How to strengthen your marriage after baby arrives

My wife is out all day at play groups, toddler gym, the park-anywhere but home. So when I come home from work, everything still needs to be done around the house!”

“He gets home from work at 6 and sits down in front of the television set. When I ask him to take the baby so I can have a break, he says he’s had a rough day and needs to relax!”

Complaints such as these are typical of new parents. No matter how committed you and your spouse may be, after a while the dirty diapers, the endless loads of laundry and the 2 a.m. feedings can seem overwhelming. One parent may think he or she is shouldering the brunt of the responsibilities at home and become upset with the other for not doing his or her share.

All of this can catch new parents by surprise.

Before becoming parents, you and your spouse may have worked out an even division of chores at home, run errands together, or worked side-by-side preparing meals and doing yard work. Now that you’re parents, one of you needs to be available to the baby, leaving the other to do the same chores alone. It may take a lot longer to get housework done-if it gets done at all.

If both parents have jobs outside the home, there can be different views regarding how off-time should be spent.

In situations where one parent is at home full-time, each parent may feel the other has it easier. “The stay-at-home mom may think her husband has an easier time because he gets a break each day from the children, goes to lunches with co-workers and may travel on business trips,” says Mary Halpin, a clinical psychologist in Deerfield. “The husband, on the other hand, may feel the burden of being the sole provider and view staying at home as time off.”

The parent who works outside the home might see his or her work responsibilities solely in terms of 8 to 5. The stay-at-home parent might never feel off duty.

Whether Mom and Dad both have outside jobs or one parent is at home full-time, it’s important to view parenting as a partnership. “If Dad has been away at work all day while Mom has been home with the children, when he gets home both parents should be on duty together,” says Diane Glazer, a family counselor in Santa Monica, Calif. “One parent should not be ‘in charge’ while the other is just a helper.” Four or five hours at home with a baby may net only as much productivity as an hour spent alone.

Granted, being partners is often easier said than done. You and your spouse may have different ideas about what it means to work together.

Yet with kindness, understanding and open communication, you can keep your partnership intact. Here are positive steps you can take:

n Set aside regular “check-up” times. Have a weekly meeting to discuss any concerns you may have, talk about how your week has been going and address issues before they become problems. Schedule a regular time when neither of you feels harried and you won’t be interrupted by the baby.

n Calmly broach your concerns. Help your spouse understand your perspective without nagging, criticizing or complaining. Don’t sit down to talk when you’re upset, after you’ve had the worst day of your life or the minute your spouse comes home from work.

When discussing issues, make “I” statements: “I feel overwhelmed; I need to know that I’m not in this alone.” Avoid the word “you,” as in “You don’t know how hard it is for me.” Such statements “often sound accusatory and make the other person feel attacked,” says Kathleen Galvin, a communications professor at Northwestern University who has a special interest in family communication.

Explain what you need from your spouse in terms of support, then offer some practical suggestions. For example: “I really need to get a good night’s sleep. If you could take the 2 a.m. feeding Friday night when you don’t have to get up for work the next morning, that would really help.” Or “I know you don’t mind vacuuming; it would be great if you would take that over.” Give your spouse a chance to respond to your request, and be open to any ideas he or she might have to improve the situation.

n Allow your spouse time to unwind. If you are the primary caregiver for your child, let your mate have a few minutes to unwind after he or she comes home at night. “Don’t jump on him the minute he walks in the door, demanding he take the child so you can have a break,” says David Krauss, a psychologist in Cleveland, Ohio, specializing in transition to parenthood. “Give your husband [or wife] 20 to 30 minutes as a transition period so that he can change clothes, look at the mail and gather his thoughts.” Once Dad’s had time to unwind, it’s Mom’s turn to relax for a half hour or so. Even a short break can be enough to feel rejuvenated and ready to handle the rest of the evening.

n Establish a support group. Get to know other new parents so you can support one another. Talking with other first-time moms and dads who are facing the same challenges will take away some of the tension you and your spouse may be feeling. According to Galvin, “It can be a tremendous relief to discover lots of people are bumping up against a lot of the same issues and managing okay.”

Of course, the key to receiving or giving support is to be constructive. Don’t talk to other moms to gripe, complain or tear your husband down. Focus on exploring solutions.

n Be flexible. Don’t frustrate yourself by establishing a fixed schedule or ironclad division of chores. This may have worked in pre-baby days, but much of what takes place in your house over the next few years will be beyond your control. “Be willing to pitch in wherever necessary,” Krauss says. “Learn to see responsibilities at home as ours rather than categorize certain jobs as hers and other tasks as his.”

n Show appreciation. Keep in mind that a lot of what your spouse does, whether at home or at work, is undertaken with an eye toward lightening your load and creating more family time. Look past the streaks on the windows he just washed or the spots she might have missed while scrubbing floors. Look at your spouse’s good intentions and let him or her know you appreciate how much effort went into easing your workload. Put a note in his briefcase to say how much you appreciate him. Send her flowers with a note attached saying you think she’s wonderful. Small gestures go a long way in showing your appreciation.

n Have realistic expectations. Take an honest look at what you can reasonably accomplish with your time. “Sometimes we expect everything to be perfect-we should be able to deal with the baby, the dinner should be made, we should be cheerful and have everything picked up and neat at home-but life is not always like that,” Halpin says. Accept the fact that sometimes the house is going to be messy, dinner may be late or burned, and the atmosphere at home chaotic.

Scale down expectations of what you can accomplish in one day, and save high-intensity jobs such as balancing the checkbook or paying bills for when you and your spouse are both home so one person can watch the baby. Keeping a realistic outlook and open lines of communication may require extra effort, but it’s a small price to pay for harmony, respect and the optimum enjoyment of your new roles as parents.

How to maximize your time

With the arrival of a new baby, time becomes more precious than ever.

Chores, errands and other household duties can quickly consume what used to be free time. Try these ideas for creating more time for yourself and your family.

• Embrace routines. Establish a daily and weekly routine for household chores. Schedule set days and times for trips to the bank, grocery store, wash days, meal times and yard work. And stick to a dinner schedule: if it’s Wednesday, have pasta.

• Accept help. Hire whatever outside help you can afford during your baby’s early months. Chances are there’s a teen in the neighborhood who’d love to earn extra money doing yard work, running errands or babysitting. Don’t be shy about accepting offers of help from friends and neighbors.

• Get organized. Try getting up 30 minutes before your baby normally wakes up in the morning to get a few must-do chores out of the way. Make lists and plan what tasks need to be done each day, week or month. Condense errands into a single shopping trip.

• Learn to juggle. Never tackle anything when your baby is sleeping that can be done when he or she is awake. Sit her in a swing or playpen while you work on your grocery list, cook dinner or fold laundry. Talk or sing to your baby while you take care of these chores. Save jobs that require your full attention for times when your spouse is also home.

• Just say no. Learn to say, “No, I just don’t have time for that.” If you try to do it all, you’ll get stressed out and your whole family will lose.

• Reduce clutter. If you’re not using certain toys, clothes or other items, give them to local charities or take them to resale shops. It’s easier to keep your home neat when you have space to put things away.

• Go barefoot. Take your shoes off by the door. It keeps carpets cleaner and means less vacuuming and carpet cleaning.

• Divide and conquer. When faced with a large job, eliminate interruptions by having one parent take the baby out for a while rather than lend a hand with the task.

• Be sociable. Share weekly jobs with a friend-one week at her house, the next week at yours. You’ll cut work in half and have a chance to visit with another parent.

Rebecca Sweat is a freelance writer based in Chicago specializing in family and health topics.

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