E05: Partner like a mother
Learning to be a parent while maintaining a strong partnership with your spouse is possibly the biggest learning curve you’ll ever face. How can you nurture your marriage while raising a baby? Even if you don’t have kids yet, we’ll talk about how to fortify your relationship now so you can give your children the best gift ever - a stable, peaceful home.
This is a podcast transcript. If you would like to listen to the show in full, please find it on our podcasts page here.
In this episode:
Why cultural expectations of fathers can be harmful
How to show your child's parent the most appreciation
How to nurture your relationship, even with young children
And Baby Makes Three (book)
If you don’t have kids and see a podcast about mothering, do you breeze on by? I would have, before I had kids. However, now that I’m a mother, I wish I would have prepared myself for the shifting marital dynamics that happen post-baby. We all know relationships take work and, well, it’s a lot easier to put in that work before you have an infant! Even if you never plan to have kids, the things we’ll talk about today - like appreciating your significant other - are things that anyone should put into practice. I’ll mention a couple of books today and, if you’re interested in learning more about them, just head to my website, youruncommonlife.com, click on podcast transcripts under the “read” tab, and find this episode.
As you’re preparing to be a parent throughout the 9 months of your pregnancy, what do you research? You might go to birthing classes and learn how to go through labor. You likely read...everything. There is so much literature about how to raise a baby. Breastfeeding and sleeping are really common topics and for good reason - both of those are super challenging! Between researching diapers and bottles and setting up a nursery, you’re swept up in the excitement of preparing for a baby. I must have read 10 books and watched countless hours of YouTube videos in an attempt to prepare myself for maybe the first 3 months. That new baby phase is very short and you learn much of what you need to know by intuition as you get to know the new human in your life. Comparatively speaking, your marriage or your relationship with your child’s parent should last forever. What are you doing to prepare for the transition from being a married couple to being a family? Spending 9 months to prepare only for labor and the phase shortly after birth is like preparing for a wedding but not for a marriage.
I read a book by Drs John and Julie Gottman a few years ago called The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. I highly recommend it to anyone, even unmarried people. It would help anyone who hopes to have healthy, long-lasting relationships. Something that stuck out to me from the book was that almost 2/3 of couples report a decline in relationship satisfaction up to three years after having a baby. The other third report an increase in satisfaction. It’s easy to hear this stat and assume that having a baby causes dissatisfaction. In reality, having a baby just exposes weak points or unhelpful habits in relationships. Relationships where the couples had healthy habits like good conflict management skills managed the transition better.
This statistic fueled a concern that grew in me throughout my pregnancy. The night before I was induced with Calvin, the reality of my future hit me. I needed to sleep but instead I sat on the living room floor, crying to my husband. I was about to be a mom. I had no idea how to be a mom. I didn’t know how to be a wife as a mom. What marital weaknesses would a baby reveal? We hadn’t always had the best conflict management skills but we did and do have a strong dedication to resolution, forgiveness, and growth.
In the several weeks after giving birth, getting to know my husband as a father was a bigger adjustment than becoming a mother. You see, nurturing a child is an instinctual thing. Despite the various feeding and swaddling techniques, you find a way to feed your child and put him to sleep. On the flip side, partnering with someone else to raise a child is not instinctual at all. In fact, it can feel very counter intuitive at times.
For moms in particular, the instinct to nurture and protect can actually prevent you from being a good partner. Those instincts switch on during inopportune moments. When he’s trying to soothe a screaming baby and isn’t doing it as well as you could, it’s common to feel the need to usurp his efforts to stop the crying. When you do this, you shut down his attempts to learn how to parent and you show him you don’t trust him. Or you feel guilty if you aren’t the primary feeder or soother because your instincts drive you to be the only one to care for the baby all the time. When you do this, you stop taking care of yourself and feel guilty when you aren’t present with the baby.
Today we’re going to talk about ways to preserve your marriage or even strengthen it after having a baby through how we partner. The best gift you can give your children is a peaceful, stable home. You can only control your part in this so in order to make a strong parenting team, you need to intentionally give your husband (or baby's father) friendship, appreciation, and grace.
