What Couples Can Do

Easing into parenthood is no easy task, here's what to expect.

By P.A. Cowan, published on July 1, 1992 - last reviewed on August 30, 2004

We have compiled a list of things that expectant couples and new
parents can do on their own to reduce the expected strain and enjoy more
of the positive side of becoming a family. Although some of these ideas
may sound simple and obvious, we have found that many partners think of
them without actually trying them. We believe it is never too late to
give them a chance.

o Share expectations. Many husbands and wives neglect to share with
each other their private notions of the ideal family. They assume that
once they've decided to have a baby their ideal family picture will take
place spontaneously. Others are reluctant to talk about their hopes and
anxieties because they are afraid disagreement or conflict might result
from finding that they differ on important issues. Men and women who can
talk to each other about what they hope will happen, and what they are
concerned might happen, begin their lives as parents feeling better
prepared to deal with both the positive and the negative
realities.

o Give yourself regular "checkups." Some of the issues we describe
may be a starting point for couples to talk about how they feel they are
doing in the major parts of their life together. These checkups should
never begin during a fight, however; they require quiet, uninterrupted
time when both partners feel free to explore their reactions.

o Make time to talk to each other. We suggest that partners try to
make a regular time each week to go for a walk, to talk with no
interruptions--basically to touch base with each other. Many husbands and
wives say the day gets away from them. By the time everything is cleaned
up at night, they are too exhausted for intimate conversation. It sounds
terribly artificial, but making an appointment or a date can be
useful--even if the laundry or dinner dishes have to wait or the "date"
must be rescheduled because of a crying baby or fatigue.

o Negotiate an agenda. If one partner feels that something is a
problem, at least for now, it is a problem. We recommend discussing only
one problem at a time, with an explicit agreement that other difficulties
will be addressed at the next opportunity. If partners can trust that
both their issues will be addressed in time, they are less likely to
sabotage today's discussion.

o Adopt an experimental attitude. Regard a fight as information
that something is wrong in the relationship. The trick is not to worry
that you are having a struggle, or to avoid a fight. Every couple has
both trivial and important issues they need to work out. Take a step
teach and shift from a "What are you doing wrong?" position to a "What's
going on in our lives that this is happening now?" attitude.

o Don't ignore sex and intimacy. The absence of sex that usually
accompanies childbirth can feel like a longtime draught. Advice columns
tell you, "if you're even partially ready, go for it.". But there is a
territory between deprivation and the old pattern of more frequent
lovemaking. If partners are able to discuss it at all, and some find it
awkward at this time, they can recognize there are opportunities for
nonsexual intimacy: touching, hugging, cuddling. This is often what they
miss most. Sometimes, the discovery that your partner is missing the
intimacy, too, results in increased closeness. Line up support in the
early stages. Consider arranging for services or people who can provide
support and relief when the going gets rough. This is difficult to do
when most of your attention is focused on how to juggle everything you
used to do and take care of the new baby.

o Talk with a friend or co-worker. We find that participating in an
ongoing group with the help of a trained mental health professional and
other couples can buffer men's and women's dissatisfaction and keep
marital disenchantment from getting out of hand, at least for the first
few years. Although these kinds of groups are not available at this time
the same kind of sharing of information might come from special friends
or co-workers who are willing to talk about their experiences of being
partners and parents.

o Find the delicate balance. Especially when both parents work,
they may hesitate to take the additional time to nurture their
relationship as a couple, because they are away from their children so
many hours a week and want to spend all their nonworking hours with them.
Although it clearly takes ingenuity and juggling, we believe the children
will do best in their development when their mothers and fathers find
ways to balance their own needs with those of their children.