And baby makes conflict

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First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the handsome couple pushing the baby carriage.

And they lived happily ever after, right? Not always.

As wonderful as it is to bring home a newborn, marital researchers consider the birth of a first baby to be the biggest challenge spouses face. According to recent studies by psychologist John Gottman, founder of the Relationship Research Institute in Seattle and the leading international researcher on why marriages succeed or fail, almost 70 percent of couples experience a decrease in marital satisfaction during the first year of baby’s life.

“A lot of couples don’t realize how shocking this transition is until a few months into it, as things between them become less and less good,” says psychologist Alyson Shapiro, Gottman’s co-researcher. “And it’s so easy for things to escalate and become negative.”

Lack of sleep, little or no sex, and conflict over evolving new roles are just some of the relationship stressors almost universally cited by new parents. But experts agree these problems are surmountable and that one key strategy can solve them — communication. “The overall goal is to build a strong, committed relationship through the transition to parenthood, so instead of blaming one another, couples say, ‘We can make it through this together,’’’ says Shapiro.

Here’s a look at the most common new-parent conflicts and how to deal with them.

Hurdle #1: No time for “us”

About two months after becoming a first-time mom to Jonah, now 16 months, Julie Grier realized she was lonely for her best friend — her husband, Jason. “I remember being at my new moms’ group and getting all choked up as I told the other moms, ‘I just miss my husband,’” says the Burlington, Ont., makeup artist. “I slept beside him every day, but I felt like I hardly knew him anymore.”

Maintaining the friendship and passion that binds you as a couple is difficult when both mom and dad are focused on the baby. The kind of exchange that used to come naturally now requires work.

Springboard Carolyn Pirak, director of the Seattle-based program Bringing Baby Home, says the key to a happy marriage after baby is to find ways to get close. To make that happen, she says, you have to be aware of what is going on in each other’s lives.

Research indicates couples who nurture their friendships with one another maintain greater marital satisfaction. Making the effort to stay attuned to the routine details of your partner’s life (what happened in his meeting, what you did at the park) proves that you still care about each other despite the baby’s pervasive needs.

Grier realized she had to make some effort to reconnect with her husband. Sometimes that simply means sending an email to Jason to tell him she misses him. Other times, they talk about their day over dinner at home, while Jonah sits in a chair watching a baby video.

Ann Douglas, author of 19 parenting books and a mother of four from Peterborough, Ont., suggests new parents try to find a few minutes each day to touch base over a cup of coffee or, like Grier, via email. Other suggestions: Swap child care duties with other parents and meet for a monthly lunch date; turn off Law and Order and talk instead; put baby in a stroller and go for a long walk together. Whatever you do, just keep talking.

Hurdle #2: Sleep deprivation

Tracy Lunn has not had a full night’s sleep since July 4, 2003, the day son Nicholas was born. For the first four months of his life, the Kamloops, BC, mom nursed him every two hours, around the clock. Never a good sleeper, her son now bunks on a mattress by her bedside and wakes several times a night for a bottle. Husband Charlie gets up to tend to him too, but many nights, both parents find themselves walking the floors because daughter, Haley, 10, sleepwalks.

“Charlie and I are both still tired all the time,” says Lunn. “I’ve been really stressed and because I’m so tired, I can fly off the handle at the littlest things.”

Lack of sleep is one of the greatest challenges new parents face. Irritable and cranky, exhausted moms and dads have little left over for one another.

Springboard Understand the toll sleep deprivation takes and negotiate a “we’re in this together” game plan that gives both of you needed respite. That might mean taking turns letting one another sleep late on weekends or spelling each other off for grown-up nap time.

Remember that desperate times can demand daring measures — if sleep deprivation pushes you to the bone-weary state, consider occasional shifts in a quieter part of the house or even bunk in at a friend’s or relative’s for a night. Of course, for breastfeeding moms, there’s no checking out. But some new moms find they can help compensate for sleep lost during feedings by squeezing in a few early morning hours of shut-eye before their partners leave for work. And if visiting friends or relatives offer a hand, let them look after baby while you nap or simply put your feet up. This is no time to be shy about accepting help.

Hurdle #3: No sex

“The truth about a new baby is nobody’s getting any sleep, nobody’s getting any sex, and nobody’s happy about it,” says Douglas. Even if, and when, the mood strikes, opportunity is rarely available. “Babies seem to intuitively know when something is going on with mom and dad, and nothing brings mom’s libido down like a crying baby. We are programmed to take care of baby first and, when we think the baby needs us, the bedroom Olympics are over.”

Lunn admits that sex is “pretty well gone” because their son sleeps in the same room. Many mornings she even wakes up with Nicholas by her side in bed and Charlie on the mattress on the floor. “It’s not as if I’m choosing Nicky over him; it’s more that I’m tired and have my bad days,” Lunn said. “We both understand why we can’t have what we had before and we know we will get through this, but I miss the closeness and the connecting part.”

