Author Nora Ephron said, "When you have a baby, you set off an explosion in your marriage, and when the dust settles, your marriage is different from what it was. Not better, necessarily; not worse, necessarily; but different."
Having a baby is a supremely joyous occasion for most couples, but it is also a major life event. New parents struggle with physical and emotional pressures including pain, sleep deprivation, fatigue, lowered sexual desire, violated expectations, changing roles and identities, and perhaps depression.
"Our research shows that within three years after the birth of a child, approximately two-thirds of couples will experience a significant drop in relationship quality and have a dramatic increase in conflict and hostility," says Carolyn Pirak, LICSW, parent educator and national program director for the Seattle-based Bringing Baby Home project.
In our society, there is little support for parents during this vulnerable time. "In less-developed societies, the entire community comes around new parents to honor their new status and to provide for their basic needs, allowing them to rest and get to know their new baby," says Pamela Jordan, PhD, RN, developer of the Becoming Parents Program through the University of Washington. "In the U.S., the only preparation is for labor and birth, which lasts for about 24 hours and is accompanied by professional and lay support. Then, the ejection button is pushed and the new family is on their own."
Just as you wouldn't approach labor and delivery without knowing what to expect, neither should you enter parenthood without understanding how it might affect your relationship. One of most frequent mistakes that Pirak sees parents make is assuming the transition will be easy. "This means they are surprised by the challenges and assume that something must be wrong with their relationship."
Jordan adds, "We tend to be satisfied or dissatisfied in life to the extent that our expectations and reality fit hand in glove. Couples typically don't discuss their expectations of themselves or each other or their future as a family. Violated expectations are fertile ground for frustration, resentment, anger and conflict, especially when parents are tired and stressed and control of their lives has been taken over by the smallest and newest family member."
After baby comes home, the most important thing you can do to preserve and strengthen your marriage is to focus on your couple relationship and make time for fun, friendship and intimacy. "I find that couples want to be the best parents possible and know everything about how to care for their new baby," Pirak says. "Couples need to put some of that energy into their relationship with their partner."
Jordan agrees. "Most parents make the huge mistake of putting the baby first, rather than bringing the baby into their loving relationship. They stop making their couple relationship a priority." She suggests that couples plan to have time alone together at least once a week. "Don't allow all conversations to center around the baby. You need to stay connected as two adults. Take time to talk with each other as you did when you were dating as friends. Share your hopes, dreams and fears. Play and laugh together. Explore each other's bodies and remember intimacy doesn't have to equal intercourse."
That takes planning. David Penley, a Woodinville father, notes, "Infants and toddlers seldom respect romantic times. You learn to either schedule the time or just put it on hold. In either case, any spontaneity disappears."
To make time for each other, he and his wife plan dates. "You need to take a night off and go out with your spouse. It becomes too easy to just stay around the house because you're tired, or to take the baby with you because you don't feel comfortable leaving the baby with someone. But every now and then, the focus needs to be on just the two of you. You play different roles now, but it doesn't mean that the old ones disappear. Being a father and mother doesn't mean that you aren't still a husband and wife anymore."
Karen Fulmer, a Redmond mother, says that she and her husband also make date night a priority. "We have a standing night out together at least once a month. One of the books we both read while I was pregnant made a point that we thought was key -- babies are a welcome addition to an existing family."
If planning couple-time feels selfish and irresponsible, remember that it is the best thing you can do for your children. "The adult couple relationship is the foundation of the family and the nest the baby comes into and will grow in," Jordan says. "Two parents who love each other and are taking good care of themselves will create a caring and nurturing nest for their baby."
Fulmer says the birth of her twin boys changed everything, but it also pushed the couple to be partners in a way they hadn't been before. "We're more careful and nurturing with our relationship," she says. "We're conscious that it's the basis of the household environment and a role model for the boys' understanding of loving relationships."
Laurie Thompson, a freelance writer and mother of two, goes out with her extraordinary husband every chance she gets.