6 min read | Within 3 years of a first child being born, only one in three couples remain happy, according to research by psychologists John and Julie Gottman. Certainly many of those folks move on to file for divorce. The child is the catalyst.
So why – during what should be a joyous time for new parents – are so many people unhappy? And what, particularly from a man’s perspective, can new Dads do about it?
Here’s the rundown of what to get ready for. These challenges are natural and common. So their occurring does not mean you have a problem with your marriage. Consider these as part of manhood initiation. Bring your good warrior energy to bear, and see where your strength, curiosity, reflection, and patience can take you.
Whether you’re ready or not, you’re about to face a huge mountain. Perhaps not Everest in metaphorical scale, but no Appalachian peak, either. You will be stressed physically, emotionally, and existentially. But like ascending a peak for the first time, you will ultimately be rewarded with new and amazing vistas into yourself and your loved ones if you keep the right attitude.
To get there, you will need to avoid the pitfalls of blame and subterfuge that result when two people who wanted to love each other get blindsided by fatigue and unskillful fighting. You can end up digging yourselves into a very difficult situation for you and your new child, and just at the time when they need your strength and compassion the most.
1. You ain’t getting any, and don’t blame her for that.
You’re just not going to get laid man, not for a while. Like, maybe six or twelve months. Okay well you probably will, just not as much as you’d like to. Part of it is hormones – if she’s breastfeeding, then she just won’t want to rock very often. Part of it is fatigue – she’ll be absolutely sleep-deprived, and her body is recovering from the Herculean task of childbirth. You may be exhausted, too, depending on how you decide to share night time duties. But like one of my mentors advised me after baby #2, “What the harm of rubbing one out in the shower?”
2. The child and admin tasks will box out 1:1 time.
Remember when you could hang out for a few hours after dinner with no real plans? Well those times will disappear once the child arrives. Not forever, but it will definitely be different, and not ever really the same as before kids. The list of tasks for two parents, especially without any extended family or help around, is enormous. The work categories include laundry, dishes, bottle making / cleaning, doctor visits for baby, more frequent trips to the store (though diapers.com and other online services can help here), figuring out how to help your baby nap, and so on. You can read books and check out sites like babycenter.com for more on the practical elements.
It’s crucial that you and she are each getting bonding time with the baby (e.g., see more on that summarized in “Bright From the Start” by Jill Stamm, PhD). So you won’t have much time to connect and cultivate intimacy with your wife. And that, over time, can create a false perception that you don’t really know each other. And that in turn can lead to new antagonism.
Lastly, some guys rely a lot on their wives for emotional support. Mothering, basically, and it puts a load on our wives that they probably could do without. I’ve noticed how many men occasionally slip and say “my mom” when referring to their wives; I’ve done it, too. But fatherhood will mean you lose this type of support. Your wife isn’t going to be able to lift you up after every defeat at the office or surge in self-doubt. You’re going to have to figure out how to cultivate your own self-confidence. Ultimately that path is about exploring who you are and what it means to be alive, and here I’d suggest meditation, daily journaling, and/or centering prayer (more here).
3. The fights may get nastier than they’ve ever been before.
Lack of time to connect means demons rush in to fill the void, and something innocuous – like letting a poopy diaper go undetected, or forgetting to run an errand because you were busy or distracted – can fuel rancor between you and your spouse. The complaints will pile up, as well, and it will be tempting to spout forth all the grievances you think she has incurred, and vice versa. Don’t give into that temptation. It will just result in more hurt and less understanding – more on what to do below.
These fights, from your perspective, may be fueled by new and sometimes scary emotions. Some fathers feel jealous towards their children because the baby gets all the attention, or they feel angry towards their wife for feeling ignored. You can try observing what tends to set you off and experiment with how to act in those situations. Some sort of “centering” practice is critical here: meditation, prayer, or journaling.
4. It won’t all be cigars and smooth sailing at work.
Some studies suggest that men in dual-income households experience more work-life conflict than women once children enter the picture (though other studies show both genders feeling equal stress). Depending on where you work – both in terms of the parental leave policies, as well as the “man culture” – you may have a hard time taking time off for paternity leave.
According to the Center for Work and Family at Boston College, many men actually work harder after the birth of their first child, and only a staggering one percent take one week or more of paternity leave. There are at least three reasons for this: the employer lacks paternity benefits, or the men around the father frown upon it, or the idea just doesn’t occur. If you are able to get some down time away from your job, it can be a fertile time to connect with your wife (help her however you can with the chores; learning to give even just short massages can be huge), with your child, and with yourself.
You may also feel new doubts about your job. Do you actually like the work you’re doing? Can you juggle your job with the needs of your family? If not, what might you explore changing?
5. Physical and mental fatigue.
Try experimenting with naps and sleep arrangements that work for you and your family. I’m not a fan of taking medications for sleep, and that includes alcohol. In my opinion, what helps best for natural sleep is a journaling practice (gives voice to your strongest emotions, gives you distance from them) plus muscle relaxation exercises before bed (see “The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Handbook”).
What else can you do?
One of the most important areas is communication. How can you talk with your wife so that you connect instead of pushing her away, and quarrel and negotiate skillfully? This is so important we’ll be dedicating many articles to the subject.
In mid-September we’ll start our book club series with John and Julie Gottman’s book, “And Baby Makes Three.” If you haven’t yet, please get your copy here (this link supports our blog); we’ll be going one chapter at a time, roughly every other week.