My prenatal expectations of parenthood caused me to lose track of my marriage

August 28 2012 | Guest post by Michelle
The three of us. Photo by White Rabbit Studios.
The three of us. Photo by White Rabbit Studios.

I remember the day I turned in my notice at work before Jonas arrived. I had SO many expectations of life as a stay-at-home mother. I expected to just have the motivation to keep the house clean at all times. I expected to have dinner ready every night when my husband came home from work. I expected lovely, lazy days with my baby. Playing and reading and relaxing and singing and going out to coffee shops and being all-around amazing.

It's safe to say that I had unreasonable and irrational expectations of my husband and myself during a very critical point in life and our marriage: the newborn phase. I don't know where these expectations came from, but I had unreasonable expectations of what we both would have to accomplish during that period of "newborn" — the mystical, unknown, and basically all-around un-plan-able stage in every baby's life.

I thought I would immediately know how to do "do it all," even after a gargantuan life change. And I also expected a lot from my husband. Because, for some reason, I thought that he would just know what I needed from him, especially when I didn't even know what I needed from him.

When I think about those first six months of Jonas' life, all I can remember DOING is sitting on the couch and going through a million shows on Netflix. But the feelings that I associate with that period of his life are so strong: constant self-doubt, feelings of failure and malaise, and all-around funk. I felt trapped at home, like I was losing myself, or many parts of myself, and felt like I wasn't cut out for this and was a complete failure. I lost important parts of me and I was HARD on myself about it. I know the newborn phase is hard on everyone. Everyone will tell you that. But they can't tell you which part of you will be hit the hardest. For me, it was my relationship with my husband.

I spent a lot of time down on my self, and down on my husband. My husband had never been around kids, especially not babies. I had no idea what to do with a newborn. It wasn't really my mothering skills that I was worried about — I was producing all of the kid's food, and attending to the majority of his needs. Jonas was happy and thriving. But I wasn't thriving.

In the process of losing parts of myself, or perhaps just trying to figure out where the old parts fit together with the new parts, I lost key parts of who I was as a partner. The more I felt like a failure, the more I thought that my husband thought I was a failure (…which he didn't). I took every word from him that could have been critical as critical and didn't stop to think — maybe he really was just asking where his clean underpants were.

It took months of communication (and sometimes attempted communication) to figure out where we BOTH now fit in the life as parents to a little human. The old way things worked in our home wasn't going to cut it anymore. We went from "dual income no kids" status to "single income one kid" status. We once both had "work life," and an outside source of friendship, conversation, and somewhere else to build a little self-worth. Now, the only regular contact with adults I had was from my husband, so every little thing he did and said mattered that much more to me. His role in my life was and always will be a very large and important one, but it grew exponentially. I didn't even see it happening at the time, but it is starting to make sense to me. I had gone from a (mostly) supportive and friendly work environment with regular adult conversation with many different people to being home with a tiny little newborn who couldn't help me with my self-worth and my husband, who had never been my only source of well-being before.

It was a new role to him, and it was new to me for him to be in that role. Don't get me wrong: I don't rely on others for my sense of self or for my self-worth. I am a confident in who I am, and like the person I am. But for the first time in my relationship with my husband, I didn't have OTHER relationships with OTHER people to help me develop and define myself. I didn't have someone outside of our marriage to converse and laugh with regularly. I mean, I had friends, but if you've ever been home with a newborn, you know how isolating that can be. Days turn to weeks and weeks to months and then your newborn is walking and you have no idea how you got there in the first place.

The first thing that helped me was to ease up on myself. I reshaped my expectations into realistic ones, and stopped thinking negative things about myself. It was a process that took time, but things were better immediately. I could be a better partner when I was feeling ok about myself.

Second, I found time for myself. Instead of using my free time to clean or cook or whatever, I started to read non-parenting books again, and got my creative energy back slowly by picking up small crochet projects. I'm thinking there's probably something to that "idle hands" saying.

The most important thing I did to get my marriage back on track was to talk, especially about the hard things and feelings. I had spent so much time thinking that I was a failure that I started to believe it — but when I said it out loud, it sounded ridiculous. And it was clear my husband found that to be ridiculous as well. When I realized that our relationship was different, and that I now had new and different needs, I was able to be a partner to my husband again.

  1. this is exactly what i went through. it takes a long time to adapt. every month i feel more and more like my normal self, stuff i forgot about me sans baby.

