Katherine Reynolds Lewis
THE WASHINGTON POST – The first few months of parenting hit hard for Easar Forghany and Melody Kim. Their baby, Cora, cried for hours as they took turns soothing her.
“We were losing our minds. The first three months was really tough on our relationship and my own sanity,” Forghany said.
They walked around in a daze from sleep deprivation. Any little thing could spark an argument. Forghany was anxious and quick to anger, whereas Kim felt more comfortable trying new things.
“Most of the fights or disagreements we had were about something I thought could happen that probably had a lower likelihood of happening,” Forghany said.
By the time Cora was seven or eight months old, they had worked out a new normal. When Forghany would snap in frustration, Kim would remind him to relax and that no tough moment lasts forever. He would cool his anger and reflect on the big picture.
They also made a point to get couple’s time away from Cora and to see friends, an important priority for Kim, who needs the energy and variety of socialising. Looking back, Forghany wishes they had brought up these issues sooner.
This experience is typical, said Gina Senarighi, the Madison, Wisconsin-based author of Love More, Fight Less.
“We often enter into parenthood from a really sure-footed place, so we’re feeling like we can do anything. We’re oblivious to the things that are about to change,” Senarighi said.
“The strongest couples are often the least likely to get help, and they end up regretting it later.”
When preparing for your first child, experts recommend a pre-baby tuneup for your relationship before you’re in the midst of sleep deprivation, hormones and identity changes. Taking a few key steps now can avoid major issues later.
TALK ABOUT VALUES, DREAMS
The first step is to unearth your hidden expectations about parenthood, each other, extended family, traditions and values.
Get specific about building a family together and what excites you. “Be in that dreamy, visioning head space. It can be a powerful way for a couple to connect,” Senarighi said.
Maybe you always imagined rocking your child to sleep or taking them to the beach.
Perhaps it’s celebrating the first birthday party with all the grandparents.
When you and your partner share these touchstones, you can make a joint commitment to the most important elements for each of you.
“Disappointment and adjustment is a big part of the first year,” Senarighi said. “A lot of things may fall by the wayside, but if we know a couple of our key visions, we’re going to work hard to make them come true.”
These pre-baby discussions may reveal that one of you always assumed you would move to the suburbs after having kids or would invite grandparents over for every Sunday dinner. It’s so much better to talk through these decisions ahead of time.
“When baby comes, through no fault of their own, (parents) are going to go into stress mode,” said Lina Acosta Sandaal, a Miami-based psychotherapist and owner of Stop Parenting Alone.
“They’re going to default to what was done to them. That’s what the brain does, uses past experience to make sense of the present.”
Discuss everything, including religion, education and discipline, or family dinners and how you envision spending the weekends.
My husband reverted back to the traditional roles that he saw when he was growing up.
The baby was the catalyst for that,” said Jancee Dunn, the Madison, New Jersey-based author of How to Not Hate Your Husband After Kids and a New York Times columnist.
“As much as you can front-load these sorts of discussions, the better, because when you’re in it, you’re deranged from lack of sleep.”
LEARN HOW TO FIGHT
You may discover that you need to make changes in how you communicate and resolve conflict. Before having a baby, you may have let things slide, whether leaving dirty socks on the floor or going out to dinner when you would rather stay home.
“If you are about to have kids and you don’t have practice resolving things, you’re probably avoiding things,” Senarighi said. “Healthy couples have healthy conflict. They don’t have no conflict.”
That begins with learning to identify when you’re overstimulated or getting triggered, and finding the strategies to calm down. You may find that your partner knows your tells better than you do. When Senarighi’s husband said, “I’ve got this,” it’s a signal that he notices her becoming irritated, and she should just remove herself while he resolves an issue.
“Figuring out how to do that is really important. Kids trigger us in ways we can’t always anticipate,” she said, noting that learning emotional regulation lets you model it for your child.
During a tense moment or conflict, a small criticism can escalate, so it’s important to wait until you’re both calm to discuss points of disagreement.
“When emotions are high, cognition is low,” said Los Angeles-based activist Eve Rodsky, an attorney and the author of Fair Play. “Feedback in the moment is toxic.”
When Dunn’s daughter was a baby, she and her husband had bitter fights about who deserved to sleep in more on the weekend, or whose turn it was to empty the diaper pail.
“I would get petty about that stuff: ‘I’m with her more than you, you change it!’” she recalled.
That bad energy and blame erodes relationships. Dunn said a couples counsellor taught her and her husband to hold hands during a heated discussion.
The tactile feeling of your partner’s hands and the eye contact keep you connected even while you’re in conflict.
It’s also important to proactively build the relationship. Write down 10 things you appreciate that your partner did for you or to support you, being as specific as possible.
Then, read that list aloud. “You have to make a practice of noticing that stuff, because it’s so easy to have that negative confirmation bias that my partner isn’t helping,” Dunn said.
DIVIDE LABOUR FAIRLY, FOR REAL
One of the most common points of conflict is who does what around the house.
Often, couples fall into patterns based on gender roles or how your family of origin handled things.
A pre-baby tuneup gives you an opportunity to ask whether it’s fair for you to manage the calendar while your partner maintains the car. Typically, one partner has become the “household manager” who keeps track of responsibilities and upcoming needs, the mental load that has broken many relationships post-baby.
Rodsky’s Fair Play system rejects this as unfair. Instead, each person claims a task, from conception through planning and execution, with an agreed-upon minimum standards of care. That avoids nagging or criticism for not doing it the “right way”.
“Both of you are imperfect humans. Have some patience and flexibility,” Senarighi said.
If someone drops the same ball more than once or twice, it’s their responsibility to apologise, make amends and come up with a plan to avoid that misstep in the future.
Each person should also set boundaries around their free time – and honour their partner’s boundaries. Finally, commit to regular communication and check-ins about how the system is going. “We have a lot of unlearning to do,” Rodsky said.
In addition to the non-home-oriented partner (typically male) taking full responsibility for household tasks, the over-functioning partner needs to accept that their way isn’t the only way to do things, known as (typically maternal) gatekeeping.
GATHER YOUR COMMUNITY
Finally, line up support for the first few months of new parenthood. Put together a meal train and streamline the house so it’s easy for anyone to find items for cleaning, cooking or baby care, recommended Yolanda Williams, a parenting coach in Sherwood, Arkansas.
Consider hiring a housekeeper or night doula, or enlisting family and friends. If you hate to cook but love having children around, swap with a friend who loves cooking but needs a break from her child’s incessant questions.
“We always forget how important community is to raising children,” Williams said.
“We have been shut off from it and indoctrinated into believing that the nuclear family is the optimal family structure.”
Sandaal recommends designating at least one friend or family member who’s regularly going to help with baby care, so you can have a break.
“A lot of us in stress mode hide, we isolate and avoid,” she said. “Ask people to help you ahead of time. Those people will keep you from isolating.”
Plan time with your partner to connect, even if it’s just a walk in the park or an evening on the couch watching your favorite show, while Grandma puts the baby to sleep. “Put it in the calendar,” Sandaal said.
“You’re not going to want to do it, because you’re going to be so depleted by the baby care.
It has to be a daily choice. What you’re avoiding is the deterioration of your relationship.”
Ultimately, parenthood transforms you as an individual and your relationship, but with planning and communication, you can build an even stronger bond with your partner.
“Maintaining the partnership and teamwork as parents is more important than what mattress you’re going to buy,” Sandaal said. “You’re not going to be the same person you were before this baby changed your life. You can’t go back; it’s about going forward.”