Love Lessons

When starting a family, don't forget to nurture your marriage as much as your new baby.


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.

Be Prepared

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."

Make Room for Daddy

Marital conflicts also can arise when the husband feels pushed aside. "Suddenly the affection that was once bestowed on him is now going to the baby," says Marcia Bernstein, L.C.S.W., a psychotherapist in West Los Angeles.

This problem can be solved in part, Murkoff advises, by including your husband in getting ready for the baby during pregnancy: Shop for a crib with him rather than with your mother or girlfriends, and sign up for a baby-care class you can both attend. "A lot of women assume dads are no good at baby care," Murkoff says. "But there's virtually nothing except breastfeeding that a father can't do as well as a mother." Some women fall in love with their husbands all over again as they see what loving fathers they are.

Share duties with your husband, including night feedings and settling the baby down for a nap. "If you're doing all the parenting," warns Murkoff, "you're going to be resentful and you'll have no energy."

Look Out for Yourself

It's important to find time to be alone as a couple. Make an effort to find a sitter you feel comfortable with so you can go out on a date occasionally. Or sit down to late dinners after the baby is asleep. "Try to create a daily ritual, so every day there is time for both of you," Murkoff says. "It forces you to have conversation. You can sneak in sex here and there, but communication you really have to plan for."

It's also vital that each of you go out alone or with friends so that you can relax, regain a sense of individual identity and not feel totally submerged in baby care. "Try to keep up some activity you enjoyed before the baby," says Greenspan, "whether it's playing soccer, walking in the woods or quietly meditating."

Working parents tend to sacrifice these pleasures to be with their baby. However, she says, "You're not going to do your baby any favors if you're tense and frazzled. It's like trying to run a car you never fill with gas."

Find Your Way Back to Intimacy

Marriage counselors agree that sex is a minefield new parents must negotiate carefully because it encompasses a tangle of issues, including a woman's often-fragile postpartum body image and a man's desire to "have his wife back."

Men need to understand that their wives may feel less sexy because of weight gain, says Greenspan. Breastfeeding women in particular may feel exhausted for months after delivery. Women must try to understand that their husbands need affection, too.

Stay in touch with your sexuality and try not think of yourself solely as a mother. That means maintaining a positive body image and not avoiding sex just because you haven't returned to your prepregnancy weight. Experts agree that exercise is paramount for new mothers. It builds self-esteem, which then will spill over into other areas of life. Even if you don't feel a strong desire for sex, try it (you just might remember how much you used to enjoy it). And even if your body isn't yet exactly how you want it to be, don't let embarrassment stop you. "So what if you have stretch marks?" Murkoff says. "Dim the lights."

Making an effort to relate to each other as husband and wife can go a long way toward keeping a marriage strong. Remember to kiss each other goodnight and before setting off for work in the morning. "Reach out and touch each other even if you don't have time to have sex," says Harwood.

Despite the challenges, having a baby will most likely deepen the bond of your marriage. You'll discover new dimensions to each other in this adventure of parenting. As Bernstein says, "It's an opportunity to grow together."