When you think about it, having a baby is a recipe for distress—at least in the early weeks. Take two people who were probably stressed out and timestarved to begin with. Fold in a helpless creature who requires 24-hour surveillance, can’t even sit up by himself, is full of unmet needs but can’t express them and sleeps erratically. Marinate until you’re both wailing in frustration (you standing over the crib: “What? For God’s sake, what do you want?”). Slowly incorporate the realization that when you’re home alone with the kid, walking out your front door to get a carton of milk by yourself is now a felony. Stir until stir-crazy.
Is it any wonder Nora Ephron said, “Having a baby is like tossing a hand grenade into a marriage”? Or that a study released in January by the Open University found that childless couples have happier marriages than those with kids?
But I’m here to tell you it doesn’t have to end with anyone packing their bags or Googling “divorce lawyers.” It’s all in how you treat the other person—how you conduct yourself. Someday I’d like to write a highly specific etiquette book called Manners for Marriages. I’m convinced that so many otherwise rocky relationships could be put back on course if people would only treat their spouses with the same courtesy and respect they accord, oh, I don’t know, a bank teller. Or even a bank machine.
One of the most important chapters would be titled “So You’ve Just Had a Kid: Congratulations, and a Few Caveats.” And it would dish up a few basic principles for how to treat your partner when you’ve got a new baby:
1. You’re Not Competing For The Title Of “Most Tired In The Universe”
Though it may feel like it at times, the first few months after the birth of your child are not, in fact, a tiredness contest. So many couples make that mistake in the early days, myself and my wife included. One parent says something like, “Phew, I’m tired.” The other barks, “You think you’re tired? I was up half the night nursing, then she filled her diaper, and when I reached for the wipes box, it was empty, even though I distinctly recall asking you…”
Don’t go there. You’re both tired. What you should feel is not irritation but compassion toward each other. Remember, you’re a team. It’s the two of you against the world, not each other. When one of you utters some expression of exhaustion, the other should say something to the effect of “I hear you.” Better yet: “Listen, why don’t you take a nice nap while I hold down the fort and maybe take the kid for a walk?”
2. Feigning Sleep Is For The Weak
You finally, finally got the kid to go to sleep. You run, not walk, to the bedroom and dive into bed. Then, just as you’re starting to drift off, a familiar, high-pitched wail shatters any chance of slumber. And you pretend not to hear. Because you’re “asleep.” Yeah, I’m looking at you—and also in the mirror, because I used to do it all the time. But I feel guilty about it and wish I could go back and correct my rookie mistake. You can sleep when your kids are older. For now, be the one who gets up (at least half the time). You’ll get all kinds of marital brownie points if you do.
(Re: Brownie points: Make sure to cash them in quickly. Brownie points are an extremely unstable, volatile currency, like Poland’s zloty or the Argentinian peso—one day a fistful will get you a lot, the next day a wheelbarrowful will fetch next to nothing).
3. Rethink Sex Appeal
While we’re in the bedroom, let’s address the matter of postpartum sex, a.k.a. “coitus non-existus.” This comment is aimed specifically at the gentlemen: Boys, be patient. It’ll come back. And remember, being sulky and grumpy is unlikely to further your cause. She already has one demanding, pouty, poopypants on her hands. She does not need another.
Now, as ever, the best way to get sex is by being attractive. What a lot of men don’t realize, though, is that attractive has a whole new meaning to your partner. It used to mean you dressed in a stylish Ryan Gosling type suit, sipping a martini and dropping urbane bons mots. Now “attractive” could mean you in sweatpants doing the dishes. So help out around the house and with the care and feeding of your bundle of joy as much as you can. Me, I became a veritable “birth butler” after each of our three boys was born and also the family chef, making little snacks, ferrying them up and down the stairs on a tray, sometimes even wearing an apron. Sure, that may strike you as unmanly, but who cares? My wife, Pam, appreciated it, and that’s all I needed.