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  2. Totally me too. When this didn't happen with my second – in fact, I felt GREAT with my second – I realized that I had probably suffered what a clinician would have recognized as post-partum depression (PPD) the first time. While the first newborn is harder in every way than a second one, if you are a new mom and you are really feeling stuck on the sofa, or constantly angry with your partner for no reason, or of course, constantly angry with the baby, it's worth talking to someone about. I think that I probably terrified my husband more than the newborn, but I wish that someone had told me it didn't have to be so lonely being a new mom.

    Of course I'm not saying that you have PPD; the post just evoked my own experiences. Good luck moving forward!

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    • I appreciate you mentioning PPD! Looking back, I think there was SOMETHING off – maybe PPD, maybe just a slight case of the "baby blues". I seem to have found the "happy place" again, but if things had gone on for much longer, I definitely would have talked with someone about how I was feeling.

      And YES 10000 times to "I wish someone had told me I didn't have to be so lonely being a new mom".

  3. I feel very lucky that a friend of mine was honest with me when I asked her what she wish she'd done differently with a newborn, and told me she would have focused on her marriage more. It allowed me to really think not only about what I wanted my marriage to be like, but to consciously work to make it better, even in the sleep-deprived haze of the first few weeks. I think this article is spot-on about the need to TALK.

    I'd also recommend a newborn care class to any couple. It allowed my husband and I to start from the same place with babycare–he was actually better at swaddling and diapering! We both felt more confident about our ability to parent, and to be equal parents.

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    • That is GREAT advice about focusing more on the marriage. Since it was just the two of us for so long, we'd never had to make a big effort to focus on the "us" part. It was really a difficult thing for us to learn.

      It wasn't so much the care aspect as it was "life with baby" that was so foreign to my husband. That difference is hard to explain for me, but I think the exhaustion and long hours were the shock instead of the diapers and umbilical cords. I definitely agree that baby care classes are a great investment!

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    • The way I've been thinking about it this: My child will leave someday. This is normal and natural and it's one of my goals as a parent, to raise a person who can happily live independent of me. (All else being equal, e.g., medical stuff.) But that's NOT what I want out of my marriage. My partner will still be here when the kids have flown the coop, and I want to still like him a lot when that happens. So it's important to focus on our marriage. (But, yes, really hard in those early new days when your baby NEEDS you a lot and you're redefining your identity.)

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  4. "I think about those first six months of Jonas' life, all I can remember DOING is sitting on the couch and going through a million shows on Netflix"
    …… holy shit I can relate to that!!

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  5. Oh man, raising kids hard. I was working, my husband was home with my son, and i STILL don't remember much of the first year. With all of the visitors, I wasn't really "alone" when I was on maternity leave, but it's amazing how lonely you can feel when you are in a room full of people.

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  6. Thank you for putting your thoughts into such beautiful words. Expectations are a part of life, but they can cause us so much pain. The loneliness of parenthood is never discussed in the mainstream media, and I think that is something that factors in to post-partum depression in some ways.
    I look back on my son's first 6-9 months with a level of sadness at my own mental state and although I know I cared for him the best I could (which was really, in hindsight, pretty darn well in any circumstances), I feel that my expectations of how his birth would be combined with expectations of myself as a mother and my partner as a father and partner went a long long way towards my exceedingly fragile mental state that bordered on the down-right scary sometimes.

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  7. It's always really comforting to hear from another real life mom that I'm not the only isolated 'failure' who's addicted to Netflix. Thanks! While I still aspire to be Supermom, I've grown to a point where I don't wanna curl into a ball and cry every time I didn't finish the laundry and we end up having Taco Bell for dinner (again!)

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  8. Thank you for this post! My husband and I are expecting our first child in January and while we've faced the realization that our relationship will go through some major changes it's hard to know what to expect. I know every couple, baby and situation is different but what should we be talking about now to prepare ourselves for things once the baby comes?

    We've had some real difficulties early on in our marriage, coming second to grad school for the past 5 years was more difficult then I had imagined but thankfully through marriage counseling we were able to strengthen our relationship through the hard times. My husband just finished his thesis defense yesterday and even with a baby on the way it feels like a huge weight is off our shoulders. Now he'll "just" be working full time, making a bit more then we were both making and giving me time to take off from my job. I have many friends with young children and we are deeply involved in our roller derby community (they're our family since our bio familes are on another coast) It feels like its all going to come together pretty well for us, but I also know that is a very naive way to think.