Fathers in popular culture often get mischaracterized as oafs who can’t figure things out and make a mess when they try to parent alone. In sitcoms, dads wreck the house while prioritizing fun over order. They serve ice cream for dinner and lose the kids in the grocery store. But the wisecracking moms always put dads in their place with condescension and sarcasm. A quick search through fathering books on Amazon will reveal a lot of jokes about dads putting on diapers wrong or wishing they could play golf instead. We do our men a grave disservice with these representations. Not all dads are perfect but - newsflash - neither are moms. We need to think of men as equally capable parents, with different, but wonderful qualities that they add to the parenting team. Yes, team. If you internalize and act out these cultural stereotypes, you’ll never show your husband the respect and friendship necessary to be a great team.
I almost titled this podcast “Let him be a father” because it’s so important to nurture his paternal instincts. As a mom, it’s easy to think of yourself as the primary parent. Even if you don’t consciously hold this belief, it likely plays out in how you parent and how you relate to your spouse as one. After all, you have had experiences and hormonal urges the father could never understand. In the early weeks of a child’s life, he often feels like a bystander. You can inadvertently cement this feeling with how you treat him as a father.
Resentful and withdrawn fathers are born out of circumstances where their natural inclination to parent is stifled. Put yourself in his shoes for a minute. Pretend that you love your child just as much as you do now, but someone else always gets to feed and hold them. So you want to help in other ways, but your spouse criticizes how you do everything - diaper, swaddle, cuddle, put the baby to sleep, discipline the toddler, and more. How long could this dynamic go on before you would feel completely shut down? Would you be motivated to keep offering to help? Of course, dads have a responsibility to co parent. Of course, even if you’re a raging lunatic, he’s still supposed to have an equal part in raising the child. But if you’re the kind of mom who corrects his every attempt at helping or worse - gets frustrated if he doesn’t do things exactly like you would - then you might be killing his desire to try.
Long before I had a child, a friend with three children told me that the most important thing I could do for my marriage after having a baby was to let my husband learn to be a father. I didn’t understand what she meant at the time, but her admonition stayed with me. So, even if you don’t have kids yet, I hope that you’ll keep this lesson in the back of your mind for the future. Don’t stifle his desire to be a father.
When my son, Calvin, was born, I thought I was letting my husband learn to be a father but I wasn’t. I’m an independent, type A person. This is both my strength and my curse. I can always find a way to get things done on my own. My independent streak showed its ugly side soon after I had my son and affected the way my husband was able to father. I had read all of the books and had spent more time around babies than my husband. In addition to being - ahem - the mother who pushed this baby out, I felt qualified to make a lot of the decisions. My outlook on letting my husband be a father was a condescending one. I had decided that he was “allowed” to be in charge of some nonessential decisions like diapering and arranging the nursery furniture. In one of my books, I read that a great task for dads is swaddling. So I decided he could be the swaddle master. Feeling very proud of how easily I released control, I smiled inwardly at what a chill mother I’d become.
But within a few days of returning home from the hospital, reality hit. My husband and I clashed constantly about sleeping schedules, sleeping location, tummy time, and yes - even swaddling. To my shock, his opinions differed from mine. It didn’t make sense why he didn’t listen to me. After all, I had read all of the baby books. I had all of these rules: The baby can only have one nap a day outside of the crib or pack n play. The baby needs to be swaddled exactly the same way, every time. Sure, I had reasons for the rules that were based in research. But all they did was place an unnecessary burden on my husband, who had ideas of his own but felt forced to conform to mine. What’s worse, I’d criticize him for doing things “wrong.” If the baby was crying more than usual, I’d question how he was feeding or holding him. My protective instincts would go into overdrive and I’d blame him for the crying. If the baby didn’t nap very long, I’d question how he put the baby to sleep.
If the baby broke out of the swaddle, I’d blame him, even though our baby broke out of EVERY swaddle.
Every. Single. Swaddle. I have a pic on my website, youruncommonlife.com. Just head to podcast transcripts and find this episode.
When my husband called me out on this behavior, his choice of words stuck out to me. He said I wasn’t being his friend. That was the main issue. I let my instincts override the need to nurture our friendship.
I was being protective. It’s natural to feel protective over the baby. But what was I protecting the baby from? His dad? That doesn’t make any sense. The father loves the baby, doesn’t want any harm to befall the baby, and just wants to be an equal part of the parenting process. In my misplaced attempt at protection, I had also stifled my husband’s ability to learn how to be a dad. I can see how, over time, this would result in our marriage looking more like a teacher-student relationship than a romantic partnership.
