Caring for a new baby can create rifts in even the strongest of marriages. Here’s what parents say are the biggest challenges of the first year.
My husband and I are on our honeymoon. We’re clinking spoons of gelato under a Mediterranean sun and remarking with pride how we have never been in a fight. No couple has ever been so compatible, so agreeable, so… naïve.
Fast forward one year, and we’re threatening divorce because the dishwasher hasn’t been loaded properly. Door slamming and rage crying are daily occurrences. What’s changed? We have a new baby.
Adding a bundle of joy to an otherwise agreeable marriage can strain even the most patient and understanding of partners. Exhaustion, worry, differences in child-rearing techniques, and unmet expectations are common stressors for new parents, according to Michelle Crowley, a counselor with Family Services of Greater Vancouver. “While couples have likely been warned that their lifestyle will dramatically change once the baby arrives, many are not prepared for the degree of shift that comes with parenthood,” she says.
Truer words have never been spoken. But just to be sure, I reached out to my big group of parent friends to find out what they fought most about during the “rough patch” of baby’s first year. Their responses were surprisingly consistent (and understandably passionate).
If there had been secret cameras in my home during that first year, they would have captured some of the most explosive and unreasonable fights over sleep: Who was getting more, who deserved more, who got to sleep in on weekends, who was more sleep-deprived. No to mention the sub-categories of fights over the impact of this sleep deprivation, which, as every parent knows, is literally a form of torture.
“Parents who are having short and disrupted sleep are also more likely to feel down during the day, and have problems with problem-solving and being present in the moment,” adds Wendy Hall, a UBC School of Nursing professor who does research on the transition to parenting.
In my case, disrupted sleep just made me hulk rage.
2. Baby sleep strategies
You’re sleep deprived because your baby doesn’t sleep, and so baby’s sleep is a hot topic. All you want is for that blessed little bundle of gas and startle reflexes to fall into a deep, seven-hour slumber so you can do the same. And you’ll do anything to make that happen.
Some couples will react to sleep challenges by co-sleeping, which often results in one parent sleeping elsewhere. “This can exacerbate the feelings of disconnection between the couple, particularly when they do not agree that co-bedding is the way to handle the problem,” says Hal
But there’s so much more than co-sleeping to bicker about. There’s also cry-it-out, tough-it-out, tight swaddles, loose swaddles, swaddle-free and dream feeds. There’s nurse-to-sleep, sing-to-sleep, crib sleep, tummy sleep, back sleep, drive to sleep, and lots and lots of no sleep. And you will fight about these different strategies like it’s a matter of life or death. Because when you’ve slept for three hours in the past seven days, it feels like life or death.
3. Who does more work
We called these our “tit for tat” fights: when we became nagging, score-keeping, competitive teenagers rather than partners on the same team. Who changed more diapers today? Who had to deal with more poop? Who did more night wake-ups? Who tidied the dinner dishes more often? Who made the baby’s doctor’s appointment? If it was tedious and could be quantified, we bickered over it. Of course, I really was doing more of the work, simply because I was home. I couldn’t help changing more diapers, or dealing with more poop, or washing more dishes. I resented this with a passion and let my husband know about it. Loudly and often.
If you had asked me on my honeymoon if I could ever picture myself growling, “Don’t. F*cking. Touch. Me.” between clenched teeth at the prospect of a mere kiss, I would have spat out my Prosecco and laughed. But after having a baby, that became my catch phrase. Sex: He wanted it, I wanted to close my eyes and sink into oblivion. I was so exhausted, and sore, and my body felt gross and like it wasn’t mine anymore. Primary caregivers often feel touched out at the end of the day, and that means sex is the last thing on their minds, leaving their spouse feeling neglected and rejected. The good news is that while some marriages end up sexless, this stage usually doesn’t last (or else no one would ever have a sibling!).
5. Loss of intimacy
It isn’t just a couple’s sex life that suffers in that first year—it’s often intimacy in general. When all your energy is expended caring for a baby, there’s often not much left for each other.
