When you become new parents, your entire world changes. This shouldn’t be a surprise. Friends tell us this. Family, too. Hell, every piece of parenting literature pretty much reiterates it. But nothing prepares you for how life-altering it truly is, and many are caught off guard by how drastically a baby affects their day-to-day world, and their relationships. Overwhelmed by the needs of a new child and the transformative experience of parenthood, couples can easily let their marriage take a back seat. This can have serious consequences. If they’re not careful, the marriage issues after a baby arrives can become permanent.
Kara Hoppe and Stan Tatkin understand this more than most. Hoppe, a psychotherapist who has spent more than a decade helping couples, and Tatkin, a clinician with more than 35 years of experience, regularly counsel couples whose relationship has been negatively affected by new parenthood. Their new book Baby Bomb: A Relationship Survival Guide for New Parents, offers wisdom and practical advice to help couples prepare for the massive change. Their main advice? Be willing to adapt.
“This is a skillset that can be learned,” says Hoppe. “It’s okay if you’re expecting and you don’t know how to do everything. Anyone can learn if they want to.”
So what are some of the problems that new parents face, and how can they better handle them? Fatherly spoke to Hoppe about the five most common marriage issues she sees and what couples can do to keep their relationship in a healthy place.
Problem #1: Not Recognizing the Change in Their Spouse
This is something that befalls non-birthing partners in the relationship, and happens when they fail to recognize or appreciate the change that their partner has just gone through. “I don’t think anyone is fully prepared for what it means to be a parent until you’re a parent,” says Hoppe. She regularly sees a lot of misunderstanding among the non-birthing partners, as new moms experience such a profound change in their hormones and bodies. Not to mention the general sleep deprivation that marks new parenthood. “It’s a great opportunity for partners to care for each other. But if that doesn’t happen, then there can be a disconnect between the couple.”
What Couples Can Do: “I think it’s really important for a birthing partner to be able to talk about their birth story as much as they need to,” says Hoppe. “Their partner needs to check in and say, ‘Tell me what you experienced during the birth. How is your body doing? How can I help?” They need to be really sensitive to that. That little bit is going to go a long way.”
Problem #2: Not Tackling Issues As a Team
Your mom tells you to introduce solid food at four months instead of six, but then the doctor tells you that six months is better. Rather than discussing it as a couple, one or the other of you simply takes the advice of outsiders as the gospel truth. “It’s about making decisions together as a team,” Hoppe says. “The most important thing in this is that you can say, ‘I know my husband has my back. Even if he doesn’t agree with me, he respects my opinions and we can negotiate things together.”
What Couples Can Do: Put the focus back on teamwork, and don’t make any decisions without discussing them as a couple. Take in as much outside advice as you want, but then run it through your shared filter and come to a decision together as a team. “The way I like to think about it is the two partners are on the inside making the decisions collaboratively to where they both feel positive about the outcomes,” says Hoppe. “They’re getting the advice, but they’re being discerning together with it.”
Problem #3: Thinking Your New Life Won’t Be Different
Some couples, per Hoppe, approach parenting with the idea that it won’t radically alter their lives. They’ll get a few months off work, they’ll have nap times during the day when the baby sleeps, and they’ll still be able to do most of the things they did before the baby arrived. But your life isn’t your own anymore, and couples who don’t prepare for that are in for a rude awakening.
What Couples Can Do: Grieve your old lives and grieve their independence. If you can recognize the loss you’ve experienced, you can begin to cope with the new reality. Some parents feel that loss and see it as a thing to be ashamed of, that they should be happy with their child and not sorry that their old life is gone. “It’s a difficult transition,” says Hoppe. “It’s a new life and the expansion of your family. But there is a lot of loss involved. It’s a very normal part of that experience to grieve and to even wish for your old life to come back, as much as you love your child. That’s very normal.”
Problem #4: Taking on Too Much
When a new baby arrives, some parents feel that they need to be Supermom or Superdad, handling the feeding, the changing, making doctor’s appointments and taking care of every little thing that comes up. By doing this, you might think that you’re helping your partner and taking the burden off them, But, in reality, what you end up doing is boxing your partner out and making them feel isolated and not a part of the new parenting experience.
What Couples Can Do: It can feel like a natural thing for Mom to take the lead during the early days of parenting. But at some point a conversation should be had about dividing up the labor. Look at each other’s schedules and figure out where each of you can contribute and when. “There has to be a redistribution of labor and responsibilities,” Hoppe says. “As well as being open about limitations. Couples have to realize that no one can do it all and you need to get that support from your partner.”
Problem #5: Not Making Time for Each Other
Even though the children’s needs are important, Hoppe maintains that the couple still comes first. That certainly doesn’t mean ignoring the baby so you can have a romantic dinner. It means remaining clued in to each other’s needs, checking in with each other regularly, and making the relationship a priority.
What Couples Can Do: Make time for daily check-ins. It’s as simple as that. Even if they’re squeezed in between changings and feedings. Make sure that your partner knows that you’re still there for them and that their needs are still a priority, even if you have to juggle the ways in which you attend to them. “The hope is, even though you’re expanding your family, you’ll still be a couple after your children grow up and leave,” says Hoppe. “So by continuing to grow together as a couple, you’re also becoming better parents because you’re saving your children from having to be the adults in the relationship. Kids will say, ‘Oh, Mom is upset, so let me take care of Dad.’ But Mom and Dad need to be taking care of each other.”