Taking measures to protect your relationship amid new responsibilities

My new alarm clock went off at 6:15 a.m. I wished I could press snooze, but instead I powered off the baby monitor that had begun wailing next to my ear. With one eye open, I glanced over at my husband, who hadn’t stirred. I sighed heavily as I swung my feet over the side of the bed.

Nothing.

I walked as loudly as I could across the floor. Still nothing.

I shut the door—just a little louder than necessary—and trudged towards the nursery. I was the one who needed to breastfeed anyway, but still, if I had to suffer, why shouldn’t he?

After snuggling with my baby and caffeinating a little bit, I forgave my husband for being a heavier sleeper than I was. I decided what this large, open Saturday ahead of us needed was a good ’ol family breakfast. I smiled as the baby contentedly played on her activity mat and my sleepy husband stumbled out of the bedroom to greet us. As the smell of bacon filled our kitchen, I affectionately noticed my husband’s cute pajamas and face stubble.

But no sooner had a feeling of calm approached than it left. The baby started crying just as the toast popped and the eggs needed to be turned. From the sound of the bathroom sink running, I realized this was up to me, so I sloppily wound myself in our baby-wearing wrap and tucked baby in. I bounced up and down while I stirred and chopped. My stress began to rise with the screaming whistle of the kettle.

When I looked across the apartment, I saw that my husband was sitting on the couch on his laptop. Are you kidding me?! I thought, as I set the dishes on the table with extra force. But when he looked up and asked if I needed help, I replied, “I’m good,” and threw another dirty dish into the sink. I stirred, chopped a little harder, and wondered why he wasn’t dressed yet and never bothered to shave.

Throughout my pregnancy, everyone took my protruding belly as an invitation to offer their advice, solicited or not. From family members to random waitresses, we got advice on baby names, feeding techniques, and clothing brands. Cliché jokes were made about how little sleep we’d get and if my husband would be able to figure out how to snap all the cloth diapers we’d registered for. The stories about birth and labor ranged from horrifying to empowering. But no one mentioned how having a child would affect our marriage.

It certainly isn’t because this stress is rare. Family therapists know that introducing a new addition is a huge stress-inducer for the family unit. And it makes sense: a relationship that used to be about romance suddenly becomes about responsibility. As a couple begins parenting together, suddenly the differences in their values and interests matter. Maybe for the first time they begin to realize what those differences even are. Or how much they are influenced by the different ways they were raised.

The only people who seemed to be talking about it were those of us in the trenches. The playgroups I attended would begin with the joyful catch-ups of sweet moments or development milestones. But they would inevitably turn to desperate conversations about date nights, sex lives, and painful communication. Why had no one warned us about this? And was there anyone who had come out successfully on the other side?

Recent estimates have pointed out that having a child adds an additional 33.5 hours of care to a couple’s week. Where do those hours come from? My husband and I answered that question differently. He was willing to let go of standards around household duties and social obligations, but he wanted to keep his moments for self-care. I tried to do it all and let the hours slip from my own sleep, self-care, and friendships. We tried to maintain our time together, but by the time I arrived there, I had nothing left to give.

Before the baby, my husband was my best friend whom I couldn’t wait to see at the end of the day. After the baby, he was the other parent whom I couldn’t wait to see so I could get a chance to pee. It felt like our relationship had become transactional: if I give you time to take a shower, can you let me run to the grocery store? Asking for anything more than the bare minimum made me feel guilty for taking from my partner’s reserve of time and energy. Yet not asking made me resent him and the times he took to care for himself.

We finally got to a breaking point. The pain of our disconnection was too great. The confusion about how we got to this place was too foggy. And I could feel myself drawing our daughter into the toxicity: I let the resentment spill over onto her, used her constant needs as a distraction to turn away from uncomfortable topics, and greedily took her innocent love to fill the emptiness. I knew this was the beginning of an unbalanced family I didn’t want to be in.

In the midst of our daughter forming her first words, my husband and I began to find ours. Some of the hard conversations took place in therapists’ offices, some took place after our daughter was finally asleep. We both had to muster vulnerability and empathy and dedication, but slowly we found ourselves healing.

Now, we chat together about how best to balance our time and speak honestly about what we want. When my husband asks how he can help, I now pause for self-awareness instead of slipping into resentment. I can trust that it’s okay to ask for help and take time for myself. And he can trust that I mean it when I say, “I’m good.”

Maybe people didn’t mention this part of parenthood because they didn’t want to take away from the joy. But more likely, many people are ashamed of the feelings they “can’t” have about parenting, or problems they “shouldn’t” have in good marriages. Having come out on the other side, my husband and I think it’s worth talking about. Now when we encounter couples who are beginning parenthood together, we of course give unsolicited advice about our favorite parenting book or stroller brand. But we also advocate for taking measures to protect their relationship. One of the best gifts we can give our children is a healthy home environment. As much as I’d like to think it comes naturally, I know it takes hard, hard work. But maybe if we build that environment by putting as much emphasis on our marriages as we do on painting our nurseries, we can truly live happily ever after.