By Lola Augustine Brown
Having a baby together can feel just like falling in love again, as you and your partner are drawn closer than ever. But that loving feeling often turns on its head once baby is here. “Everyone is so idealistic and optimistic that it’s difficult to understand the challenges until after they become parents,” says Mark E. Crawford, Ph.D., author of When Two Become Three: Nurturing Your Marriage After Baby Arrives.
When Deborah Gonzalez* of San Francisco had her twins, she was shocked at how deeply it affected her marriage. “It never got to knock-down, drag-out fighting, but we just stopped being gentle with each other,” she says.
Don’t worry that these inevitable squabbles mark the beginning of the end. Working through classic new parent conflicts can strengthen your relationship and make you better parents. Here are five common fights, and how you can muddle through them with little collateral damage.
*Some names have been changed to avoid further confrontation.
SHARING THE CHORES
Lori Chalmers* of Austin, TX, spent months cursing her husband because he just didn’t get how much work it was looking after a newborn. “He’d tell me that he’d had a hard day at work and barely do anything for the baby, let alone any chores around the house. It took me having a complete breakdown for him to help with anything,” she says.
“He’s not doing his fair share” is probably the most common gripe among new moms. According to Sharon Meers, co‑author of Getting to 50/50: How Working Couples Can Have It All by Sharing It All, you can get your partner to take more responsibility at home. You just need to be strategic, and not go ballistic.
Meers offers two great tips for tackling your frustration with his inaction on the home front. First, you must never nag, but instead make a clear, kind request. Adopt the same tone of respect you’d use with a colleague who’s overlooking something. Putting it in writing, like an email, is a great way to be sure you get the message right. “And try to communicate before you’re so annoyed you can’t hold it in any longer,” Meers says.
The other option is to explain exactly how things are going for you, perhaps over coffee or in some other neutral place. “Don’t just say ‘I’m overwhelmed and I need you to help more,’ ” Meers says. “Be specific.” Present a list of concrete tasks he could take over, and tell him which would help you the most. If he doesn’t like those, ask him to choose two or three others he’d be willing to handle.
DEALING WITH THE “WE” HOURS
When you’re so tired that you feel like the walking dead, it’s hard not to get pissy about who wakes up in the middle of the night to deal with feedings and diapers. Penelope Jackson of Halifax, NS, says she and her hubby fought so viciously about this that they had to instigate a rule: Nothing said between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. would have any bearing on their marriage. “Without that, we would have split pretty soon after the birth,” she says.
The key is to help each other get through those hard nights rather than fight. When hubby has a high-stress job outside the home, it can be hard for him to do night duty, but he has to do it some of the time, Crawford says, “because the last thing dad wants is a sleep-deprived, cranky wife who’s running on empty.”
Discussing in advance how you’ll deal with those sleepless nights doesn’t guarantee that the arrangement will feel fair, but it helps.
Lisa Taggart of Santa Clara, CA, and her hubby, Jim, decided that they’d take turns while Lisa was off work, but that once her maternity leave was up, Jim would assume night duty for their son. “I’m really extreme about needing a lot of sleep, so I was a complete brat about the fact that I wasn’t going to be doing it,” Taggart admits. “But because we both knew how it was going to be from the get-go, it was a smooth transition.”
NOT GETTING ANY
Experienced dads will often joke that nookie is non-existent after baby arrives, but there’s truth behind the laughter. Post-birth, moms are so wrapped up in taking care of baby that sex rarely makes their priority lists.
When hubby starts to bitch about where the love has gone, it’s easy to snap at his insensitivity. But relationships expert and author of Love In the Time of Colic: The New Parents’ Guide to Getting It on Again, Ian Kerner, Ph.D., says wives need to try and understand the emotion behind the message—even if they don’t appreciate the delivery.
“When a guy complains about sex, he’s performing an important relationship function—bringing his partner back into the relationship—but going about it in the wrong way,” Kerner says. Because sex is significant in a marriage, and because it’s energizing and stress-relieving, you really do need to bring your sexy self back, Kerner says. But it takes both partners!
He suggests “making some deposits in the touch bank”—in other words, spontaneous acts of non-sexual physical activity, like hugs and hand-holding. This savings account of touch outside of the bedroom makes it much easier to feel close once you’re between the sheets. “Studies have shown that even a 20-second hug raises oxytocin levels in women, which helps to facilitate a sense of connection as well as arousal,” Kerner says.
If you can tell he’s holding back, initiate some intimacy. Adam Green*, of Brooklyn, NY, was scared to have sex again after watching his wife push out a 10-pound baby and waited until she instigated it. “Of course I wanted sex, but until she said, ‘let’s go,’ I survived on make-out sessions and a little heavy petting,” he says. “After what she’d been through, I felt like I had no right to put any demands on her nether regions.”
“ME” TIME (OR LACK OF IT)
Karen Billings*, of -Sedona, AZ, hated that her husband went off mountain biking with his friends on weekends, leaving her home with their infant son. “I knew he’d had a tough week at work, but when did I get any downtime? Never,” she says.
Getting a break is vitally important for moms on maternity leave, Crawford says. The constant state of hyper-vigilance it takes to care for an infant is overwhelming and just plain wears you out. But it’s up to both of you to recognize this and create time off for you, too. “Dad needs to insist that mommy goes out for a walk or out with the girls in order to look after herself,” Crawford says, “and mom has to be able to say to her husband ‘I need a break.’ ”
Downtime is essential for you as a couple, too. “There’s no shame in needing time off, because without it you’re going to be less effective and enjoy parenting a lot less,” Crawford advises. “Even if you don’t think you need it, you should take a night out from time to time.”
THE PARENTING TRAP
The main cause of friction between -Gonzalez and her husband was whether or not to let the twins sleep with them. “We were both on board about never letting infants cry, but I wanted to bring them into bed a lot and he didn’t want to set a precedent, so we would fight over that,” she says.
Sorry to say it, but one of you will have to give in. And, of course, it will be the one who cares least about the issue. “In any kind of conflict, one of you probably feels more strongly than the other, and you’ve got to be honest about who that is, because whoever feels more strongly is going to have the hardest time compromising,” Crawford says.
He suggests ranking issues on a scale of 1 to 10—and if something is truly a 9 to you and a 7 to your spouse, dad needs to back down. “Doing this also creates good faith in a relationship,” Crawford adds. When your partner concedes because something is more important to you than to him, you’re more likely to return the favor in the future.
It can also help to keep your mouth shut when dad’s in charge. “Your husband is less likely to enjoy parenting if he feels like he is merely following your orders,” Meers says. Guys are perfectly capable of looking after newborns, if given the space to dive right in and educate themselves. So make this your rule: Don’t give advice unless asked. It’s a minor attitude adjustment that goes a long way in helping him feel up to the job.
TIME FOR TEAMWORK
It’s important to realize that every decision isn’t monumental, Crawford says. You come from different backgrounds and will have different viewpoints on the right way to parent. Instead of letting little choices matter too much, think of yourselves as a team and realize you’re working toward the same goal, even if you differ on the methodology to get there. “The important thing is to get out of the ‘I’m right’ mindset,” he says, “because you’ve got to open to new ways of doing things.”
Remember, this is an adventure you’re undertaking together. Every couple disagrees, or even fights, when trying to adjust to parenthood, but once you’ve made it through those first few months as mom and dad, you’ll feel invincible as a couple—and as a new family.
Lola Brown enjoyed hearing how different couples made it work during new parenthood. A mother of a daughter, her freelance writing has also appeared in Allure and Cosmopolitan.