For centuries, the birth of a baby has universally been considered the happiest day of a parent’s life. Which, if you think about it, is ridiculous in a way for the mother. It’s a day when she has endured physical pain on a level that would have rendered the little bundle of joy’s father unconscious. That’s not to say that when she holds her child, she doesn’t feel a lightning bolt of love she’d never imagined possible. I should hasten to add, it is at that moment she forgets all about the pain and any difficulty she may have had during her pregnancy.
The problem is that marriages, more often than not, hit bumpy roads after the first child is born. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand why. As Belinda Luscombe explains in her intelligent and funny book, Marriageology, “What was a two-way street between you and your lover must now become a roundabout. Such expansion is rarely achieved without major jackhammering.”
Just as a jackhammer is an ear splitting sound, complaints about changes in the relationship expressed by either parent after the birth of a baby can be even more annoying. For decades, marital and family researchers have debated whether having a baby causes a substantial decline in the average couple’s relationship. And while there is little agreement among leading researchers about the impact of parenthood on a couple’s relationship, as a family lawyer for over 30 years, my anecdotal experience is a resounding “duh”.
The average age for a first marriage recently rose to 28, which you’d think might make a partner more mature with better adaptation strategies for stressful situations. Unfortunately, that does not turn out to be the case. Today, people entering into a committed relationship seem to have a greater expectation that their partner will meet their every need. With that kind of expectation, it’s blindingly obvious what can happen upon the arrival of a tiny little creature who causes what’s been referred to as “sleepus interruptus”. Sleep deprivation, along with the hormonal changes the mother experiences, results in a staggering deterioration in marital satisfaction, not to mention the even greater impact on their sex life, referred to as “sexus kaputus”.
But no couple who has lived through the throws of new parenting needs a researcher to tell them that. They saw firsthand that they fought more after the baby was born than they did before. This is especially true if they hadn’t learned to disagree constructively beforehand. According to recent studies by psychologist John Gottman, founder of the Relationship Research Institute in Seattle and a leading researcher on why marriages fail, the key strategy to dealing with the yo-yoing the couple experiences between loving each other and hating each other is communication. The overall goal is to build a strong, committed relationship through the transition to parenthood, so instead of blaming one another, couples say, “We can make it through this together,” says Alyson Shapiro, Gottman’s co-researcher.
Here’s a look at how to deal with a few of the most common new parent conflicts:
#1: No time for “us”
The friendship and passion that binds a couple dissipates with sleep deprivation, so the kind of exchange that used to come naturally now requires conscious work. Carolyn Pirak, director of the Seattle-based program Bring Baby Home, reports that the key to marital satisfaction is to prioritize knowing what’s going on in the other’s life. Making an effort to stay tuned in to the routine details of each other’s day (What happened at the meeting? What did you do at the park?) shows that despite the pervasive needs of the baby, you’re still interested in each other first and foremost.
By the way, a quick text or email during the day saying that you love and miss each other goes a long way to keep the spark alive.
#2: Sleep deprivation
Not to beat a dead horse, but if sleep deprivation causes you to feel like a dead horse, desperate times demand daring measures. Reach out to family and friends or hire a babysitter to look after the baby for a short time so you can take a nap, a walk, or go outside and scream your head off. This is no time to be shy about asking for or accepting help.
#3: No sex
Because babies seem to have an intuitive way of knowing when something is going on between their parents that may take the focus away from them, it seems that the baby cries just as their parents start to have sex again. And nothing snuff’s out a mother’s libido than a crying baby since she’s programmed to take care of the baby first.
So, while sex will take a back seat for the first few months after the baby’s birth, it’s crucial to put effort into cuddling, loving touches, and telling each other you miss that part of them. Admitting something has changed can sometimes be enough to assure each other you want to get the sizzle back and make a plan for passion.
#4: Clashing parenting styles
Couples who discuss their parenting views before the birth of the baby, like where the baby will sleep, feeding on demand versus a schedule, whether to use daycare, etc., will defuse conflict, which in some manner or fashion is inevitable. The key here is not to let conflicts fester. If you do, they will only become amplified and become a seed for resentment and further frustration.
It’s important to remember that a baby is pretty resilient and not liable to break if their father doesn’t pat the baby’s back the way you do. Unless the father is endangering the baby, let them parent their way, without criticism at the time, but talk to them calmly about what your concerns are later. Please remember, unless you’re a baby, screaming or yelling doesn’t get you anywhere or the attention you seek.
#5: So much to do
Regrettably, Mother Nature doesn’t send an instructional manual with the baby to show parents how to get everything done for their new arrival. Hundreds of tasks are added to the couple’s life, so it’s no wonder they can end up feeling like Sisyphus, endlessly rolling a boulder up the hill only to have it immediately roll back down to the bottom.
Tension over the division of labor is bound to occur even if there had been a clear understanding beforehand of each person’s role in childcare and household duties. This is especially true for two-career couples who were used to sharing the load and must adjust when one is on maternity or paternity leave.
Gottman’s research finds that couples are more likely to avoid conflict when they “complain without blame.” Ann Douglas, author of 19 parenting books, explains, “If dads don’t get that this is a team sport, resentment from mom is huge.” Making your way around these hurdles as a team will make overcoming them easier and avoid the nagging desire to punch each other’s lights out.
Holding your child is like no other experience on earth as you touch their petal-soft skin, smell their unique baby scent, and feel the crooning softness of their cheeks against yours. While some days may feel as if they last forever, the weeks, months, and years whizz by without stopping. In the end, while we think we’re teaching our children about life, they’re the ones teaching us what life is all about.
What have you found to be the hardest thing about parenting? What about the most rewarding?