Couples in the Trenches
Shortly after my son was born, I became obsessed with a question that had nothing to do with babies: Why was my husband so annoying? Here was the person I loved, with whom I had just pulled off the miracle of creating a life and...I wanted to kill him.
How had I failed to notice that he didn't know how to make a bed? Or that he was such a Nervous Nellie he would have to line the floor with pillows before he'd lie on the couch with the baby? What's worse, he was annoyed beyond comprehension by me! My habit of eating while nursing (and dropping crumbs on the baby's head) grossed him out. And my previously lauded spontaneity was now a fatal flaw called disorganization. The house was a mess and so were we.
Making the leap from coupledom to baby-makes-three is exciting, exhilarating, and wonderful. It's also exhausting, exasperating, and worrisome -- a combination that can be toxic to the romantic relationship that made you parents in the first place.
The bad news first: Maintaining a marriage post-baby takes a lot of time and energy, exactly what you've got the least of right now.
Now the encouraging news: Working on your relationship pays off in spades. Without all that energy expended (read: wasted) growing resentful of each other, you'll have more to spend enjoying one another. (Yippee!) Here's advice from experts as well as couples in the trenches on why this transition is so hard and what you can do to smooth things out.
Now that there are so many more household chores on the agenda, you and your spouse may both feel like the other's not pulling his or her share of the mother lode.
Domestic duties double, and so does your bickering. Of course, before there was a baby, there was still laundry. And dishes, and other loathsome household tasks. But there were never so many things that had to be done so quickly. You can't procrastinate about chores once you have an infant. "Laundry had to be washed or it stank, and the baby needed to be fed or he would cry like crazy," says Brooke Patrick of Seattle, recalling the first year with her son, now 3. "So my husband and I started keeping score: Well, I did that, so you do this."
As long as things are getting done, this tit-for-tat system may not be so bad, but the constant background buzz of nagging can cause resentment to build up over time. "There was an incredible amount of tension," agrees Patrick. One strategy to decrease infighting: Post a list of daily chores on the fridge and switch responsibilities each week. Everyone will know what he or she needs to do. Discussion over.
Ken Fine, dad to 18-month-old Henry in San Francisco, approaches the housework dilemma philosophically. "The way I figure it, there's about 180 percent of stuff that needs to be done. So if you think that you're always doing 90 percent of everything, you probably are. Just remember, so is your spouse."
Nevertheless, if you feel like you are carrying the whole load, ask for what you need instead of storming around folding laundry, says Carol Ummel Lindquist, PhD, author of Happily Married with Kids (Berkley, 2004). "Women tend to think if they say what needs to be taken care of, the other person will volunteer to do it. But men often respond better to direct requests." Also, thank your guy after he's successfully completed a task. I know it might not seem fair because you may never get thanks, but this will make your husband more receptive to future requests. And niceties breed a less combative atmosphere. Moreover, it might be catching!
Your parenting styles cancel each other out. It's nice to think you'd share child-rearing philosophies, but it's often hard to predict how you'll feel about sleep, food, and discipline until you're smack in the middle of your fourth night up with baby. This is not the ideal time to discover that while you favor a sleep-training method that lets your child cry, your spouse really can't deal with tears for any amount of time.
You may also find that your parenting styles clash as you reach for the pacifier at the first sign of distress (softie) while your partner says no sternly when the baby starts to drum with spoons on the high-chair tray (toughie).
My friends Tina and Tim Anson discovered that they differed on just about everything when it came to the baby. "Tim is just much more laid-back than I am," says Tina.
"He gets on the floor and plays wherever our son happens to be, even if it means overturning the laundry basket. And he lets naps happen anywhere, anytime, too. I'd come home to see Jake sleeping in the middle of a circle of toys on the living room floor at dinnertime!"
Tina, meanwhile, wanted to set up play stations rather than have toys strewn around the house, as well as make sure things were put back where they belonged to get Jake in the right habit. Ditto for scheduled naps. "We were resentful and snapping at each other all the time," she says.
What worked for them was letting the other deal with the consequences of his or her method. When Tim had to stay up with Jake until all hours on a night when the baby took a 5 p.m. nap, he conceded that keeping to a scheduled, earlier nap in the crib might not be a bad idea. Similarly, the day Tina attempted unsuccessfully to play with Jake at his play stations while also doing some housework, she realized that having the baby play in the laundry room may be a small price to pay for actually getting the clothes washed.
On more serious issues, such as sleeping or feeding, there are ways to compromise, too. For certain things -- such as when to start solids -- you need to follow set guidelines. Talk to your pediatrician about what's recommended. For issues such as sleep (i.e., co-sleeping vs. sleep training), look at parenting books and articles together that support the different sides. Then discuss what's best to do. I know one mother, for instance, who actually slept at a friend's house for a week while her husband sleep-trained their 8-month-old son. After reading about the Ferber method, she agreed it was a good idea, but she still didn't want to listen to her son cry.
You have sex half as often, and it's twice the hassle. "I like sex, I really do," sighs Allison Nelson of Portland, Oregon. "I just like sleeping more." You're tired, you're covered in slobber, and your spouse has suddenly transformed from Sexy Stud to Superparent.
