#60 | Love + Marriage + Baby: Interview with Maggie O'Connor, LCSW

November 4, 2020

We are never more receptive to love (thank you, oxytocin) than in the early months after having a baby. For every couple, bringing home a baby for the first time brings up massive amounts of emotion; and, how we recognize and process these emotions with our partner determines whether we grow closer or more distant during this unique and highly vulnerable life transition. In today's episode, Maggie O'Connor, licensed marriage therapist, explains how we can strengthen our relationships during this time and identifies the habits and behaviors that help us or hurt us along the way.

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View Episode Transcript

I'm Cynthia Overgard, owner of HypnoBirthing of Connecticut, childbirth advocate and postpartum support specialist. And I'm Trisha Ludwig, certified nurse midwife and international board certified lactation consultant. And this is the Down To Birth Podcast. Childbirth is something we're made to do. But how do we have our safest and most satisfying experience in today's medical culture? Let's dispel the myths and get down to birth.

Maggie, we're so happy to have you with us today. I know you came wanting to talk about the three things couples can do to strengthen their relationship during this very challenging time. Let's start with what you most wish couples would know about their relationship right at the onset of the discussion?

That's a great question. First of all, thank you so much for having me, I'm really appreciate being here, I'm so excited to talk about this today. Because you know, I really feel like this is a time in your life, that there's so much potential for connection between you and your partner, because your body is primed for connection. Everything in your body is working for you to be vulnerable and open. And as much as that promotes connection. It can also, you know, promote feelings of insecurity. And so what I want to I guess what I want to start by saying what I wish couples would most know is that caring for a newborn is the bravest most disorienting adventure you may ever go on. And you're going to really need your partner here. And because of all of the things that I just mentioned, bringing baby home having a baby, like any major life event is an amplifier for whatever is already going on in the relationship. And that's where people sometimes say, you know, the things that I thought would change just because they became home, didn't they got they got harder, or the things that I thought would never change. Did you know in some way better or worse, right? So So I guess that's what I would really want couples to think about. For every couple, bringing a baby home is for the first time is going to be a time of real learning and real insecurity. Because you don't know how to do this, you've never done this before. When your baby cries, it really brings up a lot of vulnerability for you. And it can really bring up a lot of insecurity.

It's so interesting to me that you keep mentioning of security, because that's not a word that ever consciously came into my own mind. Even through years of running postpartum support groups and hearing women speak, what I feel like I keep encountering must be a secondary emotion to insecurity that I must have been missing all this time. But to me, I would have expected you to be talking about resentment or the anger, the frustration toward the partner like to have to do everything around here. How do you not know by now where we keep the baby's bottoms or Rite Aid? So can you comment on how that seems to be the emotion that we're dealing with? But you keep talking about insecurity?

Yeah, that's a great point. Because this this insecurity, this is really tied to our vulnerability. And if you think of that as sort of like the current, that's going to underlie a lot of what's going to happen. In the months that you have an infant, there are these primary emotions of fear and insecurity and joy is a primary emotion, right. And we don't always process that consciously. We know we feel resentful. We know we feel angry. We know we cannot believe we even married this person. And that's usually the thing we become conscious of, and it doesn't feel good. What we miss is the split second before that anger and resentment came up. I felt insecure, I felt scared. You know, and I turned to you, and you were standing there and you were frozen, and I was pissed. I was pissed at you for being frozen, and not knowing where the baby's bottoms were. And that's, that's the way human emotion works.

So is it sort of like, in that moment, when we're frustrated with our partner and we feel angry or we feel resentful, it goes back And really primal place.

That's exactly right. Human beings have been around in some form for 70,000 years, we get 200 years of electricity. And we think that we've evolved beyond that. It doesn't make any sense. Because you know, this, the sleeplessness, the oxytocin, all of this biochemical function that's happening within your body in voluntarily is setting you up to be more vulnerable, and more receptive to your baby, it also makes you more vulnerable and more receptive to your partner. So if you already have a safety built in there, if you turn to your partner, you say, that is a safe person, I can be scared with you, I can be I can be mad with you, I can I can, I can be completely lost with you, that's going to be amplified. In this time, you know, if you already have a sense that your partner is not safe, that it's not safe to be scared with your partner, or be inefficient with your partner, then that's going to get amplified emotionally. When we talk about safety, we can best probably think about it in the way of when I reach for you in the dark. Will I find you there? And think about that and think about how primitive and primal that is. So we're talking about that kind of safety, that when when I need, whatever it is, even even if I can't see you there, will you be there? Will you reach for me? Will you reach back? Will you Will you hold my hand is one example of how one person might be afraid to share their vulnerability because their partner might use it against them? Or they might shut it down or turn the tables? Is this all in that realm of emotional safety that we're talking about?

That's exactly that's exactly what we're talking about. And I think a little later, maybe I like to talk about some of that, like, where we get stuck, you know, I want to turn to you, I want to be able to share this with you. And something stops me. You know, I think I think we see that in a lot of the women that we work with, especially in women who are very independent, very high achieving, that they may want to reach in the dark, but they're having that that block to the you know, that block that that they're saying to themselves, I don't I don't need to reach in this moment, I need to manage this. on my own, I need to be able to do this, I wanted to have a baby, I asked for this. I've got this.

Right, right. That's right. And that's what I was saying a little bit earlier about, you know, when you don't have the resources, or the structures that you're used to having, because you're home with baby, or because now there's only one person going to work. You know, that changes everything, as you were saying, right, and I don't have those protections, those defenses that I normally have, I really need you there. But I'd maybe don't know how to do that, or I get stuck. So getting back into you know, what happens when we bring a baby into our lives, right? We in relationships we often have, we all do, we often have perceptions of what this is going to be like, what I'm going to be like, and you guys do such a great job of talking to women about how different the reality looks from what you imagined it was going to be like, and why don't people talk more about this, right? But we're living in a Facebook culture where you see this picture of perfection, and you don't see what went into making that happen, or what happened when it fell apart afterward. Right? So we have these perceptions of how it's going to go what it's going to be like, we have expectations of ourselves and our partner. And we have these unspoken contracts we don't always talk about, this is how it's going to go, you're going to go to work. And you're going to be home at five o'clock every day. And we are going to have this beautiful family dinner and we are going to have sex and nothing's going to change or everything's gonna change. I'm expecting everything to change. So we're very often I see couples come in in distress because they thought they had a contract, they thought they had an agreement about how this was going to look how this was going to go either emotionally or structurally. And the other person didn't deliver because they weren't aware of that contract and they may have been following a very different contract. You know, so this this happens when people get married when people you know when when people have any kind of major life event. We often find that the expectations and perceptions might be very different and the contracts might have never been spoken, but we're holding each other to them. Just That makes sense.

Totally. I think that makes so much sense. The part that really hits home is the expectations of what we our selves will be like as a parent, because we often picture that we'll just be in full bliss and glory, just basking in this, you know, bliss that we hear about. But the demands of a child are so persistent, you can't type your name on a computer without having to poke with one hand. A shower is a full on strategy, like how you can take a shower. So it's just so interesting, because this is about how to relate to our partners. But the first shock of all, is, like, I'm not even how I expected I would say, you know what, this is a great segue into one of the things that you can do to strengthen your relationship. When you bring in a baby home and bringing a baby into the into your life, you know, because it's not just about your relationship with your partner, it's about your relationship with yourself, what one of the first things that you can do to strengthen your relationship is to appreciate appreciate your partner, but appreciate yourself, what do you do well, how to how you helpful? How, how do you make life easier for you and your partner? How does your partner do that for you? Either way, that you're saying thank you, is so simple. These two words, thank you. Thank you, to me, thank you to you. And sometimes I find that couples get so caught up in Well, they should just do that. I should be doing that. I don't deserve a thank you for that. Yes, you do. All of that you deserve a thank you for and your partner deserves a thank you for we probably don't get thanked enough for you know, the things that we do, it is one of the easiest or simplest, I should say sometimes simple is not easy. But it's one of the simplest things that you can do to make your partner feel seen and have yourself feel seen. So the second thing that you can do in your relationship, this is sort of an this is an interesting one for me, you know, when couples come in, and they feel like, you know, my partner doesn't stand up for me, my partner doesn't advocate for me in some way with my family, I can't believe you let everybody come over, you know, I can't believe she had her sister stay, you know, for three nights, and she didn't tell me that was what was going to happen. You're talking about what it is that is important to you. What it is that you need, what it is that you like and what you don't like. Because some of this is going to change, as, as you are kind of more worn down and more vulnerable with baby coming home. Some of the things that you needed before might not feel so important to you right now. And some of the things that you might have taken for granted might feel really essential. So as we're changing, we want to be able to identify that for ourselves. So this is now important to me, this is how our partner becomes informed of how you're changing day to day, and this is going to be a time of change. This is going to become your nuclear family. I say when you get married, this becomes your new nuclear family. This becomes your your family that you protect first. And so when some people think about it more like when the baby comes home, now we have a family. So let's define that as the first point that gets protected.

Does that make sense?

Yes, so is, it seems to me that one of the challenges with what you're just speaking about is that we have a tendency to want our partners to be able to read our minds, we don't want to have to say the thing that we need, we want our partner, we feel that if we're partners with good partner, they'll just tune in, they'll just notice they'll just pick up on it. And when they don't, then we get frustrated and resentful.

That's right, and particularly at a time when things are changing, because what might have been true three weeks ago, has changed, right? You know, and changing daily and so, so I just want to say that a lot of couples say things like well, they should just know, but unless we're psychic, nobody just knows.

I don't know I really struggle with that. Because, you know, if I picture taking care of a baby by myself, I'm just trying to envision like let's say a mama's home all day on a Saturday taking care of the baby and her husband is in the house all day with her. And she said bout to change the diaper for the 11th time. And she says my husband should just know to come and change the damn diaper. Yes, baby.

I have to ask. Yeah, because we're the default parent. And then she just feels resentful. Like, why am I asking you this? This is our baby. We're both here today and can do this right now. So what do you say to that? Yes, being told that the partner is not a psychic is just not enough for me, I still feel like a woman would rightfully feel resentful. You know, no, I hear you. It's the problem of the unspoken contract. Is that right? That that was the expectation.

Why do we need that contract to ensure this affair divvying up of work? I'm sure you've heard this a million times.

Right? So yeah, I've heard it a million billion times. And here's, here's the thing is that, you know, as as a, as a person, and as a therapist on this on a therapeutic level, right, I resonate with the resentment, I completely get it right, it makes it of course, if what I'm gonna do as the therapist is, I'm going to turn to the partner and say, What were you thinking in at the 11th diaper? Or the 11th? hour? What What was it that you were thinking? And very often, it's some kind of, it's some kind of obliviousness, you know, like, I wasn't, I wasn't changing the diaper all day, you know, maybe this is a part of the unspoken contract. That's, that's not what what dads do. And I'm sorry, because I realized we're using hetero heteronormative terms here. But But we can't escape the society that we live in. Generally speaking, the most, the most egalitarian couples, they carry around some some of these norms. So I want to say that usually what it is, is I'm resentful, because I think they don't care. I'm resentful, because I feel like I'm all alone in this. And the other partner is saying, well, you should just tell me and then you're saying, well, I shouldn't have to tell you. And you know, you're you're both right. But being right, doesn't really help here. So what we want to say is, what happens that gets in the way of you being attuned to your partner. Right? And that's, that's a bigger discussion, the short answer would be that, that there's some breakdown here and I don't, I don't feel like I can tell you or I if I if I do tell you, it means that you don't care enough to ask or something. There's all kinds of meanings that we could assign to why our partner is not responding to us. And again, this is the communication thing of turning to your partner and saying, I don't get it. I'm so confused. What happened there that I'm changing the 11th diaper. And you know, you're you're up there in your office watching YouTube. I don't even I don't get it.

You know what this reminds me of? What? That Jennifer Aniston movie the breakup? Oh, yeah, where she, she and her boyfriend throw a party, and she's doing the dishes after and she gets mad at her boyfriend for not helping. And she goes and approaches him about it. And he's like, just ask, and she goes, I don't want to have to ask you, I want you to want to do the dishes. I totally remember that scene. And what he says is, why would I want to do the dishes, you know, and I'm going to be completely clinical here and say, she has always done the dishes. She has always done the dishes, and she's not turned to him and said, Hey, when I'm always doing the dishes, this is how it makes me feel. It makes me feel like you don't care. It makes me feel all kinds of things. And he has always thought I sit on the couch while she does the dishes, you know, assign the meaning to it. But we don't know until we turn to each other and say and this is the part about advocating This is the part about appreciating, you know, if he would say thank you for doing the dishes, she might say You're welcome. I'd really like it if you did do them with me next time or something, you know, there's they're always these these bids for attention, these bids for communication that we can kind of pull in here, the the advocating for yourself and turning around and saying, hey, I'd really like your help with doing the dishes. You know, let's see if all we need is to be asked. But let's establish a pattern where, where it becomes the habit that you help me when we're doing dishes, right. And this is about the third The third thing that I was gonna say was that how we nurture each other, how we take care of each other. You know, it's about nurturing when I see you there and you're taking care of the dishes, you're taking care of the family that I want to take care of you. You know, how do I take care of you is it by doing dishes? Is it by you know, getting the massage oil because I'm going to rub your feet. Okay. Yeah, that that to me, I, you know, to me, I would rather have my feet rubbed than someone wash the dishes for me, that would be the ultimate gift. You know. That's, that's just a little snippet. I will wash the dishes all night, if you will rub my feet, you know, but that's the stuff that we need to turn to each other and say, you know, honey, I really appreciate you doing this. But don't be really great. If you could just get the massage oil and meet me on the couch.

And then he'll be totally psyched. And then she'll be like, right? This is not an invitation. Okay, we talk about intimacy, we're not talking about sex necessarily, you know, and Emily Nagurski wrote a book called Come as you are, um, and it's, it's really great. It's a really great book. It's really easy read. And sometimes you do need to put it down since it is a lot of information, but she talks about brakes and accelerators. So a foot rub pre baby might have been an accelerator. And he wouldn't be wrong in going for more, right? But now I'm all touched out. I'm exhausted. No, thank you. When I said feet, I meant feet. Again, going back to that really clinical place, it would be a surprise to him, that you don't want to have sex that this is now you know more of a break. You know than an accelerator I this is not this. This is me falling asleep. Okay with the foot rub instead of going into the bedroom for another hour.

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So when we talk about nurturing, we're not just talking about you know, how we take care of each other in the in these traditionally caretaking ways, we're talking about how we share intimate time, which might look different when you bring a baby home. It's not necessarily about this physical sex kind of connection. It might be about cuddling, it might be about foot rubs, we're talking about how we take care of each other that way, we're also tying and having fun together. You know, and how we laugh together, if it's about watching Netflix, you know, then watch something funny enjoy, you know your time together. I know a lot of people say you know, have a date at four weeks have a date, I don't care what you do, go have fun. And and I'm not one really for timetables like that, I really would more appreciate, you know, when you feel like, you know, you're you're ready to have some fun to just do that, whatever that means. If that means going for a walk and just, you know, enjoying each other, that's fine, it doesn't have to be this whole big thing, you don't just have that time, it's about making that time creating that time creating that space and protecting it, you know, this is going to be my half hour of reading by myself in the corner and someone else is going to take care of the baby.

