Starting a family is one of the biggest and most exciting transitions we can make in life.
I remember spending my first pregnancy imagining the picture-perfect moments we’d create as the three of us settled into domestic bliss and lived happily ever after! And the first couple of weeks did feel very much like that (I’m not quite sure if they looked like it from the outside, but it definitely felt like we were arriving!)
But then slowly, gradually, almost imperceptibly, things started to change. My husband went back to work, becoming the main breadwinner of our newly-formed household, and I began to take care of most of the childcare and chores (spending most of my time at home with the baby, it made sense to take on these roles too). And although on the surface, life this way seemed to make sense, the reality was that the extra weight and responsibility we were both carrying meant that the health of our relationship started to suffer.
It’s a veeery common story.
Cosy nights in together had become colicky baby rocking sessions, cocktails after work had morphed into baby-led weaning, and the long, meandering conversations about our bright, adventurous future now centred around who last had the wipes and whose turn it was to do the dishes!
It became pretty clear, pretty quickly that family life was not always sunshine and roses. It was challenging, difficult and strenuous, and not only in physical, menial ways – family life has a way of pushing emotional edges to the max. But even through the sleep deprivation and the death-knoll ringing and regularity of routines, it needn’t descend into nit-picking and imbalance. It IS possible to nurture your relationship alongside nurturing a new-born, it just takes a little more work, and a lot of perseverance. And it’s important too: your relationship is the very foundation of the whole set-up!
Once I realized that the problems we were facing as a couple were actually widely common, it became a whole lot easier to get to work on sorting them out (and it’s an ongoing process: as the babies grow, so do the challenges!)
1. Loosing that ‘Spark’
Pregnancy can be such an exciting, bonding experience for couples. But once the baby finally arrives, it is really, really common for so much of the attention to shift onto the baby, that hardly any is left for each other. It’s not surprising – these tiny bundles of amazingness have entered our lives as if by magic, turning everything upside down so that life as we know it resembles nothing close to what it used to! It takes a LOT of getting used to.
And if your familial roles become rapidly defined, parenthood can quickly feel like a game with two very distinct sides, which makes it difficult to connect to your partner from a level playing field.
Which is why it is SO important to regularly remind yourselves of your coupledom, outside of, and beyond the family unit.
One of the most important fixes, when it comes to keeping that spark alive is to take time away from daily, domestic life and children, as a couple.
We used to do a babysitting swap with a couple on our street – one Wednesday night, my husband or I would go and sit two doors down while our friends went out, and the next Wednesday one of them would come and sit at our house, while my husband and I went out. It worked! And it was reassuring to know that if the children did wake, they would see a familiar face.
The key here was frequency. In the beginning, I remember we were SO sleepy we could hardly make conversation, but we kept it up, and before too long, every second Wednesday became a really fond date night that felt just a little like the old days had, before we had the children!
Another good tip here, is to schedule one night a week to go through all of your pending domestic queries – looking at bills, deciding on school applications, holiday bookings and car repairs, for example, so that your date night is free for talking about the things that make you both smile!
2. Different Parenting Styles
Depending on who spends most time looking after the baby, it’s likely that the main care-giver has it all worked out. In my case, I knew what the particular pitch of a certain cry meant, exactly which position would soothe the baby in under 10 seconds (most of the time!) and which outfits were most suitable for which outing, amongst a whole heap of other things. Which meant that when my husband pitched in and grabbed a different set of clothes, or tried a different style of carry, from where I was standing he was doing it all wrong!
But this kind of attitude can very quickly feel like criticism, which may lead into a reluctance to even try, in the partner on the receiving end. So it is vital to let each other bond and connect with the baby in our own unique ways.
As the baby gets older, it does become more important to set consistent boundaries and clear approaches when it comes to discipline and childcare, but for babies, gentle variety is a wonderful thing, and those who are so used to things being done in only one way can easily become difficult to manage later on, when circumstances change. So even though it would take me just 10 minutes to get the baby to sleep, allowing the 30, 40, 50, 60 minutes it could take his daddy to do the very same thing, meant that when the time came, our evenings became a whole lot more flexible (hello cocktail hour!)
3. Domestic Life
When babies enter onto the scene, life very quickly begins to centre around domestic life. More time is spent at home, and more cooking, cleaning, washing and tidying seems to be required at a much faster pace than ever before! And so when it’s not done, it can quickly pile up and will often fall to the person with the lower threshold for mess and disorder, to pick up the slack. Sleep deprivation adds to the pressure of what it and isn’t being done, or who’s done more (or less) than who, and before you know it, bickering, nagging and resentment infuse into family life. This is never going to be an easy issue to solve, so a detached, strategic approach is the one to take.
- Write out a list of all of the daily and weekly tasks required around the home, and divvy them up equally.
- Make sure everybody knows what their responsibilities are for that week, and when they need to be done by.
- Keep up to date with your chores!
- Next week, swap your tasks over.
Don’t let it become much more complicated than that, and try not to let it slip. We all have good days and bad days, so let some kindness and generosity seep through the cracks, but keep up your side of the bargain.
4. Money Worries
It’s par for the course, that if one parent is doing most of the childcare, the other is doing most of the breadwinning. This can be a super tricky situation to navigate, as all sorts of deep-seated insecurities and power plays can rise up to be felt in these circumstances, and while each situation is unique to the couple involved, the patterns are common. Which means so are many of the solutions!
When dealing with the family finances, it really does pay to take a practical, pragmatic approach. Talk openly to each other about your values - is it a priority of yours to have your child cared for full time by her parent, even if this means surviving on less income overall? Is saving money for longer, annual holidays important to you, or do you prefer to eat out at a restaurant once a week?
Touch all the bases, so that you both know where you stand, so from there you can put a real financial plan into place. Consider the practicalities of how you will share the family income and cover expenses. Whose accounts will the money draw from? Who will be paying for the food shop, the kids clothes, the washing machine repair? If these kinds of discussions are had before they actually arise, less anxiety will be triggered in the moment.
5. Extended Family
Having a baby will often mean an influx of extended family to the home. All of a sudden, grandparents, in-laws, long lost uncles and aunts all show up on the scene under the guise of offering help. Which can be wonderful to receive, but before long the steady stream of visitors can become an added strain.
This is where is pays to create firm boundaries.
It’s okay to want to protect your precious family unit and need time just by yourselves, so consider setting a few ground rules when it comes to family visits. It may work to schedule in one or two days each week to accept visitors, making it clear that these are your preferred times, and anything outside of these may be inconvenient (or you may not even be there). Or state firmly but kindly that a phone call needs to be made before a visit, to minimize unplanned arrivals.
If you both back each other up, and reinforce your wishes with your respective families then it will really help to get the messages sinking in.
One of the best pieces of advice I was given by a seasoned set of parents, and often think of in strained moments, is to “remember that you are both right”. You may see a situation one way, and your partner may perceive it in another, but at the end of the day, you ARE both right! And that is an incredibly unifying thought.