Ready, set, reality! Relationships after baby
The onesies are washed and folded, the nappy cupboard fully stocked, but how ready is your relationship for the arrival of your tiny human? Psychologist Melanie Woodfield offers insights into baby-proofing your partnership.
Having a baby is a little like hopping on a tandem bike with your partner in Mission Bay or on Oriental Parade. You’ve been walking on the footpath, watching other couples effortlessly cruising along on two wheels, and it felt like the right time to join in. There may have been a pondering of pros and cons over coffee, or you may have found yourself sitting in the saddle without quite realising it. For the first few metres it’s new and exciting and seems such fun! And then comes an unexpected hill that requires furious peddling and leaves you covered in sweat. As you quickly discover, there can be wobbles and squabbles while you find your new rhythm together.
Even the best paths have loose gravel sometimes. While it’s different for every couple, there are some common potholes in the tandem bike ride of parenting. Thankfully, chances are you’ll get to the end of your bike hire period and be very pleased that you had that experience. Forewarned is forearmed – let’s take a look at some of the common challenges.
TOP TIPS FOR RIDING IN TANDEM SLEEP
We all expect to lose sleep after having a baby – it’s par for the course. What’s harder to foresee is how it will affect our relationships. Even the smallest of issues seem huge when you’re sleep-deprived (or hungry). Hubby being fifteen minutes late can result in World War III.
A tip: write down your frustration or bone of contention, rather than saying it aloud immediately. Chances are, when you get to the end of the day and look at what you’ve written, it will seem much less important. It’s also important to snatch sleep whenever you can. Don’t use baby’s nap time to catch up on laundry or social media. Sleep. Your relationship will thank you for it.
You might be an introvert, while your partner’s a social butterfly. Your instinct is to go to ground and hibernate, but all he wants to do is show off baby to a houseful of visitors. Neither approach is wrong, they’re just different. Our quirks and traits can be exaggerated in the pressure cooker of those first few months. The key is to state how you’re feeling – chances are he hasn’t realised that what’s energising for him is depleting you.
Pre-kids, I remember visiting a close friend who’d just had a baby. I arrived armed with gifts, and an intention to stay for at least a couple of hours – we had SO much to catch up on. After 15 minutes (I kid you not), my friend’s mum said “Thanks so much for coming, we’ve really enjoyed seeing you. Shall I find your bag?”. It took me until after I’d had my own children to realise what a saint that woman was. Maybe your mother is a tad bossy or your mother-in-law is a bit of a battleaxe – they could be given the role of booting people out after a specified time.
Babies cost a lot! Well, if we get back to basics, they don’t, but we seem to convince ourselves that we need the latest buggy, bag and bouncer. If we factor in lost income though, we’re looking at hundreds of thousands of dollars to raise a child. Worth it? Of course. Stressful? You bet. You’ll save on some things (nights out, lots of trips away), and this money will go straight into something else (nappies, odd bits of equipment that seem necessary at the time, childcare…). And this is often all in the context of halving your income.
It’s very hard to do, but if you can, try to live on one income for most of your pregnancy. That way, all the quibbling will be largely over and done with before Junior arrives with a new set of stressors. It may also mean that you’ll have a handy nest egg for any unexpected expenses. Another thing to consider is whether downsizing the mortgage or rent for a few years might give you more flexibility in when you need to go back to work.
Whether the in-laws live upstairs or in France, this one’s a biggie. It’s really challenging to strike a happy medium. We all want Baby’s grandparents to have some involvement, but how much? What role does Dad have in this? So easy for him to be stuck in the middle between his mum and his partner.
In some ways, if your in-laws live out of town, it can be easier to set limits. Perhaps they come and stay for a few weeks (which may be stressful, but is time-limited), and then visit periodically after that. Another idea is to agree together on a regular time each week that is ‘their’ time. For years we had a Friday takeaways-and-TV night. My in-laws popped over after work, had a regular chance to see the kids, and we all knew that it would happen once a week.
Your midwife or doctor is likely to give you the okay a few weeks after baby arrives, but it often takes a whole lot longer for sex to even feel relevant. Add to that a few uncomfortable weeks in late pregnancy, where the home-front action likely only involved a remote (to switch on House Rules, of course!), and hubby might be looking at somewhat of a drought.