So these are all such great and interesting points. And in a perfect world we'd all be prepared and have you know, done this before bringing a child into the world. But what happens when two people haven't done that or they're not prepared, or they do find themselves starting to really face you know, daily resentment and anger and feel their relationship is suffering, what next, all these things that we're talking about the appreciation, the advocacy, the nurturing, this is all stuff that we can do to strengthen anytime where the baby is home and we're ready You know, really struggling or we're preparing for baby to come home. This is all stuff we can do in all of our relationships at any time. But everybody gets stuck. If you if you're human and you have a relationship, you're going to get stuck somewhere in there. It's just the nature of the beast. And so for you go too far into that can you help our listeners to understand how to identify when they hit that stuck place? Yeah, so you know, I think that a really great indicator that you are getting into that stuck place Is that you feel like you're having the same conversation over and over again with different content. And it keeps going nowhere. I don't feel heard, I don't feel seen. And I don't know how to make it, I, I don't know how to make it stop. This is what we call a negative cycle. And the way I'm hoping that we can talk about this is that the negative cycle is always there, you have a specific cycle with your partner that you get into whenever one of you feels defensive, to wherever you felt scared, wherever you felt threatened in some way. You know, you don't always feel the fear right away, you feel the anger, you feel the resentment, this is the stuff that you start to feel when you feel like we get into it, because I was angry, we get into it, because I was resentful. We get into it in some way. I missed that in the split second before I was actually really scared, I was actually feeling you know, really, really lonely. So here's, here's what I'll say, that might be most helpful when you're bringing home a baby, for you to be able to define one of the three major negative cycle patterns. Because here's the thing, if we at least, and there's a lot of work we can do around this and in therapy, if we really get into this cycle and what it looks like and how it feels, and you know what we need to repair about any damage that's been done. But there are these three basic negative cycles that couples get into and if we can simply define the cycle, it becomes a little less scary, right? Because we can predict what's going to happen. We can recognize it and say, wait a minute, we're doing our cycle, can we can we slow down? You know, so one of the patterns commonly is sort of this fine, the bad guy, this one upping like, I blame you, you blame me, you up the ante, I up the ante, and all of a sudden, we are on to something else completely different in the content of whatever we started arguing about has been long forgotten. You know, we just walk we go away from each other feeling terrible, we both feel blamed and shamed. So the second major negative cycle pattern is the most common and in EFT emotionally focused therapy, which is the kind of therapy that I practice. It's known as the protest Polka. Because a lot of times we talk about in relationships, we're doing a dance, you know, I do these steps you do these steps, we kind of know what they are. And sometimes we're where we're, you know, dancing to music that we don't even realize is there, right? So this protest polka is, you know, really one, one partner pursues one partner is looking for to address an issue or a concern. And the other partner withdraws. The other partner sort of defends, gets defensive, kind of pushes back, you know, the first partner who's pursuing just pursues harder, feels like they're not being heard. So they get louder, or they get more insistent. This is where people start saying, You're nagging me and withdraw more. So the more you pursue, the more the other person withdraws. You know, and again, neither of us feel like we got her neither of us feel satisfied, we can get anywhere particularly.

And, and we just end up in our separate corners. The third major negative cycle pattern is sort of one where both people defend and withdraw. You know, so, you know, we talk about fight or flight, but we don't always talk about freeze as a major way of responding to a threat. You know, so when one person flees, and the other person freezes, you know, so I was talking earlier about how this example of you know, I'm changing the 11th diaper and I turn around and there you are, and you're just frozen and you don't even know where the diapers are to hand them to me. I might withdraw I might say there's no point in telling him you know, it's on me it's always on me. This is the story I'm telling myself and I'm I'm withdrawing I'm pulling away from my partner rather than moving towards them. And so he's they're frozen. I'm they're withdrawing. I'm not feeling heard or seen. He's not feeling heard or seen. And we just we had our reactions and we didn't know how to talk about it. We didn't know how to come toward each other with it. Couples just really don't understand the impact that they have on each other that when he when I turn to him and I see him frozen there. It says it speaks volumes to me. It says so much to me about whether you're there for me or whether you care about me. You know when when he looks at me, you know, I'm turning away from him. It speaks volumes to him about you'll never get it right. You know, he doesn't know what he's doing. And that's really scary. And it sends us into this attachment panic, that's a real thing.

