written by Amy Birdseye
edited by Lisa Rose
I didn't think that having a baby was going to rock my marriage. I married my best friend. I knew that I was going into pregnancy and parenthood with an amazing partner at my side. What I didn't know was that lack of sleep would turn us into the worst versions of ourselves and that we would be tested to the extreme — more than I ever thought possible. We all know that having a baby certainly won't fix a marriage that needs work (even though plenty of people still try this). But what about a marriage that is strong? In my experience, it will make you grow more as a couple than you could ever grow without the challenges of parenthood. But I also believe that it will bring you close to the edge of your commitment and will force you to show your partner your truest, deepest, and darkest qualities. For my husband and I, it was those first 6 months that shocked us as a couple. We were used to having all the time in the world to commit to each other. And then, suddenly, everything was hard. Not only was sleep not happening but my labor injury made intimacy a struggle, and everything that defined us as a couple (adventures, date nights, and projects) came to a sudden, screeching halt.
Harsh Reality: Having a child can make or break your marriage.
1) The magic of dried flowers and a candle.
We discovered the magic of dried flowers and a candle by accident. My husband brought me home a bouquet of beautiful fresh flowers years ago, before we had a child. I loved the flowers so much that I decided to dry and keep them. The flowers stayed in our house, on the shelf, in a vase for months. One day, my husband told me he had had a hard day at work, and I wanted to do something special for him when he got home. The only problem was that I had no time to run to the store to buy a special treat or some wine. That's when I saw the flowers on the shelf. I grabbed them, lit a candle, set out a snack and waited for him to come home.
Literally in seconds I was able to make him feel special and cared for because we had a candle and dried flowers
Ever since then it has been something we do for each other on a regular basis. If you look around my house, you will see dried flowers and candles all over the place. And now as parents it feels even more important to have these things on hand. Parenting is really hard, and despite sincere intentions, there usually isn't a way for your partner to fix it or even improve the situation. Mostly, in those dark moments, you need someone to show you that they see how hard you are working. They see your physical and mental exhaustion. They notice you, and they are there to offer you support. Candles and flowers set the stage for you to feel loved and supported. For our relationship, these were symbols of support and commitment that were unique to us and easily accessible. Finding a similar symbol in those early days can make a big difference. Maybe it's preprogramming the coffee pot or putting a little note inside their lunch bag. It's best to find something easy that you can quickly grab and show your partner that you see them, and that you are there to help.
2) Change your mindset about free time.
You will notice a trend in a lot of posts. Mindset, mindset, mindset. It is a super powerful thing. I remember when we first had our baby we had the mindset that our free time should be relaxing on the couch, watching a movie, or doing whatever it was that our hearts desired at that time. But with a brand new baby, when my husband came home from work I practically threw (okay, tossed) the baby into his arms and ran. I desperately needed a break from the uncomfortable squishing sound of my breast pump, the nauseating smell of dirty diapers, and the crawling feeling on my skin from lack of showering and self-care. But as I ran I noticed the burp clothes strewn across the couch, the tomato-sauce caked dishes piling up in the sink, the heaps of toys collecting on the floor and I felt a strong need to accomplish something besides lactating and diaper changes. Only in that moment did we realize that we needed a mindset change about our free time. Free time, and life in general, looked different now and that was okay.
Instead of thinking about our free time
as a space where we could do whatever we wanted,
we thought about it as a time for a change of pace from the day.
A time to do something different than what we had been doing all day long. So when my husband came home from work, he didn't get to crash on the couch anymore, but he did get to stop working, slow down, change out of his suit, get on the floor, and make a baby giggle. And for me, I didn't get to go crash on the couch either (although I will say at the beginning sleep was what I needed), but I did get to stop momming, get out of the house, run an errand on my own, or cook a meal with music on and zero demands from a child. Focusing on this change of pace for us both opened up our minds to feeling less robbed of free time and more gifted with a change of pace. And then, because we couldn't crash on the couch during our day, we made it a priority to rest after bedtime. So the kiddo goes down at 7:30? We immediately crash on the couch, often with dried flowers and a candle burning, to talk the day out and rest together.
If you are looking to learn more about mindset I would recommend the book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D. .
3) Trade off whenever possible.
Trading off is something that we didn't start until our son was sleeping through the night. Before sleep was reliable my amazing husband prioritized my sleep whenever possible. He wasn't able to help much during the night due to his demanding work schedule, but he was able to help me catch up on sleep when he was home. As soon as sleep was under control we started trading off tasks as much as possible.
For example, my husband sleeps in on Saturday
and I sleep in on Sunday. I do bath time routine while my husband works out, and he does books and bed while I work out.
On the weekends, I cook breakfast while he plays with our son,
and then he cleans up the mess while I play.
We have certain things that we both are better at, and we try to use those things to our advantage. My husband can't cook. It's actually kind of hilarious to watch him try. So, for the most part I do the cooking. And as much as I enjoy making a mess in the kitchen, I can't stand cleaning. But my husband on the other hand gets a weird kick from cleaning. So he often takes that task on. Because we have certain trade-offs built into our daily routine I notice us doing it out of habit in other situations. For example, we are going out to eat and, without even discussing it, I will help our child get out of the car seat and into the restaurant. Then, when the inevitable potty request pops up, my husband will step in and take him to the bathroom. It's like we both have a little built-in radar to notice when the other person has put in some extra parenting work and when it might be time to step in and take one for the team.