It’s also a bit disconcerting, to say the least, when bits of your body suddenly have a new purpose that isn’t necessarily overly romantic. Sustaining life with the wondrous benefits of glorious breastmilk. Important? Undeniably. Sexy? Ummmm…
Darling partner might struggle somewhat to understand that, while you’re not in pain, you’re also not in the mood. The best way to help is to explain, so he knows what you’re keen for and what he needs to wait for. It might also help him to know that going off sex for a while is ridiculously common, is temporary, and doesn’t mean that you love him any less. These two articles share some great and helpful insights for you both to read: 10 things new mums needs to know about new dads. 10 things new dads need to know about new mums.
Also, keep in mind the five love languages – words of affirmation, acts of service, gifts, quality time and physical touch (5lovelanguages.com). What makes your partner feel loved could be quite different to what floats your boat. You could both be trying hard, but missing the mark.
COOKING AND CLEANING
It’s funny – many couples share the cooking and cleaning pre-baby, then things seem to go all 1950s post-baby. Mum is barefoot and domestic, frantically bottling organic kimchi while jiggling a cheeky cherub on an apron-wrapped hip. And Dad leaves home early, and comes home late. For women who have been used to high-powered jobs, this can be somewhat of a jolt.
Of course there are exceptions. Lots of dads stay home or share care. The point is that things inevitably change, and it’s worth bearing this in mind during those long, uninterrupted discussions that are actually possible before Junior shows up.
There are lots of lovely meet-in-the-middle ideas too. Maybe Dad could be Chief Bather, while Mum has a wee glass of wine. Oops, I mean prepares a paleo feast for the family. Or maybe Mum’s sense of self and professional identity have taken a hit, so Dad offers to look after Baby with a bottle of expressed milk, while she pops out to catch up with work friends.
The other thing to consider is that you may both actually enjoy the change. Some blokes just love to be relied upon as The Provider, and come over all manly. And some ladies truly find themselves and connect with creativity and home-making skills they didn’t know they had.
In reality, we often have few choices, and finances require that both parents work. This can be an extra challenge – studies have shown that mums tend to do the lion’s share of childcare and housework, even when both parents are working. This can easily feel unfair and lead to bickering and resentment. Perhaps before you go back to work, you could sit down together and divvy up the tasks. Ask your partner for their suggestions about how best to make things work – you might be surprised at what they offer to help with.
Try to remember the importance of your own self-care. The old ‘In the event of a loss of cabin pressure, put your own oxygen mask on first’ cliché. It’s darn hard to be one half of a successful, solid relationship if you’re running on empty. Maybe it’s a latte, sitting down to read a magazine, or going for a walk. Maybe it’s a substantial snack half an hour before your partner gets home, so he doesn’t get your ‘hangry’ self. Do what you need to do. And nap, for goodness sake.
It’s so important to continue to work on your relationship with each other. Hard to believe, but your baby will grow up, and it’ll be just the two of you again. And one of the most useful things you can do for your child is have them grow up in a reasonably calm home where most conflict is resolved. Try informal date nights, where your main aim is to have fun. Not to work through the to-do list of gripes and complaints. Also try to avoid starting sentences with “You always…” or “You never…”. They’re firestarters. Instead, try starting with “I feel…”. So instead of “You never come home on time”, try “I feel overwhelmed when I notice that it’s 7pm and you’re not home. I so love it when you’re here”. Pretty hard for hubby to argue with that one.
Make use of great resources – check out the Marriage and Relationships section, under Parenting, at the OHbaby website. For a directory of local counselling services, go to familyservices.govt.nz/directory and search ‘relationships’. Parenting well and enjoying the journey is about so much more than the specific skills of nappy changing, feeding and sleep strategies. It’s about feeling supported, having realistic expectations of yourself and others, keeping things in perspective, and working as a team. Remember – raising children is a marathon, not a sprint. Those early months feel like they last forever, but while the days are long, the years are short. Be kind to each other. And keep the destination in mind: happy and healthy children and a happy and healthy long-term relationship.
Dr Melanie Woodfield is a Clinical Psychologist in Auckland, and mother of two boys. She’s never been tempted by a tandem bike, but would consider the idea of a romantic bike ride with her husband on e-bikes.
AS FEATURED IN ISSUE 45 OF OHbaby! MAGAZINE. CHECK OUT OTHER ARTICLES IN THIS ISSUE BELOW