At a backyard barbeque a month before I delivered my twin boys, the dads tossed around a Frisbee while the moms sat around a table predicting that my marriage was about to implode. “You guys will fight over the stupidest stuff,” one woman insisted. “You just wait!” I wasn’t buying it. After all, my husband, Paul, rubbed my swollen feet every night during my third trimester. He told me I “glowed,” and he folded the laundry. In three years of marriage, we’d never had a noteworthy argument.
Now? Two years into parenthood, we’ve had nearly enough fights to earn us our own reality TV show. Our sarcasm and scorekeeping (“I just watched the boys for two hours!” “What do you want—a medal? I had them for two hours and 20 minutes yesterday!”) have subsided since the first year. But just this morning we had a blowup—over the “amazingly ineffective” way I clean the boys’ bibs and the fact (yes, it’s a fact) that Paul can’t monitor an omelet while slicing a banana. Boy, was I naïve—just like most parents-to-be.
“Our culture has way too much mythology about new parenthood—that it’s all wonderful,” says Tina Tessina, Ph.D., LMFT, author of 2008’s Money, Sex and Kids: Stop Fighting About the Three Things That Can Ruin Your Marriage. “When you see what the whole deal is actually like, it’s a big shock. Parents get irritated and exhausted and start blaming each other.”
Two-thirds of couples become significantly less happy in their marriages after the first baby arrives, according to research funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, and it’s no wonder. In an instant, your entire life is upended. Romantic sex, leisurely workouts, a good night’s sleep, spontaneous movie dates, relaxing weekends and long conversations with your friends—suddenly, that’s all in your past. The love you have for your new baby and for each other may, in the short term, be no match for the grueling toll of all-night cry-a-thons. Conflict can take a toll on your baby, too.
Forewarned is forearmed, I say. Here’s what you should know and do starting now, while you’re still pregnant, to head off the top five conflicts that can derail even the strongest relationship.
Your partner wants your breasts; your baby needs them. “For most women, having a groper and a feeder is too much,” says Cathy O’Neill, an Austin, Texas, mother of three and a co-author of the 2008 book Babyproofing Your Marriage: How to Laugh More and Argue Less As Your Family Grows.
Plus, with your belly still jiggly and perhaps lingering soreness from the delivery, you may not feel like a sexpot, a fact many guys misinterpret. “Men say, ‘I feel like my wife doesn’t care about me anymore, like I’d need to set the bed on fire to get her attention,’ ” O’Neill says.
Don’t Wait for Sex to Happen
Plan sex rather than expecting it to happen spontaneously. “Mark in red pen the date three months after the baby is born—that’s when the two of you are going to a hotel,” advises O’Neill. “Set his expectations accurately. The six-week thing is rubbish.” If you’re not in the mood that day, make an effort anyway.
Take It Slow
“Foreplay will make you feel desired and closer to your partner,” says Miami marriage and sex therapist Lisa Paz, Ph.D. “You think, ‘Oh, this is enjoyable,’ and you get more in the mood. The more you’re having sex, the more you feel like you want sex.”
Practice Random Acts of Sexiness
Make a habit of leaving sweet, naughty notes on the mirror, squeezing each other’s tush as you pass each other and French kissing instead of grunting goodbye. “When all of your energy is focused on your newborn, you’ll need to be deliberate about flirty behavior,” Paz says.
Do It Yourself—Guilt-Free
That goes for now and after the baby comes. “Masturbation keeps women in a sexual state of mind,” Paz says. “Plus, sexual release is energizing—it can help relieve headaches, pain and fatigue.” Encourage your husband to fly solo, too. That can take some of the pressure off you.
You feel like you’re doing everything; your partner feels like no matter what he does, it’s never enough. “You think, ‘Nobody can do it like me,’ so, unintentionally, you sideline the dad,” says O’Neill. “Most dads are happy to take on the co-pilot role, but you’re setting yourself up for trouble.” The upshot: Dad doesn’t learn how to bathe the baby or perfect a swaddle, which makes him feel incompetent and makes you resent that he’s not pulling his weight.
Make Two Lists of Chores
One is the requirements to keep your household running, and the other is baby related tasks. “Get a friend who went through this recently to spell it out,” O’Neill advises. Combine the lists, divide the labor and be specific. Instead of “I’m going to need a lot of help,” tell your partner, “I’ll need you to change the kitty litter and bathe the baby on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday nights.” Men like to have targets to hit, O’Neill explains. Start sharing the workload now by having your partner research the best stroller or day-care options.
Plan a Job Switch
Most men have no clue what it’s like to spend an entire day with a newborn; so early on, put him in charge for a full day. (If you’ll be nursing exclusively, pop in to feed the baby, then leave the house.) Just make sure you don’t criticize his choice of baby clothes or his diaper-changing technique; he’ll (rightfully) feel you’re too controlling and lose incentive to help.
