By Julie Baumgardner
Once the decision was made to start a family, John and Susan went from living in a loft and having people over all the time to living in a house in a quiet neighborhood with friends coming over significantly less often. “It was definitely a dramatic change for us,” said Susan. “It was hard to give up our two-seater convertible, but we knew it wasn’t a family car. We had hoped we could keep it and add a family car, but since we couldn’t predict our expenses after Caroline’s birth, we traded it in.” Caroline arrived in October of 2005. Even though she has a great temperament and her parents describe her as an “easy” baby, she still rocked their world.
“We were pretty on the go kind of people before Caroline arrived on the scene,” said John. “That has come to a screeching halt. Susan and I really enjoy each other’s company and spending time with our friends. It has been an adjustment just trying to figure out how to have time together much less work in our friends,” said John. While John is quick to say the changes in their life have truly have been just that — changes, not sacrifices, — many couples will tell you that bringing home that new bundle of joy can cause couples to experience everything from joy to total frustration. Even when you know that life is going to be different, going from spontaneous and carefree to a schedule and being responsible for another life can throw a good marriage into a tailspin.
In her book, Childproofing Your Marriage, Dr. Debbie Cherry states there are two major threats to the marital bond when couples have their first child: lack of time and lack of energy. The feelings of grief at a loss of couple time, feelings of disconnectedness from your spouse, feelings of jealousy about the amount of time and attention the baby is receiving, and the loss of energy all cause a great shift in the intimacy pattern. If a couple does not recognize these threats and deal with them openly, they may begin to feel even more alone and isolated from each other.
“You really can’t measure the love and joy that comes with having a baby,” said John. “At the same time, I think it is really important for Susan and me to have time together. We consider personal time, couple time and family time equally important. In this first year we are just trying to get in the groove of how to do all three.”
Time is a precious commodity, especially for new parents. Things that used to be taken for granted like afternoon naps on the weekend, taking your time in the bathroom, sex, watching your favorite episode of Law and Order or grabbing a bite to eat are now things that practically have to be scheduled into your day. Dr. Cherry gives several helpful suggestions for new parents:
- Develop a couple-centered, not a child-centered relationship. This is the first time in your relationship when you have to choose who really comes first. Starting right here and now, determine that the couple comes before the children. If you make your children your number one, their never ending need for attention will eat up everything you have to give, and the rest of your life will suffer because of it. Love your children, provide for them, and meet their needs. But remember that one of their most important needs is to have parents who really love each other.
- Become co-parents not compulsive parents. Moms and Dads alike can fall into the trap of believing they are the only ones who can adequately care for their baby. Somehow they forget that many a parent has come and gone before them and has learned to care adequately for these helpless little creatures. Becoming a compulsive parent will only isolate you and eventually lead to parenting burnout. Parents need breaks and need to support each other.
- Talk to each other every day. Take time every day to check in with each other. Talk about changing expectations and needs, division of labor, disappointments and fears about parenting. Communication involves both talking and listening. You need to be the best listener you can be if you want your spouse to continue to share with you his or her deepest thoughts, feelings, fears and needs.
“I think one of the most important things we keep in mind is that we are on the same team,” said Susan. “I really depend on John. We try hard to be respectful of each other and to mind our manners. When you start stepping on each other’s toes then it becomes a matter of ‘that’s not fair’ and things go downhill quickly. Caroline has been a blessing. Our goal is to keep our marriage strong so we can be a blessing to her through the years.”
Julie Baumgardner is the Executive Director of First Things First, an organization dedicated to strengthening marriages and families through education, collaboration and mobilization. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.