The only thing scarier than being told over and over that having a baby will change your life is the moment you realize how drastically your life has actually changed. Your kid is totally awesome -- cute, sweet, everything you'd ever hoped for -- but she's also the reason why sleep has become a distant memory and leaving the house requires more planning than your wedding did.
Another thing this tiny, unwitting troublemaker has altered is your relationship with your partner. While the two of you are likely closer in some ways, the stress of new parenthood means there's a good chance you're annoyed with each other (okay, flat-out peeved) on an almost daily basis. Since infant care is nonstop and can drain the last ounce of your composure, the idea of calmly clearing the air may seem like yet one more daunting chore.
Wouldn't it be easier if you and your spouse could read each other's mind? Since the odds of developing telepathic powers are slightly slimmer than they are of getting to sleep until noon anytime soon, try this instead: Find out what he's really thinking, then slip your list of grievances under his nose.
Yes, it's lonely being cooped up with an infant 24/7. You wish your partner were around, not just to give you a breather but also to share in the milestones. Making matters worse is that while you need his companionship more than ever, he seems less available, burying himself in his job and barely finding a minute to talk all day.
But look at things from his perspective. He'd love to see you and the baby more, but in this economy he's feeling lucky to be employed. Then there's this: A guy's biological protector/provider instinct tends to kick in when he becomes a dad -- even if you have a paying job too. "While you're focusing on your infant's adorable face, he's thinking about how he's going to pay for college," says Cathy O'Neill, coauthor of Babyproofing Your Marriage.
Although you may be tempted to hand your baby off to him the minute he finally walks through the door, remember that he's exhausted too. So spend some time together as a threesome, and then find a quiet moment to discuss your gripes about his work schedule. "Figure out whether he's being rational," says Deborah Roth Ledley, Ph.D., a psychologist and author of Becoming a Calm Mom: How to Manage Stress and Enjoy the First Year of Motherhood. Will he really lose his job or miss out on a promotion if he doesn't put in crazy hours? Maybe he can agree to come home on the earlier side two nights a week.
If he simply can't tear himself away from the office, see whether he can commit to talking during the day so you don't feel like you're in this on your own. "A little chat can make a huge difference in your outlook," says Armin Brott, author of The New Father: A Dad's Guide to the First Year.
This is what's running through your spouse's head when he slinks off to the living room for a little Grand Theft Auto while you're scraping congealed carrot puree off the high chair. No doubt you need to zone out just as badly as he does. But you have a narrow window in which to do the dishes and empty the diaper pail before it's time to nurse again, and it would be nice if he pitched in a bit.
Rather than begrudging him his downtime, simply make sure that you get yours. While he's in Nintendo land, prepare a bottle. Then let him do the bath/books/bed routine while you check your e-mail, read a magazine, or take a nap. If it's his company you crave, carve out some time after dinner to have some dessert or do a crossword puzzle together. What about the stuff soaking in the sink? "Accept that the house won't be spotless during the initial months," says O'Neill. Repeat this mantra: Good enough is good enough.
You may hardly remember the pre-mommy version of yourself (you know, the one who had time to send him sexy text messages), but he does -- vividly. So it's not that your partner isn't interested in hearing about how many times your son pooped today, but he misses getting your take on other things, like last night's episode of Lost. "Brand-new moms are on the 'all baby, all the time' channel," says Brott. "It's common to become out of touch with what's going on." The good news for both of you: As you acclimate to parenthood (usually between four and six months), you'll start to become a more well-rounded person again.
Until then, remember that while you should certainly chat about what's happening on the home front, it would be nice to ask about his day too. Set aside ten to 15 minutes to talk about non-baby-related stuff each evening. Want to speed up your return to the real world? Make a plan to go out to dinner, and leave the baby talk behind. Let your spouse know that nothing will make you forget about your infant's bowel movements faster than a glass of Shiraz and a Caesar salad.
This is what she was tempted to scream the other night when you commented about how cool it would be to stay in your pj's until noon -- and that time you protested getting up for your infant's 2 A.M. bottle because you had to be "on" the next day at work while your partner could "nap when the baby naps."
Though you probably realize that being with a baby all day can be grueling, your wife thinks you don't know the half of it. There's only one way to find out: "Until he takes over with no help from Mom, even the most sensitive dad won't understand what it's like," says Dr. Ledley. Chances are, once you've spent some time in her shoes, you'll be more empathetic and you'll find ways to lighten her load. So even if you can't do feedings in the wee hours on work nights, you might sign up for the 10 P.M. shift, take care of fixing a few dinners, and ensure that she gets an eight-hour stretch of sleep on the weekend.
Being a new parent has shaken up your world -- your newborn cries inconsolably, needs ten diaper changes a day, and so on. But guess what? Your partner is dealing with all these things, plus she's lactating and seldom gets to converse with humans whose verbal skills have advanced beyond gurgling. So that's why she got all weird and frosty the other day when you called to say you were slipping out of work early to grab a drink with a friend. Try to understand that your spontaneous decision to do something she'd have had to plan out for days (pumping, lining up a sitter, preparing for every situation that might arise) makes her own lost sense of freedom all the more palpable.
Do an honest appraisal of how different things are for you these days. If you still get to play golf pretty often and enjoy those happy-hour cocktails regularly, cut back a bit on the extracurriculars. But if your only crime is getting to shower first thing in the morning and delight in a wail-free commute, you're not doing anything wrong. "It's a fact that a mom's life tends to change more," says Dr. Ledley. "At some point she has to accept that and say, 'This is the way it is.' "
Your job is to acknowledge her challenges ("I know how difficult it is to live on the baby's schedule") and enable her to do things she enjoys on a regular basis. If her yoga mat is collecting dust, help her search for a Sunday-morning class or a studio that has babysitting. A little Zen can go a long way toward making your partner feel like her old self again.
You shouldn't expect any action during the first few months. It's not that your partner isn't attracted to you; she's just exhausted, hormonal, and expending everything she has on your new addition. That said, it's important to be affectionate during this (hopefully) brief period of celibacy. "There are other ways to be physical and enjoy each other's company. You should still be hugging and kissing," says O'Neill.
Once that bundle of joy is around 3 months old, your wife will likely start entertaining thoughts about resuming your love life. You'll have just one little hurdle to overcome: It's highly probable that she still won't be interested in sex. But that doesn't mean you can't make an effort to get her in the mood. There's no need to bulk up at the gym or break out your favorite Michael Bublé CD. The best thing you can do is offer to handle the baby tasks for a while. "Women need the opportunity to get out of mommy mode," says O'Neill. "It may seem crass, but if you want her to put out, you have to pitch in."
And if she's still not up for nooky? "Sometimes it's a good idea to just start being romantic and see how it goes," says Dr. Ledley. "If you wait for the perfect moment to resume relations, it might never happen." So when you find a window, turn off the baby monitor, give her a chance to wash the spit-up out of her hair, and, well, maybe this time playing Bublé will work.
Originally published in the 2010 March issue of Parents Magazine.