“When you have a baby, you set off an explosion in your marriage. And when the dust settles, your marriage is different from what it was.” –Nora Ephron
Among the dirty little secrets that surround new parenthood, relationship conflict with a partner or spouse almost always makes the short list, often rising to the very top of the list. It is not possible to imagine, pre-baby, how much your intimate romantic and sexual relationship could alter so drastically just from the arrival of a 5 to 8 pound bundle of “joy.” It is equally unfathomable to imagine the amount of work that will be added once baby makes three (or more). Making matters worse, the full story is rarely told, leaving the mother feeling isolated, like she is the only one struggling in her marriage. Meanwhile, the partner is often left feeling rejected by the mother, even resentful and jealous of their own progeny. It’s a recipe on both sides for anger, frustration, even rage.
Many mothers complain about being touched out by the end of the day, feeling like sex has become just another chore on the to-do list. Far and away the biggest complaint, however, is about the partner not doing their share of the household chores. It is also usually the mother who does the mental work of the family: keeping track of the doctor’s appointments, and determining the best baby products and baby practices (Are there enough diapers and baby food in the house and what is the best way to carry the baby or put her down for a nap?). This role often causes tension with the partner. Even when she is not physically exhausted from the endless loads of laundry and feedings, the mother often can’t just relax because even a night out require someone (usually the mother) to find and arrange for a babysitter. Women often lose power in the relationship because they are no longer earning money outside the house (at least temporarily). This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem but for the value that society puts on making money. The partner may come home from work and ask “What did you do all day?” Whether the question is benevolent or not, the mother may believe that keeping a a fussy nap-avoidant baby alive all day has less value than being the family wage earner. Even worse, the partner may become disproportionately powerful, taking control of the family decisions and finances.
The complaint list for the partner often looks very different. They may complain about not having sex, or enough sex. This is often intimately related to emotional closeness. In short, the non-birthing partners miss the sex but they also miss their partners. The number two complaint is being shut out of the mother-baby bond. The partner may desperately want to take care of and bond with the baby, but the mother doesn’t trust her partner and lets them know in no uncertain terms that they are not doing it “right,” discouraging the partner from trying at all.
Here are a few tips and suggestions to get through this challenging time when parents struggle to adjust their relationship as their family grows.
Sit down and divvy up your household chores. Make sure it’s clear who is doing what. Consider a white board or wall calendar where more urgent chores get listed. Check in regularly, perhaps weekly, to discuss what is working and what is not. Make sure that one partner isn’t doing more than their fair share of the load.
Don’t be a gatekeeper for access to the baby even if you feel that you would provide better care than your partner. Sometimes we have to let our partners struggle or just caretake differently from us.
Find ways to be intimate whether that includes sex or not. Schedule regular dates and times for hanging out with each other with and without clothes on. Don’t expect spontaneity and a burning sexual desire to get you through. Establishing an emotional connection by holding hands or leaning into each other. If need be, schedule sex. You may be pleasantly surprised that it’s not actually such a chore after all. (And don’t be afraid to ask the partner to arrange for the babysitter.)
Ask for what you need before you’re burning with resentment and rage. No one can continually give from an empty well without drying up. Don’t expect people to read your mind. Take time every week to exercise, socialize with adults, or just be alone and do nothing.
Respect each other’s roles and jobs. You’re probably both working harder than you ever have in your life. Don’t equate bringing home a paycheck (or a larger paycheck) with who gets more power in the relationship. If you believe that your stay-at-home partner isn’t working as hard as you, try caring for the baby alone all day for a week to experience first-hand how challenging it can be.
Communicate, communicate, communicate. Relationships, by definition, include occasional conflicts, and everyone needs to know how to deal with them.* Your partner may not realize you need the bottles cleaned regularly without your specifically asking. You may not realize that your partner’s feelings are hurt when you take the baby every time they cry. One way to start a difficult conversation is “The story that I’m telling myself (about this situation) is. . . .” Use “I” statements and be concrete in what changes you need to see. In turn, be a good listener and try to hear the story from your partner’s perspective.
*For an honest, funny, and helpful read on the topic of marital (dis)harmony after children, please check out How Not to Hate Your Husband After Kids by Jancee Dunn.
Terri Buysse is a clinical psychologist with a private psychotherapy practice in Edmonds and Everett, Washington. She specializes in perinatal, parenting, and trauma work. She is one of the facilitators for Little Sprouts, a new mothers’ support group in Mountlake Terrace, and is a member of Perinatal Support Washington.