains that when your partner is flailing (not even necessarily failing) and you don’t have any other support system to lean on, or when old resentments and insecurities get stirred up with your partner or other family members, the resentment can build even stronger. “The partner is often closest and the new mother is so dependent on their partner, so it’s understandable that the resentment might be directed primarily toward the partner,” she says.
Constructive Communication Is Key
“The seismic hormone shifts, the precipitous identity transformation, the steep learning curve — it’s just mind-blowing for the birth parent,” Lyon explains. “Consider how much a couple’s communication will have to evolve in order to accommodate that amount of change — it’s a huge undertaking. As a society, we really take for granted the strain postpartum puts on a relationship and thus we are ill-prepared when it happens to us.”
To help navigate this time without feeling resentful, Lyon recommends that women approach their partner “from a place of need and desire as opposed to accusation,” to get the ball rolling. Be clear, be direct, and be honest. One sample script that she recommends goes like this: “I’m feeling so exhausted and sore, it’s hard for me to focus on anything but feeding the baby right now. It would be so helpful for me if you could...” Conclude by asking your partner for what you need — fold the laundry, make you a sandwich, shop for groceries, put on a funny movie — whatever you need. This can help you both share the load of new parenthood.
“It sounds hokey, but looking up some non-violent communication scripts on the internet can be helpful as practice while you’re pregnant, before the resentment is present,” Lyon says. “If you’re into it, learn and practice more, it will serve you for the rest of your relationships, too.”
Vissing agrees that planning and preparing for resentment before birth can go a long way, but what this looks like is different for everyone. She recommends setting some “practical ground rules” about how you and your partner will express your frustrations — you can pick a set time to talk, utilize time-outs, or write things out to read alone before talking.
“One of the hardest things about expressing resentment is that we all respond with some form of defense when we feel attacked or accused of anything, as we will often do if someone is resentful toward us,” Vissing explains. Some partners can withdraw when this happens, and then they may be even less helpful postpartum.
You can help your partner gain some perspective by telling them a back-story to give them a window into how you’re feeling. “Telling each other about the ‘back-story,’ and not only about the immediate resentment, can be useful, but requires time and dedication to listen,” Vissing says. “Our resentment and anger tell a deeper story about our lives, up until we became parents. The more we understand each other’s back-story, the more we can understand the resentment that comes up and help find solutions to alleviate it.”
Share The Load & Get Help When You Need It
Another important part of coping with postpartum resentment is to fully engage in sharing the duties and responsibilities of parenting an infant. “The partner needs to get comfortable with their newborn early so there can be a sharing of responsibility and labor,” Lyon says. “Reciprocally, mom needs to trust partner with their newborn so that their bond is built early.”
Lyon explains that it really can be helpful for you, your partner, and your baby when your partner steps in because it helps initiate their attachment, especially if you don’t have other support. “Keep this in mind when your postpartum hormones and budding resentment discourage you from handing over your newborn — you need time to do something else, anything else, so your body and your brain get a rest from newborn care.”
While sharing the load is helpful, sometimes, a new mom just needs to vent about it all. Although it doesn’t always go this way, Vissing explains, “Resentment in the postpartum phase can also be related to emotional health issues; postpartum depression can manifest as resentment and anger.” Not every instance of postpartum resentment will indicate the presence of a perinatal mood or anxiety disorder, but “intense resentment or anger” can be a sign that it’s time to seek help.
Even if you just want to know how to cope when your partner continues to get on your last nerve sleeping through your baby’s cries, sometimes the listening ear of a mental health professional can help.
“The most important thing here is that it’s never a problem to seek out professional mental health care, whether you meet criteria for a depression or anxiety diagnosis or not,” Vissing says. “You don’t need to have postpartum depression or anxiety to need, deserve, and benefit from professional help.”
If you or someone you know is experiencing depression or anxiety during pregnancy, or in the postpartum period, contact the Postpartum Health Alliance warmline at (888) 724-7240, or Postpartum Support International at (800) 944-4773. If you are thinking of harming yourself or your baby, get help right away by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, or dialing 911. For more resources, you can visit Postpartum Support International.
Sara Lyon, birthing expert, doula, author of The Birth Deck and You’ve Got This: Your Guide to Getting Comfortable with Labor