“Develop a habit of dropping thank-yous and praise,” says Deborah Roth Ledley, Ph.D., author of the 2008 book Becoming a Calm Mom: How to Manage Stress and Enjoy the First Year of Motherhood and a psychologist in Plymouth Meeting, Pa. Appreciation feeds motivation. If you say, “You did a great job feeding the baby breakfast” or “You handled that diaper blowout really well,” he’ll want to help more.
Your parents want to give you a gift? Suggest a cleaning service for two weeks. Before the baby arrives, schedule family and friends to babysit so that you both get a break and have less to fight over.
Once a month, over a glass of wine when the baby is asleep, ask each other: “How are we doing? What’s working; what’s not?”
You want to pick up the baby when she cries; your husband says, “Let her cry it out.” You want the baby to sleep in your room or your bed; your partner wants her in the nursery. “Expectant parents get caught up in what color to paint the baby’s room, but these are the topics you really need to be talking about,” Ledley notes.
Discuss Your Options Together
“Women tend to shut the dad out of these decisions,” says Tessina. Talk to friends whose parenting style you admire and ask what methods they used. Read a variety of books and decide which ones speak to you. Settle on a first-choice approach and a Plan B. Establish a date about one month after delivery to see if you’re still on the same page.
Take a Philosophy Class
Those two-hour classes given at the hospital that teach you how to diaper, feed and burp a baby are useful, but what you may really need is a parenting philosophy course. A few good examples: parentingtots.org; chidseyseminars.com; rie.org.
Create a Cheat Sheet
Write down a summary of the parenting methods you’ve agreed upon. This way, your partner won’t have to read the books if he doesn’t want to. Keep the sheet handy and take turns reading it out loud.
The portion of your paychecks that used to fund concerts and funky new earrings will now be going to diapers, day care and the college fund. When money is tight, the smallest purchasing decision can become a battle, especially if only one of you is working. “When you go from being equals to one of you staying home, there’s an unspoken dynamic that money is power,” O’Neill says. “It’s very subtle and hits couples hard. It takes work to find a new rhythm in your marriage.”
Have a Pre-Baby Budget Summit
Crunch numbers to figure out how your new expenses, everything from diapers to life insurance, will affect your budget, then negotiate what you’re going to cut. Understand how your spending habits and attitudes differ, because these differences will be amplified big time.
Spend Less on Frills
“For some women, planning the nursery is like planning the wedding all over again,” O’Neill says. Be practical. Go with a seasoned friend to Target or Babies “R” Us and have her point out which items are must-haves and what’s fluff. “Use your baby shower wisely,” O’Neill advises. “Encourage friends to get together for big-ticket items, and steer away from the cute little outfits.” They’re expensive and quickly outgrown. This approach should leave you with money for an occasional date night.
Plan to form a Parents Club
If you click with other parents-to-be at your child-safety class or breastfeeding seminar, get their e-mail addresses. You’ll feel less stressed and bored if you visit each other when you’re all in the throes of new parenthood. “A parenting club is a much less expensive way to get some time out of the home than hiring a babysitter,” Tessina says. “And as your kids grow up, you have this automatic playgroup.”
CONFLICT: Lack of “Me Time”
Caring for an infant is such an all-consuming task that in your “free time,” you’re lucky to make it to the supermarket. Doing something purely for yourself can feel like an outrageous indulgence. But when you deny yourself or your partner R & R, you’re likely to start resenting each other.
Pick the one Activity Critical to your Sanity or Identity
And make it happen. “Hand in your martyr badge,” O’Neill says. “Assert yourself, and say, ‘This is what I need.’” Set the schedule in writing, and make sure it’s equitable so your partner gets the same opportunities.
Lower your Expectations
Three-hour bike rides aren’t going to happen. For the first three months, you’re both going to be treading water, not living. “In the middle of month three, you can start reclaiming some of your own life,” O’Neill says. Still, don’t try to relive the past. “It’s over,” O’Neill says. “Surrender to the chaos and wonder of parenthood, and embrace it wholeheartedly.
Save this list!
What if, despite your best intentions, your relationship becomes a never-ending snarkfest? Put the following tips into action, says psychologist Tina Tessina, Ph.D.:
1. Ask for specific changes in behavior rather than make sweeping character indictments. Instead of, “You never do anything around here,” try saying, “Please buy more baby wipes when you notice we’re getting low.”
2. Apologize ASAP after a nasty zinger or false accusation.
3. Don’t try to mind read. Instead, ask, “How do you feel?”
4. Paraphrase what your partner says. For instance: “You’re angry because you think I don’t watch the baby enough on weekends. Is that right?”
5. Limit your statements to two or three sentences, and give your partner a chance to respond.
6. Avoid going tit for tat. Instead of, “You think I left the kitchen a mess? You left it worse yesterday,” focus on how you can solve the problem.
7. Hold hands and look at each other, hard as this may be in the middle of a fight.
8. Let go of the past, and solve one problem at a time.
9. Take a 20-minute break if a fight becomes too heated.
10. Finish with, “Is there anything else we need to discuss?”