A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology confirmed what many parents might know to be anecdotally true: After having a baby, marital satisfaction rates seriously decline. This shouldn’t be a shock: New parenthood brings with it a host of identity and lifestyle changes as well as, you know, a screaming, demanding baby. With their powers combined, things can be a bit rocky. These changes can, if you’re not careful, transform a once-happy relationship into something very different.
Gregg*, a father of one in New York City, discovered this. A year after the birth of his first child, he and his wife’s marriage was really struggling. But instead of looking for an exit, he took a closer look at the situation. His wife, he realized, was grieving the loss of her former self and, while it wasn’t necessarily about “him,” he understood he needed to help out more. So he did and, 10 years later, can report that his marriage is happy and meaningful. Here, Gregg talks about the realizations he had — and how he worked to get his marriage back on the right track.
For the first year after our kid was born, things were rough. My wife was making a transition from being a career woman to becoming a mother. It’s a complete game-changer. I recently heard someone say they had to mourn the loss of who they were before they became a mom. My wife had to balance all of that: being a mom, having a career, being a woman in and of herself.
I didn’t seem to get or understand what she was going through during that time. I always helped with the baby, changed the diapers, helped more around the house. But the support that my wife needed was not necessarily there, because I didn’t understand.
She was going through a lot and I wasn’t getting the depth of what she was going through. It was a low point for us, and I kind of got to the point where I realized that we weren’t really talking, there was not much communication, we weren’t really spending time together, and there was a part of me that thought: I am doing everything that I am supposed to be doing.
And then there was one moment where I realized I wasn’t. I realized I wasn’t getting her. That was my turning point, when I stopped thinking that “She has to…,” and started saying, “I have to.” My parents got divorced when I was about a year old. So when I was going through a similar situation, I knew exactly how it was going to go. I remember sitting in my kitchen thinking, I’m not going to become the weekend father. Not me and not my kids.
It was a tremendous shift for both of us. But I had to take the lens off of myself to fix things. I needed to know how to be a better support to her in other ways.
I started reading about other women and growing more. I spent more time reflecting on, and understanding, what my wife could be going through. What a typical woman goes through or feels. I did this by reaching out to other people who also had kids but were a little further ahead. I wanted to know the experience my friends had.
And then I told her that I knew I could do better. I knew we hadn’t been talking, we weren’t where we used to be, and that wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted, straight up, for us to be where we were before we had our kid, emotionally. What can I do to give my wife more time, whether it’s just to breathe, sit, watch TV, or to go out with friends? Or to go for a walk? I started giving her time so that she could have the space to not have to worry, and not have to think about our kid.
And then, honestly, I thought back to what it was like when we first met. Our first dates. What was that experience like? What were the things I did that made her fall for me? That got her excited about being with me?
Don’t get me wrong — I did the flowers thing, the buying gifts — but it was also about, if my wife was on the sofa doing something, I’d just bring her a glass of water, without even asking her if she was thirsty or needed anything.
I would say that it took us about six months to really feel like things were getting better. It was a really slow process. Trust is something that you have to build; safety is something you have to build. It can theoretically happen in a moment, but it’s ultimately about long-term effort. And on a day-to-day level, that’s accomplished in small moments that just add up. It’s like, for lack of a better example, going to the gym. You don’t just go to the gym, come home, and look great. But somewhere over the process of repeatedly doing it, you go look in the mirror and you say, “I feel and look better.” So it’s that small process over time, of rebuilding, and not creating a set of deadlines or expectations.
Every relationship goes through its waves, for lack of a better word. You have your ups and downs, but it is something I’m pretty aware of in general. I just try to do nice things.
I’ve seen other men, through work and in my personal life, going through similar situations. I was at a park this summer and I overheard two women talking and I realized through their language that one woman’s husband had no fucking clue what was going on with her. And that was the moment I knew that I had to tell people about what I did; I had to share more. So I basically came up with a map that men could follow in the process, to guide them through how to become a father and avoid the pitfalls that many relationships seem to have in that transition.
My wife and I are definitely more communicative. We make a point to go out and have our fun. Our daughter is very aware that we have our own time. There’s a complete understanding about that, that we have individual relationships between the three of us. We don’t look back. There’s nothing we really need to do with that. Too many people don’t let go of the past and they harp on it; that stops people from moving forward.