During my first pregnancy, my husband, Dave, and I spent almost the entire nine months preparing for the baby: furnishing the nursery, buying a layette, picking out just the right stroller and car seat. We thought we were as ready for the baby as new parents could be. Not long after Steven arrived, however, Dave and I found ourselves bickering and losing patience with each other. We had prepared our home for a new baby, all right, but not our relationship.
Luckily, a few long talks put our marriage back on track. But Dave and I learned that for us to grow successfully into a family, our relationship needed attention just as much as our new baby did.
According to experts, this is a lesson many new parents must learn. “You’re used to gazing into each other’s eyes, but when there’s a baby, you turn away from each other and both gaze at the baby,” says Rhoda Greenspan, a clinical social worker in Newton, Mass., who specializes in couples therapy. “It can raise conflicts.”
Conflicts such as who’s going to change the diaper this time? Who’s going to make dinner? Though the excitement of pregnancy and intensity of childbirth usually bring a couple closer, the conflicts that arise afterward, combined with anxiety and sleep deprivation, can rock even the best marriage. Yet, therapists say, by keeping expectations flexible and relying on some simple strategies, couples can emerge from that first challenging year even more in love than before. Here are some of their suggestions.
It may be hard to imagine how your life will change so dramatically, but try. Talk to other first-time parents and listen carefully to what they say. “Having a baby is a complete life change,” says Heidi Murkoff, author of What to Expect When You’re Expecting (Workman Publishing, 1991). “It’s really important to be aware that changes will occur.” You’ll have more laundry to do, fewer hours of sleep and, for a while, less time as a couple. Take the case of Betsy Elwell, a 35-year-old C.P.A. and mother of two from Cranford, N.J. Before their children were born, Elwell and her husband, Kent, lived what she describes as a “great double-income, no-kids life.” They had romantic weekends in Bermuda, leisurely dinners and time for Betsy to train for and participate in triathlons. All that free couple time ended when their daughter, Sara, was born three and a half years ago, followed by a son, Michael, 18 months later.
Yet Betsy says she adjusted easily to the loss of extra time because she and her husband were ready for it. “Certain things won’t happen anymore — like vacations with just the two of us,” she says. Betsy still trains, though not as much as in prebaby days, and she and her husband find time to talk on movie dates and long car rides to visit relatives.
Irene Harwood, Ph.D., a marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles, recommends that during pregnancy, couples compare expectations about postpartum life. Ask yourselves questions, such as how will we find time for talk, for sex, for being alone together or with friends? What financial shifts will be necessary? What do we expect from each other as parents? Coming to agreement on these topics before baby arrives helps prevent arguments afterward, Harwood says.
Anticipate that you’ll watch months-old movies at home rather than the latest hits in a theater, and it will be easier to accept once it happens. Anisha Dayal, 31, of Perrysburg, Ohio, says she and her husband, Ned, now look forward to their at-home evenings after 18-month-old Sukanya goes to sleep. “We rent movies every Friday and Saturday night and snuggle on the couch to watch them,” Dayal says. “We don’t feel we’ve sacrificed anything in terms of lifestyle.”