4. Be Kind To The Postpartum Body
Ladies, be forgiving of yourselves. Your partner is not nearly as concerned with the changes to your body as you are. In fact, men often fail to realize that their partner’s disinterest in sex has nothing to do with them and everything to do with not feeling sexy. Men don’t get this because, let’s face it, we’d have sex if our hair was on fire. And our culture has impossible ideas of what these first few months and years should be like, fuelled by seemingly endless streams of updates on how svelte celebrity moms look just weeks after giving birth. That’s ridiculous. Your sophisticated woman-about-town, dry-clean-only-wearing self will return—eventually. Give it time. For now, I’d say allow yourself to be tired, have mussed hair and wear yoga pants. It’s battle conditions, baby! Being a mom makes you automatically sexy anyway.
5. Cut Him Some Slack
To use a couple of 21st-century neologisms, moms, let him “parent” according to his own “parenting style.” He may not seem to have a “style” at all. A lot of stuff he does may look like flat-out mistakes. You may not like the way he changes diapers or swaddles or what have you. But let him find his own way: Most guys get the hang of it soon enough. A lot has changed in the past 50 years. We men are still finding our baby legs. But if you give him space to fumble around with the snaps on the sleepers at first, you will find he cares as much as you do about the well-being of your child.
Guys want to feel competent, which is another way of saying “useful.” It’s the reason guy-oriented movies always show stuff like pumped-up dude grabs controls of flaming jet, lands it safely. It might sound like a stretch, but you’ll just have to trust me. The same impulse will compel the modern man to be helpful/useful vis-à-vis the baby. So don’t stop him or pooh-pooh him in his efforts to change poo-poo-filled diapers. Gently guide him. You will both benefit in the long run.
Be aware, also, of another common new-dad phenomenon: Your partner may experience something I’ve heard described as “provider panic.” He could be up at night with thoughts like, “How am I going to make sure there is always a roof between this helpless creature’s head and the rain and snow?” I know women work, too, and, in fact, in our household, my wife earns way more than I do. But this stuff is hard-wired deep in our DNA. So if your baby daddy is acting uptight about money, this may be why. Try to be as understanding as you can.
6. Let Other People Help
People will want to come over to see your baby. If you screen their calls, they’ll just pop by. When our kids were born, I had folks visit who began to rifle through my cupboards looking for snacks. Others will come to stay—they’ll need to be fed, they’ll need fresh sheets and towels and they’ll ask things like “Got any juice?” and “Where can I hang this?” and so on.
The trick here is to take their desire to see your baby and, like a judo master, harness it for the good, in the form of laundry folding or babysitting. “Sure, that’d be great. In fact, could you watch her while I pop out to the grocery store? Thanks!” This should weed out the fair-weather baby-viewers.
7. Keep Smiling Through The Tears of Exhaustion
This, too, shall pass. Grim as it may seem on nights when you’re getting only 20-minute stretches of sleep, you’ll probably laugh about (some of) it someday. My all-time favourite story is from a friend who took his twin toddlers out for a stroll to give his wife a break. After he walked a while, he flopped, exhausted, into a seat in a nearby coffee shop, hoping for some quiet time and a stiff infusion of caffeine. Shortly, though, one twin scrunched up his face, turned beet red and then some poo squirted out of the kid’s collar. When my friend thought of what that implied, in terms of the next half-hour in the
coffee-shop washroom, he wanted to wail with despair. Now, though? My friend happily dines out on “The Neck Poo Story.” When he tells it, people howl with laughter. Because we’ve all been there, maybe not there exactly, but at least somewhere in the vicinity. You come out of this period with a lot of stories and a lot of fellow feeling for anyone who’s been through it.
The other good thing you eventually realize is even harder to see when you’re going through it. That dismantled (or unhinged) way you’re feeling right now is going to be good for you in the long run. Kids take you apart like a mechanic takes apart a car. But when you put yourself back together, you eliminate the inessential and become an efficient, stripped-down version of yourself: the true you. You’re too tired to be pretentious or fake or anything other than your real self. And, as people will tell you, the moment comes when you realize it’s not about you anymore. Me, I was happy when I made that realization—that it’s not about me anymore. It’s about us.
Like this? You’ll love these other parental tales by David Eddie: