Most parents tell you that having children is the best thing that ever happened to them. But that doesn't mean it's the best thing that ever happened to their marriage. Ninety percent of married couples report their relationship satisfaction declines once they have their first baby, according to an eight-year study from the University of Denver.
"Having children is like relationship boot camp," says Ian Kerner, a sex and relationship counselor and author. "Despite what other parents have experienced with their children, you don't have any idea what's really in store for you until you've lived it," says Sarah Ambler, mother of two.
Although you can't truly understand what it's like to be a parent until you become one, you can take steps to keep your future offspring from hurting your relationship now. In fact, when you have a strong relationship, sharing a baby can sometimes bring you closer together, says Hilda Hutcherson, M.D., clinical professor at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and author of Sex and the Baby Years. Learn how to be lovers, even once you take on the roles of mommy and daddy.
"When there's a toddler or baby about, your priority is its well-being," Ambler says. But because babies have so many needs, it's easy to start neglecting your own. To truly meet your baby's needs, though, you have to meet yours first, Kerner says. Why? "It takes happy parents to raise a happy baby." So don't feel guilty about snagging some "me time" or stealing away with your partner for a weekend. It might feel selfish at first, but it's actually just about the most generous thing you can do.
Even though you're getting ready to spend plenty of time baby-making, studies suggest that less than one in four couples are satisfied with their post-baby sex lives. After Baby arrives, you'll have plenty of reasons not to have sex (tired, achy, busy), but you have a much better reason to have sex: Without frequent sex, your brain's levels of oxytocin (the so-called "feel-good" hormone) can drop, making you feel emotionally disconnected from your partner, Hutcherson says. So make sure you have a healthy sex life pre-baby, and don't be afraid to discuss what may come post-pregnancy.
If you're not feeling sexy after going through labor and delivery, just touching, cuddling, and kissing will help you feel close again. "You may not end up having sex, but you have to be intimate in one way or another," Kerner says. "You kind of have to put body through the motions and trust that mind will follow."
There are only so many hours in the day, and with babies requiring so many, you may find yourself structuring your days around your little one. But instead of scheduling your life around Baby, you should try to schedule her life around yours, Kerner says. Your baby will adapt more easily than you think, and your relationship will stop getting pushed from the calendar.
Parents are more depressed than non-parents, according to a 2006 study of 13,000 people. But it's not Baby's fault, and it's not a good reason to forgo starting a family. The researchers believe parents feel stressed because they don't get as much help at home as they did in previous generations. Do you have parents eagerly awaiting grandchildren? A niece hoping to pocket 10 bucks for babysitting? Before you take the leap into parenthood, think about who will be there to help you tackle the challenge.
Having a poopy diaper in your room -- or bed -- is a major mood-killer. So before you sign up for months of co-sleeping, consider the advantages of giving your baby his own room with a baby monitor. Many parents don't think to discuss the ins and outs of co-sleeping before having a child, but the decision could cause relationship troubles later.
And as your child ages, you'll need to make it clear that he sleeps in his bed, and you in yours. Once you draw that line, it's easier for everyone. Still worried about getting caught canoodling? Put a lock on your bedroom door to prevent toddlers from walking in and you from fretting, Hutcherson says.
"Children help you realize just how hard the other person works, especially when the other one is away or ill," says dad Eric Ambler. Show your appreciation. A few kind words, a helping hand, or even just a text can go a long way toward making you both feel valued. And you don't have to wait until you become parents to say "thank you" to each other; get in the habit now.
Chances are, you have a long to-do list, and even if spinning classes and salt scrubs top your list now, once you have kids they'll likely fall to the bottom. But when you like what you see in the mirror, you end up liking just about everything else in your life that much more. What makes you feel better about your body and yourself? Take the time to check them off your list, Hutcherson says. You'll be happier, nicer, and a whole lot more eager to cross sex off of your marital bliss list, too.
"Date nights are a must," Hutcherson says. This advice may sound silly when you're still a child-free couple, but after the baby comes along, "many couples don't ever go out for the first year or year and a half, which can be really damaging to a relationship," Kerner says. Once you have a family, you have to work harder to make time for yourselves as a couple. Movie night on the couch after Baby falls asleep can be a perfect night in, but also make sure you get out regularly. Doing so, especially just the two of you, will help keep you happy when you do have stay home with your little one.
On average, when couples have children, women's housework increases three times as much as men's does, according to a study published in Social Forces. So it's no surprise that studies also show women with partners who contribute to housework and child care are happier than those without help. But get this: They are more into sex, too. Interested? Start dividing up your current chore list now, and be sure to assign equal portions of diaper duty (or whatever chores have you stressed) later. When you aren't freaking out about all the stuff that needs to get done, it's a lot easier to be a good partner.
That bundle of joy can come with some tears, too, and being aware of possible mood changes now can help you prepare for any relationship rockiness. Nine months after a child's birth, 24 percent of mothers and 20 percent of fathers have mild symptoms of depression, according to a study published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. Some parents also experience symptoms of postpartum disorder, such as sadness, fatigue, reduced libido, crying episodes, anxiety, irritability, and changes in sleeping and eating patterns, all of which can wreck havoc on a relationship. If you find yourself experiencing any of these symptoms (besides fatigue -- that's natural), call your doc right away.