The arrival of a new bub often brings with it big emotions – many positive, but some more difficult. In the new mums that we see, one emotion that comes up time and time again is a feeling of resentment towards the non-birthing parent. Research shows that two-thirds of couples experience a significant decline in relationship satisfaction and increased hostility and conflict following the birth of a bub, and resentment is a big part of this change.
So, what is resentment, where does it stem from, and what can we do about it?
Resentment can be defined as a feeling of bitter indignation at having been treated unfairly.
It’s not surprising then that resentment is common for new parents because there are so many aspects that change for both the birthing and non-birthing parent. And change may inject ‘unfairness’ into a previously ‘fair’ relationship.
Before bub has even arrived, the birthing parent’s life has already been significantly impacted and the differences in the experience of parenthood increase once bub has arrived. The birthing parent is typically recovering from the birth, and may be juggling breastfeeding, and caring for the newborn’s needs. While the non-birthing parent can be involved in lots of these tasks, there still often exists a big difference in their experience of post-bub life.
But does the fact that it is different and inequitable mean that there will always be resentment?
A mild level of inequity is ok and is often tolerated quite well – but when this unfairness relates to the extent to which individual needs are being met, issues can arise.
As a new mum, meeting our own needs is something that often goes on the backburner. Small things that are basic needs like showering, eating, sleep, or getting out of the house for a walk can become very difficult.
Pre-bub, mums were often masters of their own destiny! Caring for individual needs was simple and within their control. Post-bub, caring for bub’s needs becomes the priority. And because of the non-stop responsibility of caring for bub, it is hard to care for our own needs – doing so now often requires the support of our partner (or someone else we’re close to). Needing to ask for this support can feel foreign and uncomfortable for us when we’re used to being self-sufficient.
It is also very different to the experience of the non-birthing parent who can generally continue to care for their own needs in a way that is similar how they did so before the baby arrived.
This difference often feels unfair. It is the combination of this feeling of unfairness and Mum’s difficulty in meeting their own needs that fuels feelings of resentment.
Resentment can be very damaging for a relationship and so is something that shouldn’t be ignored. The Gottman Institute (a couples therapy research institution) have found that when left to fester, resentment can lead to a ‘negative sentiment override’ where everything that the partner does, even if ambiguous or positive, is interpreted negatively. This is a difficult state to be in at any time, but especially when you have a new bub, you want your primary relationship to be a source of joy and support, rather than hostility and conflict.
So, what are the ways in which we can reduce or prevent the buildup of resentment?
- Connecting & communicating
Remember that you guys are on the same team, and that this is a big transition for you both. Your partner may not understand the ways in which things are hard for you or how they can best help you. The norm has likely been for you to independently meet your own needs – so your partner may not fully realise how hard it now is for you to meet your own needs without their help.
They may also be struggling in some way with the big change. It can be easy to fall into a battle of ‘who has it harder’, but it doesn’t need to be a competition. Both parties may be finding things difficult and both experiences are valid. Making time to connect and really listen to how things are for them can help reduce the level of resentment and increase the sense of you being on the same team. Gottman also recommends ‘small things often’ such as daily touch rituals and conversations that are focused on listening and empathy (as opposed to solving your partner’s problems). See The Gottman Institute for more resources related to this.
- Identify and actively care for your own needs
While bub’s needs often must take priority, caring for your own needs remains important. Owing to the fact that caring for our own needs now often requires the help of someone else ( a partner, a family member or friend) and the fact that asking for help is hard, we can sometimes fall into the trap of expecting ourselves to function like robots or a ‘supermum’ Or, if we do think of something we need, we might let guilt boss us around and not go after getting that need met as we don’t want to ask for ‘too much’ or put people out.
These situations are when anger and resentment often pop up. Being the best parent that you can be is about working out what you need to be happy and your best self on a sustainable basis. Parenting is a marathon not a sprint! So, take some time to try and identify and experiment with what it is that you need.
There are some basic needs like self-care, eating, and sleep that should appear on everyone’s list, but in addition to those, what could appear on your list?
Is it a daily walk, regular catch-ups with friends, time to get your nails or hair done, the support to achieve your professional goals? Tuning into what you need and asking for the support you need to make these things happen (even if it brings up feelings of guilt), will have a significant impact on the resentment you feel day to day.
- Try to make things more fair
While it’s not possible to make everything fair, focusing on what we can control and reducing the level of inequity in household and childcare responsibilities (within the parameters of work commitments) will help reduce feelings of resentment. When the birthing parent is on parental leave, they typically become the default parent and expert on all things household and baby. This can sometimes result in a lopsided delegation of responsibilities which persists and can be difficult to rectify. Eve Rodsky has written a fantastic book titled ‘Fair Play’ to help couples overcome this very common experience and to help better share the mental load. Rodsky says that in order to really share the mental load, full responsibility for specific tasks needs to be handed over, and her book and the associated ‘fair play cards’ are a great resource to divvy up all tasks in running the small business that is a modern family.
Although resentment is a common experience in the postnatal period, sometimes intense feelings of anger and resentment can indicate that something more significant is going on. If you are really struggling with resentment and anger in your relationship, don’t hesitate to reach out to Forest for the Trees Psychology for support.
Written by Pip Johnson, Psychologist