And Baby Makes Three. Or, What Happened To My Marriage? (Part I)

mama-to-mama111You’ve done the home pregnancy test three times and it’s official–you’ve got a bun in the oven.  If it’s your first, you need to buckle your seat belt, because the ride can be pretty crazy. Everything is going to change and even if this is exactly what you’ve wanted, it doesn’t mean it will be easy.

I’m not talking so much about the physical changes. We all pretty much know what to expect when it comes to that belly popping out and the morning sickness and mood swings; we’ve had friends who ended up on bed rest; we know that we’ll need to take it easy and get more sleep and that we have to watch our diet and avoid alcohol and tobacco. There’s tons of information out there about all of that.

But nobody talks much about what’s going on in your marriage or how going from two to three is much more complicated than those baby commercials let on. New roles will be added to the husband-wife ones that you’ve been figuring out, new responsibilities will appear out of nowhere, and relationships with your extended families are probably going to heat up, too. The sands are shifting, and at times it may be hard to find your footing.

The stresses that accompany the transition to parenthood and the early parenting years are  monumental. In fact, the highest divorce rate for the ENTIRE life cycle of the family happens during that time. This transition can be very, very tough. But there is a lot you can do to make your marriage stronger and better the odds that you and your husband will sail through the storm in one piece.

One of the biggest land mines of these early parenting years often goes unseen until it blows up in your face. This is the one where you try and figure out the new roles of mother and father … which are totally different from those of husband and wife.

Most people never stop to consider that their idea of “mom” or “dad” may be miles or even galaxies apart from their spouse’s. But, depending on the kind of family you grew up in, it’s likely to be quite different and may clash completely with your husband’s view.

Often, it doesn’t even register that the other person is modeling himself according to a different set of criteria, it just seems like he (or she) is constantly letting you down.

A few years ago a young couple came to me on the brink of divorce. They appeared to have everything going for them — they were healthy; father was well-employed; mom was staying home with their thriving 18-month-old by choice; and they had a nice house in a nice neighborhood. But they were barely speaking and asked me to help them get divorced.

After some investigating, I realized that the root of their problem was just as I have been describing: the two of them came from families where the roles of mother and father were played out completely differently. They may as well have been coming from different planets and hadn’t talked about the kind of world they, as a brand new family, wanted to create. Each mistakenly assumed that since they were headed for the same destination, they would be taking the same route to get there.

Sally’s dad had been a mailman who got home every day at 5:30, helped with dinner and homework, pitched in with the inevitable science fair projects and was his daughter’s soccer coach. Sally’s parents were very close, the family of five ate dinner together most nights and her father was, in every way, a hands-on kind of dad. His style of  “fathering” included spending lots of time with his kids.

Marty’s father, on the other hand, was a business executive who worked long hours, travelled a lot for his job, and spent little time with him or his much older sister when they were growing up. He frequently ate dinner out with clients and business associates and saw his role as father to be limited pretty much to breadwinner. Marty’s mom enjoyed the lifestyle that went along with her husband’s job and seemed perfectly content with the arrangement. Marty figured this was how it was in all families.

You can probably see where this is going … everything was fine while the couple was dating and before they had their son. They both worked, spent time with friends and did pretty much as they pleased.

Then along came their baby and things starting going wrong. Sally expected Marty to act like her dad and Marty expected Sally to act like his mom. Sally wanted Marty to change diapers, feed and play with the baby and adjust his work schedule to allow for lots of “family time.” When he didn’t, she took it as a personal rejection and was hurt.

But Marty, on the other hand, felt tremendous pressure to make money and create a life that was financially secure like his father had. To him, this is what a responsible, committed father does. He didn’t understand why Sally wasn’t praising and supporting him for all the time he was putting in at the office and also felt hurt and neglected.

The problem is, they never really talked about their expectations for either themselves or each other as moms and dads. They didn’t talk about their fears, either. “Can I handle it?” ” Will I lose myself in the process?”  “What if I can’t measure up?”

And so it went, with each one coping as best as they could, but eventually feeling let down and unappreciated by the other. The distance between them increased until they couldn’t find their way back to each other.

Their story does have a happy ending though. Once we began talking about how differently they saw their new roles, things started to open up again. They took a hard look at their families of origin and figured out what they liked and didn’t like about the way things had worked in each one. Then they decided which parts to keep and which parts to let go of.

Marty, for example, realized that he had missed out on spending time with his dad growing up and wanted a different experience with his own son. So, right away he started coming home earlier to give his son his nightly bath. This became a new routine and helped Marty get to know his little boy and thrilled Sally to boot. Pretty soon they were both actively creating their new lives as parents. And they did great.

Don’t let things get so far off track before you start the dialogue about what kind of family you want to create. It can be anything you desire it to be as long as you both agree. There are many ways to build a happy family, but if you can’t first imagine it, then talk about it together and come to an agreement, you can’t have it. “Happily ever after” doesn’t just happen.

When you do start exploring dreams and ideas, don’t feel bound by traditional roles or stereotypes. Be creative. Give yourselves permission to play with options and be willing to renegotiate your plan after a few years if things are no longer working for one or both of you. Situations change and so will you.

As long as you’ve got the bases covered and everybody’s happy, you’re golden! Just remember, you’re on the same team and co-partners in running your own “family business.”

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Ellen W. Schrier, LCSW, is a family therapist and the mother of three adolescent/young adult kids.


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