The newborn you will bring home may seem angelic, but beware: He has the power to turn you and your partner into resentment-filled, sleep-deprived sexless zombies. We spoke to Stacie Cockrell, coauthor of Babyproofing Your Marriage, to help you understand and avoid the relationship pitfalls that a new baby can bring.
What to Expect
“Know that you’re definitely going to have relationship issues in the first three months,” says Cockrell. “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.
The Great Mom/Dad Divide
Men and women are hardwired to respond differently to becoming parents. Cockrell calls this “the great mom/dad divide.” As soon as a woman discovers that she’s pregnant, her “mommy chip” clicks in and her all-consuming priority becomes protecting and nurturing her baby. For dad, bonding tends to happen a little later, and his instinct is to provide for baby. This pressure to financially support a child gives many dads a jolt of “provider panic.” “These biological drives catapult couples back to caveman days,” Cockrell says. She advises couples to “realize that how your spouse is reacting to parenthood is normal.”
These instinctive responses are true even in dual-income families, says Cockrell, but she’s noticed that scorekeeping tends to be less of an issue when both parents work, because each spouse expects to have nighttime responsibilities since they’re both at a job during the day.
For moms (especially stay-at-home moms) who feel like their husbands don’t understand how much work it is to be home with baby, Cockrell recommends they give their husbands a “training weekend.” Mom goes away for the weekend while dad takes care of baby. “A training weekend provides so many opportunities. First of all, you get a break and you get to recharge. Second of all, your husband will finally get it. Don’t let him get a babysitter or have Grandma over. When you return, he’ll appreciate you and help you more.”
She warns moms not to be 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, then you’re depriving yourself and your spouse of the responsibilities, benefits and joys that come with equitable co-parenting.
“Couples have to be prepared for the endless tit for tat over who has it tougher or who’s working harder,” says Cockrell. Avoid scorekeeping, or else resign yourselves to a never-ending and exhausting battle over who did the last bath, who changed the last diaper, who got to go to the gym last and whose turn it is to fold the laundry.
Cockrell offers these tips to avoid scorekeeping: 1) Make an “everything list” that includes all the labor that goes into running a household and taking care of baby. Divide the list in half to equally share the burden and ensure that one spouse doesn’t think that they’re shouldering more of the weight than the other. 2) Come up with a plan so that each of you is getting some free time. It’s essential for new parents to have a little “me” time to cope with the day-to-day labors and frustrations of parenthood.
As any new parent will attest, the biggest adjustment to having a baby is the lack of sleep. Chronic sleep deprivation can result in cognitive and memory impairment and even psychosis. For new parents, it definitely leads to crankiness and quarrels.
“Couples end up playing ‘midnight chicken.’ No one knows whose turn it is to get up with the baby,” says Cockrell. She advises couples to figure out a nighttime plan: “Agree to split nighttime duties to avoid turning into walking zombies.” It doesn’t make sense for both parents to be up at the same time. 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.
A major flash point for new-parent stress is the change in their sex lives. “Women are 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,” says Cockrell. But men can feel rejected—even crushed—by the lack of sex. Luckily, a mom’s sex drive usually returns within three to six months.
She offers these tips: “We tell men, redefine foreplay. It’s no longer just taking us to dinner or coming home with flowers. It’s getting in the assembly line, helping out at home. Give us an hour to ourselves to let us get out of mommy mode so we can get interested in sex.” Just remember, says Cockrell, that “everybody goes through this, it’s completely normal, and it will pass.”
Clash of the Grannies
“Before you have a baby, in-laws are typically on the sidelines of a relationship,” says Cockrell, but baby’s arrival triggers a new dynamic. Grandparents want to have an influence on their grandchildren. They want them to adopt their family traditions, their values and their interests.
“The issue becomes turf infringement when a mother-in-law or father-in-law steps over the line,” says Cockrell. “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.’”
“You can’t tell your in-law that there’s no juice and cookies after 6,” says Cockrell, because it may take years to repair that relationship. “It’s up to your spouse to run interference for his parents.” Couples need to devise a family management plan: who’s going to be there for Christmas, who’s going to be there in the delivery room. If you have a spouse who doesn’t take action and takes a backseat, you can have a mother-in-law or a father-in-law running the show. This sets the stage for huge tension in the relationship. You have to put your spouse and your kids first, and then consider the in-laws.
Cockrell advises couples to “understand boundaries: In-laws will comply if you have a united front. If you don’t, that’s when you’re going to have tension. It’s really how you handle it—that’s how you set the tone for how the grandparents will behave.”
What can you do to prepare your marriage before baby even comes?
Men bond with baby on a different timetable than women. For moms, it starts in pregnancy, and for men, it’s usually later, so tensions can start brewing even before baby comes. Cockrell offers these tips to avert postbaby relationship havoc:
• Realize that 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.
• Talk about your sex life. When baby comes, sleep will be the only thing going on between the sheets. Mom is hardwired to have nothing but baby on her mind for the first few months, but the same is not true for dad. To avoid hurt feelings and resentment, understand that the underlying reason for this is biological and know that it’s temporary.
• 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. Reducing financial worries will help keep dad’s “provider panic” at bay.
• Hire a housecleaner. If you can afford it, hire someone to clean your house for the first three months after baby’s arrival. This will eliminate some of the stress and scorekeeping that can be corrosive for the relationship of many new parents.
• Get a babysitter. Spending time away from baby is critical to staying connected as a couple. Line up a sitter now who can come one evening a week (or every other week) so you can enjoy a date night together.