“A marriage can feel tested when a couple, who once declared their partner to be the centre of their world, suddenly finds that there is now someone else whom they love,” says Crowley. “They may start connecting with each other more about to-do lists and less about their feelings, desires and interests. Time that was once set aside for romance, relaxation or new adventures is now allocated to figuring out how to care for their little one and trying to catch up on sleep.” Now throw in one spouse who’s sleeping in the spare bedroom because of an early meeting or their partner is co-sleeping and bam!—intimacy out the window. And when there’s little or no intimacy in a relationship, fights are much more likely.
My first maternity leave overlapped with that blissful, one-year period when Target was in Canada. Oh, how it brought me joy: Starbucks, mindless aisle strolling and cute baby things to throw into my cart. Suddenly I was setting limits on my husband’s office lunch budget while he was setting limits on my baby shopping budget. Of course there were also bigger money issues that arose: I was on EI so money was tighter, and I was insecure about contributing less financially. Suddenly we were no longer on the same page financially. And low, how there was fury.
I remember counting down the seconds until my husband would get home from work, and the moment he walked in the door, a baby would be thrust into his arms. I needed that break so badly that I never stopped to think that he needed to at least take his shoes off. And so we fought: over who needed the most down time, who needed it more, what that down time looked like, and when we deserved it.
“The secondary caregiver can feel resentful about coming home and jumping into child care, especially if they perceive that all the primary caregiver did for the day was to take care of the baby,” says Hall.
The truth is that at 6 p.m., whether you’ve been home with baby all day, or at work sitting through 384 meetings, you both need time to decompress. But since you can’t both do it, you’re bound to fight about it. It’s science.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a spouse on parental leave who did not at some point feel socially isolated and lonely, and maybe a bit bitter at the temporary loss of their career, peers and income. In many cases, that’s the primary caregiver.
They are often envious of their partner’s ability to have time away from the child, and have adult, non-baby related conversations throughout the day. “Couples can begin to lose touch with the real stressors of their partner’s lives and say that they wish they could ‘just stay at home’ or ‘just go to work’, as if their partners face less demands in their day than they do,” says Crowley. “This can lead both partners to feel misunderstood and under-appreciated by their spouse.”
9. Differences in parenting techniques
One wants to try baby-led weaning, the other wants to cut food into microscopic morsels. One wants to give baby a bottle, the other wants to breastfeed exclusively. Where couples were once a united front, suddenly they can’t agree on which outfit the baby should wear that day.
“I’ve seen many instances where tension builds in a marriage over differences in how child-care tasks are done,” says Crowley. “I have seen moms—who have had more time to practice their child-care techniques—tease, chide and even berate their partners for not attending to baby-related chores, like warming the bottle or changing the diaper, the ‘right’ way.”
This can make the belittled parent feel inadequate and resentful, and lead them to stop trying to be helpful altogether. And you can probably see where that vicious circle leads.
Perhaps you’re dealing with a grandparent making passive aggressive comments about the cleanliness of the house, baby’s refusal at eight months to potty train, or the appropriateness of breastfeeding in public. Perhaps it’s issues with one set of grandparents spoiling the baby and the other never bothering to FaceTime.
Dealing with your parents and your spouse’s parents can exacerbate already existing baggage, and when you’re both sleep deprived and a bit tightly wound, even the most innocuous comment from a grandparent can set you at each other’s throats.
Prevention is key
So, if having a new baby is such a strain on a marriage, what can be done about it? Are these fights simply inevitable?
Crowley says it helps to be aware of common triggers beforehand, and discuss how you’ll going to deal with stressors when they happen (which they will). Yep, it comes down to good old communication. “Couples should discuss the expected shifts in priorities, and how they will support each other while new demands are being put on them,” she says. “They need to give space to discuss their fears and their feelings about parenthood and their marriage without guilt. They need to remember that they are not just parents, they are a couple, and will always be individuals with their own needs.”
And take a minute—when you have that minute—to remember why you fell in love in the first place, and discover new ways to move forward. Maybe get a tub of gelato and a bottle of Prosecco, then close your eyes and pretend you’re sitting under a Mediterranean sun. It works.