Last week I started writing about the impact of babies on relationships (hint – not so good). I also warned you about the relationship negativity danger zone. This week I want to talk about getting through the crappiest, yuckiest, most murderously rage inducing family moments. These are the times when the pressures of a newborn leave you feeling like you can’t cope and you need your partner to take over for a bit. Like when it’s 4:00am and your baby won’t stop crying and you’ve already fed/burped/changed them and you just need to go to sleep and you are very seriously considering dropping them at an orphanage in the morning. It was during a scene like this that I promised my five week old baby that I would buy him a car the day he turned 16 if he would just shut up for a few hours. He didn’t, so it’s a good thing we live close to a bus stop.
The challenge is that when both you and your partner are feeling overwhelmed and exhausted from caring for the baby, it can be difficult to find the energy to also care for each other. It can feel like you are two drowning people scrambling for the same life preserver. You see this in couples who play a game of ‘chicken’ during the night when the baby wakes up and both pretend to be asleep and hope the other will get up first. When that doesn’t work, they start fighting “I did it last time!” or bargaining “if you get up now I will get up all night tomorrow” until one person begrudgingly cares for the baby.
In these moments, one of you is going to have to suck it and be the hero, but it can’t be the same person every time or you are setting yourself up for deep relationship resentment. To prevent this, it’s really important that you discuss ways to make sure that the role of hero is shared fairly between the two of you. My favorite strategy to ensure that each of you take turns giving-up and stepping-up is to create a ‘white flag’ symbol that you can call on when you are reaching your limit. This can be a code word, an actual flag, or a household object that when you are holding acts as a signal to your partner that you need a break.
I generally don’t recommend that you engage in score keeping, where you make a mental note of all the times you give each other a break to see who does it more. This can quickly breed competition and bitterness or reduce your relationship to an excel spreadsheet. The goal is to be able to trust that your partner has your back in the times when you don’t think you can take anymore, and vice versa. That kind of trust will carry you a long way in parenthood.
Olivia Scobie, M.A., ACC, CPCC, MSP