Five ways to keep your relationship strong after the birth of a baby

When our daughter was born in October of 2009, my husband and I been married for just over 10 years.  We’d weathered lots of life’s storms together including chronic illness, extended family health scares, death, job loss and financial devastation.  Through it all, we remained Team Shannon, ready to take on life’s challenges together, even when it hurt and was hard.  We strove to always work together and not against one another.

Nothing, however, prepared us for the new challenge headed our way: parenthood.  We knew it would be hard.  We weren’t young.  We weren’t naive, but it was way harder than we expected.  I’ve never met a new parent who said it was otherwise.  It’s sort of a total system shock.  While becoming a first-time parent is a great and exciting event, it’s also highly stressful — especially when you figure in hormones and the sheer exhaustion and the total upheaval as life as you knew it.

My husband and I a couple of months ago. We're ready to embrace parenthood the second time around and striving to remember the lessons we learned the first time. (Photo by Catherine Sutton)

As we’re preparing to welcome another new baby in our lives in a couple of months, I’ve been thinking about those early days with our daughter.  Some things we did well for our relationship.  Some things took work.  I’ve been trying to remember our lessons so that next time around I can apply them.  We’ll have some advantages in that this time we know more what we’re in for — both good and bad.  And we’re already in a parent mindset.  But, I know it will also be more intensified since we also will have another person depending on us to take care of her, too.

1. Don’t keep score. In the early months of our daughter’s life, I kept a mental score of who did more.  It was me, always.  After all, I was the one who got up with her all night, I was the one who was pumping for her around the clock, I was the one who’s body was still healing and on and on and on the list could go.  However, I was failing to notice the things my husband was doing.  He was waking up at night, too.  He would work long days that involved a three-hour total commute and come home and take over so I could snooze.  He was changing diapers.  We both did a lot.  I realized I was building up resentment toward him when he was asleep and I was sitting up in a dark living room pumping more milk after having changed, fed and gotten the baby back to sleep.  I have lots of reasons why I felt this way (hormones, exhaustion, etc.), but none of them justified it and it was hurting my relationship in silence (well, mostly in silence save for a few bursts of passive aggressiveness — a trait I have tried to always stifle because it’s hurtful).  Once I got over myself and realized that keeping score was only making things worse, I was able to accept my new role as a mother and milk provider and appreciate the things my husband was doing.  Since then I’ve realized there have been times that he does more and times that I do more.  As long as we’re both making an effort to do the best we can, I can’t complain.  Keeping score only makes things worse.

2. Let each other express emotions freely, without judgment. The truth is there are times in dealing with a baby when you’re exhausted and the baby isn’t cooperating and you’re just plain angry at your squalling bundle of joy.  It’s neither rational nor reasonable.  But, it happens.  Being able to share that with your partner and have them understand, take over if necessary and not judge you helps you move on and move past it.  I struggled a lot in the early days with thinking I was failing my daughter and wasn’t cut out to be a mother.  My husband never judged me.  He supported me, encouraged me and helped me move past it.  I whined and cried about being tied to a breast pump and never being able to have a normal life again (sometimes I can be dramatic and catastrophize), and he was patient to encourage and support me.  I know he had to get tired of these things, but he loved me enough to get past himself and support me how I needed most.

3. Take time for each other. I’m not talking big, elaborate dates.  Some of our best times in those first couple of weeks were when one set of our parents would come over and watch the baby for a couple of hours so we could rest.  We’d head straight to bed, set the timer so we didn’t sleep for 18 hours straight like we felt like doing and snuggle in for a nap together.  We weren’t having compelling conversations about how it felt to be parents.  We weren’t whispering sweet nothings in each others’ ears, but we were just enjoying rest together.  As time went on, we carved out time for more like quick dinners at fast food restaurants without a baby in tow.  No matter what, though, making time for one another is important.

4. Accept help from the outside. This goes along with number three.  It’s hard to make time for each other when you’ve got a baby demanding help and attention so often.  Add in that during times the baby sleeps you have to deal with things like laundry, pumping and eating, and there’s very little time or energy left for much else.  Having help from others is fine.  Maybe it’s a friend who will come and hold the baby for a while.  Or maybe you’re blessed like we are to have retired parents around who love to snuggle with their grandbabies.  Whatever the case, it’s OK to ask for outside help.  In fact, I’d say it’s even necessary for your own sanity and the sake of your relationship.  It doesn’t mean that you’re not good parents or can’t handle having a baby.  It just means that you’re human, recognize you sometimes need a break and understand that you need to stay connected to your spouse to stay sane through this journey.

5. Always be compassionate and respectful. Sometimes in order to be compassionate with our spouse, we have to remember that it’s not all about us.  Spouses are people, too, with their own wants and needs.  It’s hard to remain compassionate when you’re exhausted and overwhelmed, but you’ve got to remember that your spouse is just as exhausted and overwhelmed and sometimes he just needs you to cut him some slack and vice versa.  Both of you are going to mess up.  Both of you are going to have times when you get short with the other and you need them to just drop it and understand that you’re coming from a place of exhaustion, not anger.  That said, being respectful to each other is key as well.  Sometimes people are kinder to complete strangers than their own spouses.  Not cool.  You can never take back words once they have been said.  You can apologize, but the words have left their mark.  Try to remember that when the baby is crying, you’ve been up for 19 hours and you just realized you’re out of clean sleepers because your spouse forgot to do the laundry like he said he would.  (And, because my husband reads my blog, I must point out I made up this last scenario.  I don’t think it happened to us, but I couldn’t think of an actual example, though I know these types of things happened.)  You’re both doing your best.

Parenthood isn’t easy.  The newborn days are rough.  They’re hard on each person and relationship.  I know my husband and I will have more lessons to learn in becoming parents to two, but I want to make sure I remember these lessons we learned the first time around.  And I’ll continue keep you posted on what we learn along the way!

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