My husband and I had been married for a little over three years when Baby A joined us. I remember us strolling through the mall one day, witnessing a couple and their toddler walk by. The couple was walking on either side of the child, each holding one of their child’s tiny hands. It was like one of those perfect family-photo-moments that you see plastered on calendars. A perfect, happy family. It was at that moment, that Daddy A and I seriously talked about starting a family.
Our marriage before Baby A was easy, and I use the term ‘easy’ because our marriage worked so smoothly, and it came to us so naturally, that it was the most comfortable part of our life. We lived alone, both of us chasing after our careers. We travelled, we ate out, spent evenings in front of the TV and weekends out with friends. We divided domestic tasks more or less equally. I cooked only a few times a week and every time I cooked, my husband did the dishes and cleaned up after. We both did the laundry, we ironed our own clothes or sent them to the dry cleaners. We pushed each other to fight harder at work, to pursue our dreams and to become better versions of ourselves. We fought, yes, and we fought often. Both of us are firstborns and we both like getting our way, so unless we start off in agreement, there usually are a lot of fireworks before a consensus. Despite that, disagreements didn’t last very long. Our marriage was the springboard upon which we were building the rest of our lives.
I remember walking hand in hand, shopping for Baby A. I remember going to every single doctor’s appointment together. I remember going on a short ‘babymoon’. I remember my husband, who absolutely hates touching feet (even his own), giving me a foot massage when I was pregnant. I remember not leaving the house without a goodbye kiss. I remember being deeply in love, every single day.
Then came Baby A, a little person who was meant be a daily reminder of the love my husband and I share for each other. My mind was clouded with rosy images of us walking on either side of Baby A, holding her tiny hands in ours, posing for that perfect family picture. Unfortunately, reality was far from it. Baby A’s arrival shook our marriage to the core, in a way neither of us had expected.
We went from being ‘us’ to a couple whose parents had to get involved, not once but several times, to act as mediators. We fought like we’d never fought before. We argued about something every single day, and the intensity of the arguments grew over time. We were back to being ‘us’ some days, but on other days, there was yelling, blame shifting, unending arguments and the occasional packed bag (I submit, that was me). I still shiver at the thought of some of the arguments we had during the first few months of Baby A’s life. They truly were the most trying times in our now, nearly five year marriage.
Looking back, it’s easy to see why Baby A’s birth took such a toll on our marriage, and I’m surprised that we hadn’t anticipated it.
Childcare is exhausting. During those first few weeks, we were both sleep deprived and always tired. There were days that I didn’t have a bite to eat or a sip of caffeine until well into the afternoon. There were nights when Baby A kept us up crying and my husband went into work on two hours of sleep. As all parents know, a tired and sleepy baby is an unhappy, irritable baby, and frankly, that doesn’t change much with age.
A new addition, especially one that is completely dependent on you, drastically changes family dynamics. With Baby A in the picture, there was a lot more work to be done at home, and while previously, my husband and I had divided up the domestic responsibilities more or less equally, I now felt that as the partner staying home I was doing the lion’s share. As I later found out, my husband felt the same way – he’d come back home from work and have to immerse himself immediately into changing diapers, burping the baby or cleaning up the kitchen. The truth is, we were both doing a lot more than before, because there just was a lot more to do. In the early months though, when we didn’t actually understand how much the work load had increased as a whole, we both thought that we were doing more and the other wasn’t, and that built up unnecessary resentment.
It always takes time to adapt to changes and that’s exactly how it is with a baby. In those first weeks, you have no idea how you’re going to ever go out with them. How would you nurse in public, where would you change diapers, and what would you do if the baby starts to cry or doesn’t nap in the stroller – these are all worries that haunt new parents and we were no different. Therefore, for the first few months our social life took a nose dive. We completely stopped going out for dinner dates or movie dates because we didn’t have anyone to leave Baby A with. We were hesitant to accept late night invitations, and unfortunately those were the majority of the invitations we got because most our friends didn’t have children. For a couple that was used to being out and about, the decline in social life and entertainment options was frustrating, and didn’t help the mood around the house.
