How Becoming Parents Affects Your Relationship
June 25, 2004, KidsHealth.org

Expectant parents spend months preparing for the arrival of their baby. By the time they bring their new little family member home, they have taken classes, read a library's worth of books, and bought enough onesies to fill an entire dresser. But even with all the preparation, the reality of caring for a baby can be overwhelming. When your household grows from two to three, your relationship with your partner is bound to change.

The best way to deal with those changes is to be ready for them. So read on and get a handle on what to expect when you have your baby.

And Baby Makes Three
Before, you were a couple. Now, you're (take a deep breath here) parents. How will your day-to-day life change? To start with the obvious, you probably will not get enough sleep in the early months of your baby's life. At first she may only sleep for a few hours at a time, and when she's up, you're up. The resulting sleep deprivation can make you irritable and turn tasks like household work and errands into difficult chores because you have less energy and are not able to concentrate as well. You will also find that you have less time for work (whether at home or at a job), for yourself, and for your partner.

A baby can also rock the boat by stirring up surprising feelings of jealousy. Sometimes new dads get jealous of the baby because she's taking up so much of his partner's time. Dad may feel like he's become a third wheel in the family. Or maybe he's jealous that he doesn't get to spend as much time with the baby or do as much of the parenting. These feelings are completely normal when the structure of a family changes so drastically.

Moms have their own challenges to confront. Pregnancy temporarily robs them of the bodies they are used to; a couple of extra pounds and dark circles under the eyes from late-night feedings can make a woman feel self-conscious and less attractive to her partner. Some moms also find it difficult to reconcile the image of a mother with that of a sexual woman, so they may be less interested in intimacy.

The changes brought by a baby reach beyond your immediate family as well. Suddenly, relatives, and even acquaintances, have endless stories and advice for you about child rearing. Family members may drop by unexpectedly or schedule regular visits to see your baby. Just when you have more to do than you think you can handle, all these extra people decide to stick around for dinner. Although you know they just want the best for the baby, their constant presence can make you feel even less in control of your own life and household.

Even without all the outside parenting advice, you and your partner may realize you have different approaches to parenting - one of you may be more inclined to pick up the baby whenever she cries while the other lets her cry for a while, for instance. And trouble spots in a relationship, such as who does more work around the house, can get worse if new parents do not sit down and talk about what's bothering them.

The Need for Communication and Understanding
Communication is the best tool to defuse anger and prevent arguments. Parents can get so caught up in caring for the baby that they forget to take time to talk to each other. Small annoyances grow when you don't get them out in the open, so make time to communicate. Often all it takes to clear up a misunderstanding is to see things from the other person's point of view. For example, a new father may think that because he's at work all day, it makes sense for the mother to take care of the baby most of the time, even when he's home. But she may view the same situation as the father distancing himself from her and the baby just when she needs him most.

If something is bothering you, tell your partner, but make sure you do it at the right time. Starting a discussion about who left the dirty dishes in the sink when the baby is screaming to be fed will solve nothing. Instead, plan a time to sit down together after the baby is asleep. Be honest with each other but try to maintain a sense of humor. Listen to your partner's concerns and don't criticize them. And keep in mind that sleep deprivation and stress can make you feel more irritable, so it may take extra effort to curb any tendency to be snappy.

Once you've both said what's on your mind, work on solving the issues together by coming up with solutions you both can accept. Be willing to compromise, too. If one person can't get home early on Wednesdays because of a staff meeting, the other can get the baby ready for bed on those nights. In exchange, the partner who gets home late on Wednesdays can take over on Thursdays.

This is also the time to "assign" baby care and household duties, like cooking, laundry, and early-morning feedings. When both partners know what is expected of them, the household will run more smoothly.

Handling Conflicts
When the inevitable disagreement arises, try to make time to discuss it, as mentioned above. If that approach simply will not work - and you both need to clear the air right away - try to keep the argument focused on the issue that is bothering you. Tell your partner clearly why you're upset. If you are vague or make your partner guess, you probably will not resolve anything.

Steer clear of generalizations like, "You're always late." They tend to make people defensive. Instead, try: "When you came home late yesterday, dinner was cold. I would have appreciated it if you had called me to say you were running late." This puts the emphasis on the action, not the person, so your criticism feels less like a personal attack.

It's also not fair to use the argument as an excuse to bring up past wrongs. If you are talking about coming home late for dinner, do not revisit the time your partner forgot to buy milk or took a 45-minute shower while you did all the dishes. You'll find that listening to each other and trying to understand the other person's perspective are the best ways to make progress toward solving a problem.

If you happen to argue in front of an older baby or toddler, make sure she sees you make up, too. That way your child learns that fights do not mean people no longer love each other. This is an important part of her own impression of conflict resolution.

Finding Time Together
Even though your baby has made you a family of three, the two of you still need time together as a couple to keep that relationship strong. Because your lives are busier now, the best way to find that time is to plan for it. Try to make a regular weekly "date" - schedule a sitter and head out to dinner or a movie. If you do not want to leave the baby with a sitter just yet, make a special dinner at home after you put the baby to bed.

Staying up after the baby is sleeping can also give you time to connect daily. Strive for at least 20 minutes a day to talk and share feelings; you can do this while you wash the dishes together or as you get ready for bed. On the weekends, get out of the house and do something as a family, like visit a museum or a park. Even daily family walks when you get home from work let you grab a little time together while baby enjoys a ride in her stroller. The most important thing is to use your creativity to find a way to spend time together that works for you, whether that means meeting for lunch while a willing grandparent watches the baby or playing a game of cards before bed.

Tips for New Parents
As you enter this new stage of life as a family, staying focused on what really matters will help you through the rough spots, especially in the first few months. It may bother you that you did not have time to make the bed, but overall, that is not too important. The more flexible you can be about what gets done when, the more relaxed and in control you will feel. To keep you both on track with the chores that have to be accomplished, make a list of each partner's duties and post it on the refrigerator. For those tasks that are more draining, like nighttime feedings, take turns whenever you can. If you both help out, then one of you will not wind up feeling resentful because you have to do all the work.

Be sure to notice what's going right, too. Praise yourself and your partner for managing yet another round of feedings, diaper changes, and baby entertaining. All new parents need to hear about what they're doing well.

And try to be aware of each other's emotions and needs. If your partner has had a particularly stressful day, offer to take the baby so your partner can soak in the tub, watch a favorite television show, or read a book for half an hour. Above all, enjoy the time with your new arrival - she'll grow up faster than you realize.