Sure, you’ve set up the nursery and taken a childbirth class or two. But are you and your spouse ready to be parents? Can your marriage even handle the transition into parenthood?
I ask because it’s not for the faint of heart.
My husband and I still talk about the days before the birth of our first son—our single days we call them. Back then we had endless possibilities. We slept in as late as we wanted, had date nights according to our whims and made love whenever the moment struck. But with a screaming infant demanding to nurse, all that went out the window. Not to mention, the diaper blowouts and persistent sleep deprivation that have changed our lives. Even as “professional married people,” we find parenthood disorienting. (My husband is a psychiatrist and I’m trained in marriage and family therapy.)
You’d think we’d be naturals. Yet, our communication skills have stretched to their limits. Parenthood has meant navigating new roles, more responsibility and difficult financial challenges. And frankly, we need a nap in the worst way.
I know we’re not alone. I counsel people through life’s major transitions all the time. And across the board, parenthood is a shift unlike any other. Research shows that first-time parents are at an increased risk for divorce. The Gottman Institute reports that one in four couples divorce within the first five years after the birth of their first child. And those who stay together aren’t necessarily happy. About 67 percent of couples report a decline in marital satisfaction after parenthood. Whoa, baby.
Given the statistics, I want to help you develop a plan to become a master of relationship. Because forget the crib or stroller options. If you’re a first-time parent, focusing on building a stronger marriage now is the best gift for your child. Here are three challenges you can anticipate as you become parents for the first time. With them you’ll find some simple strategies to overcome common obstacles.
Challenge 1: Your roles and values may change.
I know you married this person thinking they believed a certain set of ideals. Your alignment on big topics like faith and politics united you. And your tacit agreement on who cooks or does the dishes each night made you a match made in heaven.
But once you bring baby home, new role expectations may emerge and old values may fall by the wayside. An egalitarian partner could suddenly start sounding super traditional. A social butterfly may downshift to only church and home life. Remember, it’s normal.
Your plan: Communicate hopes and expectations now.
Talk to your spouse about how to divide household responsibilities after baby arrives. What’s worked for you in the past may not work for you both now. That’s OK. People change. Be sure to also share any important values you may want to inform your family life rhythms. In my Kissing Parenthood Hello workshop, I call these “compass values.” Beliefs like “we should all share in the work” or “there is a right way to do everything.” These values set the direction for how you’d like family life to flow. It’s critical for you to know what’s important to your partner.
Challenge 2: Marital conflict will likely increase.
I like to refer to parenthood as doing the hardest thing you’ve ever done when you’re at your worst. And someone’s life depends on it. Those high stakes can make you a little tense. So don’t gasp when you and your spouse have more frequent arguments. You’ll be navigating new situations and having to make critical decisions on the fly. Differences of opinion are inevitable.
Your plan: Become experts at managing conflict.
Conflict in and of itself is not a red flag for me as a therapist. Couples who handle conflict well often have the best intimacy in their relationship. It’s all about how you manage these stressful moments. During pregnancy, enhance your ability to wade through conflict. Later when moments of disconnect happen, you’ll be able to lean on your skills to bounce back stronger than ever. Pick up a book on communication and conflict management skills. Not sure where to look? I’ve curated a list here of my favorite marriage books.
Challenge 3: You’ll be tempted to choose sleep over sex.
Most couples experience a natural dramatic decline in sexual desire after childbirth. It can take months for the woman to heal from bringing a person into the world. And once baby is here, there are the physical demands of breastfeeding and baby carrying. Also, the sleep struggle with an infant is real. When you have to choose between a few more minutes of shut eye and having sex, your choice may surprise you.
Your plan: Ritualize your romance.
Find small ways now before the baby arrives to establish regular points of intimacy. Try weekly date nights or committing to a no-screen policy during dinnertime. Switch to afternoon sex on weekends or post-church power make-out sessions. Developing these quick relational habits now will make it easier to reconnect later.
Babies are a blessing. But with heart-bursting cuddles, tiny toes and snuggles come shifts in your relationship. Planning for the transition to parenthood will help reduce your sense of overwhelm. You’ll also increase your enjoyment of the excitement that is parenting. Remember, a happy relationship is the best condition in which to raise a healthy child.