By Claudia Arp and David Arp
Before the Baby is Born
The birth of a baby signifies a new era in your life – one that comes with significant changes in your responsibilities and your relationships. Even if your marriage is strong and working well before children arrive, the challenges of adjusting to a new baby can add stress and tension in your relationship. Whether you become parents through birth or adoption, or even if you already have other children, the addition of a new baby introduces drastic lifestyle changes – especially in your marriage.
There are things you can do before the baby arrives to protect your relationship. Make sure you have time for just the two of you. The best way we know to ensure quality time together is to “date your mate.” We suggest a weekly date – away from home – where you can focus on each other. On your dates, make sure you talk about you – not just about the upcoming arrival!
We also suggest a 24-hour getaway before the baby arrives to talk through the upcoming birth and how you are going to share responsibilities. Approaching parenthood as a united team can make a huge difference in keeping intimacy alive.
Baby-Related Stressors and Intimacy
When we ask couples to name the top marital stressors they experienced when they became parents, the majority say “fatigue” and “just being overwhelmed.” Then there’s “feeling out-of-control” and “just not knowing what to do.” Most parents admit that they focus so much on their new baby’s needs that they ignore their own needs and their marriage suffers.
When our first baby was born, we kept waiting for life to return to normal. It never did. We waited for our love life to reignite, but instead our 6-pound bundle of joy dynamited it. We waited for time to talk, time to sleep, time to take a shower. Nothing was working out like we thought it would.
I (Claudia) waited for Dave to say, “Honey, let me take over and change his diapers” … or walk the floor with him, rock him or do whatever creative ploy might soothe our colicky baby.
I (Dave) waited for Claudia to refocus on me.
We tried to convince ourselves, “things will change when he gets on a schedule, when his digestive track smoothes out, when he sleeps through the night, when he develops a happier disposition and doesn’t cry so much, when …”
Things did change. We went from being tired to being sleep deprived; from being civil to each other to being short-tempered; from being competent adults to being insecure and needy. So in the middle of new-baby stress, we had to look for ways to keep intimacy alive. Sometimes just cuddling and going to sleep in each other’s arms was just what we needed. We also had to give each other a lot of grace. We got through it and you can, too.
How to Fight the Fatigue of New Parenthood
To deal with marital fatigue, first you need to deal with your own personal fatigue. Fatigue is a constant companion for most new parents.
Before your baby arrived, you probably slept for seven to eight hours at a stretch – and when you couldn’t sleep, your partner would rub your back or comfort you. Now your baby may only sleep two hours and then it’s mealtime again – and that’s not three meals a day. Instead, babies tend to demand nourishment every couple of hours around the clock! Even if your baby is breast-fed, chances are Dad experiences middle-of-the-night involvement with helping to soothe the very awake baby or change diapers. So exhaustion is the typical state for both parents.
While babies are charming, the fatigue that accompanies them can wreck havoc with your ability to function and your relationship with your partner. When you’re tired, you have a shorter fuse and are more likely to misunderstand your spouse. Your communication and conflict-resolution skills may be strained as you view everything through the filter of exhaustion.
So how can you get some help? Consider the following things you can do – right now – to deal with fatigue:
Reevaluate your expectations. What is really important and what can be put off or eliminated? Recognize that your before-baby expectations for cleanliness, personal time, couple time and so on are no longer realistic or helpful. Let go of guilt and frustration about what is not getting done. Lower your expectations and feel successful if you make it through the day!
Focus on just four things:
1. The safety, health and well-being of your baby
2. Keeping yourself sane and as rested as possible
3. Staying emotionally connected with your partner
4. Accomplishing the bare minimum of household chores, such as groceries and meals, laundry, baby-care chores and washing dishes.
Sleep when your baby sleeps!
Get help. Ask your spouse, a relative or neighbor to relieve you for an hour or two so you can sleep. If necessary, hire a babysitter or a nanny to give you a daily break. Call local churches or high school/community college placement offices for recommendations.
Remember proper nutrition. Vitamins, eight glasses of water and lots of fruits and vegetables can make a real difference.
Exercise. Take your baby out in a stroller or workout for at least 30 minutes each day. It will benefit both of you. Note: This is more important than a clean house.
Hormonal Changes and Intimacy
A new mom’s body has just gone through a traumatic experience. You may be wondering if it will ever get back in shape again. Then, if you’re breastfeeding, you begin to realize that your body is not your own! You are now a milk machine that doesn’t always function smoothly and, at times, you might be tempted to put a sign on your breasts: “Do not even think about touching!”
The hormonal changes women go through during pregnancy, nursing and even menstruation can greatly alter your desire for sex. And, although it may seem obvious to the woman that sex is out of the question on any given night (due to physiological stress or fatigue), don’t assume that your husband is picking up your signal.
Our advice: Communicate to your spouse that your lack of interest in sex is based more on physiological issues than a lack of desire or love for him. Assure him that your love life will be re-energized when your hormones level out again.
When you’re tired, your ability to communicate and deal with conflict is put to the test, so you need to develop some good communication habits. This includes talking about your love life. Studies have found that if couples understand each other’s goals, worries, hopes and fears, as well as the details of each other’s day, it protects them from a dramatic upheaval in their relationship when two become three (or more).
Following these simple communication tips can make a drastic difference in the quality of your relationship:
- Start your sentences with “I” and let your statement reflect back on you. For example: “I’m feeling really tired and frustrated right now. The baby was fussy all day and I need a little love and encouragement. Will you hold me for a little bit?”
- Avoid making “you” statements – they tend to be attacking. For example, avoid saying, “You’re so inconsiderate. Can’t you at least put your dirty dishes in the sink?”
- Skip the “why” questions. Instead of saying, “Why can’t you take the baby for a little while and give me a break?” Say, “Honey, I’m exhausted. Can you take the baby for a few minutes and let me regroup?”
- Wipe out absolute statements like “never” and “always.” These will only cause trouble.
- Generously use the words “thank you” and “please.” We all need to be appreciated and yet we often forget to express that appreciation to the one we’ve chosen as our mate for life!
- Give three positive statements each day. We tend to express our negative feelings, yet hold our tender feelings inside. Make a habit of expressing the positive ones.
- Talk about “us.” It’s easy to be consumed with talk about the baby, but it’s also important to talk about you and about your love life. Set aside times when the topic of your conversation is your relationship. Affirm the positive aspects and commit to work on areas that need improvement. Share your feelings. Look for ways to affirm your spouse and keep affirming each other.
This is also a good time to consider taking a marriage course or attending a marriage seminar. These can be an opportunity to have some time away from baby and an occasion to refocus on your relationship as a couple.
Related Reading: Is There Really Sex After Baby? Get the facts.
Becoming Parents: How to Strengthen Your Marriage as Your Family Grows, by Pam Jordan, Scott Stanley and Howard Markman, Jossey-Bass, 2001.
No Time for Sex: Finding the Time You Need for Getting the Love You Want, by David Arp and Claudia Arp, Howard Publishing Co., 2004.
10 Great Dates to Energize Your Marriage, by David Arp and Claudia Arp, Zondervan Publishing Co., 1997.