(or – how to keep your relationship growing while your family is growing)
Having a baby changes everything.
I feel like this is one of those obvious warning labels that everyone reads and thinks, “yeah – I get it” and later says, “I totally didn’t get it.” It’s incredible how predictably unpredictable the changes are to our lives, our relationships and ourselves as a result of bringing a baby into the mix. It would be funny if not for the fact that many relationships end as a result of it.
So on behalf of couples everywhere about to embark on this journey we call “parenting,” I surveyed a few people and asked, “what conversations do you wish you’d had before you had a baby?” The answers broke down into a few (overlapping) categories…
- Sharing a Background of Obviousness. This one is about making decisions. In retrospect, many couples find that what seemed “obvious” to one party was not obvious to the other. The background of obviousness is often associated with our cultural context and values. Things like circumcision, religion, naming, education… among other things fall into this category along with any statement that is paired along with the word “should.”
- Hashing out the Roles and Responsibilities. This totally appeals to me, being both a recovering project manager and business process analyst, this really comes down to negotiating who’s going to do what and, in project management terms, resource levelling – making sure there’s equitable distribution of duties.
- Self Care and Resiliency. Knowing that babies are a lot of work, this category is about making plans on how each member will care for him or herself AND how we’d care for our relationship. For example, I wanted to go to art class once a week after our child was born. My husband wanted to continue in his hockey league. And after our second child was born we also agreed we should have a babysitter once a month. (We’ll talk about how well this panned out later)
So there it is. If you have all of the possible discussions and hash out all of your concerns around those three areas above, you should be good right?
Those are all great conversations to have. But the value in them is NOT actually in setting expectations and agreements. In fact, that could be MORE harmful than helpful if those expectations are considered a contract. The value in these conversations is establishing a practice of having these conversations and then leaving room for the possibility that you might be wrong. It is possible that in the absence of actually having a child you may not know a whole lot about being a parent.
It’s not really just about having children. You may be surprised to find that studies show that couples who have a totally 50/50 division of household duties are in fact less successful and MORE likely to get divorced. Why? Because the act of divvying up diapers to dishes and laundry to lawn chores into a rigid schedule to eliminate ongoing negotiations actually eliminate ongoing conversation, adaptation, negotiation. Sure, it’s nice to have a baseline to work from, but the magic is in the deeper conversation that involves feedback and offers and requests for support that match ever changing context. Because offers and requests are the speech ACTS that GENERATE trust and intimacy.
So allow me to tell you a story…
Before our first child was born, my husband and I had a plan. We decided we cared about breastfeeding (Category #1) and that to enable this, for nighttime feedings he would pick her up, change her diaper hand her to me, I’d nurse her and give her back so he could burp her and put her back to bed in the bassinet. (Category #2 conversation). This way we could balance out the nighttime work and it would be fair and restorative. (Vaguely Category #3). It was a well thought out plan. I think we did it a total of once. Because after she was born it turned out that my husband slept through most of the stirring and noises that she’d make when she started to wake up. So I went ahead and got her. And while I had her, I went ahead and changed her. And fed her. Since he slept soundly (snoring I might add) through it all, I figured I’d go ahead and put her back down. And then I went to sleep. Was this fair? I don’t know. Was it equal. Nope. I was exhausted. And my husband is the only person I know who actually got MORE sleep immediately after we had a baby than he was getting before. Why? Because while I was sleeping throughout the day to recover from being up all night, he was doing EVERYTHING else. Getting dinner, cleaning, mowing, laundry, talking to family, and going to work. And when we had our second and third child he was also getting the older kids ready for school. Was it fair? I don’t know. But it did work. And I was grateful. And he was too.
We had a lot of talks, went to a lot of classes, and made a lot of decisions we made about how we would manage parenting and raise our kids before we had any. And of all those decisions, there were probably only a handful or so that held true after we had children.
So have the conversations, because it’s good to have a starting point and you’ll learn a ton (especially in category #2 – you’ll be surprised at what isn’t obvious). But don’t stop having them just because you had a child. Because having a child changes everything. But one thing that doesn’t change is the need to have ongoing, heartfelt, deep and meaningful conversations with your partner.