Jancee Dunn’s new book, How Not To Hate Your Husband After Kids, could be the practical relationship and parenting bible we’ve been missing, writes Suzanne Harrington
Congratulations! You and your beloved are having a baby. You are overjoyed, excited, thrilled, nesting, planning.
And under no illusions — you know babies are hard work. Your relationship is solid, you’re both ready to roll up your sleeves, share the responsibility, get stuck in. Creating a baby will make you two love each other even more. It will be magical. Of course it will.
American rom-com writer Nora Ephron once said that when you have a baby, “you set off an explosion in your marriage, and when the dust settles, your marriage is different from what it was”. An explosion? An earthquake more like, followed by a tsunami of puke, pee, and poo. Except that won’t happen to you. It will all be magical. See above.
Look, it will probably be lovely. At least, the baby bit will. It’s the relationship that will take a kicking, starting with the gore of childbirth — as Robbie Williams put it, watching your wife giving birth is like watching your favourite pub burn down. Imagine how the pub feels.
This is before you ever take your tiny bundle of chaos back home.
“Soon after the baby was born, my husband and I had our first screaming fight as new parents,” writes Jancee Dunn in How Not To Hate Your Husband After Kids.
“But I love my husband — enough to have him impregnate me in the first place.”
They had been together almost 10 years. They adored each other. They had never screamed at each other — until they became parents.
So alarming was the swerve in their relationship that it prompted Dunn to write her book, aimed at “parents and partners who define their marriages as ‘good’ or ‘satisfactory’ but feel they could do better”. (Dunn refers to parenting relationships as marriages throughout).
Yet it’s not like, these days, new dads aren’t as into parenthood as new mums — American research concluded that working dads are as likely as working mums to state they would rather be home with the kids. In the US, ‘man showers’ are gaining ground (“barbecues, babies, beer”), according to websites such as Fatherly.com. Attitudes to housework have changed too — since 1965, the amount of time men spend doing housework has gone from around four hours a week to over 10.
Given this move towards domestic equality, what could possibly go wrong? Turns out male housework input drops off significantly when they become dads, says research from Ohio State University. And dads traditionally gravitate towards the fun stuff with kids — bedtime stories, rather than interfacing with the gruesome hurly burly of bodily fluids small children are so adept at expelling. Then there’s the masochistic lady thing of failure to delegate, of blocking the dad out because mummy knows best.
“I feel like he’s a guest in the hotel I’m running. In my deranged quest to Do It All, I have allowed this pattern to unfold,” writes Dunn. “The score keeping never ends.”
Your turn. No, your turn. No, I did it last time. Yes but I did that other thing. Fine, you just sit there then and I’ll do it. Come on, why are you being so grumpy? Leave me alone. The baby’s crying.
Sound familiar? Don’t worry, it will be. Dunn relays the “simmering resentment” that dominates mummy blogs.
“My husband works all week so on weekends he tells me he doesn’t want to ‘deal with’ our sons. I’m amazed he doesn’t notice that I’m basically radiating hatred all the time.”
Or: “I’d divorce Jason, but he drops the kids off to school in the mornings.”
These are admittedly extreme, but according to couples therapist Julie and John Gottman, 67% of couples say marital satisfaction plummets after having a baby.
“The significance of chronic sleep deprivation on a new parent’s temper cannot be overestimated,” writes Dunn. And on their sex life. That can’t be overestimated either.
“We didn’t have sex for a whole year after our son was born,” says Siobhan, 40. “I felt no desire whatsoever. My partner was so patient, especially as we had always been really into each other before I gave birth. I was worried it was gone for good, but it came back. The same thing happened with our second child, but this time we knew what to expect. The first time, it was the shock of a long labour, tricky breastfeeding, then post-natal stuff — the second time it was just sheer exhaustion. I learned to be really honest, rather than expecting my partner to be a mind reader. And we both learned to shut up more, because when you’re running on empty, it doesn’t take much for a stupid comment to blow up into a massive row.”
Keep your expectations tiny when it comes to post-baby sex, suggests Dunn. Reading Mating in Captivity by sex therapist Esther Perel might also help; Perel advocates cordoning off specific erotic time for new parents because “desire needs distance in order to thrive”. And make do with quickies — it’s better to connect for a few minutes than not at all.
“Domesticity killed our sex life,” says Jody, 34. “All we ever talk about is minutiae, like the laundry and whose turn it is to do the shopping. We don’t argue, it’s just gone from lovers to housemates taking care of our baby.
“We do love each other, but I don’t know if we even fancy each other anymore. We probably need help, but at the moment neither of us can be bothered.”
Apart from bed death, there are plenty of other things that can make you resent your partner after you’ve had kids. Dunn helpfully spells them out, and offers solutions: How to divvy up chores, how to have a fight constructively and make up again afterwards, how to recognise unconscious behaviour patterns and not trip over them too much, how to compromise, how to accept.
Because when you become parents, compromise and acceptance become your relationship’s oxygen (that and the occasional quickie). Dunn even consults an FBI hostage negotiator to navigate potentially explosive situations, and reminds us that, after kids, our weekends are no longer our own, but that they will be again sometime in the future. Years and years away, admittedly, but the great thing about kids is that they eventually grow up and leave. Meanwhile, enshrine date nights — ignore your relationship at your peril.
“One of the greatest gifts you can give your child is a loving relationship with your spouse,” she writes. “And with it, a sense of security, peace and permanence.
Investing in your marriage when your children are young, or even before they arrive, is vitally important for your kids’ future.”
Kids can sense the atmosphere, good or bad, before they can even speak. Far better for everyone if that atmosphere is not laden with loathing, no matter how annoying you and your partner find each other; of course you’ll get on each other’s nerves, but conscious engagement and positive communication go a long way.
That way you’ll have forged an alliance in advance of the teen years, uniting you in mutual support as your once-adorable offspring move into their I-hate-you-give-me-a-tenner phase. You’ll need an adult ally to open the wine.
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