Having a baby is awesome. Being married is awesome. However, both of these life choices are really challenging, and staying married when you have a baby is one of the hardest things a person can possibly do. Maintaining your marriage after having a baby is often way harder than actually caring for said baby; a fact that doesn’t always come across in the “happily ever after” scenarios we’re used to hearing. This goes for all romantic adult partnerships, of course, not just marriages. Marriage is the one that I have the most experience with, though, so that’s what I’ll refer to.
I want to note before continuing that I’m talking about ordinary, run-of-the-mill married folk struggles here. Given the fact that instances of domestic violence and abuse spike when a woman is pregnant, and right after a new baby is born, I think it’s important to include a quick acknowledgment of relationships that go beyond the “this is tough because our baby is really taxing our nerves and draining our energy right now” kind of grind. If you are in an emotionally, physically, sexually, and/or financially abusive relationship, get professional help, rally support, and make a plan to leave. Please do not put yourself or your children at risk for the sake of “keeping your family together.” Children do not benefit from being in an abusive home. Please don’t prioritize a marriage certificate or societal expectations about an “intact” family over your or your children’s safety and well-being. If you are in a relationship that would break your heart for your child to experience, please do everything in your power to get out (if you can).
That being said, even great relationships take work. Speaking from experience, I can say that having kids tests even the strongest of partnerships. Everyday, I feel extraordinarily grateful to be married to my best friend, and to have a partner who would literally do anything to make me happy. We are both die-hard feminists, firmly on the same page about how we want to raise our kids and how we view our partnership, and are compatible on virtually every other dimension you can measure. Still, and even under these great, almost enviable circumstances, there are moments when I have to dig deep and work in order to keep our marriage together, while finding our way through this early phase of our newest child’s life.
It definitely helps to remember that this time is really short. Being on the same page about priorities, keeping our lines of communication open, and presuming positive intentions about each other’s actions helps, too. So does remembering the following things about what makes being in a marriage with young children so inherently difficult; things that aren’t specific to us or anyone, but are just part of the deal for parents of new humans everywhere.
Babies Are Simple. Adults Aren’t.
While there are babies (usually, for medical reasons) that require additional care, a baby's needs are fundamentally very simple: keep their bellies full, keep their bottoms dry, keep them feeling loved (which typically translates into holding and cuddling them). Grown people, by contrast, require all that and more. Adults can usually take care of the “full” and “dry” parts themselves, but the “feeling loved” bit requires all kinds of effort. Unfortunately, you don’t have a lot of spare time or energy for that effort right now and, unlike babies, you can’t just strap your adult partner to your body in a cute wrap or sling and keep going about your business. Ugh, if only.
Babies Are Super Lovable. Adults Aren’t, Always.
Babies have all sorts of built-in biological hooks that make it really easy to fixate on them and care for them and feel connected to them and love them. They’re really cute and helpless-looking, so they inspire all sorts of nurturing and protective behavior in everyone who comes in contact with them. If they’re your biological offspring, you get a huge rush of oxytocin from birthing them, and your body re-ups every time you cuddle, smell, and/or nurse them.
Your partner, who may be cranky from fatigue and all the other changes that come with new parenthood, might not be looking so good in comparison. You may not be getting as many biological highs from your partner as you’re used to if you’re not finding time to touch each other or give each other orgasms. If nothing else, find some time to give each other long hugs and kisses. It helps.
It’s Harder To Take Care Of Yourself
Every partner in a partnership has to take care of themselves in order to make their relationship work. Because “me” is part of the grouping that makes “us,” having little-to0no “me” time inevitably hurts “us.” It’s so hard t0 find that time (and for the first few weeks it may feel impossible) but prioritize it, if you can. Taking even half an hour to do something besides be somebody’s parent can make a huge difference in your ability to be a good partner.
It’s Harder To Make Time For Each Other
Whether it’s in the early days, when the new baby is waking up every couple of hours needing to eat and be changed and all of that, or later on, when your toddler needs lots of attention and entertainment in order to not burn your house down; it can be hard to find time to just enjoy each other’s company (especially uninterrupted company). Relationships need quality time to thrive, though. Finding help so you can have time together without your little one (or at the very least, understanding that this hard time is temporary and relatively short, so you don’t totally give up on each other) is really crucial.
You Have More Priorities To Juggle
All of the relationships in a family are equally important, but new babies are more physically demanding and their needs are more time-sensitive and time-consuming. They also scream in the most unnerving possible way if those needs aren’t being met. So, if you have a new baby, plus economic obligations, plus each other, plus your individual selves competing for the same well of attention and energy, it’s typically those last two who get shafted.
You’re Both Really Tired…
Even if you manage to “sleep when the baby sleeps,” you're just catnapping every few hours. That’s a really tough way to live, if you’re not a baby. It’s more likely that you’re just getting interrupted sleep at night, while working and/or keeping up with the baby’s needs (and if you’re nursing, manufacturing food ‘round the clock) all day long. That takes a huge physical and mental toll on a person, and being that depleted can make it hard to be as present and patient as you need to be to keep your marriage strong.
...Or You’re Resentful, If Only One Of You Is
The only thing worse than both of you being tired from taking care of a new baby, is if only one of you is tired from taking care of a new baby. If you’re in an unbalanced relationship, and you’re the one doing most or all of the work (which is disproportionately true for many moms reading this post, because sexism), you’re going to start resenting the fact that your partner is getting a free ride and pushing all of the life changes and work onto you.
If this is you, do something ASAP. Redistribute the work in your household so that it’s more equitable, because resentment unchecked is poisonous to relationships. Few relationships can withstand both resentment and burnout, and I’m not sure a partnership that could would even be worth keeping.
Hormones May Be Getting The Better Of You
This isn’t just true of pregnant or postpartum women. People of all kinds, at all ages, regularly misattribute their feelings and blame other people for our own internal states. Researchers regularly find that people mistake the distress of hunger for anger, and can even confuse something as obvious the exhilaration caused by a roller coaster on a first date for the beginnings of love. So, it’s totally understandable and normal that when our hormones are in flux after pregnancy and birth, the resulting internal chaos would have some external fallout. Taking a moment to breathe and ask yourself, “Am I being treated badly, or do I just feel badly?” can be massively helpful in deciding whether you need to address a relationship problem or just ask for (or give yourself) a bit of TLC.