-Written by Katie Little ’18
While the transition to parenthood can be a joyous experience, it can also be stressful. As a result of this stress, both mothers and fathers can develop symptoms of anxiety and depression during pregnancy and after the births of their babies. Because couples often see an array of medical professionals, including midwifes, obstetricians, and pediatricians, during the transition to parenthood, these professionals have been encouraged to screen parents for symptoms of anxiety and depression to combat this public health issue (Nazareth, 2011). However, less attention has been paid to another common issue associated with the transition to parenthood: relationship problems.
Couples with relationship problems during pregnancy and after the birth of their first babies are often reluctant to seek help. Many couples who enter therapy for relationship problems in midlife suggest that their dissatisfaction first began when they became parents. For this reason, Pacey (2004) suggests that medical professionals learn to recognize physical cues that a couple is in distress and learn what questions to ask.
Pacey (2004) notes that domestic violence is more common during pregnancy and the postpartum period than during other times in a couple’s relationship. Domestic violence may be conveyed to health care professionals through complaints of a variety symptoms. Common complaints include insomnia, migraines, asthma, and indigestion. While these symptoms are not related to abuse, patients experiencing abuse may use these routine types of complaints as a means of seeing a doctor or leaving the house. The author also includes the example of a new mother who visited a pediatrician every week even though her baby was perfectly healthy. The mother later was admitted to a local hospital with injuries associated with domestic violence. While these situations are relatively uncommon, if clinicians pay attention to patients reporting unusual symptoms or displaying abnormal behaviors, then they may be able to help prevent dangerous situations from escalating.
Additionally, clinicians should become comfortable asking uncomfortable questions. Sex is often an issue for couples who are becoming parents. Couples who previously had healthy sexual relationships may find sex confusing, uncomfortable, or even undesirable both during pregnancy and after the birth of the baby. Couples often are afraid to ask their health care providers about such a personal topic. Similarly, a survey of health care providers found that they often did not ask about couples’ physical relationships because of embarrassment.
If clinicians develop the habit of looking for physical cues that a couple is having serious problems and asking questions about the couple’s physical relationship, then couples will be better equipped to face their relationship problems as they are happening rather than waiting until years later. Given that relationship dissatisfaction can be associated with negative outcomes for both partners, as well as for their children, medical professionals should take an active role in screening and providing resources for relationship issues, even the potentially uncomfortable ones.
Nazareth, I. (2011). Should men be screened and treated for postnatal depression?. Expert Review of Neurotherapeutics, 11(1), 1-3.
Pacey, S. (2004). Couples and the first baby: Responding to new parents’ sexual and relationship problems. Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 19(3), 233-246.