While Baby A’s arrival affected the family unit in several ways, it also impacted us as individuals. I’ve always been ambitious, and I thrive when I feel like I’m continuously challenging myself intellectually and continuously achieving goals. Therefore, the hardest part of staying at home looking after a child during maternity leave, was not having that daily intellectual stimulation or sense of achievement that my work had given me. Add on to that the loss of independence that comes with having a person completely dependent on you, and you’ve got all the ingredients for a ticking time bomb. I used to do what I wanted, when I wanted. I earned, I drove; I was completely independent. I liked structure and routine, and would usually plan my days. Baby A’s arrival turned my life completely upside down. Going out meant timing naps and feeds, dragging along diapers and wipes and changes of clothes – all routine and all independence went right out the window. I took out my frustration on the one person I had easy access to – my husband. He got the worst of me most days. By the time he came home from work, I usually wanted to kill myself (or him). I would be so tired and frustrated most of the time that I’d flare up at the tiniest of things.
If you’ve read ‘Little Women’, you’ll recall that when Meg has the twins, she is so focused on them that she ignores her husband. I recall reading this as a teenager and wondering why anyone would do that, after all your children are a reflection of the love you have for your spouse. Unfortunately, I fell into the same trap. I was so focused on learning how to be a good mum, and just survive, that I didn’t make time for my husband – even for those little things. Likewise, my husband was so focused on the needs of the baby in the first few weeks that he didn’t realise that his wife was also recovering from giving birth. We were both so fixated on being a good mum and a good dad, that we missed out on the bigger picture – being good parents, together.
Change is never easy, but change is inevitable and we all must evolve to adapt. Having a child can bring you so much closer as a couple, or it can drive you apart, depending on how quickly you adapt, and whether you do it together or not. I wish we’d done things differently from the start, but we didn’t, so here are my two cents on how to prevent making the same mistakes my husband and I did.
Firstly, get help – get grandparents to come in and stay with you, hire a cleaner more times a week, stop worrying about laundry, and order in for 3 months if you have to. Make life easier for yourself so you can spend more time with the baby, with your spouse, and with yourself. You’re probably still going to be sleep deprived and tired, but hopefully a little less so.
Secondly, remember that while this is difficult for you, it’s difficult for your spouse too, and if you’re doing twice the work you did before, so is your spouse. Cut each other some slack. On the other hand, if you feel like you’re not doing twice the work, step up your game. You both had this child together and they’re as much your responsibility as your spouse’s.
Third, make time for yourself. I know this is easier said than done, but do it and you’ll thank me. Do something you enjoy for yourself, everyday – read, exercise, write. Leave your child with your spouse for an hour or two on the weekend, and do something for yourself, and then return the favour (so to speak – none of the above are actually favours!).
Fourth, make time for each other. Leave your baby with a grandparent or a friend and go out on a date, even if it’s for an hour. If you can’t go out, put the baby to bed and have a nice candlelight dinner at home. Talk about something other than the baby – the economy, the weather, your honeymoon. Bring back the magic by doing those little things you did before you had the baby – bring your spouse’s favourite chocolate from the supermarket, or cook their favourite meal.
Fifth, and most important, do it together. Talk to your spouse about your worries and their concerns and battle them together. Remember, the first step to being a good parent, is being a good spouse.
It took my husband and I time and conscious effort to get back to where we were in our marriage before Baby A came along. I wish we’d done things differently from the start, but I’m glad we paused when we realized things weren’t going in the right direction, and worked on them. If you feel that you’re in a place in your marriage where we were a few months ago, it’s okay. It happens to a lot of couples and isn’t something you can’t work through. The first step towards recovery is acceptance. We both had to accept that life has changed irrevocably for us, as individuals and as a unit. It was also important to accept that while we may have had difficulty accepting this, the same probably applied to our spouse. The next step therefore, was forgiveness. We both had to forgive each other, and forgive ourselves. Then we followed those five things I’ve mentioned above. It was as simple as that.
The decision to have a child is a big one, for any couple. A child allows you to explore facets of your relationship that you didn’t know existed before. I feel an overwhelming surge of love for my husband every time I see him tending to Baby A’s whimsical demands with immense patience. I have a renewed appreciation for his capacity to love when I see him just sitting there staring into Baby A’s eyes. I have increased respect for him when I see him encouraging Baby A to stand up, dust her hands and keep going if she falls down, instead of just lifting her up in his arms and telling her that everything will be okay. There is no doubt in my mind that I love and respect my husband today much more than I did before I had a child with him. We survived a storm, and came out much stronger on the other side.