It took an illness to force me to back off and let him be a dad. God knew the only way I would learn to let go is if I had no choice. I got a sudden, high fever when my baby was around 6 weeks old and, given his age and the pandemic, didn’t want my child to get sick so I stayed downstairs away from him for three days. My husband had to provide 100% of the care for my child while I waited for my fever to go away. Prior to this, if I heard my baby crying, I would run into the room and ask my husband in an accusatory tone, “Why is he crying? Did you feed him correctly? How did you hold him? That swaddle isn’t tight enough!” But through three days of living downstairs while my husband parented solo, I had to get used to hearing the baby cry without my interference. I could barely sleep the first night. I had earplugs in, with very loud white noise near to my ears and I would still wake at every tiny baby noise. I’d hover over my text messages, writing and then deleting texts to my husband reminding him to warm the milk, to set the smart bassinet on a particular setting, and more. But it got easier by day three to trust that my husband had it under control. And you know what? The baby survived. And my husband did a fantastic job.
The mantra I kept repeating in my head then was “He won’t ruin the baby.” And it’s true. My mantra could have been something more positive like “He’s a loving, capable father who will do a great job,” but, hey, whatever works! Maybe he won’t burp him exactly like I would but, so what? It won’t ruin the baby if he’s not burped perfectly. On the flipside, if I make a big deal over it and fight for my method, it might ruin our relationship. Maybe not right away, but after the 100th time I correct him, it might. That’s far too high of a price to pay for being right. Preserving the relationship is more important than anything.
Since then, he’s taught me a lot of things that I wouldn’t have figured out on my own about parenting. And I've learned to appreciate his initiative and willingness to help. What's more, instead of feeling like we have a teacher-student relationship when it comes to parenting, it feels more like two friends on a team. We still have our issues, but solving them is easier when each person feels confident and appreciated.
No matter which child-rearing stage you’re in, you can still take action to improve your skills as a parenting team.
If your babies are grown, it’s not too late to reverse any damage. An apology goes a long way and a friendship can be rebuilt.
If you don’t have children yet, prepare your relationship now for future children. If you do anything now, I recommend reading only one book, titled And Baby Makes Three by John Gottman and Julia Schwartz Gottman. These are the same Drs I referenced at the beginning of the podcast. It takes time to build healthy habits in your marriage. And Baby Makes Three will point you toward the behavioral changes needed to fortify your relationship for this crazy life event. It will shift your perspective from raising a baby to creating intimacy while raising a baby because the best gift you can give your child is a healthy, stable marriage.
If you’re still in the thick of parenting, there are things you can do now to make sure he not only feels included, but is an appreciated partner and a valuable member of your team. As a mother, only you can affirm him and support him in these ways.
1. To succeed in this parenting partnership, you have to treat him like a friend, with all the grace and forgiveness you possibly can. The kindness you extend to your closest friends - the sacrificial, gracious, forgiving kindness - should be extended to your husband as well. His needs and well-being still matter just as much as they ever have. As you’re focusing on letting him be a father and affirming his paternal instincts, your overarching goal is to be his best friend. Everything will fall into line if this is your north star.
I really like Romans 12:10, which says “Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.” What would it look like if love wasn’t a 50/50 exchange, but instead looked like a competition for who can honor the other person best?
2. Successful partnerships also require intentionality; they don’t just happen. If you don’t get really intentional about investing in the relationship and instead fall back into your normal routines and habits, you could end up missing each other completely. Do you know the common marital advice to keep dating your spouse after you get married? Yeah, that doesn’t stop when you have a baby. However, it might look different than you’re accustomed to so you have to get intentional and creative. Maybe you can’t go out to eat or go dancing. And you can throw spontaneity out the window. But you can still have dedicated, scheduled time that you invest solely in one another. Even if it’s going on a walk or having a glass of wine on the couch. Find something that works and do it consistently so you don’t miss out on nurturing your relationship while raising kids. A very common time for divorces to spike is when parents become empty-nesters. How shocking would it be to spend a couple of decades investing in children only to turn toward each other and realize you don’t know the person you’re married to? Avoid this by dating early and dating often.
On a very related note: Be intimate. Yep. I said it. I don’t believe in excuses here as long as you’re medically cleared to be physical. Kids aren't an excuse, and neither is being tired or feeling fat or breastfeeding. Your marriage is so important and intimacy is necessary to strengthen your bond. Remember that his well-being matters as much as yours does and intimacy is a major way that he feels affirmed and encouraged. If it’s important, you’ll find a way to make it happen.
