Saturday, November 13, 2010

Relation Ships

Today I received a message from someone who had been reading this blog, and part of that message was:

I'm really interested on your take of what having a baby does to a relationship. No matter how strong it was before hand.  The reason I ask is my relationship with [partner's name] was a very strong one but since [baby's name] it has really gone down hill and having a baby has really taken a toll on us.

What I found striking about the message was that once the names were removed, that message could have been written by almost any new parent that I know.

About two weeks ago, my husband and I were fighting about priorities, feeling unappreciated, and how much time and effort we were each contributing etc.  I was at my wit's end.  Luckily, a mutual friend gave me a big hug, sat me down with a cup of coffee, and told me that she had been through exactly the same thing, as had every couple she knew.  It wasn't that I was in a doomed relationship.  This was normal, and most couples work their way through it.

A baby, for better or worse, changes everything. 

I think it must be particularly hard for those in romantic do-everything-together type relationships - the relationships that might appear 'stronger'.  It's hard because a baby gives you a lot less time with your partner, at least once Dad goes back to work, and your share-everything life is probably what you conceptualise as the heart of your relationship.

In some ways I was lucky, because before the baby, my husband and I had plenty of different hobbies and different friends, and our definition of romance was pizza and a video.  We'd eat together, chat together, watch TV together, go to family events and some occasions together - but we spent more time doing our own thing.  I prefer to go to the movies, catch up with friends for coffee, study and read books.  He likes to go fishing or shooting, play PS3, or go out to the pub with his mates.  But even for us, it was a big change.  I reached a point after the baby was born where I felt we were nothing more than two ships passing in the night.

Two particularly tired, grumpy ships.

In addition to the time issue, there is the way parenting puts you into such different places.  When you are the woman, you are shoved into motherhood whether you like it or not.  You have to go through labour (or have major abdominal surgery), and you feel no choice but to look after the baby (for hormonal and cultural reasons).  But for many blokes, the arrival of fatherhood has a more optional quality.  The woman has no choice but to get up and keep running the marathon, the man has to motivate himself to do it.  As a mum, I sometimes feel I'm doing an endurance test, but for my husband I think it's different - it's about having the willpower to do the right thing all the time.  

What follows from this, and I know I'm generalising here, but this seems to be true for many couples: the man thinks of his free time as an entitlement that he sacrifices in an effort to do the right thing by the woman and baby, whereas the woman thinks of free time as a luxury she could maybe organise for herself if she found someone to care for the baby.  I think it grates on mums that many dads accidentally or deliberately take advantage of this perceptual difference by simply going out of the house when they feel like it.  (For their part, the dads just notice all the times they felt like leaving but dutifully stayed in the house and helped, and cannot understand that their partners are objecting to such a small time away.)

Then there is perception by some fathers that mothering is just not that hard.  I mean, you just do laundry, and feed and play with the baby, and that's about it - isn't it?  And to be fair to the blokes, it is almost impossible for anyone to imagine what it's like to be a new mum until they do it for themselves.  They don't know what it's like to have your whole body out of your control, to feel perpetually hungover with sleep deprivation, to have hormones switch on this avalanche of fear and worry for the baby, to feel the baby's crying inside your skull, and to have even the simplest tasks (taking a shower, going to the supermarket) become major strategic missions that take ten times as long as they used to and which you often have to abandon part way through.

The mums are so overwhelmed by dealing with all these changes that they have no energy to recognise or support the adjustments the dads are making.  Instead of being able to come home and unwind from work, a dad now has an exhausted, emotional partner who expects their attention, support, and assistance.  Instead of being your first love, they have been shunted out of the way by your new love.  

It is annoying for mums when they go out somewhere and their partner holds the baby for a mere 10 minutes and people say, "Oh look, what a great dad."  But the flipside is that when mums work, they are considered supermums, but when dads work, everyone thinks... so?  And whereas mums can vent and generally be given hugs and coffee - if dads dare to have a whinge, everyone thinks they are indescribably selfish bastards who need to man up and knuckle down.

Happily for my marriage, we have been able to work things out.  We did this by setting really clear expectations.  And when I say we made them clear, we wrote them down and negotiated and redrafted until we were happy.  Topics we considered included: our roles and primary duties for the household and as parents, what 'family time' meant and how we were expected to spend it, how much 'free time' we each had per week, any particular times we expected each other to be home, and what communication was expected.  We could then see the whole picture, what needed to be done, and what was a fair division of labour.  We also considered how to build some flexibility into the arrangement.  

Writing it all down might sound strangely over the top and legalistic, but we needed to make a big shift in how we were doing things, and that required careful thought and commitment. Writing it down made us be thorough, and helped us stop getting bogged down in emotions and accusations, and turned the situation into a problem that we were going to solve together.  Instead of: "I want you to do x." we were saying things like: "Well, if I'm doing x, who's going to do y?" and "What's a fair way to break this down?".

No, there's still not much romance.  Yes, we're still challenged and sleep-deprived by parenthood.  But now we are working as a team and thinking together about how we're going to live as a family.  

I guess what I've learned is that when you have a baby, you may turn into tired, grumpy ships, but you probably won't be the Titanic.


  1. Totally agree with the clear expectations and communication comments. My husband works for a UK company so frequently has late night meetings (to cross over with their morning work hours) and working til midnight is not an infrequent occurrence. By talking it through we were able to work out what we both needed and wanted to be able to get through the last few months (bubs is 4.5 months old). It is hard to communicate fairly and unemotionally when you are tired and drained but for us it really helped.

  2. Just found this on your warm and fuzzy page. Brilliant post. Things are slightly different for us (hubby changes all nappies if he is home and in turn I put the effort in to romance. Or if he cooks dinner I have to watch star gate with him) but similar principles. I like how you said men have to "give up their free time" and we say "what free time?"