The newborn you’ll soon be bringing home may seem angelic, but beware: Such a tiny baby can have a huge impact on your relationship with your partner. The good news? A little preparation goes a long way toward keeping your union strong.
“Know that you’re definitely going to have relationship issues in the first three months,” says Stacie Cockrell, coauthor of Babyproofing Your Marriage. “There’s no way around it. Couples think they need couples therapy, but no, you have a newborn and you’re trying to redefine your relationship and figure out how the household is going to work and how you’re going to take care of baby.” The relationship tangles that ensnare so many new parents, she says, can be avoided by mutual understanding and clear communication.
Here, we break down the common relationship pitfalls new parents encounter, and how you can avoid problems down the road.
Pitfall #1: Navigating Your New Roles
For years, people talked about The Great Mom-Dad Divide—the difference between how men and women respond to becoming parents, with women making baby their all-consuming priority and men worrying about how to provide for an expanding family. But for modern couples, that paradigm has largely changed. “Often there’s a pattern where the mother takes more of a nurturing role, but over the last 30 years, there’s been a shift in that mindset,” says Brad Wilcox, senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies in Charlottesville, Virginia. “Now, women expect men to provide more support on the homefront when a baby arrives.”
Andrea Battiola, EdS, LCP, a Washington, DC-based couples and sex therapist, agrees, saying, “The typical roles of nurturing mom and provider dad are happening less and less. Today, parents are in work mode during the day, then they come home in the evening and they’re in parent mode. And they’re exhausted, but they’re doing it together.” The same is generally true for same-sex couples, she adds, who “feel like they don’t have a model for how it’s ‘supposed’ to go. But this can be a good thing—it can allow them to define for themselves how they will think, act and feel, and how to make it work for them.”
Even if the responsibility of caring for baby is now being distributed more evenly between partners, each of you will still have to grapple with your new role as a parent and figure out how you’ll work together as a team.
How to avoid it: “If parents are interested in splitting duties 50/50, what works best is when the mother gives the father full authority to do things his own way,” Wilcox says, letting him make his own decisions about to parent as a dad. “It’s difficult to do, but moms have to appreciate that dads may parent differently than moms, and let them thrive in their role.” Cockrell calls it being a “maternal gatekeeper.” If you think you’re the only one who knows how to properly take care of baby and block dad from helping, she says, you’re depriving yourself and your spouse of the responsibilities, benefits and joys that come with equitable co-parenting.
For households with a stay-at-home parent who takes on the lion’s share of baby duties, communication becomes more important than ever in order to set expectations and ensure both partners feel valued. Cockrell recommends giving the working parent a “training weekend,” where the at-home mom or dad enjoys a getaway for a couple days while the other cares for the child. Not only can it help the working partner understand that being at home with baby is no vacation, it allows for some serious bonding time.
Pitfall #2: Scorekeeping
Regardless of whether you and your partner are equally engaged in caring for baby, the trick is to make sure each of your responsibilities feel like they’ve been distributed evenly. When you’re exhausted and start to wonder why it always seems to be your turn to change baby’s diaper, it can be easy to fall into the scorekeeping trap. “Couples have to be prepared for the endless tit for tat over who has it tougher or who’s working harder,” Cockrell says. Steer clear of scorekeeping, or else resign yourselves to a never-ending and exhausting battle over who did the last bath, who got to go to the gym yesterday and whose turn it is to fold the laundry.
How to avoid It: Make an “everything list” that includes all the labor that goes into running a household and taking care of baby, Cockrell suggests. Then divide the list in half to equally share the burden and ensure that one spouse doesn’t think they’re shouldering more of the weight than the other. It’ll also be important to come up with a plan that allots each of you some time off—it’s essential for new parents to have a little “me” time to cope with the day-to-day labors and frustrations of life with baby.
Pitfall #3: Sleep Deprivation
As any new parent will attest, the biggest adjustment to having a baby is the lack of sleep. At the extreme, chronic sleep deprivation can result in cognitive and memory impairment and even psychosis. At a minimum, it can lead to crankiness and quarrels. “Couples end up playing ‘midnight chicken.’ No one knows whose turn it is to get up with the baby,” Cockrell says.
How to avoid it: Figure out a nighttime plan. “Agree to split nighttime duties to avoid turning into walking zombies,” Cockrell says. It doesn’t make sense for both parents to be up at the same time. Instead, try shifts—if you’re breastfeeding, pump to get a few feedings ahead—then one parent can wake up with baby between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m., and the other can take the 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. shift.
Pitfall #4: Sexual Disconnect
A major flash point for new-parent stress is the change in their sex lives. “Women can be so laser-focused on baby that sex isn’t on their radar. We’re hardwired to make sure this baby survives, and our body is telling us not to get pregnant right away,” Cockrell says. But your partner can feel rejected—even crushed—by the lack of sex.
