Part I: Identifying the Problem
I was recently talking to a friend who is a new mother. We were laughing about motherhood and all of the ways in which being a parent can change you, when suddenly, her mood became somber. “You know,” she said,“ I knew that this was going to be hard on me. I was prepared for not sleeping, and for the way my body would change, and for the spit-up and the poopy diapers. But I never realized how hard this was going to be on my marriage.” Her words gave me pause. She is right – it seems that the impact of parenthood on relationships is something we just don’t talk about.
Part I: Identifying the Problem
I was recently talking to a friend who is a new mother. We were laughing about motherhood and all of the ways in which being a parent can change you, when suddenly, her mood became somber. “You know,” she said,“ I knew that this was going to be hard on me. I was prepared for not sleeping, and for the way my body would change, and for the spit-up and the poopy diapers. But I never realized how hard this was going to be on my marriage.” Her words gave me pause. She is right – it seems that the impact of parenthood on relationships is something we just don’t talk about. I have heard countless “just wait until the baby gets here – you’ll never sleep again” stories told at baby showers – but not once have I heard anyone say to an expectant mother: “You know, this is really going to turn your relationship upside down.”
Trying to Find the Partner Within the Parent
I wonder why we are so silent on this issue. For most couples (and especially for women), relationship satisfaction takes a nosedive right around the time that the family welcomes their first child (Gottman et al., 1998; Twenge, Campbell, & Foster, 2003), and does not recover until the kids go off to college.If you think about it, this makes a lot of sense. Kids are awesome, and the beauty and wonder that they add to our lives can hardly be overstated. But the hours of playing in the bathtub and reading books and hanging off the jungle gym come along with sleep deprivation, tight budgets, mountain ranges of laundry, and houses that permanently look as though they have been tossed by the FBI (if the FBI were the type to leave peanut butter hand-prints on the couch). Keeping in mind that money, sex, and housework are the top three issues that couples disagree about, and knowing that kids = less money, less sex, and more housework, it isn’t any wonder that couples find themselves arguing more frequently than they did before. Add in sleep deprivation, which can cause depression and anxiety (Sagaspe et al., 2006), and inevitably turns reasonable, kind and funny people into cranky jerks —and now the arguments aren’t just more frequent, they are also more volatile, because tired people have shorter fuses and will have more extreme reactions to small provocations.The kicker is that this increase in relationship conflict (and attendant relationship dissatisfaction) comes at the worst possible time. Nobody likes to fight with their partner, but we can absorb relationship difficulties more readily when everything else in our lives is swimming along. When times are stressful (and having a new baby is a huge—albeit positive—stressor), we need the support of our social networks. But for many women, the vulnerability of new motherhood coincides with a time of such high relationship conflict that they may end up feeling alone at precisely the time when they need the most support.
Creating a New “Normal”
So, what can a couple do to keep the bonds of partnership strong during the early years of parenting? A good place to start is by working on perspective. Remember, this is a stage—and a developmentally normal one at that. In a sense, young parenthood is your relationship’s equivalent of adolescence. Nobody is reasonable, everyone is crabby; every little thing is a huge drama. But it is normal—meaning that everyone goes through it—and it is impermanent; this too shall pass. You just have to make sure that the two of you still recognize one another when the dust settles.Do you remember what the two of you were like before you were parents, when it was just the two of you? It is important to remember, honor and celebrate that relationship, especially when you have kids—because it is this relationship that allowed your kids to come into being in the first place. So, mark regular date nights on the calendar. Ask about how your partner is doing, how she will spend her day tomorrow, what made him laugh today, and really listen to the answer. Think back to the things that made you feel connected over the years—maybe it’s sitting on opposite ends of the couch, feet touching, while watching TV. Maybe it’s sending funny text messages to each other. Maybe you like to wrestle, or go for runs together or garden. For extra credit, try something new together—research shows that repeatedly engaging in novel activities as a couple can change your brain chemistry in a way that mimics the early thrill of falling in love (Aron et al., 2005).I wonder whether you are inadvertently smiling as you think about the ways in which you liked to connect with your partner. I wonder if you can hold on to that feeling for a moment—if you can lean into it in the same way we sometimes lean into, and hold on to, anger.What relationship adjustments have you and your partner needed to make post-baby adjustment?
Photo: Marcio Abreu Art
About Dr. Mirjam Quinn
Dr. Mirjam Quinn loves her husband, her kids, reading, drawing, yoga, concerts, her job, and heated arguments, and she would be ecstatic if someone would invent a laundry folding machine already. She earned her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Purdue University in 2007, and has been practicing independently as a licensed clinical psychologist since 2008. She has a private psychology practice in Oak Lawn, where she sees children, adolescents, and adults who are coping with anxiety, depression, AD/HD, and life transitions (such as becoming a parent). In addition, she runs a community clinic located in Blue Island, where individuals who are uninsured and underinsured can receive therapy for $2 per session.
For more information about Dr. Quinn or her practice, visit Southwest Psychological Care.