by Courtney Miller, Couples Therapist
I remember it like it was yesterday. I was 8 ½ months pregnant with my first child, and I was out walking the hills in my neighborhood for the fifth time that week. I was so ready to meet my baby boy, and I was convinced that the walking would bring him sooner. As I was finishing my walk, I came across two other mothers with their kids in strollers. Based on my size, they inevitably made comments about how I must be close to my due date. I confirmed that I was and told them how anxious I was to meet him. They smiled and proceeded to offer every well-meaning platitudes about having children – “Enjoy this time! You’ll wish you had this time back!”, etc., etc. I was really pregnant and really hot, it was August, so these comments just irritated me. At the time, I could not care less about the time I had left! I was ready to meet my perfect child and, seriously, there is no way my life was going to change that much.
Fast forward two weeks, and I was holding him in my arms. It was the most intense, surreal, unexplainable love I had ever experienced. All I kept thinking, for the first week, was, “he’s mine” and “he’s beautiful”. The breast feeding was tough, but I was high on love, so I could have been standing on my head and it wouldn’t have mattered. Did I also mention that my mother was in town for the entire first week? Well, if you’re reading this, you must have kid(s) already, so you know where this is going. When I dropped my mom at the airport, I felt like a child again myself, I felt like yelling “don’t leave me!”. I went home in an exhausted daze, everything suddenly feeling so much heavier. My husband also returned to work that second week, which meant I was completely alone with my son. I cried…a lot. I suddenly could not understand why anyone would have one kid, let alone multiple.
Over the following months, I started to adjust, but I found that I was frequently disappointed in not only my new reality as a mother but also in my relationship with my husband. Despite our best efforts, our new 8 lb. roommate was calling the shots, and our relationship was relegated to a booster seat in the back row of the minivan. To make matters worse, I didn’t know that many of my feelings were normal. I really thought something was wrong with our marriage…which made me more depressed. It turns out what we were experiencing was normal. According to multiple studies, approximately two-thirds of couples report a decline in marital satisfaction following the birth of their first child. Two-thirds!! That’s a lot of unhappy marriages. According to Cockrell, O’Neill, and Stone, Authors of Babyproofing Your Marriage, this transition is so difficult due to 6 key issues:
1. Moms and dads react to parenthood in distinctly different ways – mom gets concerned about feeding schedules and organic produce, and dad worries about how he’s going to afford college tuition aka “provider panic”.
2. Mismatched Libidos – nothing has changed for him, but her libido is largely gone. The resulting lack of intimacy is “at the root of much of the discord in our marriages” (p. 115).
3. Division of Labor – there is so much to do and not enough time to do it. You are no longer lovers, you are shift workers. Spouses end up keeping a scorecard on who has done what, and resentment takes hold in the marriage.
4. Family (In-Laws) Pressures – navigating all the wanted/unwanted opinions, visits, and boundary violations is challenging to say the least.
5. Who gets more “me time” – he went to the gym five times this week and she went twice, or she sleeps in on Saturdays while he gets up at the crack of dawn with the kids. Ugh!
6. Neglecting the relationship – with kids, it’s easy to stop nurturing the bond that created it all. The relationship is no longer the priority and everyone suffers.
So, what do we do to get our marriages back on track after baby? According to Cockrell, O’Neill, and Stone, there are a multitude of measures we can take. Many just involve having the right attitude and recognizing that a little goes a long way. Below are just some of the actions they encourage:
Appreciation – It’s amazing how much your spouse will do if they get just a little bit of appreciation. Positive reinforcement will motivate them to continue the desired behavior in the future. Focus on what your spouse has done, not what they haven’t done.
Plan and set expectations for household tasks – this means a set division of labor (e.g., she does the laundry, he handles the dishes). This leaves little room for confusion and unnecessary fighting. Please note, though, this does not always mean an equal division of labor. There will be times that your spouse seems to be the worse for wear, and you will have to pick up the slack, and vice versa. Remember, parenting is a zero-sum game – be a collaborator, not a competitor.
Speak up if you’re starting to feel resentful. The key is to speak up at the right time (no, not at 11:00 pm or after a fight) and in the right way – you want to encourage productive conversation, not defensiveness on the part of your spouse.
Hugging and kissing without an expectation for sex…BUT, sex still needs to be happening. “Sex about once a week is required for basic marriage maintenance” (p. 115). Please see Gina’s blog post “Dear Sex Starved Husband” for more on this!
Date night – I know, it’s cliché, but there is a reason that clichés exist! You know you can’t have a conversation with your spouse when your kids are awake, and you’re frequently too tired to talk once they are in bed. These date nights are ever so important to remind you of why you married this person in the first place.
Once you are parents, your spouse and kids come first. If you haven’t already, you need to cut the cord and set boundaries/expectations with your parents and in-laws (e.g., grandma is not allowed to show up at any hour of the day). Never underestimate the amount of goodwill that can be created by simply putting your spouse first. On this subject, each spouse needs to deal with their own family should an issue arise. You can’t expect your spouse to fight it out with your mom and dad – it’s unfair to your spouse and unfair to your parents. Your parents love you unconditionally, not your spouse. Do you really want to give your parents an excuse to badmouth your significant other?
Surrender to parenthood – make a conscious choice to approach parenthood with a positive attitude. “Me time” is still important, but not as plentiful, and frequently requires bartering (e.g., you go for a jog now, I will go to the driving range this evening). The truth is, you and your spouse will never get your old lives back, the kids didn’t come with a receipt and return policy. You might as well attempt to embrace your new reality (A.K.A. organized chaos). Bonus points if you can manage to find humor in it all.
Despite my earlier misgivings, I did go on to have two more kids (the third being born before my oldest was four), and these tips proved to be invaluable. Personally, I have to give a huge shout out to surrendering and humor. I will never forget the first time my husband pretended to be a squawking pterodactyl (complete with flapping arms) to shock me out of my irritable, critical mood. He explained that when I get that way, it reminds him of a pterodactyl “swooping in to get her prey”. To this day, all it takes is him flapping his arms to get me laughing and into a better headspace. What could you do to make your spouse laugh?