My husband David and I were in our late 30s when we met and married, so we were well aware that conceiving a child could take a long time -- or might never happen. After three months of marital bliss, we threw away the birth control to gain some lead time in the race against the clock. We were certain it wouldn't happen right away. We figured we had plenty of time.
But after only a few weeks of trying, around the same time I was discovering some of my husband's less desirable bachelor habits, such as leaving piles of dirty laundry everywhere, voila! There I was, racing for the toilet in the mornings. Our shock turned to joy, and we were thrilled when our son, Keenan, was born in November 2003. But that doesn't mean that it's been easy.
Babies can bring many stresses to a family, stresses that newlyweds just figuring out how to share the bathroom sink may have more difficulty navigating than seasoned couples with years of negotiation under their belts. So what do you do when you're both a newlywed and a new parent and everything is just so...new? Here's some advice from couples and experts on how to face the challenges that come with a honeymoon baby.
Challenge No. 1: You have to make a lot of big decisions in a small amount of time.
When you first get married, you're inundated with decisions: Will you live in your place, his place, or a new place? If you were already living together, will you need to move? Joint bank accounts or separate? Add a baby to the equation, and the decisions multiply tenfold.
"Suddenly we had to figure out not only small things, like who should clean the bathroom, but really crucial questions about how we wanted to raise our daughter," say Jana and Doug Black, of San Francisco, who conceived their daughter six months after they were engaged. The Blacks were surprised to find they weren't always on the same page. "Frankly, on our dates we didn't discuss problems like who would do the 4 a.m. diaper duty," jokes Doug. "We had no idea what the issues were until we were in the thick of them." Not surprisingly, the couple found it hard to reach solutions without arguing or secretly fuming with resentment.
Solution: Hear each other out.
In order to make solid decisions that both of you can live with, you'll have to practice the golden rule of good communication: listening. Listening to your partner's point of view will be crucial to finding common ground and moving forward, not only as husband and wife, but as parents. "You have to create a game plan that supports both of your styles, even if they are very different," says John Gray, PhD, author of Children Are from Heaven (HarperCollins, 1999).
Some decisions will allow each parent the freedom to do things his or her own way. For example, the Blacks initially disagreed about how many sweets their child should eat. Eventually they drew up a compromise and agreed it would be fine for her to eat a small amount of sweets when Daddy was taking care of her, but Mommy would keep the lid on the cookie jar.
For issues down the road, such as discipline, they needed to create a united front to avoid confusing their daughter. And then there were challenges every newly married couple faces that extended beyond parenthood, such as figuring out the family finances and divvying up the housework. The Blacks were a smart pair: They sat down, laid all of their issues out on the table, and came up with a detailed list of house rules. "Once we'd listened to each other carefully and understood the other's perspective, we were ready to reach a compromise," the Blacks say.
Challenge No. 2: Your blossoming romance is put on a back burner.
Less romantic time together as a couple and a temporarily stalled sex life can be even more difficult for newly married couples, who haven't yet had their golden alone time together. Suddenly, you're no longer bathed in an aura of romance. You're partnering in the serious and exhausting business of raising a child. You wonder if you'll ever have enough energy to make love again!
Phyllis Jackman, from Morristown, New Jersey, was surprised by how much effort it took to keep her romance with her husband alive after the birth of their daughter, who was conceived on their honeymoon. "All of a sudden, our bed became a place where we just slept. I didn't think that would happen to us: We were newlyweds, still too much in love for that."
Solution: Make an extra effort to create small, special moments of connection.
No, it's not easy coming off the high of candlelit dinners you enjoyed mere months ago. But it's very important for your marriage to be open to different ideas about what is romantic. You may not be able to have those intimate dinner dates, but you can take an idle stroll or share an intimate conversation.
Unexpected, loving gestures, such as offering to take the baby so your partner can nap, can also be part of your new romantic vocabulary. "My husband gave me these blissful 'sanity breaks' from the baby," says Jackman. "It was his idea. I could leave without the slightest feeling of guilt. It was the most romantic gift of all." Think of something special you can do for your partner (who knows...perhaps he will reciprocate). You may be surprised by how much closer you'll feel.
And sex? It's important to keep those fires burning, too. Making time for it can be tricky, but it can also energize you like nothing else. Jackman agrees. "Sometimes you have to start things up before you're in the mood, and then you will find yourself suddenly feeling very amorous!" Grab whatever time you can -- when baby is napping, for example. Above all, be patient. That precious together time, both in bed and out, will grow, along with your baby.
Challenge No. 3: Your lifestyle undergoes a sudden, seismic shift.
When baby comes right after the wedding, it seems as if one minute you're creating your registry, the next you're choosing a car seat. Mere months ago, you could have carefree, spontaneous fun. Now, some of the things you used to enjoy as a couple might have to be pushed to the back burner. This sudden shift in priorities -- and increase in responsibility -- can be very trying.
