At a backyard barbeque a month before I delivered my twin boys, the dads tossed around a Frisbee while the moms sat around a table predicting that my marriage was about to implode. “You guys will fight over the stupidest stuff,” one woman insisted. “You just wait!” I wasn’t buying it. After all, my husband, Paul, rubbed my swollen feet every night during my third trimester. He told me I “glowed,” and he folded the laundry. In three years of marriage, we’d never had a noteworthy argument.
Now? Two years into parenthood, we’ve had nearly enough fights to earn us our own reality TV show. Our sarcasm and scorekeeping (“I just watched the boys for two hours!” “What do you want—a medal? I had them for two hours and 20 minutes yesterday!”) have subsided since the first year. But just this morning we had a blowup—over the “amazingly ineffective” way I clean the boys’ bibs and the fact (yes, it’s a fact) that Paul can’t monitor an omelet while slicing a banana. Boy, was I naïve—just like most parents-to-be.
“Our culture has way too much mythology about new parenthood—that it’s all wonderful,” says Tina Tessina, Ph.D., LMFT, author of Money, Sex and Kids: Stop Fighting About the Three Things That Can Ruin Your Marriage. “When you see what the whole deal is actually like, it’s a big shock. Parents get irritated and exhausted and start blaming each other.”
Two-thirds of couples become significantly less happy in their marriages after the first baby arrives, according to research funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, and it’s no wonder. In an instant, your entire life is upended. Romantic sex, leisurely workouts, a good night’s sleep, spontaneous movie dates, relaxing weekends and long conversations with your friends—suddenly, that’s all in your past. The love you have for your new baby and for each other may, in the short term, be no match for the grueling toll of all-night cry-a-thons. Conflict can take a toll on your baby, too.
Forewarned is forearmed, I say. Here’s what you should know and do starting now, while you’re still pregnant, to head off the top five conflicts that can derail even the strongest relationship.
Your partner wants your breasts; your baby needs them. “For most women, having a groper and a feeder is too much,” says Cathy O’Neill, an Austin, Texas, mother of three and a co-author of the 2008 book Babyproofing Your Marriage: How to Laugh More and Argue Less As Your Family Grows.
Plus, with your belly still jiggly and perhaps lingering soreness from the delivery, you may not feel like a sex pot, a fact many guys misinterpret. “Men say, ‘I feel like my wife doesn’t care about me anymore, like I’d need to set the bed on fire to get her attention,’ ” O’Neill says.
Don't Wait for Sex to Happen
Plan sex rather than expecting it to happen spontaneously. “Mark in red pen the date three months after the baby is born—that’s when the two of you are going to a hotel,” advises O’Neill. “Set his expectations accurately. The six-week thing is rubbish.” If you’re not in the mood that day, make an effort anyway.
Take it Slow
“Foreplay will make you feel desired and closer to your partner,” says Miami marriage and sex therapist Lisa Paz, Ph.D. “You think, ‘Oh, this is enjoyable,’ and you get more in the mood. The more you’re having sex, the more you feel like you want sex.”
Practice Random Acts of Sexiness
Make a habit of leaving sweet, naughty notes on the mirror, squeezing each other’s tush as you pass each other and French kissing instead of grunting goodbye. “When all of your energy is focused on your newborn, you’ll need to be deliberate about flirty behavior,” Paz says.
Do it Yourself—Guilt-Free
That goes for now and after the baby comes. “Masturbation keeps women in a sexual state of mind,” Paz says. “Plus, sexual release is energizing—it can help relieve headaches, pain and fatigue.” Encourage your husband to fly solo, too. That can take some of the pressure off you.