How Becoming Parents Can Affect Your Relationship
Expectant parents spend months preparing for the arrival of their baby. By the time they bring their little one home, they've taken classes, read a library's worth of books, and bought enough onesies to fill an entire dresser. But even with all the preparation, the reality of caring for a baby can be overwhelming.
When your household grows from two to three, your relationship with your partner is bound to change. Here are some ways to get a handle on what to expect when you have your baby.
And Baby Makes Three
Before, you were a couple. Now, you're parents. How will your day-to-day life change?
To start with the obvious, you probably won't get enough sleep in the early months of your baby's life. At first, your newborn may only sleep for a few hours at a time, and when your tiny bundle is up, you're up. The resulting sleep deprivation can make you irritable and turn tasks like household chores and errands into ordeals because you have less energy and can't concentrate. You'll also have less time for work, for yourself, and for your partner.
Being a new parent is wonderful, but at times it can be really difficult and stressful, too. This can generate many different feelings. It's common for new moms and dads to feel guilty when they're not enjoying every second of being a new parent. But it's important to remember that it's OK to want — and need — to take a break from the baby every once in a while.
A baby also can stir up surprising feelings of jealousy. Sometimes new dads get jealous because the baby takes up so much of mom's time. Dad may feel like a third wheel, or maybe he's jealous that he doesn't get to spend as much time with the baby or do as much of the parenting. These feelings are completely normal when the structure of a family changes so drastically.
Moms have their own challenges to confront. Pregnancy temporarily robs them of the bodies they're used to; a couple of extra pounds and dark circles under the eyes from late-night feedings can make a woman feel self-conscious and less attractive to her partner. Some moms also find it difficult to reconcile the image of a mother with that of a sexual woman, so they may be less interested in intimacy.
The changes brought by a baby reach beyond your immediate family as well. Suddenly, relatives and even acquaintances have endless stories and advice about child rearing. Family members may drop by unexpectedly or schedule regular visits to see your baby. Just when you have more to do than you think you can handle, all these extra people decide to stick around for dinner. Although you know they just want the best for the baby, their constant presence can make you feel even less in control of your own life and household.
Even without all the outside parenting advice, you and your partner might realize you have different approaches to parenting — one of you might be more inclined to pick up the baby whenever he or she cries while the other lets your little one cry for a while, for instance.
And trouble spots in a relationship, such as who does more work around the house, can get worse if new parents don't sit down and talk about what's bothering them. It is also important to remember that with parenting there is often more than one correct way to do something.
The Need for Communication and Understanding
Communication is the best tool to defuse anger and prevent arguments. Parents can get so caught up in caring for the baby that they forget to take time to talk to each other. Small annoyances grow when you don't get them out in the open, so it's important to make time to communicate.
Often, all it takes to clear up a misunderstanding is to see things from the other person's point of view. For example, a new father may think that because he's at work all day, it makes sense for the mother to take care of the baby most of the time, even when he's home. But she may view the same situation as the father distancing himself from her and the baby just when she needs him most. In addition, mom may feel a bit more comfortable caring for the baby or feel uncomfortable letting dad do it his way. If mom is always telling dad how to care for the baby, dad may start to back away from the caregiving.
If something is bothering you, tell your partner, but make sure you do it at the right time. Starting a discussion about who left the dirty dishes in the sink when the baby is screaming to be fed will solve nothing. Instead, plan a time to sit down together after the baby is asleep. Be honest with each other, but try to maintain a sense of humor. Listen to your partner's concerns and don't criticize them. And keep in mind that sleep deprivation and stress can make you feel more irritable, so it may take extra effort to curb any tendency to be snappy.
Once you've both said what's on your mind, work on solving the issues together by coming up with solutions you both can accept. Be willing to compromise, too. If one person can't get home early on Wednesdays because of a staff meeting, the other can get the baby ready for bed on those nights. In exchange, the partner who gets home late on Wednesdays can take over on Thursdays.
This is also the time to "assign" baby care and household duties, like cooking, laundry, and early-morning feedings. When both partners know what's expected of them, the household will run more smoothly.
It can be helpful to only have one parent awake at night. It may make sense to have mom get up if she is breastfeeding, then give her a break during the day to catch a nap between feedings. For others it might work better to have dad get up, or alternate nights. Discussing in advance how to handle night time awakenings can help both parents get just a little more sleep.
When disagreements arise, make time to discuss them. If that approach simply won't work — and you both need to clear the air right away — try to keep the argument focused on the issue that's bothering you. Tell your partner clearly why you're upset. If you're vague or make your partner guess, you probably won't resolve anything.
Figuring out how to resolve conflicts now will pay off in the end. As your children grow, situations and concerns will change, and having a good line of communication between mom and dad will help in the future.
Steer clear of generalizations like, "You're always late." They tend to make people defensive. Instead, try: "When you came home late yesterday, dinner was cold. I would've appreciated it if you'd called me to say you were running late." This puts the emphasis on the action, not the person, so your criticism feels less like a personal attack.
It's also unfair to use the argument as an excuse to bring up past wrongs. If you're talking about coming home late for dinner, don't revisit the time your partner forgot to buy milk or took a 45-minute shower while you did all the dishes. You'll find that listening to each other and trying to understand the other person's perspective are the best ways to make progress toward solving a problem.
If you happen to argue in front of an older baby or child, make sure he or she sees you make up, too. That way, your child learns that fights don't mean that people no longer love each other — this is an important part of your child's own impression of conflict resolution.
Finding Time Together
Even though your baby has made you a family of three, the two of you still need time together as a couple to keep that relationship strong. Because your lives are busier now, the best way to find that time is to plan for it. Try to make a regular weekly "date" — schedule a sitter and head out to dinner or a movie. If you don't want to or can't leave the baby with a sitter just yet, make a special dinner at home after you put the baby to bed.
Staying up after the baby is sleeping can also give you time to connect daily. Strive for at least 20 minutes a day to talk and share feelings; you can do this while you wash the dishes together or as you get ready for bed. On the weekends, get out of the house and do something as a family, like visiting a museum or a park. Even daily family walks when you get home from work let you grab a little time together while your baby enjoys a ride in the stroller.
The most important thing is to use your creativity to find a way to spend time together that works for you, whether that means meeting for lunch while a willing grandparent watches the baby or playing a game of cards before bed. Remember that one of the best gifts that you can give your child is a good relationship with each other.
Tips for New Parents
As you enter this new stage of life as a family, staying focused on what really matters will help you through the rough spots, especially in the first few months. It may bother you that you didn't have time to make the bed, but overall, that's not too important. The more flexible you can be about what gets done when, the more relaxed and in control you'll feel.
To keep you both on track with the chores that have to be accomplished, make a list of each partner's duties and post it on the refrigerator. For those tasks that are more draining, like nighttime feedings, take turns whenever you can. If you both help out, then one of you won't wind up feeling resentful because you have to do all the work.
Be sure to notice what's going right, too. Praise yourself and your partner for managing yet another round of feedings, diaper changes, and baby entertaining. All new parents need to hear about what they're doing well, remembering that each parent may do things slightly differently. The goal is a happy, healthy family.
And try to be aware of each other's emotions and needs. If your partner has had a particularly stressful day, offer to take the baby so your partner can soak in the tub, watch a favorite TV show, or read a book for half an hour.
Above all, enjoy the time with your new arrival — your little one will grow up faster than you realize.
Reviewed by: Heidi M. Sallee, MD
Date reviewed: November 2011