3. Unmet and uncommunicated expectations can lead to bitterness. Bitterness is your enemy. Don’t get bitter that he isn’t helping if you have shut him down or been critical. Don’t get bitter if he isn’t doing something you expect him to do, especially if you never really communicated that expectation. Bitterness for any reason will only increase the distance between the two of you. You need to forgive him for whatever he has done, recognize your part in the situation, and find a way to partner for the sake of your child. This will take communication and grace for each other.
Dads want to be involved. They want to help. Nurture that desire. They may not know how to offer assistance and, if they don’t, it’s your job to communicate. Tell them what you need and invite their input. Ask him to help you with specific things. If you’re breastfeeding, you might be the primary caretaker. But that doesn’t mean he can’t do things. I had my husband hold my hand, bring me food, and read me stories. Anything to keep me awake and keep me company in the dark early morning hours. But he wouldn’t have known exactly how to help me had I not asked.
4. Replace an atmosphere of criticism or irritability with one of appreciation and grace. Tell him you appreciate how he fathers and don't count his mistakes. If your husband is a “words of affirmation” kind of guy, then this will be really meaningful for him. Be specific. What about his fathering do you appreciate most? Is he really involved and helpful? Is he a great storyteller or diaper changer? Make sure your appreciation isn’t a one-time event. Creating an atmosphere of appreciation requires consistent practice. How often can you remind him how awesome of a dad he is?
5. Encourage him when he takes initiative and reinforce that behavior. My husband was great at managing Calvin’s daily morning witching hour. From 6-10am each day, Calvin would be awake, upset, and struggling to poop. My husband had found the perfect combination of stacked pillows to elevate his legs, and would play Handel’s Messiah while Calvin looked out the window and concentrated on his poops. This was a riddle he enjoyed solving. I loved watching this dynamic and gladly took the time to nap while my husband managed the mornings. My husband is less of a words of appreciation guy and more of a time and acts of service guy. So when I noticed how he took over the witching hour routine, I asked him if he could every day. When I released control and let him own that chunk of the day, it showed him that I trusted him and gave him confidence to handle parenting on his own. My tip for you is to ask him to take over something completely. Tell him you’d like him to own some consistent part of the childcare routine and, between the two of you, figure out what part would work best. This could be anything from daily breakfast to the bedtime routine to a weekly hike with the children. It should just be a regular, habitual thing that only dad does. The kids will love their special dad time, dad will love the autonomy, and you’ll love the break!
6. This one benefits the moms, too. You need child-free time. Ask him to take over the children for as long as he can while you leave the house completely. There are two challenges here for you. First of all, resist the urge to give him a list of guidelines and just let him figure it out. Think about how amazing it is that you have a husband who is willing to watch the children and come home grateful for him. Don’t come home and criticize him for doing anything different than how you would. I leave for a few hours one day each week. But Calvin refuses to take a bottle from my husband and eats about a third of what he would if I were around. For weeks I assumed my husband just wasn’t doing it right. It caused me so much anxiety that I couldn’t enjoy my free time. Eventually I just let it go. Calvin would eat more when I got home and, as I said before, it didn’t “ruin” the baby. The second challenge relates to mom guilt. How often do you feel guilty when you leave your child with dad, even though you know they'll be ok? This is that nurturing instinct we talked about earlier rearing its ugly side. We feel such a strong urge to nurture our baby that we can’t relax easily when someone else cares for our children, especially when we're new moms. I imagine this is less challenging for veteran moms! But if you find yourself feeling guilty, just remind yourself that it's very healthy for you to get time for yourself and that your children need a healthy mama. If you feel guilty asking your husband to help, remember that he's an equal partner. So he's not "helping," "babysitting," or doing you a favor. He's parenting, just like you do every day. He likely doesn't feel guilt when he gets free time and neither should you.
In conclusion, no matter what, preserve the relationship. No matter how he swaddles or plays or feeds, the relationship is more important. If you are ever in doubt about how he is fathering, ask yourself if it’s really that big of a deal. If you must have a tough conversation with him, do it away from the kids and do it with love and respect. If it’s not that big of a deal, then for goodness’ sake: Let him be a father. When he’s a confident, affirmed father, you’ll be the best parenting team you can be, together.
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