Preparing your relationship for parenthood
Dr Melanie Woodfield offers advice on the likely turbulence of new parenthood and how best to prepare for the relationship bumps so you can still enjoy the journey together.
If you ask me, having a baby with someone is a bit like jumping on a long-haul flight together. You’ve (usually) chosen to do it, it’s wondrous and exciting and seems like such a great idea at the time. Both long-haul flights and having children often feature large doses of sleep deprivation and stress. Any travel arrangements run the risk of lost luggage (colic), missed connecting flights (feeding issues) or slightly odd people sitting next to you (grandparents).
When you’re in the thick of it, you’re exhausted, bedraggled, and snappy — not exactly your finest moments. Once over the hump, however, it’s the most worthwhile and enriching experience. It’s a cliché, but both travel and babies often do make us “better people”, and can really strengthen our relationships with each other and refine what we value in life. The key is to make it through the flight (baby years). Stay tuned for your in-flight safety briefing.
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 us. I discovered that my husband has the patience of a saint at 3am when I’d had enough of pacing. I can wait until the cows come home during the day, but in the wee small hours, I’m over it faster than a hurdler.
Even the smallest of issues seem huge when you’re sleep-deprived (or hungry). Before baby comes along, maybe you’ll both agree to a cease-fire for the first month at least — a time when you’ll decide to be particularly forgiving of each other. Another strategy could be to write down your frustration or bones of contention, rather than saying it out loud 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. Sleep. Your relationship will thank you for it.
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 if the in-laws live out of town and are expecting to come and stay? What role does the dad have in this? It’s so easy for him to be stuck in the middle between his mum and his wife.
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 will probably be mercifully short), and then visit periodically after that. Either way, whether the in-laws live upstairs, or in France, things are likely to go much more smoothly with a frank discussion. My parents-in-law now know that I’m just not good on the phone. Full stop. Dislike the thing with a passion. Face to face I’m a regular chatterbox, but if they phone for a natter, they’re out of luck. Another ritual we’ve put in place is our Friday night takeaways-and-trash-TV night. The in-laws get a regular chance to see the kids and we all know that it’ll happen once a week.
Parents can sometimes be super helpful too. 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 coat?”
It took me until after I’d had children myself to realise what a saint that woman was. Seriously, a saint. Maybe your mother-in-law is a bit of a battle axe, and could be given the role of booting people out after a specified time. Or answering the phone and taking messages. Or doing your grocery shopping. Most parents and parents-in-law want to help, they just need a bit of directing sometimes.
When it comes to sex, you might be ready, but not “ready”, if you know what I mean. 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 Packed to the Rafters, 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 breast milk. 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. It might also help him to know that going off nooky for a while is ridiculously common, is temporary, and doesn’t mean that you love him any less.
The home front
It’s funny how often couples who shared the cooking and cleaning before baby arrived suddenly go all 1950s post-baby. Mum is frantically bottling organic peaches while jiggling a cheeky cherub on her hip. And Dad leaves home early and comes home late. For women who have been used to high-profile or high-powered jobs, this can be a bit of a jolt.
Of course, there are exceptions. Lots of dads stay home these days, 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 possible only 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 Gewürztraminer. Oops, I mean prepares a paleo feast for the family. Or maybe Mum’s sense of self and professional identity have taken a hit, and Dad offers to babysit with a bottle of expressed milk while she pops into the city to have a latte with friends.
The other thing to consider is that you may both actually enjoy the change (perish the thought). Some blokes just love to be relied on as The Provider, and come over all manly. And some women truly find themselves and connect in to creativity and home-making skills they didn’t know they had.
In reality, we often have few choices. Often the mortgage or rent dictates 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 if both parents are working. This can easily feel unfair and lead to bickering and flare-ups. Perhaps, pre-baby, or before you go back to work, you could sit down together and divvy up the tasks. Ask hubby for his suggestions about how best to make things work — you might be surprised at what he offers to help with.
One of the most challenging things for me has been to avoid telling my beloved exactly how he should be doing everything. He’d step in to help, and I’d hover over his shoulder telling him what he was doing wrong. Very quickly, he stopped offering to help and I started nagging him to help more. I’m far from perfect but these days, I bite my tongue and let him do it his way (and sometimes run back later and do it my way). He feels a sense of mastery and tends to offer to help more.
Another strategy could be for hubby to have a job or two just for him. Maybe Daddy does the bedtime story, the morning feed or the vacuuming.
Babies cost a ridiculous amount of money! Well, the truth is that 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). Of course, this is very often while living on half your former 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 lovely 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 when you need to go back to work.
Tips for smooth flying
- It’s so important to continue to work on your relationship with each other. It’s hard to believe, but baby will grow up and it’ll be just the two of you again. Try informal date nights, where your main aim is to have fun and not to work through the to-do list of gripes and complaints.
- Try to remember the importance of your own self-care — the old “put your own oxygen mask on first” in an aeroplane thing. It’s darn hard to be one half of a solid relationship if you’re running on empty. Maybe it requires a latte, or sitting down to read a magazine or going for a walk. Do what you need to do. And remember to nap, for goodness sake.
- Keep in mind the classic five love languages — words of affirmation, acts of service, receiving gifts, quality time and physical touch (5lovelanguages.com). What makes your partner feel loved could be quite different to what you’d enjoy. You could be trying hard but missing the mark.
- Try to avoid starting sentences with “You always…” or “You never…”. They’re fire-starters. Try starting with “I feel…” So instead of “You never come home on time”, try, “I feel overwhelmed when I notice it’s 7pm and you’re not home. I so love it when you’re here to give moral support.” Pretty hard for hubby to argue with that!
- Make use of resources: theparentingplace.com has a Marriage and Relationships section and Relationships Aotearoa (relationshipsaotearoa.org.nz) offers affordable, quality counselling.
- Remember, raising children is a marathon, not a sprint. Those early months feel like they will last forever, but while the days are long the years are short. Be kind to each other. And keep the destination in mind, whether it’s Europe, or a happy and healthy longterm relationship.
Dr Melanie Woodfield is an Auckland mum of two, a clinical psychologist and expert (well, she thinks so, anyway) adviser to her long-suffering husband.
AS FEATURED IN ISSUE 24 OF OHbaby! MAGAZINE. CHECK OUT OTHER ARTICLES IN THIS ISSUE BELOW