Jay and Nancy Gueldner couldn't have been happier when they discovered their first baby was on the way. Both in their 30s, with solid careers and a happy marriage, the Gueldners were confident they could handle their new roles as parents.
"We knew an infant was an enormous responsibility, and we knew it would be a huge life change," Nancy says. "But we had no idea that one little baby could be so all-consuming."
When Robby arrived, it didn't take long for the Gueldners to notice the effect on their marriage.
"I'm sure we neglected each other," Nancy remembers. "We used to have all the time in the world to spend together and nurture our relationship, and then suddenly, the baby was the first priority."
It's no secret that most moms and dads are blindsided by the magnitude of this transition. Indeed, even the most unflappable person can become unhinged following the baby's birth. But what many couples fail to realize is that stress, sleep depravation and emotional exhaustion can seriously damage a marriage.
Studies show that more than half of all married couples experience a decline in marital satisfaction following the birth of a baby. 1Furthermore, most couples report having eight times more conflict in their marriages after the baby joins the family. 2Trouble is, finding time to cultivate your relationship with your spouse – without your little one wailing in the background – isn't always easy.
"So many people told us to leave our son with someone so we could connect as a couple," Nancy says. "But we didn't have family nearby at the time, and we didn't feel comfortable hiring a babysitter we hardly knew."
If a weekend getaway or even a romantic dinner for two isn't realistic, there are other do-able ways keep your marriage on solid footing.
Communicate positively with one another. In spite of the emotional ups and downs common to new parents, make a habit of supporting and encouraging your spouse.
"Jay and I really tried to be kind to each other even when we didn't feel like it," says Nancy.
Scorekeeping, nitpicking and those niggling feelings of jealousy may be normal, but tearing one another down won't go unnoticed. Sharing emotions and coming up with appropriate solutions is a key component to a healthy marriage – now and in years to come.
Make it a priority to spend time together. Whether it's enjoying an evening walk, ordering carry-out after the baby has gone to bed or grabbing a few minutes to talk over breakfast, try to find ways to engage in conversation that work for both of you. It's easy to get hyperfocused on your baby's day-to-day care. Still, having fun together as a couple will create a loving foundation for the whole family.
Maintain an overall sense of team. On top of issues like who will earn what portion of the income and who will do the laundry when, ease the parenting transition by detailing role responsibilities. Nagging one another about who should load the dishwasher – all while the baby is screaming to be fed—will only result in increased irritability. Rather, compromise with one another, maintain flexibility and work through expectations. If each person helps out, then you can avoid resentment and establish a united front early on.
Understand that intimacy changes. It's common for a new mom to experience sadness and frustration at the ways pregnancy, childbirth and nursing have changed her body. Fatigue and sleeplessness further complicate the physical aspect of many marriages. With less time and energy for sexual closeness, it's crucial for husbands and wives to discuss new approaches to intimacy. As unromantic as it may sound, sex can be thoughtfully planned into your schedule. And don't despair: you can rediscover that pre-baby passion.
Remember: Parenting your infant won't last forever. Surely most moms and dads with little ones have heard the well-intentioned advice, "They'll be grown and out of the house before you know it!"
While this may be true, it may not feel like it during those first few years. Nevertheless, you and your spouse will be with one another long after the kids are grown. So in the midst of 2 a.m. feedings and emergency visits to the pediatrician, keep in mind that this is only one stage in your long life together.