Whether that wee babe was a total surprise or an eagerly planned addition, one thing is for certain: A newborn changes just about everything. Any semblance of routine that you had prebaby will need to be tweaked to work around your helpless babe’s wants and needs—at least for the first few months. Life outside the womb is a strange new world for her, and she is wholly dependent on you and your partner for comfort and care.
Suffice it to say that things will look different, from the division of housework to how much shuteye you manage to clock (spoiler: not much). It’s a lot to take on even for the closest of couples, so it’s little wonder why nearly 70 percent of new parents report a drop in relationship satisfaction during baby’s first year, according to research by relationship expert John Gottman, PhD. Take heart that you aren’t the only pair experiencing turbulence, and rest assured that the newborn haze won’t last forever. (Dissatisfaction typically peaks around six to nine months after birth.)
To make the jump into parenthood as seamless as possible, it’s crucial that you and your other half know what to expect and how to handle any disagreements. Our trusty relationship survival guide is here to help you strengthen your bond and address common conflict zones before you’re in the trenches.
Prenatal prep work
During bumphood it’s natural to focus on preparing for your little one’s arrival, but don’t neglect your relationship during this special time. These are the last few months that you will spend as just the two of you, so make a point to shower your partner with extra affection when the mood strikes and squeeze in as many date nights as the calendar allows. You won’t regret it.
“Couples who put aside time for their relationship to focus on baby may not realize that they are ignoring one of the most important things they can offer to their baby: a strong and happy parental unit,” explains Katy Johnson Brookes, mom of two, registered clinical counselor and Gottman Bringing Baby Home educator in Mission, British Columbia.
You are a team both now and in the long run, as Melissa Robinson, mom of two and licensed marriage and family therapist in Walnut Creek, California, points out. “As a couple you will need to lean on each other through the momentous decisions around raising this amazing child into adulthood. Eventually [she] will move on and make [her] own way in the world. You will still be a couple after [she goes].”
Pregnancy is the perfect time to chat about the many changes that lie ahead. (There will be significantly less time—and energy—for in-depth discussions once you’re on baby’s round-the-clock routine of eat, sleep, poop.) Brookes suggests using this period to focus on moving from a “me” to “we” perspective. “Recognize that now that your baby is on board, every decision you make impacts your partner and baby,” she says. “Take some time to discuss each other’s expectations about how you will be dividing labor and time once baby is born. Learn together about some of the common challenges new parents face … [and] talk about how you would like to handle these issues as a team.”
It varies from couple to couple, but most newly minted parents find quarrels cropping up when these hot topics are on the table …
Maybe you had a clear delineation of labor prior to becoming mom and dad, but you’ve got a brand-new list of to-do’s now that baby has moved in. Come up with a plan for who will handle what, from emptying the diaper pail to heading off the ever- growing mountain of laundry, but be flexible. Most importantly: Make an effort to thank each other—even for the smallest tasks. Being appreciated staves off score- keeping, which often leads to resentment.
Time (out, alone, with each other)
There are some things you’ll have plenty of (like shirts with spit-up on them), but one department where you’ll be lacking is time. With only so many hours in a day and most of those accounted for by feedings and tummy time and diaper changes, there won’t be much excess for brunch with the girls, reading a book at your favorite coffee shop or having a date without a tiny third wheel. And let’s face it, if you can eke out an extra hour or two, it’s probably going to go toward a power nap.
But time away from baby—separate or together—will do you both some good. So strategize about how you can accomplish both. Maybe you each get one night off a week to spend as you please, or perhaps you can plan ahead for once-a-month dates that don’t take place in your living room. Find what works for your family.
Shelling out for well-checks and the diaper surplus that has taken over your hall closet can put a strain on your bank account and your partnership, especially if you don’t agree on whether a bouncer qualifies as a “necessary” purchase. It pays to map out your foreseeable expenses now and earmark what you can for savings (and unexpected costs that are bound to come up). By planning ahead, you can space out major buys over several paychecks and jointly decide where you can afford to scrimp or splurge.
You’re as laid-back as they come, and you’re all for letting baby figure things out on her own. But your partner might be more inclined to give your newbie a boost whenever and however he can. We’re all different, and there isn’t one right way to raise a child. Instead of arguing about who is wrong, focus on what lessons you want to pass on to your tot. Whether “Try, try again” or “Ask for help when you need it,” both mantras offer good takeaways. By understanding where your partner is coming from, you can work toward finding a middle ground.
