Annie Keeling: New babies, new parents
Babies are everywhere this summer. What an amazing time it is — the challenging, joyful, tumultuous transition from the life stage of committed couple to brand-new parents.
Up to this point, the biggest life change for many of those new parents was the shift from adult-centered to couple-centered. This is when a person makes new loyalties away from his or her family of origin and the needs of one’s self, to the benefits and challenges that come with making a life with another adult.
Some have an easier time of giving up a previous life stage than others. Bowling night or book club is moved aside to make room for date night. Choices are made that elevate the needs of the partner over the needs of other friends or extended family members.
The shift from couple-centered to family-centered can be even bigger. Adding a baby to a household obviously changes a couple’s dynamics.
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“The relationship burden of having children is present regardless of marital status, gender orientation, or level of income,” writes Matthew D. Johnson, Professor of Psychology at Binghamton University, on the Fortune website.
Questions about one’s day are replaced with questions about why the child might be crying. Parents can become businesslike in their transactions as they focus on keeping a helpless infant alive.
Romance goes on the back burner. And forget the days of leisure and choice — unless your other half is willing to cover childcare. This can lead to feelings of unfairness or a this-for-that style of bargaining among couples.
Add to this the sudden increase in family members’ involvement and advice — whether wanted or not — that can create stress for the couple. I talk with many well-meaning grandparents who want to shortcut their adult child’s learning curve of parenting.
Here are six ways for a couple to improve their relationship when there is a new baby in the house:
Be a team
If someone drops the ball, don’t get mad. Pick it up.
Can you imagine if a pro football player drops the ball on a touchdown run and the whole team starts yelling at him. Instead, build a higher level of trust by helping out which parent is in the most need at the moment.
In the child’s early years, the nursing mother has a superior biological connection to the child. It’s important for the partner to resist feelings of jealousy and not compete with this, supporting her instead.
Find a healthy division of labor. Be generous. Communicate as much as possible so there is that increased feeling of trust. Every action builds or destroys connection — stay conscious.
Look for good motives and intentions
Sometimes one parent may feel that the other is too clumsy or doesn’t know what they are doing. Compassion, kindness, and educating the partner can go a long way if both parties are willing to look for the best in each other’s actions.
Keep romance and passion alive
Some couples put so much focus on the baby, and this focus becomes a source for the “why” of doing everything. It’s unhealthy to meet all of your love and connection needs through the baby.
Small, simple rituals — like making the partner tea in the morning or kissing passionately for two minutes once a day — can be a significant source of connection.
It’s important for the parents to have some part of their relationship that does not include the child. Some parents never go out without the children or they make them a part of every aspect of the family.
Model the importance of the parent’s relationship. This will also help siblings to build their own relationship, as well as encourage the child’s relationship with extended family members.
Increase time together as a couple. A babysitter is cheaper than a couple’s therapist.
Establish clear loyalty
It’s a challenge to prioritize the couple, especially in the first years. The baby is a magnet for extended family who often love to give advice and share their experience.
The couple has usually enjoyed a fair amount of independence before baby. Suddenly, parents and in-laws visit more often and may cast subtle (and not so subtle) judgments.
Use loyalty to strengthen the couple’s relationship. Don’t take sides or agree with criticism of the other partner by family members.
Praise your partner enthusiastically in public — in front of other family members, doctors, visitors, etc. Give your partner a passionate hug. Express positivity.
“I just love her; isn’t she the best?” or “I appreciate all he is doing for the family.”
Resist triangles or alliances that pit family members against one another and can have disturbing outcomes.
If a relative, the mother-in-law for instance, criticizes the other partner, the couple can kiss passionately in front of her to help remind and recondition the relative of family priorities. This is a nonverbal way to say, “I choose this person to come first.”
Create a united front
Parents are a leadership team. Aligning in agreement in parenting strategies is more important than the “what” you are agreeing upon. Give in a little or a lot to have alignment.
Practice the art of negotiation and giving in. Knowing that you both have the same desired outcome for the family is what really matters.
Having disagreements? If they can’t be resolved peacefully in front of the children, agree to talk later that night.
Simplify expectations you have of the child. This will decrease parenting stress.
Give positive strokes
There are sacrifices in raising children. Understand, respect, and support your partner’s sacrifice. Let them know you notice. Appreciate your partner as much as possible.
Practice these strategies to create greater connection with your partner while your children are small.
Annie Keeling, MFA, of Grass Valley provides parent coaching and teaches parenting classes at The Nest. Connect with Keeling at email@example.com or 530-210-1100.
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