When you consider the physical trauma of pregnancy and childbirth, it’s understandable for moms to want to shelve the sex for a while. But of course, this isn’t always the case. “The way a woman responds to sex after baby has to do with the pain involved, but also her personal thoughts and feelings about sex, how much sleep she’s getting and whether she’s breastfeeding around the clock,” says Keith Miller, LICSW, LCSW-C, a Washington, DC-based psychotherapist and social worker. “At this point, some women feel overwhelmed and ‘touched out,’ while others may seek sex as a release and a way of connecting with their partner while feeling like an adult outside of the role of mother.”
And it’s not just women who might suddenly not be into sex. “There are couples who equally share the childcare duties, and in these cases, sometimes both partners become disinterested in sex for a time due to exhaustion and the increased responsibility,” Miller says. This is a totally normal reaction to new parenthood and will pass. In the meantime, though, it’s important to take steps to nurture and maintain a loving relationship.
How to avoid it: Have an open dialogue about sex before baby’s even born. “That way, when mom’s healed, it isn’t a jarring topic,” Battiola says. After baby comes home, the trick is to not associate sex just with bedtime. “Be intentional about the times you have away from children, like first thing in the morning, during naptime and on weekends when the pace of life is slower,” she says. “Date nights are important, since they keep a relationship strong, and allow couples to invest in the relationship.” Start slow, and remember that intimacy doesn't necessarily mean sex.
Pitfall #5: Clash of the Grannies
“Before you have a baby, in-laws are typically on the sidelines of a relationship,” Cockrell says, but baby’s arrival can trigger a new dynamic. Grandparents often want to have an influence on their grandchildren and impart their own traditions, values and interests. “The issue becomes turf infringement when a mother-in-law or father-in-law steps over the line,” says Cockrell. It’s tricky to tell Grandma not to pick baby up at night because you’re sleep training, since contention might lead to a rocky relationship. “It’s up to your spouse to run interference for his parents.”
It’s not just your relationship with your in-laws that might shift—both sets of grandparents now share a grandchild, and that can lead to other issues. “Often, grandmothers compete for alpha-grandma status: who gets to see the baby first, who’s in the delivery room, who gets to be called ‘Grandma,’” Cockrell says.
How to avoid it: Couples need to devise a family management plan: who’s going to be there in the delivery room, who’s going to be there for Christmas, who gets to be called what. The key here is for you and your partner to establish boundaries for your family. “In-laws will comply if you have a united front. If you don’t, that’s when you’re going to have tension,” Cockrell says—not to mention an in-law running the show. “It’s really how you handle it—that’s how you set the tone for how the grandparents will behave.”
What You Can Do Before Baby Arrives
Understanding the potential pitfalls that many new parents face is half the battle—when you know what to expect, you’re able to discuss issues with your partner ahead of time, without the chaos and pressure of a new baby and an endless barrage of well-meaning visitors. Approaching parenthood on common ground can prevent the tensions that can arise before baby’s arrival too. Here, some tips to help avert post-baby relationship havoc:
• Realize your lifestyle is going to change. Understand and talk about the fact that you’re going to have less time for yourselves once baby arrives. Plan on giving each other breaks so you both have a chance to recharge.
• Create a budget. Devise a budget for baby and stick to it. During pregnancy, mom’s nesting instinct can go into turbo-drive and her determination to get baby the perfect crib and a killer wardrobe can add up to a hefty bill. But according to a report from the National Marriage Project, “how much money couples have is less important than the level of financial pressure and debt with which they are contending.” Sit down with your partner and review your finances to map out a plan.
• Line up help ahead of time. Having a support system in place is critical for new parents. “Be proactive about getting the support you need, because it’s a curative factor in postpartum depression,” says Mary Baker, LCP, a family therapist at the Well Marriage Center in Loudoun County, Virginia. “When baby comes, Mom’s leaning on Dad and Dad’s exhausted.” Look to friends and extended family to bring nightly meals for the first few weeks. If you can afford it, consider hiring someone to clean your house for the first three months after baby’s arrival. These small things go a long way in giving you the time you need to bond with baby without having to worry about running a household.
• Talk about your sex life. When baby comes, sleep might be the only thing going on between the sheets. And if you both acknowledge the possibility now, the reality may not seem so shocking when it strikes. “Being disinterested in sex is normal,” Miller says, “but in these cases, a conversation should definitely happen so that both partners don’t begin to feel unloved and unimportant.” Need some help broaching the subject? Certain apps, like Lasting, ask you a series of questions to understand the status of your relationship and then offers up tips to help you develop better communication and conflict skills and embed romantic rituals into your daily life.
Updated November 2017