Let Parenthood Strengthen Your Marriage

How to keep your marriage strong through the baby years.

By Sarì Harrar and Rita DeMaria | Ph.D. from The 7 Stages of Marriage

Despite all the hoopla surrounding pregnancy and childbirth, “there’s not much attention to how this baby will impact you as an individual and as a couple, or the 157,250 hours of parenting that comes next,” observes Pamela Jordan, R.N., associate professor of family and child nursing at the University of Washington and developer of the Becoming Parents Program, one of the nation’s first parenting classes to focus on a couple’s marriage, not just their child-rearing skills. Most couples, she notes, simply don’t have ready-made skills to help them safeguard their marriages in the face of the overwhelming stresses of parenthood. These steps can help.

Talk about what’s ahead. How will you split household chores and errands? Who’s going to earn money, and who’s going to stay home? What will you do for day care — and who will get baby Huey to and from the child-care center or sitter’s house? Who’s going to take the night shift? Who’s going to wash the bottles and/or sterilize the breast pump every day? Who will shop, cook, clean, and let the dog out? How will Mom — or Dad, if the two of you have opted for a Mr. Mom arrangement — get daily breaks to recover sanity and get a hot shower? These seemingly small details can loom large in your relationship once baby makes three.

Break the silence about parenthood’s downside. Yes, new babies are the cutest little bundles of joy in the universe. But caring for one (or multiples!) isn’t all kisses and cuddles. Feeding, changing, bathing, and entertaining a little one 24/7 can stretch your physical, emotional, and mental resources beyond the breaking point. Find time to talk together about your frustrations, fatigue, and even moments of anger. Be specific, be supportive, and dare to be honest. These feelings are normal — not a sign that you’re a bad parent. Admitting them, accepting each other’s feelings, and working together to solve underlying problems (e.g., agreeing in advance that if one of you is overwhelmed, the other will step in and take care of the baby for a while) can keep you feeling saner — and closer.

Be frank about the losses as well as the gains. You’ve got the baby of your dreams, so why are you feeling so sad about your lost sex life or the elastic-waist jeans that have replaced your sleek, pre-baby size 8′s? New parents often mourn silently and separately about all the ways a new baby has changed their lives, creating marital distance and even a sense of shame. For example, a new dad may feel that the new baby has taken his place as number one in his wife’s affection. A new mom may feel sad or frustrated about the ways pregnancy, nursing, and the demands of child care have changed her body. These feelings are normal too. Sharing them will help you feel better and strengthen your bond as a couple.

Don’t blame yourself or your spouse for marital blips. Experts say the first baby is the biggest challenge your marriage will ever face. You’re both exhausted — and grappling with new identities, new expectations for yourself and your spouse, and virtually no time for personal pleasures. Your first fix-up step: Don’t feel guilty or personally responsible for the downturn in marital bliss — and don’t blame your spouse. It’s a given. You’re only responsible if you don’t do anything to turn it around.