Navigating marriage after baby

Ever have one of those days when you lose the hamburger you were defrosting and find it later in the washing machine, full of soap? And you can deal with that, but you cannot deal with being accused of leaving the medicine chest door open again, when you are fairly sure you closed it. You just cannot deal with being treated this way.

Chances are, this level of boneheadedness and this level of inappropriate drama mean one thing: you’re tired. And you’re tired in a way that only a parent of a new baby can be tired, and you’re angry at your spouse in the way that only a parent of a new baby can be angry at their spouse: truly, thoroughly, with your whole heart, tired and angry.

This is what marriage can look like when a baby comes on the scene.

Maintaining connections

No matter how much a baby was desired, his arrival will often turn a marriage on its ear. Take a snapshot of a married couple with a new baby and it may look less like a holy card and more like an S.O.S.

Is the secular world right, and are babies the fast ticket to misery and grief?

In general, no. But yes, change is going to happen when couples start a family. Dr. Gregory and Lisa Popcak, authors of the upcoming book “Then Comes Baby: Surviving and Thriving in the First Three Years of Parenthood” (Ave Maria Press, $15.95), say that the principle idea is to embrace that change deliberately, rather than fighting it. Take possession of change, and take charge of where your marriage is heading.

A couple can take charge even before the baby is born.

“It’s incredibly important for couples to establish rituals for connecting across work, play, talk and prayer, before baby comes on the scene so that they are used to relating on those levels,” the Popcaks say. “Then, once the baby arrives, they need to talk openly and regularly about how those rituals need to continue evolving so they can maintain those connections.”

Work at forming a habit of talking things through rather than assuming that your needs are obvious. It’s OK to be vulnerable as long as you’re also prepared to be generous. Care for each other as things stand now, not as they used to be, or how they ought to be, or how everyone on TV seems to be. Rededicate yourself to the person in front of you, rather than a fantasy or a memory of a person.

Father Dwight Longenecker, himself a husband and father as well as a priest and author, says that many couples poison their marriages and families by buying into fantasies of a tidy, prosperous, airbrushed “Disneyland” life.

“Recognize that subtle propaganda and laugh it off,” he counsels. “That’s not real.”

If you chase after shiny illusions, you will rob your real life of its real joy and peace.

Postpartum challenges

What about when the little one is actually born?

The first few weeks and months are intensely demanding, but it won’t be that way forever. Focus on surviving each day, and remember that chronic exhaustion makes rational thought impossible — so don’t take tired thoughts and words to heart. Forget housework, forget socializing, forget everything you can afford to forget and rest as much as possible — all three of you — until you turn the corner.

In these early days, there is no such thing as too much patience. Even young, fit moms don’t instantly spring back to supreme physical and emotional health after the birth.

According to the Popcaks, “It can take a year or more to feel normal after pregnancy and delivery, but husbands — and often the women themselves — don’t appreciate how hard it really is to get your ducks back in a row after a baby and how normal it is to feel and be out-of-sorts for months afterward.”

Here is where husband and wife must talk, talk, talk — and listen. In the first several months, the husband really needs to step up while his wife recovers. Only moms can breast-feed, but there’s no reason dads can’t deal with diaper explosions and howling werewolf babies. To a postpartum woman, there is no hero like the husband who lets her sleep. And many men are surprised to realize how much they enjoy being with their babies.

But it’s not all about mothers. Fathers also need time to recover. They are going through changes, too.

“Postpartum depression is surprisingly common in men,” the Popcaks said. “Part of it has to do with tiredness, the disruption in schedule and the feeling of being torn between wanting to be with wife and baby and having to be at work, combined with a little jealousy if mom gets to stay home. Some husbands also struggle with the feeling of being displaced or replaced.”

Moms and babies need to bond, but they don’t want to bond dad right out of the picture. Gratitude, affection, admiration and trust can go a long way toward reassuring a new dad that he’s still the one.

Adapting spiritually

But these are all secular problems, aren’t they? Shouldn’t Catholics have an edge over their nonreligious peers?

Maybe, but Catholics are still human, and it still takes us time to learn new tricks. Learning flexibility can be harder than any other skill. Legalism and rigidity masquerading as religious piety can increase domestic conflict as husband and wife adjust to their new life.

“Babies have a way of stretching your comfort zones,” the Popcaks write. “If your faith helps you deal with that and respond accordingly, both your faith and relationships will become healthier as you grow as a person. But if your faith is mainly about having hard and fast rules to live by, you might not adapt as well to the unpredictability that comes with post-baby life.”

Father Longenecker agrees: “Rigid gender roles are subjugated to the law of love. Loving our spouse and children in a free and generous way is what it’s really all about. Gender roles are not law; they are there to help us achieve complementary love.”

So how, specifically, do we learn to adapt?

Always be looking for ways to spend time together, and revel in the small but happy moments. “Look for little ways to connect instead of holding out for big things (dates, sex),” the Popcaks say. “Concentrate on creating small moments of connection. You’ve built this life together. Instead of running away from it to connect, use it!” 

Worry less about doing things the right way, or the way your mother, your friends, or the expert of the week says to do it, and worry more about staying close to each other no matter what. There are many, many right ways to raise a child. But when the child, or the parenting theory, edges out the one we’ve vowed to love, then misery will follow for everyone.

And what about that spiritual life? Becoming a parent both deepens and complicates your relationship with God. There ought to be a trophy for surviving Mass with an infant in tow. But if you do get to hear some of the Scripture readings, be prepared to hear them with new ears. God as tender father; the Church as merciful mother; Christ as the one who gives up his body because of love — suddenly these mean so much more when you’re a parent yourself.

Maintaining a spiritual life while raising a child is parenthood in a nutshell: it’s hard, complicated, tiring, sometimes frustrating and confusing — but rich, deep, profound beyond measure.

So pray together, even if — like so many things in life with a new baby — it’s just a “quickie.” Look at your new baby and remind yourself that love is in the small things. Thank God for the gift of your child; and ask God, over and over again, to make you a gift to your spouse.

Simcha Fisher writes from New Hampshire.