One afternoon, a few months after my daughter was born, my husband Tom was sprawled on the couch, eyes glued to the Tour De France. As I fed Sylvie, I asked him if he would tackle the mountain of laundry she had amassed. “But I did it last time,” he said. My pulse began to race as I explained that if we were taking turns, I was about a hundred loads of the stuff ahead.
“Later,” he insisted, his eyes transfixed.
I promptly erupted, calling him every profane name I could think of. Granted, I was reeling from sleep deprivation and ping-ponging hormones, but afterwards, I was mortified by my outburst. It didn’t stop there, either: Tom and I fought daily after our baby’s arrival, arguing over his habit of making plans and breezing out the door without consulting me, which of us deserved to sleep in on a Saturday, and why I was doing all the cooking.
I couldn’t bring myself to confide in friends or family, assuming every couple with a baby was handling parenthood more competently: an easy assumption to make in the stage-crafted world of social media, where every beaming parent with a newborn is #SoBlessed.
I had been warned by friends that there would be an uptick in our fighting – indeed studies show that two thirds of parents are unhappy after the birth of their first child – but I feared that we would be the first couple in our circle of friends to split up.
These ongoing battles can cause irreparable damage, both to marriages and children. I thought I could yell with impunity when our daughter was a baby (it’s not like she can understand me, I told myself), but an American study found that babies as young as six months old have a stress response to their parents’ agitated voices. If we (well, I) weren’t yelling we retreated into frosty silence. Or, worse, the tone we used with each other was curt, but sweetly indulgent with our child.
Writing about health and psychology for a living only made our precarious relationship more awkward. So I decided to try to salvage our faltering marriage by using every resource I could think of: for over a year, I plunged into research, consulted countless experts, divvied up chores with the help of time-management experts and brought (well, dragged) my husband to couples therapy.
The result was an upward spiral: when Tom began to help me out, I was happier, which in turn made him happier. When we learned to disagree calmly, our child grew calmer.
These days, of course we still squabble—how annoying would we be if we never fought again?—but with effort, we now work out issues like grown-ups. And I feel slightly less shame about our fighting as friends and family have come forward and confessed similar problems in their own marriages.
One whose marriage I envied told me, “Oh, I hated John until our son started school.” Another said that she and her husband had all but stopped talking to each other for the first two years after their twins were born. Two years? I had been none the wiser.
Here are the most valuable lessons we learned:
Ditch the ‘L’ word
Feel like putting a task off until ‘later’? It’s probably best for husbands to avoid that term entirely, advises psychotherapist Jean Fitzpatrick. It’s a word that especially rankles mothers, she says, because they tend to be the ones doing time-associated tasks that involve tight deadlines, such as feedings and school runs. Tom has avoided so many fights simply by giving me a time – even a vague one such as ‘by tomorrow’– for when he will do something.
There really is a blueprint for fighting properly
If you have to argue, do it properly and constructively. When an issue arises, start with a disarming “I” statement rather than “you,” suggest married couples counsellors John and Julie Gottman. Saying “I feel overwhelmed and wish you’d do the washing up” gets more compliance than “you never do the washing up,” which just makes your spouse defensive and angry. Describe what’s happening without judgement (“attack the problem, not the person” to use counsellor parlance). State clearly what you need, admit your role in the argument, even if it’s minor, and if you’re repeatedly clashing over an issue, one simple question can cut to the heart of the matter: why is this important to you?
Don’t shut him out
It’s important to keep fathers fully involved in childcare. I realised I was complaining about my husband’s lack of involvement in our child’s daily care while simultaneously pushing him away because I secretly felt I did a better job.
Psychologists call this ‘maternal gatekeeping’ – keeping Dad at bay by criticising or shutting him out, which can put off a hesitant father – sometimes permanently.
I started paying attention to how often I was making him feel inept, such as leaping in to correct how he dressed or bathed our daughter, or making offhand comments like “hello, that’s not how she likes her toast!” Now I involve him in everything, including every email regarding our child, from playdate plans to teacher interactions.
By taking over most of the domestic work, I was also buying into what Dr Clare Lyonette from the University of Warwick terms “the myth of male incompetence”– that men can’t do chores. It doesn’t take a PhD to empty a dishwasher.
Clearly divide household tasks
Yes, family meetings are hideously boring – but as expert upon expert told me, conflict arises when your roles are unclear. Rather than bicker endlessly about who most deserves a break from changing nappies, it saves time and energy to divide all chores from the get-go. Yet I was still doing more of the work, until I received this tip from psychologist Joshua Coleman, author of The Lazy Husband. He told me to watch my husband for a few weeks, note the things he can’t tolerate if they’re not done, then take them off my plate and plonk them on to his.
Tom can’t tolerate lateness so now he takes Sylvie to swim lessons and does the bills. He twitches if beverage supplies run low. All yours, darling!
Date nights are a must
Tom and I had become so child-centric that we had completely neglected our marriage, so we surveyed other parents for innovative ways to connect, like starting work an hour later and going for breakfast after the children are at school.
Or try something new together: neuroscientists have found that novelty activates the pleasure centres of our brains. We also take 10 minutes at the end of each day to talk about anything – anything – except our child, scheduling logistics, and money.
Recently I was taking our daughter, now seven, to school, and as she spotted some friends, she quickly dropped my hand.
“Then she ran into school without looking back,” I haltingly told my husband afterwards.
“I’m not cool enough for her anymore. It’s happening already.”
Spotting my quivering lip, Tom grabbed my hand and dramatically pronounced that he still thought I was cool. I laughed and waved him away, but I did appreciate his unspoken message: I’m still here, and I’ll hold your hand.
How Not To Hate Your Husband After Kids by Jancee Dunn is available on Amazon.com.
Read more from Baby & Child: 'To raise happy kids, you need to put your marriage first'
Written by Jancee Dunn/The Telegraph Group Ltd, London 2017. Photos by Istock/Shutterstock