(Now don’t get too excited about where this story is going because it’s not that.)
Chris and I had been happily married about six years and recently added our second baby to the family in less than two years. Our second colicky baby…the one who hadn’t stopped crying for three months. And we were at that exhausted, sleep-deprived, stressed-out, conflict-ridden point in our relationship that many new parents find themselves in.
Sitting together in dark that night (though not so close that we would actually touch each other), tears streamed down my face. We were at our wits end, and I finally got up the courage to tell Chris, “I am not happy. This is not what I signed up for. Something has got to change.”
He sighed as he quietly replied, “Me, too.”
This is not an unusual scenario at this particular stage of life - not by any means. In fact, I bet that as you’re reading this, you’re nodding your head in recognition of yourself because research shows that fully two-thirds of all married couples go through this when kids enter the picture.
"...research shows that fully two-thirds of all married couples go through this when kids enter the picture."
According to marital researcher Dr. John Gottman, “Even the strongest relationships are strained during the transition to parenthood. Lack of sleep, never-ending housework and new fiscal concerns can lead to profound stress and a decline in marital satisfaction... Not surprisingly, 67% of new parents experience a decline in marital happiness.”
So if you find yourself in the same place right now, be encouraged that it’s not just you. You’re not alone. You’re not the only one. And even better news: There’s hope!
Instead of analyzing what went wrong with the couples that were unhappy, Gottman decided to analyze what the happy couples did right. So their research team compared the 33% of couples who did not experience the downturn in marital satisfaction with the 67% who did. The main difference they found in the happiest couples boiled down to this: The fathers made the transition from couplehood into parenthood along with the mothers.
In other words, once the baby was born, successful marriages were marked by fathers who were able and willing to pick up more of the household chores and participate fully in the parenting responsibilities.
Now for the 67% of dads whose marriages floundered a bit (ok, some quite a bit) post-baby, the failure to successfully move into parenthood was not done out of malice or even a lack of desire. In fact, research shows that “fathers want to be connected with the baby and supportive of their wives,” said marriage and family therapist Dr. Jessica Michaelson, “but often feel at a loss for how to do this."
"In fact, research shows that 'fathers want to be connected with the baby and supportive of their wives but often feel at a loss for how to do this.'"
Besides not knowing how to be supportive, Michaelson noted that some additional reasons dads may not be as involved as they (and their wives) would like them to be include:
So what are some ways we as wives can encourage our hesitant husbands and help them feel more included in the parenting process?
1) Tell him what you need. When given the opportunity, most men live to be their beloved’s knight-in-shining-armor, ready to rescue their damsel-in-distress. In other words, he wants to be your hero, but he can’t read your mind. Don’t give in to the tempting attitude of, “Well, if he doesn’t know, I’m certainly not going to tell him.” In a simple, straightforward way, tell him exactly what you need him to do. When asked sweetly, with a kind tone and clarity, most men will swim through shark-infested waters to bring their women lemonade. So remember: Be sweet, be kind, and be straightforward. Tell him what you need.
2) Encourage, don’t criticize. When your husband helps with childcare/parenting activities (feedings, changing diapers, bathing, etc.), unless it’s a safety issue or a life-or-death situation, don’t criticize him or tell him he’s doing it wrong or how to do it the “right” way (i.e., the way you would do it). Instead, give him some leeway and grace to do things differently than you would. Let him do some things his way. Give him room to make small mistakes and learn as he goes along without fear of being corrected or chided. Your child won’t die because Dad didn’t heat the bottle to the exact same temperature that Mom always does. The world won’t end because he dressed the baby in her recent Halloween costume (hey, it was adorable!), instead of her Etsy personalized onesie with the matching flower headband. (When this actually happened in our household, I learned to smile, grab the camera, and save the images for her future wedding rehearsal dinner.)
Years ago my mother-in-law, Miss Claudette, taught me a very wise saying that has helped me gain perspective over the years: “It’s good enough for who it’s for,” meaning, the house doesn’t have to be perfectly clean, the baby perfectly burped, or the laundry perfectly washed, folded and put away. YOU GUYS JUST HAD A BABY, FOR GOODNESS SAKE! Unless the queen of Sheba is coming over for dinner, let good enough be good enough.
3) Notice the Small Things and Express Appreciation. We’re awfully good at catching others when they do something wrong, aren’t we? But we need to be even better at catching our husbands when they do something right, and then call it out. Don’t overlook the small ways he participates and tries to help. There’s a powerful emotional connection that comes from not just having a partner who cooks dinner, but in having a partner who recognizes that you’re exhausted and need to be cared for in that special way, and then does it.
So, practice being aware when he tries to help – whether big or small – and then express your appreciation and gratitude. Healthy relationships show a ratio of five positive interactions/comments for every one negative.
Another fascinating piece of research by Shaunti Feldhahn found that 72% of the men she interviewed reported it was more meaningful to them to hear their wives say, “Thank you,” than to hear them say, “I love you.” A person who feels appreciated will always do more than is expected.
A person who feels appreciated will always do more than is expected.
4) Make time for each other. Carve out a few minutes each day to spend uninterrupted time alone together, even if it’s just 15-20 minutes. When life gets as crazy and upended as it does when there’s a new baby in the house, it can be very comforting and restorative to your relationship to do the simple things together that you used to do before the baby came. Snuggling together on the couch with a cup coffee and debriefing about the day. Taking turns giving foot rubs while listening to your favorite music. Let him lay his head in your lap as you caress his head and watch your favorite Netflix series. Grab the lavender oil and give her a back massage.
These kinds of activities not only help decrease the physical and emotional tension in your relationship, but they help build your husband’s confidence in his ability to be a good dad and a good husband. They also serve an important reminder to you both that you’re a team, you’ve got each other’s back, and you’re in it to win it when it comes to your new family and your marriage. That’s how you’ll end up in the 33% of couples whose marital satisfaction actually increases when it becomes me + you and a new baby, too.
Alisa Grace ('92) serves as the co-director of the Biola University Center for Marriage and Relationships where she also co-teaches a class called "Christian Perspectives on Marriage and Relationships." While she speaks and blogs regularly on topics such as dating relationships, marriage, and love, she also loves mentoring younger women and newly married couples, speaking at retreats and providing premarital counseling. Alisa and her husband, Chris, have been married over 30 years and have three wonderful children: Drew and his wife Julia, Natalie and her husband Neil, and their youngest blessing, Caroline.