New Parents: Fighting About the Same Thing Over and Over?
I call this the "Diaper Bag Problem" and here's what you can do about it.
Posted Nov 16, 2020
By Dena Domenicali-Rochelle, LCSW
Many new parents in my practice admit to having the same fight with their partners over and over: One feels frustrated that care of the baby falls primarily on their shoulders while the other feels frustrated at constantly being told what to do. I affectionately call this dynamic “The Diaper Bag Problem.”
One scenario: It’s Saturday morning. Dad has been at work all week and hasn’t spent much time with the baby so he’s taking her out for a walk. As he packs the diaper bag, mom and dad have the following exchange:
Mom: "Oh, the baby doesn’t like those bottles. Bring the other one."
Mom: "Did you put a burp cloth in there? She’s spitting up a lot."
Mom: "Did you check the wipes? You may need to put more in there."
Mom: "Bring a pacifier. She needs it to sleep."
Dad: "Leave me alone! I’m a competent adult. I can figure out what needs to go in the diaper bag without you giving me a long list of instructions!"
Mom: "Hey! Don’t get upset at me! You don’t know what to bring so I’m telling you."
Does this interaction seem familiar?
Having a baby is perhaps the biggest stressor a marriage can face. New parents often say they’ve never fought more with their spouse than in the first year of their baby’s life. Parenting a newborn requires a new kind of rigorous teamwork in a period of life marked by intense change, exhaustion and uncertainty. No one is operating at their best. This teamwork is tricky to establish and complicated by the fact that typically, one parent takes more parental leave than the other. The parent on leave spends more time with the baby and, as a result, is better acquainted with the baby’s cues. Thus, an unproductive dynamic is born: one parent as boss and one as subordinate.
Why is this a problem?
Inevitably, both parents end up feeling unrecognized and unappreciated. They begin resenting each other. Rather than being teammates looking out for each others’ needs, they fight. It doesn’t help that having a baby means less time to focus on the marriage itself. The things couples used to do to stay connected to one another—going out on dates, having sex, taking trips—suddenly aren’t options anymore.
What’s happening here?
For primary caretakers, the urge to micromanage a partner packing the diaper bag may come from a place of anxiety. They love their baby so much and can’t tolerate the idea of the baby experiencing even a small amount of discomfort. They’re often overwhelmed by new feelings of responsibility in caring for a newborn. This anxiety can be exacerbated by the pressure of feeling alone in carrying the mental load of the baby’s care.
One new mom said: “I didn’t realize that being a mom meant being so worried all the time. Did she eat enough? Is she sick? It’s exhausting. And I know my husband loves the baby but frankly, he seems relatively unconcerned with all the details of her care. I feel like I have to carry the mental load alone.”
For the other parent, being told what to do can make them feel like their partner thinks them incompetent and untrustworthy with child care. They start to feel like they lack autonomy or any authority over decisions made about the baby’s care, or as if their opinions don’t matter.
One woman, whose wife had their baby at the beginning of the COVID pandemic, said: “I thought that because we were both home with our son in quarantine I’d feel more like an equal partner in parenting. But my wife has been on maternity leave and I’m sequestered in the other room all day on my computer, working. I know she’s alone with him a lot during the day but she gives me detailed instructions whenever I take care of him like I’m the babysitter. I love the baby too! I want to feel like a parent, not hired help.”
What can new parents do?
Primary caregivers can remember, just because your partner does things differently doesn’t mean the baby will be uncomfortable. It just means that the baby will learn and adapt, which is a good thing! If the baby does experience some discomfort due to your partner’s learning curve, that’s okay too.
If your spouse is the baby’s primary caregiver, get more involved – spend more time holding the baby, volunteer to change more diapers, ask questions and educate yourself about the routine. If there’s a child-rearing book your spouse is using, make sure you read it too. Over time, this will help level the playing field by helping you get to know the baby better and help relieve the pressure your spouse is feeling.
Generosity in relationships is contagious.
Most importantly, find moments to be nice to one another. Generosity in relationships is contagious. Listen to one another and make sure you recognize the other’s feelings. Find ways to show you appreciate your partner and what they’re doing – even if you might do it differently. This could be something as simple as touching their shoulder when you pass them, or saying, "Thank you for changing that diaper," or bringing them a cup of coffee when you see them yawn early in the morning. Connecting and showing appreciation will make you feel like more of a team and lessen the need to battle with one another. That should help you both feel like real partners who love and appreciate each other, and also set a great example of what good relationships look like for your baby.
About the Author: Dena Domenicali-Rochelle is a clinical social worker and psychoanalyst. She is a graduate of New York University School of Social Work and the William Alanson White Institute for Psychoanalysis. She has a private practice in Stamford CT & midtown Manhattan. Due to coronavirus, she is currently practicing tela-therapy exclusively.