What are some things people don’t tell you about parenting?

Kim Scheinberg, I put words in other people’s mouths

Disclaimer: Some friends are grateful for this warning, others ask if I’m trying to kill their excitement, and some even choose to stop talking to me for a few months. I continue to risk alienating people because:

it’s a painfully important truth
long-term damage is avoidable
by the time the kid’s first birthday rolls around, everyone thanks me for having said it

You ready? Okay…

Having a kid is likely to wreak havoc on your marriage.

There is an out-of-print book called Transition to Parenthood by Jay Belsky. I try to keep a few copies on my shelf to give away to expecting parents. You can probably find a used copy at Amazon. Here’s a blurb:

this exploration of the positive and negative effects the birth of a child has on a marriage is based on the largest, most comprehensive study of couples entering parenthood ever conducted. After the birth of a first baby, a marriage will never be the same financially, emotionally, physically, and sexually. But is that a good thing, or a bad one? Over a seven-year period, Dr. Jay Belsky conducted a major study of 250 couples entering the world of parenthood and concluded that the blessed event makes some marriages stronger than ever, while for others the impact is supremely negative.

I am convinced that the first year of the first kid’s life ruins more marriages than any combination of the usual frictions. Money disagreements? Religion? Schooling? Nope. It’s all about the first year. And the difference between ending up in the 90% who rate their marriages as worse, and the 10% who rate them as stronger is a matter of properly setting expectations.

And yes, the data really is that scary.

Here’s why your marriage – that thing that until now has probably been the biggest source of joy in your life – is about to get shot to hell.

Let’s assume both partners were working, but now mom is going to stay home for a period of months or indefinitely, while dad will take a few weeks off and resume working. This is how dad’s life is going to look once he goes back to work:

He comes home after a long day and before he can even drop the mail on the table, his wife hands him the baby with an insistent, “You need to take him now!

Dad, who up until a few weeks ago was his wife’s best friend and first priority, is no longer on her Top Ten list. That list looks something like:

The baby
Sleep
The baby
The baby
Food
The baby
Sleep
The baby
The baby
Sleep

You’ll note that nowhere on that list is ‘Dad’. You might also note that basic hygiene isn’t on the list either. I know women who, before kids, wouldn’t go weekend camping because the thought of 48 hours with no shower was unbearable. And yet, I don’t know any new mom who doesn’t have a window of time when they cannot remember the last time they showered. Was it five days ago, or six?

So here’s dad who just had a bad day at work. His boss yelled at him in front of his co-workers, someone else got the promotion he was sure would be his, it was so busy that he ended up eating a leftover sandwich at his desk for lunch, and he’s not even in the door for ten seconds before mom hands him a screaming kid.

And the part where she asks about his day? That question never comes. And here’s what’s so challenging about all this: That unbelievably bad day that dad had looks like a trip to Disneyland or a weekend in the penthouse suite at the George V compared to her day. I mean, he got to eat lunch! And his boss yelled at him? He had contact with sentient beings!

Dad’s perspective of his root canal of a day is nothing compared to mom’s wisdom teeth extraction without anesthesia. And both partners are right to want empathy for their pain without needing to stop and consider the other’s POV.

Mom is going through a tremendous identity change that is rarely easy. She went from being awesome at her job to being on the wrong end of a parasitic relationship with a thing that wants to be attached to her all day, and has no way to communicate what it wants at any given moment. And the fatigue?

Remember in college when you stayed up all night cramming for exams? Maybe you did it for a few days in a row during finals week. You know how after that you’d sleep for a full day? Moms never get that day of make-up sleep. There is no “Now I can finally collapse” with a newborn. It’s relentless.

Two vignettes:

There was that time I sat on the toilet, pulled down my sweatpants, and started peeing before noticing that I hadn’t pulled down my underwear.

And then there was the time I was brushing my teeth, rinsed, and spit out into the second sink in our bathroom. Except we’d only ever had one sink.

