A new baby comes with a whole new to-do list for mom and dad. According to the Relationship Research Institute, hundreds of tasks are added to a couple’s life. There’s so much more work and no one can ever do enough.
Tensions over division of labour can lead to marital dissatisfaction — especially for women who perceive their partners aren’t pulling their weight. Two-career couples used to sharing the household load often find themselves with clashing expectations when one parent is on leave.
Research shows that parents who are most likely to remain happy in the post-baby period learn effective conflict resolution skills to negotiate their way through everything from who changes the soggy diapers to who makes career sacrifices. Couples must strive to complain without blame,, and not allow disagreements to escalate. That means being able to ask for more help with the laundry, without spewing a litany of grudges over untreated stains and uncleared dishes.
Research indicates that when dads take on their fair share of household responsibilities, moms are more content. If dads don’t get the fact that this is a team sport, the resentment from mom is huge.
At the same time, some fathers find their efforts aren’t appreciated by partners who insist on swaddling the baby just so or swoop in to take over when the baby cries. Mothers tend to be the gatekeepers of the family and fathers are often involved in raising their children only as far as mothers allow them to be.
The Need for Communication and Understanding
Communication is the best tool to defuse anger and prevent arguments. Listen to your partner's concerns and don't criticize them. Parents can get so caught up in caring for the baby that they forget to take time to talk to each other. Small annoyances grow when you don't get them out in the open, so it's important to make time to communicate.
Often, all it takes to clear up a misunderstanding is to see things from the other person's point of view. For example, a new father may think that because he's at work all day, it makes sense for the mother to take care of the baby most of the time, even when he's home. But she may view the same situation as the father distancing himself from her and the baby just when she needs him most. In addition, mom may feel a bit more comfortable caring for the baby or feel uncomfortable letting dad do it his way. If mom is always telling dad how to care for the baby, dad may start to back away from the caregiving.
If something is bothering you, tell your partner, but make sure you do it at the right time. Starting a discussion about who left the dirty dishes in the sink when the baby is screaming to be fed will solve nothing. Instead, plan a time to sit down together after the baby is asleep. Be honest with each other, but try to maintain a sense of humor. And keep in mind that sleep deprivation and stress can make you feel more irritable, so it may take extra effort to curb any tendency to be snappy.
Once you've both said what's on your mind, work on solving the issues together by coming up with solutions you both can accept. Be willing to compromise, too. If one person can't get home early on Wednesdays because of a staff meeting, the other can get the baby ready for bed on those nights. In exchange, the partner who gets home late on Wednesdays can take over on Thursdays.
This is also the time to "assign" baby care and household duties, like cooking, laundry, and early-morning feedings. When both partners know what's expected of them, the household will run more smoothly.
It can be helpful to only have one parent awake at night. It may make sense to have mom get up if she is breastfeeding, then give her a break during the day to catch a nap between feedings. For others it might work better to have dad get up, or alternate nights. Discussing in advance how to handle night time awakenings can help both parents get just a little more sleep.
When disagreements arise, make time to discuss them. If that approach simply won't work — and you both need to clear the air right away — try to keep the argument focused on the issue that's bothering you. Tell your partner clearly why you're upset. If you're vague or make your partner guess, you probably won't resolve anything.
Figuring out how to resolve conflicts now will pay off in the end. As your children grow, situations and concerns will change, and having a good line of communication between mom and dad will help in the future.
Steer clear of generalizations like, "You're always late." They tend to make people defensive. Instead, try: "When you came home late yesterday, dinner was cold. I would've appreciated it if you'd called me to say you were running late." This puts the emphasis on the action, not the person, so your criticism feels less like a personal attack.
It's also unfair to use the argument as an excuse to bring up past wrongs. If you're talking about coming home late for dinner, don't revisit the time your partner forgot to buy milk or took a 45-minute shower while you did all the dishes. You'll find that listening to each other and trying to understand the other person's perspective are the best ways to make progress toward solving a problem.
If you happen to argue in front of an older baby or child, make sure he or she sees you make up, too. That way, your child learns that fights don't mean that people no longer love each other — this is an important part of your child's own impression of conflict resolution.
Finding Time Together
Even though your baby has made you a family of three, the two of you still need time together as a couple to keep that relationship strong. Because your lives are busier now, the best way to find that time is to plan for it. Try to make a regular weekly "date" — schedule a sitter and head out to dinner or a movie. If you don't want to or can't leave the baby with a sitter just yet, make a special dinner at home after you put the baby to bed.
Staying up after the baby is sleeping can also give you time to connect daily. Strive for at least 20 minutes a day to talk and share feelings; you can do this while you wash the dishes together or as you get ready for bed. On the weekends, get out of the house and do something as a family, like visiting a museum or a park. Even daily family walks when you get home from work let you grab a little time together while your baby enjoys a ride in the stroller.
The most important thing is to use your creativity to find a way to spend time together that works for you, whether that means meeting for lunch while a willing grandparent watches the baby or playing a game of cards before bed. Remember that one of the best gifts that you can give your child is a good relationship with each other.
Tips for Parents
As you enter this new stage of life as a family, staying focused on what really matters will help you through the rough spots, especially in the first few months. It may bother you that you didn't have time to make the bed, but overall, that's not too important. The more flexible you can be about what gets done when, the more relaxed and in control you'll feel.
To keep you both on track with the chores that have to be accomplished, make a list of each partner's duties and post it on the refrigerator. For those tasks that are more draining, like nighttime feedings, take turns whenever you can. If you both help out, then one of you won't wind up feeling resentful because you have to do all the work.
Be sure to notice what's going right, too. Praise yourself and your partner for managing yet another round of feedings, diaper changes and child entertainment. All new parents need to hear about what they're doing well, remembering that each parent may do things slightly differently. The goal is a happy, healthy family.
And try to be aware of each other's emotions and needs. If your partner has had a particularly stressful day, offer to take the baby so your partner can soak in the tub, watch a favorite TV show, or read a book for half an hour.