Preparing for a baby is a beautiful thing for a couple. Making plans, shopping for nursery items, and dreaming about your growing family together results in some of the greatest bonding experiences of a marriage.
And then the baby comes.
According to the Gottman Institute, about two-thirds of couples see the a decline in the quality of their relationship within three years of the birth of a child, and the timing of the baby is also a factor. According to the CDC, women who gave birth to their first child 8 months or more after their first marriage were more likely to reach a 15 year marriage (77 percent). Women with a premarital first birth or premarital conception were only 48 percent likely to make it 15 years.
As a couple, it’s easy to believe that your love will survive the odds. But, as with most things, including parenting, a lot feels or looks easy until you actually do it.
Why Having Kids Rocks Your Marriage
Kids bring a wake of new challenges that would put strain on any relationship — no
matter how rock-solid. Here are the five biggest challenges that affect marriages after having kids:
It’s real, and it’s serious. Anyone who has been awake all night with a screaming baby knows that there isn’t a lot of patience left for your loving spouse — even if they are in the trenches right next to you. Partners often get the brunt of the blame, and bickering over little things greatly increases in your sleep-deprived and patience-less state. Sleep is the No. 1 one reason my husband and I argue post-baby. In fact, he’s been known to give me a hug when I’m picking a fight and say, “Go take a nap and then we’ll talk about it.”
Parents who go from working to being a stay-at-home parent inevitably deal with a social adjustment, and new parenthood can be lonely for all parents. The lack of adult interaction can be extremely isolating and can lead to an array of emotional and mental discontent.
Babies aren’t cheap, and finances are already a leading cause of marital discord pre-baby, so this is definitely a factor post-baby too. We went from two incomes to one after having my daughter and the adjustment was straining.
My husband jokes that if our marriage can handle a colicky newborn, it can handle anything. Babies are very needy, and the needs never stop. Even healthy babies who are good sleepers add stress to a family, as parents (and siblings) learn to manage new identities.
Learning to manage childcare duties is an adjustment. Say your husband wants to keep up his Wednesday night poker games, but you haven’t slept in weeks and you have a presentation for work the next morning. Something’s got to give. These small, seemingly insignificant altercations can add up, until one parent (or both) may feel resentful and overworked.
How to Recognize When Your Marriage is Strained
A marriage is a constantly evolving, fluid relationship that requires growth to be able to survive change. For many couples, the strain is temporary, and for some, it’s even bonding. Many couples pull closer together during the difficult newborn stage and accompanying changes related to having a new child in the house. They learn to work as a team and rely on each other.
But other couples may not bounce back as easily, which is very common. There are a few warning signs that may indicate your relationship needs more than just time and patience.
These signs include:
- Constant fighting
- Dramatic shifts in communication
- Avoidance of home life
- Refusal to co-parent
- Substance abuse
- Lasting resentment
- Anger/lashing out at one another
What You Can Do
If you recognize any of the above warning signs in your relationship, rest assured, you’re not alone. As previously noted, about two-thirds of couples note a decline in their relationship quality within three years after the birth of a child. Your relationship can totally survive and even thrive after having children. But it does require constant care – not unlike your new, sweet bundle of joy.
Here are some ways to be proactive about keeping your marriage strong after having kids:
Seek Support if Necessary
Seeking the help of a professional therapist – or even a trusted family member, support group, or religious leader — can help. Creating space for a dialogue about feelings, expectations, and other issues is key to resolving resentment and minimizing future conflict. For me, support was found in other mothers who, once I began talking to them, admitted their marriage had the same issues. Sometimes realizing you’re not alone and that all couples struggle can be the most helpful thing.
Date Each Other
You’ve likely been told this again and again, but it’s true. Don’t stop dating your spouse after kids come. Take turns planning your nights out. Your marriage is a living, breathing organism that requires care and love. Date night is a great time to reconnect and escape the chaos of young children.
Remind each other that you are a team. Any childcare responsibilities should be looked at with that mindset – collaborate, be respectful, make each other laugh. Try to let the small things go and find ways to serve each other instead.
As responsibilities shift, couples may need to reassess household duties – a major source of marital discord. Decide who is responsible for specific chores right down to emptying the diaper pail, bathing the baby, and purchasing diapers. Having specific expectations and responsibilities means the tasks will be more likely to get done and can prevent one parent feeling as though they are overworked. For us, my husband is on child duty after dinner. I usually clean up (with a podcast on) while he handles bath time, stories, and teeth brushing. Since he’s away from them all day, it’s a chance for them to bond, while I get the alone time I crave.
Plan ahead to avoid future conflict. First and foremost, decide on date nights, then discuss any other plans – dinner with friends, work events, parties, etc. Arrange sitters or childcare as necessary, and prioritize events in case of a scheduling conflict. Planning ahead can reduce guilt, establish boundaries, and allow each partner to feel a sense of freedom, which is essential with a new baby.
Parenting, as my mom is apt to remind me often, is not for the faint of heart. But your marriage, (even if it doesn’t feel like it at times), can totally survive it. In fact, there is so much potential for it to be even richer and fuller after kids. It might just need a little more care than it did before. Remember: love – much like parenting — is a verb.