Between the loss of identity and sleep deprivation and being touched out and feeling incompetent, mom needs all the support in the world. And yeah, it’d be great if dad could just step up and be there for her. But it’s not like his life hasn’t been upended too, albeit in a very different way.

For one, his best friend is AWOL, nowhere to be seen. The woman who was his wife and partner has been replaced by the baby’s caregiver, like something out of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. There is no more ‘How was your day?’ There’s no more morning sex before work (or evening sex, for that matter – but we’ll get to that in a minute), no more talking about what’s going on in the world or planning some fantasy vacation or choosing a nice restaurant for dinner or whatever else you vaguely remember you used to do before the kid came along. It’s just, “Good, you’re finally home. Your turn…”

And mom has little awareness that this change has taken place.

One of two things happens at this juncture. Either both parents recognize that both of you are undergoing big changes and challenges and losses, and you maintain some degree of empathy for one another. Or, both of you get frustrated that your partner can’t seem to see how much your life has changed for the worse, and you start to quietly resent one another.

I’ve watched dads start spending longer days at the office, or sit in their cars when they get home, bracing themselves before they walk inside. They take on more work travel and find reasons to be home less.

And I’ve likewise seen moms undercut dad’s every effort to be a parent. Dad offers to feed the kid, mom says okay, then immediately loses patience watching him fumble with testing the temperature of the milk. She grabs the kid, says she’ll do it herself, then bitches that dad never helps out.

And your sex life? That thing you used to do for fun or for love or sometimes to reconnect after a falling out? Just speaking for me, sex during that first year was a little like staring at your favorite food while you have food poisoning. You know you love chocolate cake, in theory you want the chocolate cake, but the thought of actually eating the chocolate cake is enough to make you sick. I didn’t miss sex, but I desperately missed having a sex drive. And not knowing when or if it would ever come back was terrifying.

So, to sum it up, mom will have a ginormous identity crisis. Dad will lose his best friend. Both of you will be exhausted beyond anything you’ve ever imagined. Any sex scene on TV will remind you of what else is missing. And each of you will need the other to be understanding of what you’re going through.

Here’s the most important thing to know:

All this madness? It’s temporary.

You will eventually start sleeping again. You will get your sex life back. The kid will stop being a blob of protoplasm and will start cooing and smiling and all kinds of things that make it seem less parasitic and more like… a person. I’m not saying it gets easier, but it does get different. And it gets different in a less life-altering way. You will be able to have a marriage again, though it won’t be the same one you had before the kid came along.

Obviously, it may not be this bad for you. Mom may take to motherhood like a puppy to a grassy field and dad may want nothing more than to be a stay at home dad who looks forward to rushing home after work every day. I’ve seen parents fall in love with parenthood from the very first second.

But most parents I’ve talked to about this stuff have admitted to checking out their town’s policy about abandoning babies on church steps during those first few months. And those people who tell you that once you become a parent, you can’t imagine your life without kids? The first time someone said that to me after we had Max, I thought, “Oh you lack imagination or a functional memory. I remember my pre-kid life just fine and god do I miss it!”

The first year is full of challenges and most parents have them — it’s just that not that many parents talk about them. I’m telling you this not to scare you, but to comfort you. It’s hard when you start thinking those Jack the Ripper thoughts and decide you’re a monster for having such thoughts. Trust me, you’re not. Or, well, maybe you are, but you certainly aren’t alone.

Let me repeat what I said earlier: It’s temporary.

The trick to coming out as one of the stronger couples is to not let yourself accumulate baggage during that first year. Don’t let resentment build up while you’re waiting for things to get better. Don’t start creating separate routines and living parallel lives. Muddle through it together, and remember that your broken leg doesn’t make your partner’s broken toe hurt any less. You both need love and understanding for yourselves and one another.

Do that and you’ll come out the other side just fine.

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