the parent trap

Keeping your marriage running smoothly with a new baby can be a challenge. Here'’s help.


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 The baby’s needs, whether it was a diaper change, cuddle or bath, superceded ours.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:

  • Express fondness and affection for your partner.
  • Be aware of, and responsive to, what is going on in your partner’s life.
  • Approach any problem you may encounter as a team and as something that is solvable.

This may sound like so much common sense, but in the hurly-burly of taking care of a baby, it’s often easier said than done. A new mother is consumed by the skin-on-skin care of her baby, diminishing her energy to initiate intimacy with her husband. This, not surprisingly, can be distressing to the man of the house. So what’s a couple to do?

Make time to connect Six weeks after baby Aaron was born, Joe Gerber of Irvine, Calif., told his wife, Hillary, that he missed the affectionate gestures that had been so common pre-baby. “We agreed that we would make the effort to preserve and treasure our relationship,” says Hillary. “We really had to make the time to cuddle, talk and be together.” But even the best-laid plans can be usurped at a moment’s shriek. The baby in the next room is the rough equivalent of a time bomb, short-circuiting attempts at intimacy. This is why some couples set aside one night a week as “date” night, even if that means just going to the park to sit on a bench together. “Early on, I got sitters so we could have special time for us,” says Lisa Levin, who lives in Manhattan Beach, Calif., with her husband, Dan, and 14-month-old son, Alexander. “It was hard at first to leave Alexander, but it was good for us.” And, ultimately, what’s good for the marriage is good for the baby. As Barnes says, “The best security cushion for a baby is a strong marriage.” About a year after my first child was born, my husband and I went to see a marriage counselor. We forged a détente there. I learned how deeply he missed “us” (read: more sex, please), and he came to understand how radically the birth and care of a baby had drained me (read: more sleep, please). With help, we learned to build a bridge back to one another by lovingly responding to each other’s needs. It worked: The lessons we learned endured when we had our second child. See, we did have sex again.