How Parenthood Changes Marriage
By Stacie Cockrell, Cathy O’Neill and Julia Stone, co-authors of Babyproofing Your Marriage (Harper Collins, 2007)
Once we have a baby, we pass over to the other side. Becoming a parent is, without parallel, the single most beautiful moment in life (even if we are too busy throwing up, cursing, fainting, or just enjoying the drugs to notice at the time). As we cross over the threshold of new parenthood together, we feel a tremendous bond with our husbands. When we asked women to recall the early baby days and how it changed their marriages, lots of them got misty-eyed. They talked of swooning on the spot as their partners held their tiny babies in their big manly hands.
Those “Wow, look what we did!” moments are absolutely wonderful, but, surprisingly there can be some not-so-wonderful moments, too. Having a baby can put a strain on even the strongest of relationships. In fact, study after study finds that two-thirds of new parents report a decline in their marriage during baby’s first year. You might ask yourself, like we did, how can that happen? Well, there are lots of reasons, but basically, parenthood can lead us to behave in new and even peculiar ways. What we want and need from our spouse can change, too, when there is someone else in the picture who also needs our time and attention.
"After I had Jack, I felt like a different person. I think and act differently because of the new responsibilities I have. It’s like I have to reconfigure the whole picture of myself. And it definitely changed what I want from Matthew. Before the baby, I was unfazed by his long hours. Suddenly, I want him home now. And it bothers me that he doesn’t seem as interested in Jack as I am.
—Erica, married 4 years, 1 kid
While many new moms worry that their husbands just don’t get the extent to which motherhood has upended their lives, new dads can feel that their wives have become a tad compulsive and that they’ve been demoted to the Bottom Head of the Family Totem Pole.
“The baby’s great and all, but when are things going to get back to normal around here? When will my wife stop the control-freak stuff? When will she be nicer to me and remember I exist?”
—Spencer, married 6 years, 2 kids
We don’t mean to sound dire. We’re just here to help you prepare. The good news is there are lots of things you can do before the baby arrives to help make the transition from couple to family as smooth as possible:
1. Accept the Great Mom/Dad Divide. Men and women respond differently to becoming parents and those differences can become apparent during pregnancy. For example, for women, the Mommy Chip kicks in.
The Mommy Chip is a hardwired circuit that, once activated, makes us think 24/7 about the kids, and we can’t turn the damn thing off! When's my next doctor's appointment? Yikes, we only have 3 months to get the nursery ready! What are we going to name her? How many pre-schools should I register for? I hope the test results come out OK. Without realizing it, we can start to get compulsive about the impending arrival. And we can get upset with our husbands when they don’t obsess over gestational milestones, swoon over the adorable baby outfits, or want to spend all afternoon picking out the paint for the nursery. Don’t be disappointed if your partner doesn’t share your laser-like focus and enthusiasm. Men don’t have a Mommy Chip. They’ll love that baby as much as you do, but they’ll likely bond with it on a different timetable and in a different way than you do. So try to cut your man some slack. He’ll catch up with you soon enough.
That Mommy Chip can also send pregnant women into a shopping frenzy. It’s understandable. You just want to get everything ready for your little chick … the best stroller, the perfect crib, etc. It might be a good idea, however, to agree on a “feathering the nest” budget as a lot of soon-to-be dads may start to suffer from Provider Panic, a fear that they won’t be able to adequately provide for the family. It may sound a bit cliché, but most fathers told us they felt this way. That Panic can escalate when dad sees the bills piling up before the baby even arrives.
2. Plan on Giving Him a ‘Training Weekend.’ No matter how well intentioned (and indeed, hands-on) dad may be, when it comes to understanding the amount of work involved in taking care of a baby, the collective female consensus is that the average husband just doesn’t get it. Women often told us they feel like they bear most of the parenting responsibilities, and think their husbands don’t always pull their weight on the domestic front.
“My husband was as useless as a tit on a boarhog.” — Liz, married 9 years, 2 kids. (Authors’ note: Liz is from Texas, which we hope explains this one.)
He doesn’t get it because he hasn’t done it! Once you feel comfortable leaving your baby overnight, give Dad a Training Weekend. Forty-eight hours on his own with the baby. No sitters. No dialing 1-800-Grandma. No cavalry whatsoever. The point is to let him figure things out for himself. You, the reinvigorated mom, will likely return to an enormously appreciative and surprisingly helpful husband.
3. Remember, Good Enough Is Good Enough. Caught up in the excitement of having a new baby and the determination to do everything just right, many new moms hold their husbands to extremely high (some would call it anal) standards. A lot of new fathers complain that, no matter what they do to help with the kids, the house, and the bank balance, It’s Never Enough!
“Trying to figure out what my wife really wants or what will make her happy is like playing Whac-A-Mole!” — Dan, married 9 years, 2 kids
What’s more, they say that whatever they do, It’s Never Good Enough. It seems to them that their contributions on the domestic front are always criticized and rarely praised. You’re not changing the diaper right. You put that dress on her for the birthday party? He ate WHAT for dinner?
The guys may have a point here. The maternal instinct is beautiful and strong and good, but if left unchecked, it can get in the way of letting dad be a parent, too. Assuming the children’s basic health and safety are in check, it’s OK to take a step back and let your husband parent the way he wants to parent. If the kids wear the same clothes to day care two days in a row, or the baby’s dress is on backwards, so be it. Sometimes we moms need to say good enough is good enough. Relaxing your standards can actually feel pretty good. And your husband just might morph from ‘Mommy’s little helper’ into a true domestic partner.
4. Avoid Coitus Non-Existus. It’s possible things may grind (sorry) to a halt in the bedroom after you become parents. While it’s totally reasonable, if not advisable, to take a couple of months off from the whole thing, don’t give up on your post-baby sex life.
“I feel like the old dog and my wife just got a new puppy.” —Brent, married 7 years, 1 kid
While men are usually the first to notice and comment upon the decline in bedroom activity, this lack of intimacy affects women too. Sex is the glue that holds a marriage together, and without it, your relationship can be reduced to a soulless domestic partnership. While you’re pregnant, it’s helpful to talk and, if at all possible, laugh about, the looming sexual drought. Tell your partner there are a lot of reasons your sex drive may go MIA for a while after the baby arrives – sleep deprivation and those lingering ten pounds aren’t exactly known for their aphrodisiac qualities. Reassure him (and yourself) that it’s normal, that it’s a phase, and that at some point, “supply” will (hopefully) once again meet “demand.”
You can also tell him all is not lost. There are things he can do to help coax your post-partum libido back from its vacation in the Bahamas. For example, he shouldn’t reduce foreplay to a Ten O’Clock Shoulder Tap - that paw on your shoulder at the end of a long day. He can also do a Dad on Duty night of baby and house-related chores so that you’ll be able to escape for a hot bath and then find some energy left over for him.
Also, if finances allow, book a hotel for a night away when the baby is a little older. Getting away can help you get out of Mommy Mode and reconnect with your partner. And finally, make a commitment now that neither of you will forget about SGIs, the small gestures of intimacy, like hugging, kissing and handholding. Just because one of you is not up for sex doesn’t mean that you can’t show your physical affection in other ways.
Of course you will both be great parents. You’ll give your new baby everything it needs to be happy and healthy. Just remember that having a strong and happy marriage is one of the best things you can do for your children.