    What else can we do to prepare our lives and relationship when we add a new member to our team?

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    • I don't think you're being naive at all. It sounds to me like you're already thinking and talking really deliberately about what your lives might be like. There's nothing fundamentally awful or terrifying about having a newborn, I think it just takes a lot of us by surprise because we've never been around a newborn.

      With all the wisdom of having an 8 month old… I haven't even made it through the first year yet so maybe take this with a grain of salt… I think it's really just about keeping communication open. Being able to say, "I need you to hold the baby for five minutes while I pee all by myself" or "I need you to tell me I'm doing a good job as a mother". For me and my husband a huge thing has been remembering to thank each other. Parenting is a huge amount of work and I think it's easy to feel like the other parent doesn't appreciate everything you do, or conversely to take the everyday things for granted. Saying thank you for doing the dishes, folding the laundry, going to work, makes a big difference for me.

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      • Yes to thanking each other all the time! It's such a team effort thing and it a "Thanks- I really appreciate you doing xyz" goes such a long way. It's very easy to feel burdened by all the things you are doing and then not recognize all of the work your partner is taking on as well.

        And amen to learning how to ask things (even if, in my case, you think they go without saying and then get angry at your spouse if they don't somehow telepathically know what you need). It's wonderful to take a poo in peace and quiet once in awhile 🙂

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    • I also don't think this naive at all! We had a lot "in place" financially and physically before we had our son, but didn't ever really think about the toll parenthood would take on our relationship.

      I think talking about clear expectations of parenthood now, like who is taking care of what chores, and both partners having honest expectations of what the other will contribute. And being 100% honest about how you're feeling and if you feel you're drowning or need help. It's totally ok to need help with a newborn, even though societally maybe we're just supposed to know instinctually and be able to "do it all". That's a farce. Babies are HARD. Sleepless nights are HARD. New identities are HARD.

      I also agree with the being vocally supportive of each other. I didn't realize how much I needed to hear "good job" every now and then from someone else.

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  9. I found the first 5 months incredibly hard. I found that getting out of the house really helped. So while my husband was at work I tried not to stay cooped up inside because if I did as soon as he came in I thrusted our poor colicky boy at him. Getting out to simply go on multiple walks a day, going to support groups/play groups (Ontario Eary Years Centres saved me), going to stores…. anything to change up our environment. Or change who was in our environment. My parents were very supportive and I really enjoyed their company so I could vent to them and (hopefully) vent less to my husband. I definitely leaned on my husband for support and vice versa but having others to lean on was important. I didn't want our home to feel like a house I never wanted to be in. Next time around I still say I'd love to give birth to a baby that's already 5months old. Might hurt a bit though….ha ha!

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  10. This post sounds sooo familiar- especially the underpants bit. As a new stay-at-home mom, I felt like I was failing at my job if our kiddo wasn't perfectly happy and our house was spotless (after all, what else was there to do all day, right??). I soon realized that was all complete nonsense, though it took awhile for that to beat through my thick skull. Thank heaven for a saint of a husband who happily had VERY realistic expectations of what our life would be like post-baby. I'm in the process now of trying to find myself again-and yes, doing things besides cleaning during nap time is part of it. At least I had time to watch Downton Abbey *cough*ten*cough* times through on Netflix during those first months/crankyteethingbabyscreaming sessions

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    • Isn't it crazy, the pressure we have put on ourselves for things to be perfect and shiny? How much strife could I have saved myself if I'd been more realistic?

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  11. I'm in the throes of this as we speak, i have this group of mommy's within a group of makeup guru's (we all go WAY back) and they're who i run to when it gets REALLY bad cuz it feels like they're the only ones who know anymore how i feel or whats going on, i definitely went thru the stereo-typical separation from all friends who weren't parents (which apparently is A LOT of them >.< *grumble*) and it was more them separating than me, they're just "not there yet" and i don't like them any less for it i understand, but it doesn't leave me in a favorable place, i have a history of bipolar/anxiety issues so when the PPD hit it started a really bad downward spiral for me that we're STILL tryin to find our way out of (lil one is about to turn 7mos now). ALL that suffice to say thank you SO much for throwing this out there, you are NOT alone and as much as i know it sucked/sucks going thru its SO comforting to know that you're not the only one (even tho it absolutely feels like that on a daily basis because when its down to the wire quite frankly yes, yes you are the only one there with the munchkin lol) its completely true too about taking time for yourself, i need to get better about doing that, i find myself rigorously cleaning and doing laundry/dishes when he naps JUST to keep up so its like there isn't any downtime for me, partly why our marriage has taken such a hit is i think i'm harboring resentment towards DH because he literally gets up and gets on the computer to play D3 or w0w and when he gets home he goes straight to the computer too its like hey now… you're supposed to be the one i hand the baton off to what do you think you're doing? lol… ANYWAY i'm rambling but ty for posting this it made me cry but only because i saw myself in it and it was supremely comforting, hang in there you're doing an amazing job XOXO

