What changes should we expect for our marriage as first-time parents and how can we prepare to nurture our relationship as we enter this new season?

This is a BIG question. So big, in fact, I wrote 350 pages on this marital transition for my dissertation! So I'll just tackle one small piece of it: time as it relates to the division of labor.

When you both have your first baby, while the birth is the first time you get to look at your baby "in the flesh," the mom has already spent 9 months "holding" the baby and coping with these changes. Maybe she's taken some time off from work. Maybe she's read a dozen books on pregnancy and caring for a newborn. Whatever adjustments she's made, it has been a reminder that things are going to change, and she's had a more "up close and personal" view of the matter. A greater physical investment.

This bigger imposition, if you will, and societal expectations of woman, (especially if she chooses to breastfeed), will organically tip the caretaking responsibilities to the birth Mom, unless considerable effort is taken.

Many couples embrace an "egalitarian" perspective on marriage. Before the baby, both earned money for the family, shared cleaning, cooking, and laundry, and planned vacations together. They expect that having a baby will be no different regarding shared responsibility. And what comes next takes both of them by surprise! These couples often have a greater adjustment than more traditional couples.

Breastfeeding is encouraged 8-12 times a day (24 hours) and takes 15-20 minutes each.

That is 2 hours to 4 hours a day, doing nothing but breastfeeding. And that's with no difficulty! Even if the other partner is invested in getting up and bringing the baby to feed with nursing mom, so many issues can arise. Is the other parent a sound sleeper? Are they able to easily go back to sleep? The mother may hear her baby's cries and immediately begin leaking milk. That's a hard thing to ignore!

Men report changes in the transition to fatherhood as well. Even if both partners intend to return to work full time, many men feel a heightened responsibility to be the primary breadwinner for their families. Many begin to feel ambivalent about the agreements they made before the baby's birth to cut back to take time off from their jobs.  They may want to spend MORE and not less time at work, assuming greater responsibility.

And they face a less receptive audience when they tell their bosses they need to take off "because we've had a baby." Many people simply believe women bear that primary responsibility. So men can be taken less seriously as an "ambitious man" who is wanting to "get ahead." 

They've also been impacted by social gendered messages about their roles.

Time is also crunched for the couple and this mixes with issues of power and privilege. There is a fuzzy middle ground between "free time" (no parenting responsibilities) and "on time" (focusing on actively parenting.) This middle ground can be compared to air traffic controllers who are watching a screen. Even if no planes are colliding, they can't get up and take a break without someone replacing them!

In a similar way, even if the baby is sleeping, you aren't "off." You need to be ready to respond if something changes. Because many moms have been closer in tune to the baby, they take this "between time" as a given, and engage in activities close by, knowing they may have to switch their focus back on their infant at any moment. It's a stressful job, even when you are "semi-off."

Fathers, on the other hand, may not realize that working in a distant room of the house to make a phone call, may leave them "out of  earshot." Or they may get absorbed in reading the paper as the toddler heads for the plant, while mom has her eyes on the child's every step. It may be the father's turn to care for the toddler, but mom is still on primary duty. And if she holds back from saying anything until the child is about to tip the plant over, the couple may get into a fight about her being "overprotective."

True "free time" for mothers often means physically leaving the house.

The discussions about "who does what" have to be serious discussions and can't be offered as generalized advice. Who does what, when, and how should be clearly articulated and you both need to be prepared to alter them as circumstances change. 

And both of you need to talk about how the new realities of actually having the baby may have changed your previous agreed-upon roles. The desire to return to work may be different. Recognize that the world won't work with you if your dreams for your new family deviate greatly from what you had hoped it would be.

There is so much more to say, but let's leave it here for now, and I welcome your comments and questions.

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Dr. Kathy McMahon


Dr. Kathy McMahon (Dr. K) is a clinical psychologist and sex therapist. She is also the founder and president of Couples Therapy Inc. Dr. K feels passionate about couples therapy and sex therapy and holds a deep respect towards those who invest in making their relationship better. She is currently conducting online and in person private couples retreats.

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