As I arrived home from the hospital, baby in arms, I hadn’t given much thought to how this glorious child would challenge — even strain — the relationship between my husband and me. But as soon as we walked through the door, our entire lives changed. In a flash, I was a 24-hour food source. The baby’s needs, whether it was a diaper change, cuddle or bath, superceded ours. We were parents first, lovers second.
Naturally, we were in love with the baby. There were profound, emotional moments when we would look at each other, do a group hug and get teary over feeling like a family. But despite how much we loved the baby, our life as a couple took some hits. We rarely went out. (This angered my husband but was fine by me; I was so foggy from fatigue that I did mindless things, like the time I tried to put a pacifier in my husband’s mouth at a dinner party.) We got into the who-is-suffering-more contest (there are no winners here, trust me). At one point, things had gotten so strained that my husband asked me soberly: “Do you think we’ll ever have sex again?”
The truth is, the birth of a baby — as euphoric as it is — introduces myriad stresses into a relationship. Husband and wife are transformed into parents and thrust headlong into the most important partnership of their lives: that of raising a child. When sleep-deprived, fatigued and bound to a whirl of repetitive baby-related responsibilities, it’s easy to forget that maintaining a good relationship with one’s spouse is critical to being a good parent.
“When a child is born, there is a loss of the couple’s relationship as they knew it,” says Diana Lynn Barnes, Psy.D., a licensed marriage and family therapist and founder-director of the Center for Postpartum Health in Woodland Hills, Calif. “There is a loss of freedom, a loss of time and a loss of adult companionship. The whole structure of being a couple is overhauled.”
A prescription for happiness?
For decades, social scientists have been studying the effects that babies have on marriage. In a recent study published in the Journal of Family Psychology, University of Washington psychologists reported that among childless couples, 51 percent of wives reported stable or increased marital satisfaction over four to six years, while 67 percent of new mothers reported a drop in marital satisfaction, most of which occurred when the baby was 1 year old. One-third of new mothers said the baby hadn’t changed their marital quality or had enriched it. (Each mother was interviewed three months, one year and two years after her baby’s birth.)
“What is important is that 33 percent of the couples who went through the stressful transition to parenthood found ways to keep their marriages happy and in some cases actually make them richer,” says Alyson Fearnley Shapiro, a doctoral candidate and one of the study’s co-authors. “They show that there are ways of keeping a marriage strong even during this very stressful time.”
The researchers offer this three-part prescription aimed at fortifying the marital bond in the baby years: