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How To Prep Your Relationship For A Baby

We take birthing classes, read parenting books, and research crib mattresses. Why don’t we do the same for our relationships?

by Katie C. Reilly
Originally Published: 
The 2023 New Parents Issue

When I was pregnant with my oldest daughter, Fianna, I received endless advice. A work colleague sent me links to sleep training books. A friend from high school sent me a postpartum care package filled with pads and underwear. Countless friends or family members recommended cribs and strollers or provided advice on maternity leave and baby name selection.

But no one mentioned the potential strain that a baby can place on parents.

It stands to reason that exhaustion from caregiving, sleepless nights, and an inequitable division of labor can all create tension in a relationship, but still the thought never crossed my mind. When I found myself resenting my husband because I was breastfeeding around the clock or because we had a blowout argument at 3 a.m. on a vacation when Fianna wouldn’t stay asleep, I felt alone and confused. No one had warned me about the difficult feelings that I was having. After all, so many people refer to this time as magical and joyful, that they fell in love with their partner on a whole new level. True, and yet.

What I know now, and wish I knew then, was that the struggles we faced in early parenthood were exceedingly common. According to research findings from the Gottman Institute, two out of three couples said that their marital satisfaction decreased during the first three years of a baby’s life. The 2023 State of Women Report from theSkimm paints a dire portrait of American women today (76% believe women are largely responsible for unpaid labor and mental load at home). According to the Boston College Center for Work & Family, although dads increasingly spend more time on child care, less than 1 in 3 fathers split child care equally with their partner.

Despite the bleak numbers, we all know that, as Eve Rodsky put it to me over email, “equity and fairness are essential to the longevity and happiness of our marriages and partnerships.” Rodsky, the author of the New York Times bestseller Fair Play: A Game-Changing Solution for When You Have Too Much to Do (now adapted to a documentary), has created what she calls a “secret formula for thriving.” The three aspects of Rodsky’s formula are: boundaries, systems, and communication.

If the thought of a formula or strategy for this is overwhelming, think of all the prep work that went into your pregnancy or your delivery — doesn’t adding a whole new person into your relationship merit the same? Here’s how it might work:


Rodsky defines boundaries as the recognition by both parents that each of their time is equally valuable. This is what creates fairness in a relationship. “A true boundary is not saying ‘Hey, I let my partner go get a drink with a friend.’ A true boundary is a practice of recognizing that time is 24 hours. And that all time is created equal no matter what you think about that person’s time.”

Of course, in the earliest days, biology might make proper boundaries and an equitable distribution of labor impossible. Bridget Connolly, a mom to a 15-month-old baby in the San Francisco Bay Area, says that it’s also important that parents be aware of the physical and emotional toll of labor on the birthing parent. Before her son’s birth, Bridget and her husband met with their doula who put her hands together and made a circle the size of a big pancake, which she explained was the size of the wound that Bridget would have internally after labor. “She said, ‘Imagine if [Bridget] had this wound outside on her leg or her back or she had a big scrape? Would you feel comfortable having her get up and move around and do physical work?’” Connolly says.

The shared load will be wildly different at first. Connolly spent the first 20 days postpartum primarily in bed. While she breastfed, her partner, who had 7 weeks paid paternity leave, cooked, changed diapers, and put the baby back to sleep. Connolly had a labor with no medical complications (albeit one that lasted 42 hours), but she recognizes that she “needed that time.”


Systems, per Rodsky, means establishing and understanding which parent is responsible for a specific task. Rodsky suggests starting with 12 tasks which she refers to as the “dirty dozen.” These include: tidying up, groceries, dishes, meals, home supplies, laundry, child care, medical appointments, garbage, cleaning, middle of the night comfort, and pets. Although these aren’t all the responsibilities that will arise, parents can discuss these areas even if they haven’t parented before.

Systems allow parents to know who is responsible for a task beforehand, so you aren’t constantly deciding in the moment who will handle something. As one man once asked Rodsky, “You mean like when we wait to decide who is taking the dog out right when it’s about to piss on the rug?” She likes to use that anecdote to explain that a system is the exact opposite.

“What works well for our family (and my anxiety) is when we all have chores that we are accountable for,” writes Nikkya Hargrove via email. Hargrove is a vice president at a nonprofit in New York, a writer, and mother of twin 7-year-olds and a 16-year-old.

“Knowing what we have to do saves us unnecessary conversations and arguments,” says Robert Puharich, father to a 3-month-old and a 4-year-old, and a teacher in British Columbia and founder of Teen Learner, a resource to teach students financial literacy.

“A lot of people think that they’re going to have one conversation and be done, but what I would say is that is as absurd as saying I will work out once in my life and be fit.”

A key to systems is that the conception and execution of a task stay together. Each parent “owns” a task, rather than one person planning and then delegating to the other. When those responsibilities get split up, something tends to go wrong, says Rodksy. “Mom orders the birthday cake. Dad forgets to pick it up. Or, Dad orders the birthday cake and forgets to tell Mom where to pick it up. The ‘ownership’ mindset remedies this by keeping full responsibility of a task with one person. If you’re responsible for the birthday cake, then you 1) choose a theme in line with your kiddo’s interests that year, 2) order it, and; 3) pick it up in time for the party,” says Rodsky via email.


Communication is a practice, rather than a means to an end. “A lot of people think that they’re going to have one conversation and be done,” Rodsky told me, but “what I would say is that is as absurd as saying I will work out once in my life and be fit.”

One way for parents to establish a good communication practice is to schedule an ongoing check-in. This way, you create space for important topics, but avoid discussing issues in heated moments, says Rodsky.

In addition to finding the right time, how you communicate matters. “What we don’t want to do in our communication is criticize or blame. We don’t want to use ‘you’ language or ‘always/never’ language because that will trigger defensiveness and the person may just shut down,” says Nicole Schiener, a psychotherapist and certified educator of the Gottman Institute’s Bringing Baby Home workshop.

If a parent feels overwhelmed or would like to see a change in the relationship, Schiener advises that the individual communicate to their partner why the request matters to them and also provide an example of when the co-parent helped out in the requested way. Try to be as specific as possible and focus on the behavior, rather than the person, says Schiener. (She adds the important caveat that her advice doesn’t apply if a parent is in an unsafe relationship where it’s important to seek help.)

Schiener says a possible script might go something like this:

“I’m feeling overwhelmed by having to make dinner every night. I think it would be really great if we could come up with a schedule or a plan of taking turns cooking because I’m starting to feel some resentment, and I just really want us to feel like we’re more of a team in this. I really appreciated when you cooked before because I didn’t have to worry about it. How can we do more of that? Because I’m really starting to feel like it’s too much for me?”

Real communication is how systems and boundaries work optimally. For instance, with systems, parents should also establish a minimum standard of care for each task. For example, if one partner is responsible for cleaning, how often do both parents agree that their home should be cleaned and what exactly does that include? Or if one partner is responsible for groceries, what kind of milk or what brand does the household need and how much? Hash it out together.

When dividing up responsibilities, consider each persons’ strengths and weaknesses as well as likes and dislikes. For example, Puharich and his wife both enjoy bath time with their kids, so they alternate nights.

Kristin White, a certified wellness coach in North Carolina and mother to a 4- and 7-year-old, knows that she doesn’t function well late at night. Since she prefers an early bedtime, her husband did the 11 p.m. feedings when her second was a baby and she woke up at 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. for the next feeding. “I think it was about just knowing how our bodies work best,” White says.

And don’t forget to discuss finances, which can be a stressor for parents later on, says Alysha Price, the founder of the Price Dynamic, a co-parenting consulting firm and Dynamic Family Solutions, an organization that supports young Black parents to co-parent effectively. Parents can research specific costs and start thinking about the most cost efficient way to address those new parenting expenses. For example, after learning the cost of child care, parents can begin to consider whether they need full-time care, or does it make more sense for one parent to work part-time? Is there a family member that could help?

For people who are co-parenting but not living in the same household, Price also advises that parents make a plan for when their child is ill, and school engagement and social activities like birthday parties and playdates, because otherwise these responsibilities often fall, by default, on the residential parent.

It’s Never Too Late!

It can feel impossible to anticipate every task before a baby arrives, especially if you’re a first-time parent. People often wait until a conflict arises before having these discussions, according to Price, but experts suggest that parents try to engage in these conversations beforehand.

“We did not talk about division of labor before we had kids. We didn’t know what we were getting into honestly,” Hargrove, the mom of twins, told me over email.

It can be tempting to just wait and see, but those early conversations about the stresses of parenthood can set a template for how you’ll proceed — even if you don’t yet know every issue that will arise. “While you have the time before you’ve had a child, really take advantage of it. I think it could really set couples up for a much smoother transition and one where maybe they’re even closer,” says Sheryl Ziegler, a psychotherapist in Denver and author of Mommy Burnout.

That said, experts agree that you can start this any time. According to Price, from conception until today, it is never too late to talk about what is needed in a parenting relationship: “These conversations require vulnerability and the willingness to reveal things about your own upbringing yet they help create a foundation for understanding your co-parent and helps you extend grace during the difficult times. It’s never too late to become a better communicator and thus a better co-parent.”

Katie C. Reilly is a writer and attorney based in Oakland, CA. Her writing focuses on women's health, parenting and mental health. She has been published in The New York Times Magazine, Washington Post, The Guardian, and Newsweek, among other publications.

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