Springboard Intimacy is crucial to the couple connection and finding ways to express it outside the bedroom is essential to overcoming the post-baby lull, says Pirak. Make time for plenty of cuddling and loving touching, and communicate your feelings about the lull in sexual intimacy. Just admitting that something has changed can sometimes be enough to acknowledge the importance of sex — and create a sense of trust that you will get some of the sizzle back.

“Sometimes I miss sex and sometimes I feel guilty about it all,” says Toronto mom Lara MacGregor. But, she says, she and husband, Gordon, have discovered a new closeness in their shared love of their daughter.

“I love to hear him playing with her, hear her delighted giggles and his delighted laughter,” she said. “And he gets the same enjoyment from listening to us. I think that’s an incredibly powerful kind of intimacy, and it does a lot to help with the lack of time we have for each other — not to mention sex.”

While it’s understandable that sex will take a back seat in the months after baby’s birth, it’s imperative that the two of you put some effort into making sex a part of your lives again. Don’t hold out for the perfect moment — just do it, Douglas says. “It’s amazing how quickly your energy and libido will pick up once you get in the swing of things.” And, she adds, scrap the idea that scheduled sex is less satisfying than spontaneous sex; it’s OK to plan for passion.

Hurdle #4: Clashing parenting styles

Lara and Gordon MacGregor decided early on in her pregnancy that they didn’t want a family bed, so their daughter, Katya, sleeps in her own room. The couple talk openly about how to raise their baby, and usually agree on most issues. “I don’t feel like I’m in this alone,” Lara says.

The MacGregors are smart to discuss their beliefs about how to raise their daughter, and lucky to find they share the same views. But some new parents run aground on a philosophical issue, such as circumcision, feeding on demand versus a schedule and, later, discipline.

“Charlie and I have different parenting styles. He’s the fun one and that’s frustrating for me because I think he gives in too easily when I try to set limits with Nicholas and Haley,” says Lunn. “Nothing bothers Charlie, and I can fly off the handle at little things.”

Springboard Accept the inevitability of parenting conflicts — you and your partner are unlikely to see eye-to-eye on every issue, says Douglas. This is the time to be a grown-up so you must communicate, negotiate and compromise. Maybe you’ll agree to try your husband’s suggestion of scheduled feedings for three days; if it doesn’t work, he’ll support a return to your more casual style.

Couples who openly discuss their parenting views are more likely to be able to defuse conflict, says Douglas. Don’t let conflicts fester; deal with them before they turn to resentment and anger. If you absolutely can’t find a compromise and neither of you is happy, consider seeking professional counselling or the advice of a friend whose parenting you both admire. A parenting course by a reputable instructor, or even a book that you both find sensible, could help you find common ground for the future.

Hurdle #5: So much to do

A new baby comes with a whole new to-do list for mom and dad. According to the Relationship Research Institute, hundreds of tasks are added to a couple’s life. “There’s so much more work and no one can ever do enough,” says Pirak.

Tensions over division of labour can lead to marital dissatisfaction — especially for women who perceive their partners aren’t pulling their weight. Two-career couples used to sharing the household load often find themselves with clashing expectations when one parent is on leave.

“Everything is always left for me, all the housecleaning, all the laundry, all the meals and, at first, Charlie wouldn’t get up in the night to bring the baby to me to nurse,” says Lunn, a stay-at-home mom. “He does change the diapers and help out now because I told him I have a full-time job too, except I don’t get breaks, I don’t get holidays, and I don’t get paid.”

Springboard Gottman’s research shows that parents who are most likely to remain happy in the post-baby period learn effective conflict resolution skills to negotiate their way through everything from who changes the soggy diapers to who makes career sacrifices. Couples must strive to “complain without blame,” says Shapiro, and not allow disagreements to escalate. That means being able to ask for more help with the laundry, without spewing a litany of grudges over untreated stains and uncleared dishes.

Research indicates that when dads take on their fair share of household responsibilities, moms are more content. “If dads don’t get the fact that this is a team sport, the resentment from mom is huge,” Douglas says.

At the same time, some fathers find their efforts aren’t appreciated by partners who insist on swaddling the baby just so or swoop in to take over when the baby cries. “Mothers tend to be the gatekeepers of the family and fathers are often involved in raising their children only as far as mothers allow them to be,” says Shapiro.

Grier, who went back to work part-time when her son was four months old, depends on her husband to share in child care duties. She describes him as a great dad, but one who would “much rather play than change a bum.” Still, when Grier goes to work, she doesn’t leave a lengthy list or call to check up on her husband because she’s confident in his parenting skills. “He’s been forced to plug in and learn, and he has.”

Moms who appreciate dads’ often more playful style of looking after babies, and recognize that as a meaningful contribution, are more likely to have happy marriages, says Shapiro. That doesn’t mean letting dad off the hook — working as a team means negotiating a division of labour that’s acceptable to both of you, with both parents taking initiative. Sort out roles, expectations and tasks and don’t keep constant score of who does what.

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