You and your partner have different strengths, and you will likely have your own ways of comforting and caring for your baby. “That’s OK—it really is OK,” assures Robinson. “Dad gets to develop his own unique relationship with baby, just as mom does.”
Robinson encourages parents to consider writing a “Family Unity Plan” that outlines how you want to raise your child (in terms of what kind of person you want her to become), what your family values and how you want to model that to your children. “Develop a shared vision, and write it down. This will help you focus on what’s important to you as parents, a couple and as individuals,” she says. A plan you both agree on can function as a guidepost to help you make future family decisions and squelch disagreements.
When in-laws become grandparents, they may want to clock as much face time with baby as they can. (And understandably so—she is pretty adorable!) But don’t be shy about setting some boundaries from the get-go. Let them know if you’d like a few days to adjust to life with a newbie, so you can preemptively prevent any unwanted stop-bys. Add that you want them to bond with their new grandchild, too, and set aside times for those visits.
When it comes to parenting decisions, you might consider your parents’ sage advice or you may opt to do things differently. Gently remind anyone (including grandparents and total strangers) that the choice is up to you and your partner.
When one person is ready for a romp and the other isn’t, feelings may get hurt. Lessen the sting of rejection by being open and honest with your partner. If you aren’t feeling it, explain why. (Nonstop nursing certainly doesn’t set the mood, and exhaustion isn’t much help either.) Instead, show your affection in other ways until the timing is right for both of you.
“Also, having a baby can make sexual intimacy a bit harder to come by spontaneously, so couples should get comfortable with the idea of planning their intimacy,” notes Brookes. “You may be having less sex than before baby, but take every opportunity to cuddle and share loving touch, such as massage … [which] has been shown to reduce postpartum depression and calm the nervous system.”
Putting plans into action
Once your little one is in the picture, she’ll bring a whole host of stressors with her (recovering from labor and delivery, sleep deprivation, and living on a tighter budget included). It may be overwhelming at first, but give yourself and your partner some grace during this transition.
“New parents need to remember that they are not alone,” counsels Brookes. “Know that the strain on your relationship is normal, and try to give your partner the benefit of the doubt during this time. Assume that they are doing the best they can under stressful circumstances, and try not to sweat the small stuff.”
How exactly can you do that when you’re surrounded by clutter and piles of dirty clothes? Brookes advises parents to take a positive perspective. Instead of focusing on the negatives (such as a messy house or an exhausted partner), voice the positive things you see (such as a clean and fed baby).
All that preparation you put into strengthening your friendship and sharing your expectations will come in handy as you navigate the disorienting early months of parenthood, promises Brookes. But don’t put your relationship into cruise control and expect to make it to baby’s first birthday without a spat in sight. Brookes suggests aiming to find time to connect with your partner every day. “Gottman recommends that couples create a ritual of a 20-minute conversation every day, in which each person gets to talk for 10 minutes about their daily stressors (not related to the relationship), while the other just listens,” she notes. “This small ritual of connection will ensure that you stay in touch with all the changes happening inside as you and your partner transform into parents.”
Keeping the lines of communication wide open is important no matter how well you think you know your other half. “You may think you know your partner, but we all change with new life experiences. We gain new perspectives,” shares Robinson. “Listen to your partner for understanding … and try not to judge them as right or wrong. It’s just how they’re viewing things right now.”
If 20 minutes is too much to spare, seek out opportunities to do small things to show you care for your partner. Take the baby for a stroll around the block while dad naps, or set up mom’s nursing station with water and snacks for the next midnight feeding. There’s a reason Gottman’s motto for relationships is “small things, often.”
“It is the little, loving things done every day that keep your bond strong,” Brookes says. “Take every opportunity to express appreciation for all the things that your partner does, even the simple things you take for granted. Make small gestures such as doing the dishes yourself or bringing your partner coffee in bed or offering to change the poopy diaper.”
Many moms and dads find themselves wondering if their relationship will ever be back to “normal” once they’ve had a baby. But the truth is, we change—and so do our relationships. “We do need to give ourselves permission to grieve all the parts of our life that we may not get back now that we are parents. You and your partner are now also co-workers, sharing a responsibility more dear and important than any you have ever had,” Brookes counsels. “You need time to adjust to this new form of partnership, and the better you stay connected with each other’s changes, the better your chances of your relationship evolving into something deeper and more beautiful as you navigate the transition together.”