3) Schedule IT...
This blog is definitely pushing me out of my comfort zone. And this topic might be right at the edge of what I am willing to share. But I feel obligated to address the fact that your sex life as a couple WILL CHANGE after having a baby...at least for a little while. I remember in our baby preparation class at the hospital, our teacher told us that most people can regain intimacy after 6 weeks.
Thinking back at that now I laugh.
At 6 weeks my injury was still in full tilt,
I was bleeding heavily and in pain,
my nipples were cracked and raw,
and I was so touched-out from nursing all day long.
I was not ready to say the least.
Communicating with your partner about your physical limitations is key. That being said, once you are fully healed and ready physically, regaining intimacy doesn't necessarily get any easier. That's because it's not just a physical issue. Your body just went through a huge trauma, and now you are trying to recover from it with very little sleep and self-care. We found that our to-do list was so long that intimacy seemed to always get pushed to the bottom of our priorities. It is one of those things that you need to make sure your other needs are met first before it can be addressed. And at the beginning of parenthood it feels like some of your most basic needs — like finding time to go to the bathroom, eat, sleep, drink water — are hard to meet. It was a big mental leap for us to get over scheduling intimacy. Just the simple act of putting it on the calendar felt like it sucked all of the romance. But let's be honest, babies have a tendency to suck the romance out of a situation. And once we got over the fact that it was on the calendar, it actually became a really positive thing for us. A little reminder to prioritize our marriage.
5) Schedule alone time too.
Now, along the same lines of scheduling intimacy, I like to schedule alone time as well so that you can handle the closeness of intimacy. Being "touched-out" was something I didn't even know could happen to me until I became a mother. So much of the closeness that you get with your baby is incredibly special, short lived, and pure bliss. Doing skin-to-skin time with my tiny little infant was some of the most magical time I've ever had as a mother. And if it was just that sweet, quiet, lovely time, I probably never would have felt touched-out. But it's not. It is constant nursing or pumping. Holding, rocking, and bouncing. And no time to shower or pee alone.
My body felt like it was no longer mine. It was there to create a baby for 9 months
and now it was there to feed and comfort 24/7.
By the time my kiddo went to bed at night, I was so ready to be alone for a few minutes with no one else's needs as my priority. I feel like this can get overlooked really easily — especially if you are an introvert and your partner isn't. I didn't really realize that as an introvert, I was going to need to set some pretty big boundaries with family and friends to prioritize alone time for myself. Because when you are a mother, you are never really alone. And even when the kids are sleeping phantom cries, anxieties, and worries follow you. Now, with an older kid, I have it worked into my life to be alone regularly. But when I had an infant, it was tricky to say the least. My husband, thankfully, was really good at drawing me a bath without my asking, lighting candles, putting on music, and providing me with some time to be alone and time to address my own needs of privacy. And because he helped me prioritize that, I was much more available to be close to him.
6) Open communication about a fair split of responsibilities.
This one took us a really long time to master. I can only speak to what I know when it comes to responsibilities and splitting them somewhat equally. I have no idea how it feels when you both work and are trying to split home work between the two of you. That must be a whole different struggle. But I do know how tricky it is when you have a stay-at-home-parent and a working parent to find a balance of responsibilities that feels fair. For us, some things felt clear. Because my husband works long hours it was clear that I needed to be mostly in-charge of the night shift during the week. This felt fair because when the baby napped I could nap (not that I ever did) and on the weekend I got support with the night shift. But there are things that are harder to split up. And in some cases we found it challenging to not feel like one of us was working more than the other. Especially when we were both exhausted. I think it is because you can't truly gauge what is "fair" when the tasks are so completely different and basic needs aren't getting met for some. For us the solution was open communication about feelings.
We noticed that all of the sudden sleep felt like a
currency between us. And when one of us felt like the other was getting more sleep - resentment and fights set in.
I think the reason that it is so hard to find a fair balance in parenting responsibilities is because kids are very unpredictable. Where one day it might feel very fair that my husband goes to work, comes home, plays with the baby, and helps put the baby down without any home assistance. Another day might feel impossible because the baby is teething, was up all night crying, and didn't nap well. On those days we found it crucial to communicate a change in needs and support. I used to struggle so much with this. But I am happy to say that I now loudly and confidently announce "WE ARE ORDERING DELIVERY FOR DINNER!" and my husband knows exactly what that means. It means I need more support than usual because it was a manic mom-day.
Maintaining a marriage with or without children can be incredibly hard. But adding another human (or multiple little humans) into the mix makes it all the more challenging. You are not alone if your marriage suffers a little from growing your family. I think it is safe to say that every couple struggles in some way when a baby enters in the mix. I hope we can all be a little more honest about marriage with kids and everything that comes along with it. Remember, you are not alone in the struggle. In fact, your partner is right there struggling along with you! Reach out to them, reach out to your support systems to help you maintain your marriage. It truly does take a village.