Simcha Fisher, blogger extraordinaire and author of The Sinners Guide to Natural Family Planning is working on a piece for Our Sunday Visitor Newsmagazine on the marital changes that occur once a baby arrives on the scene. She emailed to ask for an interview. By happy coincidence, Lisa and I just turned in our upcoming book, Then Comes Baby: The Catholic Guide to Surviving & Thriving in the First 3 Years of Parenthood to Ave Maria Press. Between that and the things we had already written on the topic in Parenting with Grace: The Catholic Parents’ Guide to Raising (almost) Perfect Kids, I had lots to say.
I’ll link the OSV article when I comes out, but in the meantime, Simcha and OSV kindly granted me permission to post our full interview here. Enjoy!
Simcha: I’m guessing that at least some of the martial troubles you counsel people for arise after the birth of a baby. What are some of the most common problems or complaints that you hear – from men, and from women?
Dr. Greg: Many women complain about feeling exhausted and unsupported. A lot of women feel pressure–whether that’s self-generated or actually put on them by their spouse or others–to get back to looking and feeling like they did before they were pregnant asap and that there’s something wrong with them if they can’t manage to get their body, house, and mood in shape after the first month. Obviously, that ‘s a mistake. It can take a year or more to feel normal after pregnancy and delivery, but husbands, and often the women, themselves, don’t appreciate how hard it really is to get your ducks back in a row after a baby and how normal it is to feel and be out-of sorts for months afterward.
For their part, many husbands feel lonely. Post-partum depression is surprisingly common in men. Part of it has to do with tiredness, the disruption in schedule, and the feeling of being torn between wanting to be home with wife and baby and having to be at work, combined with a little jealousy that mom gets to stay home. Those latter feelings often feed the “So, what did YOU do today?” questions that contribute to the wife’s feelings of inadequacy. Some husbands also struggle with the feeling of being displaced or replaced. It can be hard to go from having a wife take care of you to suddenly having to take care of yourself, your wife and your baby. That can be a steep learning curve.
Simcha: Is it normal for a couple’s relationship to change after a baby is born? What are some of the good changes they can expect to see, and how can they nourish these good fruits?
Dr. Greg: It is. But whether those changes are good or bad tend to depend on how intentional the couple is about managing those changes. Lisa and I discuss this extensively in our forthcoming book, Then Comes Baby: Surviving and Thriving in the First Three Years of Parenthood (Ave Maria Press–Nov 2014) as well as in Parenting with Grace. Couples who talk openly about their needs, are creative about how they meet those needs and forgiving about the challenges they face in attending to each other tend to do better than couples who keep their concerns to themselves, are rigid about their expectations, and resentful when things don’t work out as planned.
It’s incredibly important for couples to establish rituals for connecting across work, play, talk and prayer, before baby comes on the scene so that they are used to relating on those levels. Then, once the baby arrives, they need to talk openly and regularly about how those rituals need to continue evolving so they can maintain those connections. Couples who haven’t established regular ways to connect across those four levels before the baby is born often feel like they are struggling to find ways to stay in touch with each other. By contrast, couples who did a good job connecting before the baby comes on the scene but don’t talk about the ways those rituals of connection need to evolve post baby can become resentful that their world has been overturned and doubt that things will ever be good between them again.
Dr. Greg: Research seems to suggest that the biggest predictor of post-baby marital happiness is how dad responds. In a lot of couples, the wife is the relationship caretaker in the early years of the marriage. She plans the dates, suggests that they take time to talk, or pray or do some project together. When baby comes on the scene, she becomes pre-occupied–rightly–with her new role. If dad steps into the relationship caretaker role, doing his best to attend to his wife as well as she is attending to the baby, then the couple tends to grow closer with each child. He feels effective. She feels cared for. Everyone feels close.
On the other hand, if dad keeps waiting around for mom to resume the relationship caretaker role and resenting her when she doesn’t, the couple will grow further apart with each child.
Simcha: What are some signs that couples are experiencing something worse than just normal growing pains? If things are really bad, how should they seek help?
Dr. Greg: Studies indicate that couples tend to wait 4-6 years from the onset of a problem before they actually seek help. My suggestion is that if you’ve tried to talk through things on your own and you aren’t being successful, getting help early is always better than waiting. That said, a good sign that you need to seek professional assistance is that you aren’t happy, haven’t been happy for awhile, but are trying to tell yourself that’s “normal.” Stress is certainly normal post-baby as is busy-ness, but marital and life distress and dissatisfaction isn’t. At the point where you feel frustrated in your own efforts to get your needs met or connect as a couple, it’s time to seek new resources.
Simcha: I assume you mostly work with Catholic couples. Is the strength of a couple’s faith a good predictor for how well they can work through their problems? This sounds like a softball question – like, “yes yes, of course when we are faithful, we will find life’s burdens light” – but I’m really curious, because I know that a strong religious faith doesn’t always translate easily or directly into good emotional health or strong relationships.
Dr. Greg: You’re right. In fact, many faithful couples who have more rigid role expectations may struggle more with birth than other couples. If you tend to be of the mindset the God made men to do X and women to do Y and never the twain shall meet, you may tend to fail to be there for each other, take on too much for yourself, and make excuses for behavior that would be otherwise inexcusable.
Faith tends to be helpful when it is expressed, not as “rules to live by” but rather as “a call to be generous and understanding regarding each other’s needs.” Babies have a way of stretching your comfort zones. If your faith helps you deal with that and respond accordingly, both your faith and relationships will become healthier as you grow as a person. But if your faith is mainly about having hard and fast rules to live by, you might not adapt as well to the unpredictability that comes with post-baby life.
Simcha: If you could give one piece of advice to a Catholic couple about to give birth to their first child, what would it be? Specifically for the father, specifically for the mother, and for the couple together?
Dr. Greg: Other than read, Then Comes Baby? 😉 Mom should ease up on herself. Don’t try to be anything other than what she is or the experience of being anything other than what it is. Ask for help when you need it. Be honest about needs and struggles and let the relationship with baby develop over time. Be patient with yourself and the rest of your world. It will all settle down. I promise.
Dads need to step in and to be as present to mom as she is being to the baby. But in addition to trying to come up with your own ideas to make her feel human again, make sure to ask what she needs. She might feel a whole lot more loved if you consistently give her 10 minutes a lone in the bathroom than if you try to take her away from the baby for a date night. The more you take care of mom, the more she feels truly attended to the more energy she will have left to return the favor.
Couples should be patient with all the changes and look for little ways to connect instead of holding out for big things (dates, sex). Concentrate on creating small moments of connection. Find little ways to work, play, talk, and pray together. You’ve built this life together, instead of running away from it to connect, use it!