By Antoinette Donovan Hemphill
Most pregnant women spend countless hours daydreaming about the first months of their new baby’s life, envisioning late-night cuddles, gummy smiles and being serenaded by precious coos. It’s easy to focus more on this new relationship than the old one – your marriage.
But new research suggests it’s important to nurture both. The University of Denver recently reported that for 90 percent of the couples who participated in an eight-year study, marital satisfaction sharply decreased within a year after the birth of their first child. Not surprising when you consider the significant changes and inevitable conflicts that come with such a monumental responsibility. Being prepared for these conflicts, however, and realizing they’re a common part of the parenthood journey can make them less stressful.
Here are five disputes that couples often face with the addition of a new baby – and expert advice on how to avoid them:
1. The “It’s Your Turn” Middle-of-the-Night Fight
Research shows that sleep deprivation impairs your ability to think, handle stress and control your emotions. Translation for new moms? Those first weeks can be torturous, no matter how much you love your new baby. And if you start to feel like you’re constantly in the trenches alone, a late-night fight becomes inevitable.
The best way to avoid those “get your butt out of bed” brawls is to not wait until the middle of the night to address the problem. Glenn Williams, co-author of Your Marriage Can Survive a Newborn, recommends scheduling a time (preferably on a weekend or whenever you’re least likely to be exhausted) to clarify and refine expectations when it comes to night feedings.
Williams says to use this time to talk about what you can do and how your spouse can realistically help. For example, maybe you can struggle through the week on your own, but only if you know you’re going to be getting some relief on the weekend. Put a plan in place so that you know when your spouse or partner will be on call and to prevent disagreements from happening at 3 a.m.
Don’t make the mistake of insisting that you endure every difficult night together. “This idea of being in the trenches together is a recipe for disaster,” says Kathy O’Neill, co-author of BabyProofing Your Marriage. “Divide and conquer here so everyone is getting an occasional full night’s sleep.”
2. The “Get Off Your Blackberry or (insert other high-tech device here)” Fight
Many new moms find themselves wondering, in annoyance, why their partners – after being away all day – plop baby in the pack-n-play to watch Sports Center or check email with a squirmy infant on their laps. Experts, however, explain that these fights are based on different perceptions of what constitutes bonding.
Moms see their baby being ignored while dad devotes his attention to something that should be secondary. Dads or partners think they’re simply watching the game with their son or multi-tasking while you make dinner. “In their minds, they are spending time together and bonding,” O’Neill says. “It’s just not in the way you would do it.”
It can also take dads longer to bond with new babies and it’s not an indication of how they’re going to behave in the future. “Some men aren’t into the baby phase as much as women would like, but that doesn’t mean they will not be fantastic fathers in the years to come,” O’Neill says. “Moms sometimes panic over this and attack the dads, who are going to obviously get defensive.”
Looking to the future, your husband’s ability to not hover over the baby every second is actually – get this – a good thing. “Dads have a tendency to give kids more leeway and let them explore,” says Armin Brott, author of The New Father: A Dad’s Guide to the First Year. “It helps to build independence and creative thinking. Plus, thinking ahead, it’s really good to have a kid who can entertain themselves sometimes.”
So, as difficult as it may be, let your husband or partner entertain or not entertain your baby in the way he sees fit. In making those choices, he’s being a dad and growing, even if it’s not in your vision.
3. The “You Just Don’t Get It” Fight
If you find yourself having to constantly explain to your partner why leaving the house with a teething baby is a nightmare or exactly how much stuff you need to pack for a “fun” day at the beach, chances are he hasn’t walked in your shoes enough and these fights will continue until he has.
O’Neill recommends implementing a “training weekend” where you leave dad home with the baby for a full 48 hours and let him truly walk in your shoes. There are no grandparents on call or drastic changes in routine. And if you’re breastfeeding, it’s time to stockpile the pumped milk.
“Motherhood is a baptism by fire and to let your partner have the same experience, you need to take yourself out of the picture,” she says. “This can have a transformative effect on husbands who say, ‘What’s the big deal? Every woman does this.’”
4. The “I Need a Break Now” (a.k.a. “Who Has It Harder?”) Fight
If you plan to stay home with your baby, you may find yourself dying for a well-deserved break by 5 p.m. and wanting to immediately pass off your duties to dad or your partner.
But experts recommend being patient to prevent making bonding feel forced and overwhelming an already overwhelmed dad. “It’s tempting, but it’s not like he’s going to walk in the door and hand you his briefcase and tell you to [start doing his job],” says Brott.
It’s also important to recognize that many husbands and partners feel that with a new baby at home, the stakes have been raised at work. They now face “provider panic” – anxiety over the financial responsibilities that come with a new baby. “When they are feeling that intensity at work and come home to a wife saying ‘You’ve done nothing all day,’ they feel frustrated and under-appreciated,” O’Neill says.
This can eventually lead to the ugly “who works harder” blow-outs There are no winners in these fights, so allow dads time for unwinding at the end of the day as a way to show your appreciation and to receive your guilt-free time to yourself.
Brott recommends letting dads get changed into comfortable clothes as a way to make the transition into “baby time.” If it’s been a particularly tough day, call your spouse or partner on his way home and let him know you’re desperate for a break so that he doesn’t feel blindsided when he walks in the door.
5. The “My Way is the Right Way” Fight
Unless you want to be stuck changing every dirty diaper for eternity (or until potty training at least), moms need to accept that “differently” does not mean “wrong.”
“If you’re going to insist on a certain way, you’re setting yourself up to be constantly disappointed and dad isn’t going to want to do anything,” Brott says. “In some situations, it’s very appropriate for mom say ‘I’m going to lower my standards a little’.”
If you want to stay sane, don’t be afraid to ask for help and then prepare to let go as they figure things out on their own. “Give him specific tasks to do, but it’s up to him as to how he executes them,” O’Neill says. “Stand back and let him be the dad he wants to be.” Then you can have the marriage you want as well.
Antoinette Donovan Hemphill is a freelance writer in West Roxbury, Massachusetts. Updated August 2012