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New Baby: Redefining Relationships

QUESTION: My husband and I always have had our disagreements, but we were able to forgive each other and make up when we had a fight. Since our baby was born, four months ago, we can't say a word to each other without an argument. I feel very sad because of his lack of support and understanding. As a result, I am becoming very attached to the baby and moving farther apart from him. He doesn't want to go and talk with a therapist. We are thinking about separating.

ANSWER: Becoming parents together is one of the greatest transitions of marriage. Increased demands for nurturing a newborn can only cement family relationships when a couple can channel their energy to meet the new challenges. Unfortunately, if couples are not able to negotiate the changes required by this stage, their relationship can deteriorate quite rapidly.

The birth of a baby is also the birth of a new definition of family. You must redefine your relationship to include the very meaningful roles of mother and father to your newborn. You are clearly attached to your baby, but is your husband bonding to his child? Has he spent any time caring for her without your presence? Does he feel that he influences the growth and development of his daughter? Does he feel empowered in his role as a new father, or alienated?

Two crucial developments could serve to save your marriage. First, build a communication bridge between you. Take long walks with the baby, perhaps while she naps in a stroller. Or, after she goes to sleep at night, begin getting reacquainted with one another. Start by sharing feelings about the changes in your life that have evolved since the baby arrived. Be sure to make room for "negative" feelings that either of you may have, but are afraid to express.

For example, your husband may be feeling resentful toward his daughter because of the amount of attention you give her. This is a common reaction for fathers, especially if their own childhood experience was somewhat painful or neglectful. Just witnessing, or experiencing, the love between mother and daughter can bring up primal feelings about our past relationships with our own parents. If your husband feels on the "outside" of this circle of love, he could be experiencing profound alienation.

You, too, may find yourself completely immersed in the mothering experience. If your own parents did not maintain a connection to one another in your childhood, you could be neglecting your own marriage as well. These are common pitfalls of this stage of family development.

But this is no reason to run away from the problem! It will only get better by facing it, and forming an alliance to move beyond such pain -- toward a new definition of family.

Secondly, invite your husband to increase his participation in the direct physical care of your daughter. Encourage him toward finding the emotional meaning in parenting that you have developed. Joining a support group for new dads can help him find his place in the family. I suggest that you both do the couples exercises outlined in the articles to help you develop your shared vision for family. Invite your husband to be a partner in creating the family you want to be, rather than aborting it in midstream.


Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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