This Isn’t What We Expected: Identifying and Overcoming Challenges When Parenting an Infant
You have read What to Expect When You’re Expecting, you have tracked the size of your baby (by fruit) week-after-week, your registry has been reviewed and approved by all of your mom-friends, parenthood—you’ve got this!
The expectations and reality of having a newborn baby are often very different. If you or your partner is suffering from depression or anxiety after the birth of a baby, the postpartum period can have a devastating impact on your marriage and family. Even in the best of circumstances, with substantial support and resources, having a baby can be a challenge, an adjustment, and a strain on your relationship.
It is well researched that there is a high degree of distress during the transition to parenthood. Many couples report a decrease in marital satisfaction during the first year postpartum. According to the Gottman Institute, 67% of couples report decreased marital* happiness within the first three years of their baby’s life.
There are five major changes that couples experience when they become parents that lead to conflict:
1. Less quality time
With more time and energy focused on the new baby, priorities shift so there is less time for you to spend with your partner. When there is time, your day-to-day interactions and communication may be focused on the baby. Many couples miss the connection, friendship, and passion that used to exist with their partner.
Couples that continue to nurture their friendship after a new baby maintain greater marital satisfaction. You must stay attuned to the routine details of your partner’s life (“How did your meeting go?” “Did you meet anyone new at the park today?”) Asking questions and listening to the response ensures that you and your partner stay connected, despite the pervasive needs of the baby.
Try to resume some normalcy in your relationship. If prior to the baby, you used to go on weekly dates, keep this a priority by scheduling a babysitter once a week. If you used to check-in with your partner throughout the day keep this going, even if phone calls have to be brief.
2. Conforming to traditional gender roles
Caring for an infant adds an additional 30-50 hours of “work” per week and a new to-do list for families. Tensions over the division of labor can lead to marital dissatisfaction and new relationship challenges—especially if you or your partner is not contributing equally to the household responsibilities and childcare.
It is common for mothers to take on more of these new parenting responsibilities. For example, nighttime feedings often fall on the mother, especially if she is nursing or on maternity leave. Finding the right balance can be a challenge.
Research shows that you’re more likely to remain happy after the birth of a new baby if you can learn to effectively negotiate your new demands and not rely on stereotyped gender roles. When dads take on their share of household and childcare responsibilities, it is reported that moms feel more satisfied in their relationships. This is not about blaming or keeping score of who has does what. Rather adopt a we’re-in-this-together attitude and create a plan that gives both parents needed respite. This means taking turns letting your partner sleep-in or having the working partner take more shifts on the weekends to compensate for the other person’s loss of sleep.
To stay on top of everyday chores, try to sit down with your partner each week to coordinate schedules, share parenting duties and keep the house clean for the baby. During this discussion, you might decide that if your partner cooks dinner then you’ll do the dishes. Set clear expectations around responsibilities and ask for help when needed. Voicing any concerns in a respectful and non-blaming way will help you to resolve issues together.
3. Clash in parenting style
Different styles in parenting can be a cause of conflict in a marriage. Perhaps your partner is in favor of a stricter parenting approach. Maybe you disagree on whether or not to sleep train the baby. Whatever the issue, inevitably you will have some diverse views in parenting. Sometimes these issues are discussed and resolved prior to planning for a family, while other times these issues arise once a baby is born.
When you and your partner disagree on a parenting style, it’s a sign that you both feel strongly about what is best for the baby, this is actually a positive thing. Accept the inevitability of parenting conflicts—you and your partner are unlikely to agree on everything and that is okay. If there is a sense of connectedness and respect for one another’s differences these conflicts can be resolved.
Learning how to cope with stress and conflict effectively is important to understand your partner. Couples should openly discuss their parenting differences. Couples who are willing to communicate, negotiate and compromise are better able to defuse conflict.
4. Decreased disposable income
Raising a child is expensive. According to a report from the USDA, it will cost a middle-income family $233,610 to raise a child born in 2015 through the age of 17. The high cost to raise a child can often reduce your disposable income and put a lot of strain on your relationship.
Financial planning is a skill. Start by sitting down with your partner to create a financial plan. Are you living on a budget? If you are not, start now. Include the cost of groceries, clothes, bills, utilities, medical expenses and other essentials in your monthly budget. In addition, start a savings account: plan for college, family vacations, and larger purchases. Check-in and discuss your finances at the same time every month to stay on top of things and make adjustments as needed.
5. Decreased intimacy and frequency of sex
The bitter truth about a new baby is that nobody’s getting much sleep and nobody is getting much sex. Couples are coping with physical exhaustion and low sex drive; additionally, moms are dealing with hormonal shifts, body changes, and recovery from childbirth. If and when, the mood strikes, the competing demands of a new baby leaves little opportunities for sex.
Intimacy is an essential part of your connection to your partner. Start by engaging in an open dialogue about sex—what are your expectations for physical touch, affection, and sex as a new parent? Discuss honestly, without judgment and without taking a denied request for sex personally, as intercourse can feel vulnerable and painful for a woman after childbirth. There are also other ways to express intimacy with your partner in the absence of sex, like cuddling, loving touch or massage, and kind words. Be open to a new closeness that you may have with your partner, like when you see them acting as a loving and attentive parent.
While it’s understandable and expected that sex will take a back seat in the months following the birth of a new baby, it is important that you put effort into making sex apart of your life again. Be understanding and kind to one another. Your sex life may look a little different than it did before the baby, but you will overcome the post-baby dry spell, eventually.
* For the purpose of this piece, I reference marital relationships and defer to "mother" as the partner who birthed the baby. Please be aware that the topics discussed impact same-sex couples and couples who are married or not married. All families, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, marital status, culture, race or religious beliefs should be treated with equality and respect.
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