Of course you're in love, you're just not in the mood for getting naked under the covers. Step one, says Lindquist, is to get in the mood. And the best way is to plan time for having sex. Sure, people joke about making dates for sex, but "remember, when you were dating, you did plan when you were going to have sex. You got ready for a night out and thought about it beforehand."
Just because you're married doesn't mean you can't make a hot date. Get a sitter, shave your legs, and flirt a little.
As for increasing the frequency of sex on nondate nights, experienced parents recommend making sure your bedroom is baby-free at bedtime. "There's nothing like rolling on top of a toy caterpillar that starts to play 'Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star' to kill the mood," points out Nelson.
Couple time is now family time. You're always together, but no longer alone. Whether you've been a couple for years or just met and wanted to have a baby quickly, jumping from a twosome to a family is challenging. "When we dated and were first married, we each still had fairly separate lives," says Andrea Frank of New York City. "He would go out with the guys and I had my girlfriends. And we both worked a lot and went to the gym on our own. Now we're glued to each other and to Carly, but we also don't feel like we ever have any time together."
There are two parts to the solution here. First, you need to schedule time together, says Lindquist. But besides dates, plan brief "meetings," where you can bring up household and baby-care issues such as an upcoming doctor's appointment or which stroller to buy. (My husband and I end our household discussions with an ice-cream-fest to avoid feeling too burdened by it all.) In this way your dates won't be overtaken by baby talk and you can share the stuff you used to: idle neighborhood gossip, who's likely to win the presidential election or The Amazing Race, whatever.
The second part of the solution is to allow for solo time for yourselves. "Don't look at time away from your family as a bad thing," says Lindquist. "Look at it as a gift to them because you're returning refreshed and happy." This goes both ways: Yes, you should continue your three book clubs if that makes you happy, but then you should also indulge your husband when he wants to train for the marathon. "It's easier to ask a favor of a husband if he's just come back from an hour of running, biking, or doing his thing, than if he's been going nuts at the playground missing his morning run," says Julie Green of Montclair, New Jersey.
The grandparents are on the scene and want time with baby -- a lot of it. "Watching my husband change into a daddy has been great," says Sarah Meyer of Brooklyn, New York. "But watching my in-laws morph into my child's grandparents has been completely overwhelming because now they think they should have access to our home and lives 24 hours a day."
The solution here is boundaries. You have a right to say no, no matter how generous they've been with gifts or babysitting time. Be kind, but firm: "Sophie is so lucky to have you as grandparents, but we're all a little overtired now and need to spend some more time by ourselves."
More important, you have the right to ask your husband to speak to his parents, says Gayle Peterson, PhD, a family therapist in Berkeley, California, and author of Making Healthy Families (Shadow & Light, 2000).
"Grandparents can feel threatened by a daughter-in-law and may respond better to their own child," says Peterson. "When I finally told my husband that I couldn't take it any more, he said something to his mom. He made it sound like we thought they were being too generous with their time. Now, as long as we check in fairly regularly with updates on the baby, they call first before stopping by," says Meyer.
Another sanity-saving strategy is to choose specific times during the week for when they can come by that are preferable for you. If your parents feel like you're making time for them, they'll be less pushy. And you can deflect an invitation, guilt-free, by saying, "I need to check my calendar."
Money matters more than you thought. "I had always worked and made more money than my husband," says Lauren Newman. "Then, after the baby, I took some time off to stay home and finish my degree. We were paying for childcare, and I wasn't bringing anything in. I felt guilty and thought I should take on most of the housework -- which meant I wasn't writing -- and Jim got resentful."
No doubt, money is a huge stressor for new parents, says Peterson. "People believe they don't have enough money to raise a family, and they just freak out," she says. Peterson adds that new parents, who may be new homeowners or considering purchasing a house, are often overwhelmed by finances. "You're not going to take out your anxiety about money on your baby, so you lash out at your spouse." She advises couples to take a step back and talk frankly about what they really want for the family or for themselves.
"Often there's a spouse who really wants to stay home for a year instead of working, but is afraid of the cost. But there are a lot of solutions to financial problems," she says. One idea is to try living on one salary for six months when you're both working. Open a separate account for the paycheck you'll be saving. After the trial period, you'll know how you like eating casseroles instead of takeout (you may be surprised) and how to live on a tight budget. You'll also have a nice savings in case of an emergency for when you do stay home. Realize, too, Peterson says, that even with two incomes, it's highly unlikely you're going to feel totally financially secure when you've just had a baby.
Of course, you also have to consider the real facts of your finances and you may have to make some choices: the big house or the school district? A fancy jogging stroller or a weekend in Florida? Whatever your choices, decide together. And keep in mind that you're probably spending less money in some areas than you used to -- such as on movies, eating out, clothes, and vacations.
You're parents now, but you're still you, too...which brings us back to where we started. Now that my first baby is 5 and my second is 2, my husband and I have (mostly) gotten over the shock of new parenthood. We're not perfect, but I don't think I would want us to be. People become parents when they have children; they don't become different people. This, of course, is both a point of contention and a source of solace. All those things you love about each other -- and your flaws -- are still there, and now there's a baby, too. That's called a family.
Pamela Stock is a writer and editor in Brooklyn, New York.
Originally published in American Baby magazine, October 2004.
All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.