PACT Level 2 Therapist
The best piece of parenting advice I ever heard had nothing to do with sleep, solid foods, or baby wearing. In fact, it had nothing to do directly with my baby. It was simple yet radical wisdom from a trusted source: my mentor and Baby Bomb coauthor Stan Tatkin. Stan taught me, with the science to back it up, to always put my relationship with my husband first. No matter what.
He told me to do this as a student, as a therapist, and as a new mom. And let me tell you, I never needed that advice more than when I was in the throes of early motherhood. Except maybe during this past year of the pandemic. In times of crisis, we all need our partnerships to hold us steady and provide us with a secure base from which we can grow, be creative, and problem solve.
This is so, so, so important that Stan and I wrote a whole book about it: Baby Bomb: A Relationship Survival Guide for New Parents (New Harbinger, 2021).
All of us do better when we feel a sense of security in our primary relationship. When two people are in the process of falling in love and partnering up, there is usually a period of time — some call it the honeymoon phase — when both partners show up for the relationship more often than not. They naturally put their party of two first because it’s the hot new thing in their lives. It feels good during this time to help your partner and to ask for help, to spend time together, and to make each other feel special. Knock-down, drag-out fights are rare, if they happen at all.
In every intimate partnership, this phase ends sooner or later and is replaced with a phase of reduced excitement and less inspiration. Life tends to feel more ordinary, with the potential for lots of distractions from your party of two. Suddenly you’re thinking more about your career and how to get it going or all the ways you can expand it or about a creative endeavor or new hobby or hanging with friends. Or having a baby. You start to prioritize some of these activities over your twosome.
Instead of growing into a solid team, your relationship becomes you two…plus an extended number of teammates. Of course, friends and family will always play big roles in your lives; of course, jobs and other activities will fill hours of your day. This expanded team only becomes problematic when you or your partner no longer put your relationship first, allowing other people (or other interests or activities) to take more of your time and attention than you give to each other.
Thriving in a Growing Family
You can’t count on a smooth transition from being a party of two to being a party of three to happen automatically, without effort on your part. For most couples, there is work to do. Researchers have repeatedly found that marital satisfaction declines after a baby is born. This is especially true for mothers.
One early study, conducted in the 1950s by E.E. LeMasters, found 83 percent of new parents were in what he termed a “moderate to severe crisis.” (LeMasters, 1957) More recently, internationally renowned couple therapist John Gottman and his colleagues reported that 67 percent of couples saw their level of satisfaction “plummet” after the birth of their first child. (Shapiro, Gottman, & Carrère, 2000) Gottman and other researchers speak about satisfaction as depending on effective couple communication, quality time spent together, and the presence of external support.
Perhaps you are experiencing the loss of some of these important elements. For example, it may be harder to find time to talk with your partner, let alone carve out the quality time you used to enjoy. You may find yourself making decisions alone because you don’t want to wait until your partner is around, and your friends are even less available. You may be struggling with the increased responsibility of parenthood emotionally, financially, and logistically. One of you has to be caring for baby at any given moment, and that requires constant negotiation between you. Really, it’s not a surprise to see new parents at each other’s throats as a result of all the pressure and instant change their baby bomb delivers.
Still, let’s not be too quick to blame the baby. Researchers Philip and Carolyn Cowan conducted a ten-year study of the effects children had on their parents’ partnerships and came up with the more nuanced theory that children get “an unfair share of the blame for their parents’ distress.” They believe “the seeds of new parents’ individual and marital problems are sown long before their first baby arrives.” (Cowan & Cowan, 1992) Those old unconscious or unresolved issues simply rise to the surface.
For example, if you’re now angry your partner isn’t changing enough diapers, chances are your relationship had latent issues related to equity. I know from my experience as a therapist that whenever unresolved issues rise to the surface, we have the opportunity to understand and heal them. This view offers hope that you and your partner can weather the transition to parenthood and enjoy a thriving partnership as parents. In Baby Bomb, I follow the belief that, with support and guidance, you can better understand, mitigate, and integrate some of the subtle and not-so-subtle crisis aspects of becoming a parent.
To begin this journey of thriving you both need to learn how to take care of each other while caring for your child. Forming a secure-functioning team like this is the practical expression of our book’s first guiding principle: the couple comes first. You may worry that secure functioning isn’t attainable for you, that it’s about being a perfect partner or having a perfect partnership. That’s not the case! Perfect partners and partnerships don’t exist. What does exist and is incredibly valuable is a team that provides both of you with a sense of love and belonging and security.
A United Team
Your team is tended to by both partners, and both partners are equally responsible for its health. All the choices you make as a secure-functioning team boil down to believing in and acting under the assumption that you are in each other’s care. On a day-to-day basis, this means:
Putting your relationship first is a daily practice. Talk with your partner. Consider using these guidelines as support for your partnership’s health. Tending to your relationship’s well-being will give you both more vitality and strength to tend to your growing child’s needs. And you will both offer them the great gift of never having to worry about your partnership. They will be able to grow from the secure base you both created together for each other and for them.
Baby Bomb drops July 1, 2021, and is packed with practical tips, tools, and stories of parents to guide you in taking care and deepening your partnership as parents. I had so much fun writing it and I practice all the principles every day with my husband and our delicious little baby bomb, Jude.
Cowan, Carolyn Pape, and Philip A. Cowan. When Partners Become Parents: The Big Life Change for Couples. New York: Basic Books, 1992.
LeMasters, E. E. “Parenthood as Crisis.” Marriage and Family Living, 19 (1957): 352–55. doi.org/10.2307/347802.
Shapiro, Alyson Fearnley, John M. Gottman, and Sybil Carrère. “The Baby and the Marriage: Identifying Factors that Buffer Against Decline in Marital Satisfaction After the First Baby Arrives.” Journal of Family Psychology, 14, no. 1 (2000): 59–70. pdfs.semanticscholar.org/0fce/799e726ea33fd80a3859fde3e4eb7a40aec0.pdf?_ga=2.190745963.1308437689.1593576249-1972260653.1592859511.