Dr. Jessica Koblenz is a licensed clinical psychologist based in New York City.
The moment the Internet has been waiting for is here: Khloé Kardashian has welcomed a baby girl into the world. Reportedly, the reality star gave birth with the father, Tristan Thompson, by her side—but after rumors that Thompson cheated on Khloé during her pregnancy surfaced this week, word on the street is that the new parents were keeping their distance leading up to labor.
If the rumors are true, what does that mean for Khloé? The experience of childbirth is intense for any mother, but going through it while estranged from a partner is a whole different ballgame. Though every woman in labor experiences its psychological, emotional, and biological tolls, having a partner by your side distributes the weight of some of those stressors—whereas delivering while single or in a rocky relationship adds others.
A first-time mother, like Khloé, watches her body go through something it’s never experienced before, most of it out of her control. But childbirth also represents an existential threshold. It ushers in a shift in the way that a woman perceives her own identity, from individual to mother. That’s a big psychological adjustment. Seeing that fear and confusion reflected in your partner, who is also becoming a new parent, though, can actually be a source of calm and cameraderie. It reminds you that your feelings are more universal than they seem in that moment and gives you an opportunity to seek comfort in someone who is fumbling through new parenthood at the same time as you—before the unrelatable wisdom of hindsight sets in.
Thinking of the family dynamic your child is being born into also raises a lot of questions about the stability you’ll be able to offer your child. Many single mothers are phenomenal caretakers and financial providers on their own, though that’s far from easy. But a shift in your relationship status during pregnancy gives you little time to plan what single motherhood could look like. Major life events often have the effect of surprising us with who “shows up” emotionally, and a key element of that is expectation. If we know in advance we’ll be weathering something alone, we often adapt and can become more resilient. But if we expect someone to be supportive and they aren’t, the disappointment tends to feel even more intense. For the suddenly single and for mothers in shaky relationships, you’re moving from one unknown into another.
VIDEO: Tristan Thompson Is Reportedly Begging Khloé Kardashian for Forgiveness
For Khloé, there may be an additional psychological element at play. Losing her father at a young age forced Khloé to grapple with the challenges of navigating life without paternal support. The pain of being in an estranged relationship could very well trigger familiar feelings of needing to overcome hard times without her father’s presence—and no mother wants to envision that for her child. For Khloé, add to that the speculation that celebrity invites. While the divorce rate in the U.S. hovers near 50 percent, there is still a stigma about bringing a child into an unstable family life. Having the public weigh in is like handing a megaphone to all of your internal fears and insecurities.
That kind of elevated stress, in turn, can amplify the already immense physical tax of labor. In fact, studies have shown that one of the biggest causes of prenatal emotional distress is relationship dissatisfaction. And high-stress pregnancies have been linked to higher risk of postpartum depression and higher risk of the baby contracting infectious diseases in the first year of life.
And let’s not forget logistics: Coordinating childbirth, from knowing what to bring to the hospital to having the home prepared for your return, is hard to do without support from others. Having a momager in your midst surely helps, but an intimate life partner often intuits details that others wouldn’t, from your sleeping preferences to the soundtrack that will keep you feeling Zen. Plus, just the touch of an intimate partner is often able to relieve stress—and during childbirth can serve as a physical reminder that once the baby arrives, there’s someone to share in the responsibility.
Whether you’re single, in a solid relationship, or somewhere in between, childbirth can be a very isolating and lonely process. No matter how much support a woman has, she is ultimately on her own in physically bringing her baby into the world. This makes a childbearing mother extremely sensitive to her perceived emotional support or neglect.
In moments of loneliness, when we need support the most, a rocky relationship that lacks a foundation of trust can make any interaction tense instead of comforting. It can make the body stiffen and tighten rather than relax and release.
But not to be minimized is the earth-shattering joy a mother experiences when bringing a child into the world. To be able to unabashedly bask in this joy with all of those in your life is a gift. But when there is tension within a couple, or if one partner is absent, that extreme joy can also highlight what’s missing.