What is attachment panic. Remember, we talked about the 70,000 years of evolution, we are built, we are wired for connection. And when we think that we are going to be left alone, it sets off a special neural pathway that is reserved for attachment. And it sends that part of our brain into a panic, I am going to be left alone, I am going to be alone in the snow and the cold, I am not going to have someone to hunt for me, I'm not going to have someone to build a fire. And I'm scared. I'm scared on a primal survival level. And it's real. But we have all these defenses built up. I don't experience it like that. I don't feel it like that. I feel resentful. I feel angry. I feel like of course, of course, it's me getting the diaper again, split second before that this neural pathway fired up and said, you're going to be left alone, whatever the message is, right? Does that make sense to you? Once you and your partner have been able to define what your cycle looks like, when you get into that struggle, when you get into that place where you're getting stuck? Once you've been able to define that cycle, it becomes a little more predictable. And so it doesn't feel as scary. You're still human, you're still going to have your feelings. But it's it's sort of a way of developing a language between the two of you where you can say, Oh, you know, I just I just took up the whole dance floor didn't and I just came right after you didn't I? You know, I'm so sorry. Let me step back. You know, what, what is it? What? How did you how did you want to respond to what I just said, you know, and then the withdrawal or kind of comes forward a little more and says, Is it really okay, can I really tell you what I think. But we're just able to define what's happening. Oh, we're getting stuck again. Can we stop and go back to the last thing that made sense? You know, and if there's a tool, that's the tool I would offer, you know, that when you find yourself in that dance in that negative cycle, that you look at your partner and say, I'm sorry, I think we're doing our cycle, if you want to name it, you know, I think we're doing our cycle. And can we just go back to the last thing that made sense. All of the stuff that I'm talking about with this negative cycle is in Sue Johnson's book, hold me tight. That's a great book to read together their exercise, it's written for the public, it's it's not a clinical book, either exercises within it that you can do with your partner, you can read it together, you can read it separately and do the exercises together. on there are a lot of therapists who do hold me tight workshops that you can do with your partner as well.

What do you recommend to the woman who says that her husband says to her, why don't you read the book and tell me what it says? Give me a synopsis?

I think you should call a therapist.

My husband did a lot when it came to parenting books.

Right? Right, men, just tell me what you want me to do?

Just tell me tell me what you want me to do. Right away, you should just know what to do. Right?

So right. So a lot of what we're talking about, we're kind of laughing about it now. And it's good. It's good. We need humor. We need to we need to be a laugh at some of this stuff. But that that statement, why don't you read the book and tell me what it's about? It just speaks to an unspoken contract? Where is Where is that coming from? You know, what makes you think that that's her job? And, and if and if you're saying okay, honey, that's what I'll do. What makes you think it's your job?

Maybe you have a question. Okay. At what point postpartum Are you typically seeing couples seek counseling for this?

Let me go six to 12 months later than you wish you were seeing them, Maggie.

I see people at all stages. But but a major stage that I see people out is when they can pick their head up again. You know, and they say hey, you know, now I'm looking at my partner, my baby needed me so bad for so long. And now I look over at my partner and say, Hey, we haven't haven't had a conversation in two or three years. So they come into therapy. The other time I see a lot of couples is when their kids are about 10 years old. Another point in time where the kids need you less you know, because they're turning toward their their social group. So that's where I see a lot of couples come in when their kids are that thought that age couple Who do complete a course of couples therapy? The number one thing I hear from couples is I wish we had done this sooner. We didn't have to be in so much pain for so long. This is the bravest adventure you may ever go on and you really need your partner in these moments. However you are feeling if you're feeling resentful and angry you make complete sense to me. That's normal. Successful couples don't argue us or struggle less. They repair and invest in their relationship. You really will reap the benefits for years to come.

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About Cynthia Overgard

Cynthia is a published writer, advocate, childbirth educator and postpartum support specialist in prenatal/postpartum healthcare and has served thousands of clients since 2007. 

About Trisha Ludwig

Trisha is a Yale-educated Certified Nurse Midwife and International Board Certified Lactation Counselor. She has worked in women's health for more than 15 years.

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