  12. Thank you Michelle for your insight and for sharing your experience. I have a 5 week old and have a lot of the same feelings. I felt hope after reading your post that these feelings of inadequacy will pass and that I can feel like my old self again. Thank you

  13. This is very timely post and topic for me. I sat here reading it stuck on the couch with the CONSTANTLY nursing 3-month-old, trying to get a game plan together of all of the things I will run around and get done as soon as (IF…is more accurate!) I can get the baby down for a nap, and beating myself up for all of the things I haven't gotten done (including a preemeptive self-beatdown for all of the things I know I won't get done). It is amazing how universal it all is and yet we all were woefully unprepared. I chalk it up to unrealistic expectations on our part but I also think it stems from a fundamental lack of true honesty about what it means to be a new mom. No one wants to sound ungrateful for the blessing that is a new baby and no one wants to cop to being as out of control as this gig makes us all feel. The reality of sleep-deprivation, for example, is not that you are just really tired…you feel like you are being tortured by a tiny dictator (and sleep-deprivation is an effective form of torture). The reality of how childcare affects your marriage is not that it is just difficult to find time for your husband, it is that sometimes you literally want to punch him in the face or cry a river of tears at the slightest hint of his annoyance. Thank you for your courage and honesty. I appreciate it! My best to you as you continue to grow as a mom and a partner…

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    • Yes! So this! There is so little discussion about the realities of motherhood/parenthood, and there's all this guilt and shame tied up in admitting to people that it sucks, is hard, is not all rosy like the toilet paper commercials, etc. I still kind of want to delete that and erase written proof that I said that. Ha, how ridiculous!

  14. thank you so much for writing this. i have a three week old and was kind of getting frustrated with myself for taking so long to get the hang of things. i had a home birth and although i wouldn't change it for the world it was a lot more work getting everything back in order than i imagined. we live in a townhouse so i was restricted to the main level for a few days, so i had no access to my sons or mine bedroom for a few days so everything we needed was shoved in the living room. once i got the okay from the midwife to use the stairs our son was pretty much immediately admitted to the hospital for a few days because of severe jaundice, so getting around to much needed housework was put on the back burner . since then it has been trips to the doctors every few days and we were temporarily restricted to the living room again because he was on a biliblanket and it's just a pain in the butt to haul around. i have little time/motivation to vacuum, or anything really other than do the dishes and make extremely quick meals in between naps. now his pediatrician has put us on formula for only three days to see if this persistent jaundice is breast milk jaundice, in which case i can resume breastfeeding and hopefully the trips to the doctor for more labs will chill a bit. But seeing as i didn't plan on even pumping for at least six weeks i was not prepared to bottle feed. i had not sanitized any of his bottles, i had no idea how to mix formula, not to mention all the guilt that i feel now for giving up even temporarily… all while he is screaming in the background not understanding why i can't just pull out his favorite meal on demand instead of waiting forever to warm a bottle. so yeah nothing has gotten done for two days. Oh yeah, and his dad. His dad is working 60 hours a week to make all this possible. When he is home and not sleeping I have been preoccupied trying to figure everything else out i've kind of neglected him other than asking him to make dinner after a long day at work. I feel horrible not living up to the expectations i have had of myself. ugh! I love my son more than anything ever but THIS IS HARD!

    and i'm typing this while holding my little one because he has decided he will not leave my arms today, unless i want to hear him cry, which makes me sad…. so sorry if this makes little sense.

    • This is all VERY common, but it's not something everyone talks about. It is very hard to re-learn how to do all those things that you once did after having baby. At least, that's what I've understood from most of the women I've talked to. It's ok to just hold your little tiny baby. This time is fleeting, and doing bare minimum to keep the house running is perfectly normal and ok. You will find your groove again. What I wished I'd kept into perspective was that my relationship and marriage were definitely more important than the dishes, but the dishes and laundry HAD to get done. Hope you find your groove soon!

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