Lindy Joyce, of Brooklyn, New York, had a rude awakening from the blissful love affair that brought her son into the picture just four months after she and her partner moved in together. "At first we didn't get it," she says. "We thought we'd just pack up the baby and go on with all the things we normally do." The couple went so far as to try to plan a rollerblading outing toting a newborn.
When such activities proved sufficiently impractical, both partners grew frustrated. And at times, Joyce's partner, Daniel, responded to the dramatic change in their lives by escaping the scene, leaving Joyce to fend for herself. She has unhappy memories of long evenings breastfeeding on the couch alone while she waited for him to come home and help out.
Solution: Make an attitude adjustment.
You can either be miserable and angry, or you can decide to make the best of your situation, a far better choice considering that you'll have to perform this ritual over and over as your child's needs change and grow.
But before you are able to embrace your new life, "you may well need to do a little grieving for your past life, for that loss of freedom," says Joshua Coleman, PhD, a therapist and author of How to Get Your Lazy Husband to Do More Parenting and Housework (St. Martin's Press, 2005). That means acknowledging any negative feelings you have and talking about them openly and honestly. In other words, it's fine to admit out loud that you genuinely miss sleeping in on Saturday -- and resent the fact that your husband can't breastfeed. Dr. Coleman says the next step for couples with a baby is to begin to move from an "I"-centered mentality to a "we"-centered mentality.
Here's an example: Before you pick a fight with your husband for forgetting to pick up formula on his way home, put yourself in his shoes. He's probably just as tired (and forgetful) as you are. More specifically, you each need to figure out what will make this tough transition easier on both of you. Do you need to work out a schedule so each of you has some alone time? Do you need to tweak your budget to incorporate all of your baby-related expenses so you're not always fretting over money?
No matter what your circumstances, chances are that both of you could use a little help with your new, ultra-responsible life. Enlist family and friends as babysitters, or trade off sitting services with another mom. Joining a new mothers' group is also a great way to deal with stress and make friends who are in the same boat. And try to keep things in perspective. You won't have your life back the way it was, but your flexibility and freedom will increase over time.
Challenge No. 4: You haven't yet learned how to handle stress without fighting.
It's a classic new-relationship scenario. In learning to navigate everyday life together, there are a few bumps on the road. But when everyday life includes a baby, you may sometimes feel like you're off-roading in a Jeep! "There've been times when I know if my son wasn't here, I would have been out the door. I think we've both felt that way," says Tina Chindamo, of Brooklyn, New York, who had been living with her husband (then her boyfriend) for only three months when she conceived.
Also, new couples often don't know enough about each other to avoid certain pitfalls. You are still discovering one another, a process that will continue for a lifetime. For honeymooners under baby pressure, this lack of knowledge can be problematic. Case in point: After a few clashes in the middle of the night, when David and I were fumbling to deal with Keenan's high fever ("Where's the thermometer?" "I don't know! You had it last!..."), we quickly learned that we both crumble in a crisis. If you don't find a more effective way of coping, you and your mate may find yourselves having the same fight over and over.
Solution: Know your hot spots.
The key here is to avoid thorny issues when both of you are tired or feeling overwhelmed. By trial and error, I've learned that as you gather more data about each other and how the two of you interact, you can learn to recognize those "red flag" moments in advance. When you find yourself in an argument, try to recall a similar difficulty and use that experience to reach a more positive outcome. My husband and I now know that the best way for us to get through any kind of emergency situation is to remain calm and speak only about the problem at hand.
Of course, there will be times when you find yourself heading down the wrong road. When that happens, Gary and Joy Lundberg, therapists and authors of Marriage: For Better, Not Worse (Penguin, 2001), suggest using a signal (like saying "Honey, it's happening again!") to help you stop at the brink of a fight. Then take turns hearing each other's point of view. "When you begin to trust that you will each get a chance to fully express yourself, the stress will be reduced enormously," say the Lundbergs.
Of course the hotter the issue, the more difficult it will be to hold a rational discussion with your partner. A great guideline is that if one of you gets too angry, agree to stop talking for a while and revisit the topic later. While they may add stress, children can also give couples greater motivation for getting along. Chindamo agrees. "When we argue about something stupid and then look at the baby, it seems like such a minuscule problem. It really puts things in perspective."
Housework -- who does it, and who's not doing enough of it -- is a major bone of contention for couples, especially for newly nesting lovebirds. Add a baby to the mix, and you have a seemingly endless to-do list, as well as an ever-growing source of conflict. Here's how to set up and keep house without hassles.
Alisa Ackerman, who has a toddler son, is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, New York.
Originally published in American Baby magazine, September 2005.
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.