Different expectations, experiences and images of having a family means a new baby can drive a wedge between couples and put a strain on even the healthiest relationship, notes Dr Sandra Wheatley, a psychologist who specialises in parenting and families.
And when relationships are weak, studies have shown they can deteriorate more rapidly after the birth of a child than at any other time. But before you start staring at your bump in horror, it’s worth pointing out that most couples survive, emerging from early parenthood stronger, closer and happier than ever before. It’s just that, a bit like marriage, bringing up a baby isn’t all one long Kodak moment. There are pitfalls to negotiate.
“So, make a ‘pre-nappy’ agreement, or an agreement before baby arrives. Spelling out your expectations of each other as parents can be just the thing to help you negotiate the tougher times of new parenthood,” Dr Wheatley says. “Whether you choose to draw up a more formal, written agreement or just talk about key areas before the birth, it allows you to air your concerns.
“Even if you don’t stick to the agreement word for word — and chances are, you won’t — it shows you’re both on the same side and willing to communicate through the tough times, as well as share all the good bits.” Here are six pointers:
1. You’re not mind readers
One of the main challenges that new parents face is dealing with the differences between expectation and reality. “If you’re a modern-thinking woman who sees children as a joint venture, then it may well come as a shock and disappointment to discover that your spouse refuses to wash the rompers or do the night shift,” Dr Wheatley says.
“If you have strong views on your roles as parents, raise them now. Nothing’s going to work out exactly as you discussed, but talking clearly and calmly about your hopes for joint parenthood now will pave the way for constructive, rather than chaotic, discussions later on.”
It’s a good idea to establish a few loose rules. Sally, 29, mum to Daisy, 6 months, agreed with her husband that once he’d gone back to work, he’d be on night duty once a week and have the baby on Sunday mornings, so Sally could catch up on sleep.
“It didn’t work out exactly like that,” she says, “but at least I felt we’d agreed on two major issues — that he needed to do some of the dirty work and I was going to need a break occasionally.”
2. Get support from the spouse
We haven’t got scientific proof, but we reckon, “What have you been doing all day?” could be the question most likely to drive a stay-at-home mum insane.
“The first few days after delivery happen in a bit of a mutual daze when happy hormones are flying around and your newborn’s asleep most of the time,” Dr Wheatley says. “Many men don’t realise just how all-consuming a baby is — and the bigger he gets, the more of your time and energy he needs.”
Let your husband know now, rather than when you’ve got the breast pump aimed at his head, that it’s quite possible the house might not look immaculate and there might not be a three-course meal prepared when he gets home.
“My husband’s quite traditional and I knew I’d have to prepare him for the fact that things around the house wouldn’t be the same when baby arrives,” says Tania, 30, mum to Javier, 10 months. “I invited a friend of mine, whom he really respects, and her kids for dinner and got her to explain that looking after a baby is a full-time job and that when it comes to the end of a long day, you’re both in the same position. Now, we share the cooking and even if he brings home a takeaway, it’s still one less thing to think about and it shows me that he respects my work as much as his.”
3. Money will be an issue
It doesn’t take a genius to work out that if babies cost money and you’re going to be earning less, then at some point, you’ll need to re-do your sums.
“More than ever before, your finances will be intertwined,” says psychologist Phillip Hodson. “And unlike other issues, which often don’t become clear till after the baby’s arrived, money matters are black and white, meaning you can — and should — sort them out before the baby comes.” If you’re not returning to work after your maternity leave, work out where your money’s going to come from.
“My husband started giving me a small allowance and I drew from a baby fund we’d both contributed to during the pregnancy,” says Kate, 27, mum to Drew, 11 months. You’ll probably have to make some cutbacks, too, and it’s useful to talk about these beforehand.
“If your spouse is spending money on concerts and beer, but raising an eyebrow because you bought some new shoes, it could lead to resentment,” Dr Wheatley says. “Perhaps you agree to postpone holidays and weekends away, but he keeps his weekly gathering with his beer buddies, while you keep your monthly appointments with your hairdresser and manicurist — and the occasional pair of shoes.”
4. Discuss parenting roles
In an age where the roles of mother and father are less defined than ever, there’s much greater room for misunderstanding when it comes to who does what. “It’s really important to talk about what you expect family life to look like,” Hodson says. “Do you see many shared evenings and weekends? Does he see his life carrying on as normal, except for the odd bit of babysitting? If you have different pictures of parenthood, it can quickly lead to frustration and resentment.”
You both need hobbies, free time and a life outside your family unit, but you also need to agree to discuss your plans first. “Otherwise, if he’s going to go for a drink after work without letting you know, it implies that he thinks you’re responsible for the baby while he can do what he likes,” Dr Wheatley adds. “That kind of behaviour can leave a mother feeling vulnerable and unsupported, so make sure he knows that while you don’t want his fun to stop, he has to respect the fact that you’re in this together.”
5. Sex after the birth
Lots of men haven’t got a clue what lies in store for them, sex-wise, once the baby’s been born. “My husband thought we’d be able to have sex straight away,” says Belinda, 33, mum to Brendon, 1. “He couldn’t believe it when I explained that women bleed for at least a month after birth and sometimes you can take even longer to heal and stop feeling sore.”
While doctors agree that it’s physically safe to have sex after six weeks, many women feel far from ready. Tell him intercourse won’t be on the menu for at least two months. “If you feel like it before then, he’ll be pleasantly surprised,” Hodson says. “In the meantime, keep the channel of intimacy open. For men, physical contact is an important way of feeling loved and now more than ever, you need to let him know how special he is to you and that it’s not all about the baby. Affection costs nothing and a kiss takes next to no energy at all, so do keep those up, till you’re ready for more action.”
6. 3am isn’t the time for discussions
Few people get through those early days of parenthood without some kind of middle-of-the-night meltdown when the baby’s screaming, you’re exhausted and he’s refusing to get out of bed. But having a “pre-nappy” agreement can keep such tense moments to a minimum.
“It’s impossible to know exactly how you’re both going to feel after the baby’s born and the extreme tiredness will make both of you more irritable,” Dr Wheatley says. “But at least if you’ve managed to talk things through beforehand, you’ve opened the channels of communication and it’ll be easier to keep talking once the baby’s arrived.
“In fact, the most important thing about a ‘pre-nappy’ agreement is that it gets couples into the swing of communicating about the issues in the first place.”
If your husband doesn’t see the point in discussing things before the baby’s born, raise issues in the form of a concern, “I’m worried that I’ll feel resentful if you work late all the time,” would be one approach.
“You might not get a response straight away,” Dr Wheatley says, but chances are he’ll go away and think about it and you’ll be able to discuss the issue later on.
Or engage friends or acquaintances who’ve been through it — they might be able to highlight concerns that really resonate with your spouse and help him see the importance of talking now rather than at 3am against a background of crying — and not just the baby’s! If nothing else, agree to cut each other some slack.
“Nobody’s at their best after three hours’ sleep and having a baby changes things more than you can imagine,” Dr Wheatley says. “Understand that you’ll both find different ways of coping, which can make you feel distant, but agree to support each other. A little gentleness and forgiveness goes a very long way in those early days.”
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