Updated: Nov 15, 2020
Being the non-birthing partner in a relationship can lead to some unexpected challenges. Yes, you are excited about being a parent and share many of the highs and lows with your partner, but once the baby is born it can begin to feel as if there is no space left for you. If your partner is breastfeeding it can seem as though the baby is permanently attached to them and it can feel like you are not completely included in these first few weeks and beyond.
As the non-birthing partner I have felt excluded at times, even as the children have got older. There is a bond with a child that is formed from growing a life inside you and breastfeeding that is like no other. That is not to say that if you haven't given birth you aren't bonded to the child, but father's and other non-birthing partners need to spend time with the baby, have close contact (skin to skin is great for stimulating the production of oxytocin - the hormone of love) and be involved in day to day care.
If you are helping with the care of the baby it still isn't possible for you to breastfeed (in the majority of cases) so when baby is hungry it can lead to feelings of impotence. If you and your partner are trying mix feeding, with expressed milk or formula, sometimes baby won't accept the bottle and this can feel very frustrating when you want to experience the closeness of feeding.
At times it can feel almost as though your partner is having an affair; and in front of your eyes! So much energy and time is taken up with the demands of a new baby that none is left for you. When you want to just snuggle in you may be rejected and a variety of reasons can be given or maybe no reasons at all, just a physical reaction as though closeness with you is the last they want. It can feel as though you can't do anything right, and what you do can be not seen or criticised.
It can be tough, but I have found a few things that have been helpful to me in managing my responses:
1) It's not about you! Someone who has just given birth is in a very vulnerable state. Their hormones are all over the place sending them on a rollercoaster of emotions which feel out of control. When they say things or don't say things, when they reject you, when you seem not to be able to do right for doing wrong; This is not about you. It is about your partner's emotional state. They will say things in response to how they are feeling and that's how it should be taken. It is not an attack on you, it is not a rejection of you or criticism of anything. It is an expression of how your partner is feeling out of control, scared, anxious, guilty... I could go on. It is a confusing time when hormones rage but they are not within anyone's control. It is hard to be at the receiving end of this. Remember that responding with kindness and understanding and sometimes just being quiet and letting things go is likely to be better for both/all of you. This phase will not last forever.
2) The hormone of love. Oxytocin is an amazing hormone and can be addictive, but it does have a dark side too. Oxytocin promotes bonding and love but also envy and possessiveness. When a baby is born oxytocin is raised not just in the one giving birth but also in partners. Research has mainly been focused on fathers oxytocin levels but I believe this to be the case for a co-parent regardless of gender. This can be one explanation for feelings of jealousy about the relationship of your partner and the baby. Perhaps you feel surprised by your feelings of a third person entering your relationship? Remember you are probably being influenced by oxytocin. Writing down what you are thinking and feeling can be very beneficial at managing your feelings and understanding what is going on.
3) Self-care is very important. We can spend so much time devoting ourselves to our babies and partners we can forget about ourselves. When it feels you are not getting support from a partner (or feel guilty for wanting it since they are the one who has given birth). When you are doing all you can but feel your efforts are not being acknowledged. When you feel taken for granted. Remember that you can spend time looking after yourself. Do something that you find nourishing to the soul; Write down your thoughts; Try some mindfulness or meditation; Use some affirmations to boost your self-esteem.
4) Change your perspective. Imagine yourself as your baby. What is it that they need? Afterall being a good parent is about making sure that they are nurtured. Framing your experience from the perspective of your baby can alter how we think and therefore respond. You could also try imagining the situation from your partner's perspective. It doesn't matter that you are examining their perspective from an imagined position. What is important in this exercise is you are examining your own thoughts and beliefs about where they are coming from. The image of people we carry in our heads are often distorted as they are filtered through our own experiences and it is this that can lead to tension and misunderstanding.
5) Communicate. Communication happens all the time, even when we are silent, through body language, facial expressions and how attentive we are to someone speaking. Words do make up a small proportion of our communication but most of what we communicate is through non-verbal cues. A useful phrase to remember is "We cannot not communicate" so even when we are staying quiet we are communicating something. Think about what your actions and body language are saying and reflect on whether this what you want to be communicating. Talking through your's and your partner's feelings with each other is important. Being open to listening and hearing without judgement is the key. Remember your partner's feelings are about them and their perspective. Being open is not about apportioning blame for how we feel but about explaining how we feel. Hearing how your partner is feeling can be challenging and it is tempting to be defensive, take a deep breath and remember we are not responsible for someone else's feelings and responses.