Most new parents know they will eventually have to cover their electrical sockets and take other steps to baby-proof their home, but what they may not know is that it can be equally important to baby-proof their marriage.
In "Babyproofing Your Marriage: How to Laugh More, Argue Less, and Communicate Better as Your Family Grows," authors Stacie Cockrell, Cathy O'Neill, and Julia Stone etch out a game plan for couples who want their marriage to stand the biggest, yet smallest, test of all — a new baby.
"Baby-proofing your marriage is important because a happy marriage makes you happier individuals and that trickles down to how you parent your children, and where there is tension in the marriage or dissatisfaction, it can rub off on the kids," explains Julia Stone, a mother of two boys, aged 5 and 2 1/2, in Kennett Square, Pa.
No doubt about it, bringing home a baby can be stressful, says Scott Haltzman, M.D., a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University in Providence, R.I. and the author of "The Secrets of Happily Married Men: Eight Ways to Win Your Wife's Heart Forever."
"Predictability goes out the window, and it challenges the couple to make new rituals and new routines, but none can be written in stone because baby will dictate and even that will change every few weeks," he tells WebMD.
But following these 10 simple baby-proofing rules can help you keep your marriage solid while raising children. Realize you are not alone. "Everyone goes through an adjustment when they have a baby," Stone says. "A lot of people think they are the only ones having issues, when the problems are universal." It's a global conspiracy of silence, she says. "No one really talks about the degree of work involved in being a parent, and it comes as a surprise."
Saying "good job" won't kill you. "Validation is a big thing that most people need, so instead of saying 'you put the baby's dress on backward,' say, 'You are a great dad,'" she suggests. "It's the simple things that we often get too critical of one another about."
Understand the Great Mom and Dad Divide. "Men and women react to parenting differently," Stone explains. "Men go into provider panic, and women get extremely focused on the baby. Women zero in on the child and it consumes them to a degree that they never expected, and men are surprised by that and think, 'Hey, where did my wife go?'" Haltzman adds that "when a new baby arrives, moms are more anxious and fathers and husbands tend to feel increasingly helpless that there is nothing they can do to make their wives feel better."
Avoid the 10 p.m. shoulder tap trap. Sex matters, it's that simple. "A man's sex drive not changing after having a baby is normal; but a woman's changing is also normal," Stone explains. "Sex is the glue that keeps relationships together." So both weary mom and harried dad need to find time for it. But many women report that their husbands merely give them a 10 p.m. shoulder tap when they crave sex. "Women told us that romance evaporated after the kids were born; but the 10 p.m. shoulder tap doesn't work," Stone says. "Men need to still pay attention to the finer things." Springing for a babysitter and a regular "date night" would give both parents some time to relax and enjoy each other's company again without distracting baby duties. Or try a "dad on duty" night, with father taking over the diaper changing, cooking, and cleanup while mom relaxes with a book or a long bath. The payoff could be a rested and ready partner. And there's no reason you can't add a bouquet of grocery store flowers, wine, and candles to a dinner eaten while baby naps.
Don't play "midnight chicken". Nobody wins in midnight chicken. According to the book, midnight chicken is "a battle of the wills where each parent pretends to be asleep and blissfully unaware of the screaming down the hall in the hopes that the other parent will get up and tend to the crying baby." Instead of playing chicken, Stone says, "split up the night somehow so that both partners can get a solid chunk of sleep."
Loosen the gender roles. Plan a training weekend, she says. "This is where the husband is left to man the kid ropes on his own for a weekend," Stone sys. The dual benefits? "He learns a new respect for what it takes to care for a baby, and since some women have a hard time letting go of the reins, this teaches them it's OK and that their husband can take care of it," she says. What's more, "the husband gets a chance to bond with baby on his own terms." Stone's prescription: Have training weekends early and as often as the baby changes and enters new phases. "A little continuing education is always a good idea," she says.
Stop scorekeeping. "You really can never end scorekeeping completely, but you can ratchet it down by dividing and conquering," Stone says. "Don't worry about the stuff that is not on your list and acknowledge that both parties are giving 100 percent and no one has it tougher than the other," she says. Remember, "You are rowing in the same boat."
Make deals. "It's OK to trade two nights of dishes for one night out," she says.
Rein in the in-laws. "Establish a pecking order where your nuclear family comes first before your extended family," she says. "Everybody wants to get their hands on the baby, which is a normal thing, but it can create tension if you don't put your spouse before other family members."
Remember that this, too, shall pass. "Recognize that this time is unique," she says. "As children get older, these issues diminish and if you recognize that it is uniquely stressful, but will come to an end, you can keep a long-term view of it," Stone says. "Couples need to continue to make their own relationship a priority, because in 18 years, this brand new child will be out of the house and on his own, but you will still be with each other and you have another 30 years together, so you just can't put your relationship on the back burner," Haltzman says.
By Denise Mann
Reviewed by Louise Chang, M.D.
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