When Rolling Stone journalist Jancee Dunn gave birth to her daughter, she was blissfully unaware of the impact it would have on her relationship. Here, she reveals how you can bring a marriage back from the brink despite the sleepless nights
Our lives were almost laughably tranquil when my husband Tom and I got married. Weekends were spent lazily in bed or exploring the city; arguments were mostly confined to where we should spend our holidays… Then we had a baby.
It’s a grim reality that no matter how harmonious you are as a couple before kids, you will definitely fight afterwards. Loudly. Repeatedly. You will be amazed at how heated a dispute can get over whose turn it is to change the nappy (the most common argument among new parents, according to a recent Daily Mail survey.) Many things you will row about seem minor, but gradually they add up into something larger that can permanently erode your relationship.
Deranged from sleep deprivation, the most trivial issues can set you off. This one is typical: I ask my husband one evening after I have made dinner to do the washing-up. ‘Yes, but let’s let everything soak for a few hours,’ he replies breezily. ‘But I have to wash the baby’s bottles,’ I say calmly, knowing he’s intending to string it out in the hope that I’ll do it myself. ‘It can wait,’ he replies casually, noodling with his phone. Out of nowhere, I’m filled with a molten rage I would have considered totally unhinged in my previous life. ‘You just want to let the world soak!’ I find myself shouting before dissolving into heaving sobs as he looks on in disbelief.
Fortunately from researching and writing a whole book, I’ve discovered this response is not unusual and that there are many things you can do to stop the battles – or at least manage them in the best, most positive way.
Five rows you’ll have and why
I have yet to meet a new parent who has not gone through five distinct stages of fighting.
It begins with this one: the moment I first heard the faintest whimper from the baby’s room. I remember vaulting out of bed like an army commando, while my husband snored next to me. ‘I know you’re faking it,’ I hissed as I stalked off. Why didn’t he wake up?
As it happens, men might really be oblivious. Researchers from Mindlab International measured subconscious brain activity in sleeping men and women, and found that while a baby’s cry was the number one night-time sound most likely to wake a woman, it didn’t even figure into the male top ten, and trailed behind car alarms and strong wind. They theorised that this may have an evolutionary basis: women have been conditioned to be more attuned to potential threats to their offspring, while men were more responsive to disturbances posing larger threats to the whole clan. Knowing that we may simply be wired for this behaviour might – might – make it a bit easier to heave out of bed at 2am.
And so we come to the next marital minefield, which is not a surprise: sex. Post-baby, one partner is usually more up for it – and it’s normally the one who isn’t leaking from her explosive-prone G-cups. But numerous sex experts told me it’s critical to observe the Nike slogan and ‘just do it’. It doesn’t even need to be that often: a study of 30,000 adults* found that the ideal amount of sex is once a week (any more and happiness levels actually dwindled.) Not only that, but a survey by sex researchers at [America’s] Penn State University found that after foreplay, the optimal stretch of time for intercourse is not a tantric marathon, but seven to 13 minutes. Who among us can’t spare seven minutes? And the more you have sex, according to biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, the more you want it.
Suggest a make-out session for 15 minutes and if you’re still not feeling it, you’re allowed to walk away. Have him loosen you up with a massage – a real one, not the usual two-minute shoulder scrunch. My friend Lily reads erotica beforehand. ‘Ten minutes and I’m good to go,’ she says. And while it may not seem sexy to schedule sex, it stops the painful cycle of his approaching and you shutting him down, followed by a sex drought that is then difficult to break out of.
It was after our daughter started sleeping through the night that we moved on to the third stage of conflict, known as ‘you’re doing it wrong’. Once I stood over Tom while he nervously attempted to buckle our daughter in the pushchair, and she slumped over like a bag of sand. Finally I could stand it no longer. ‘I’ll do it,’ I said impatiently. Cue shouting. Psychologists have a name for my controlling behaviour: maternal gatekeeping, in which mothers can swing open the gate to include Dad’s participation or firmly clang it shut. Once I was clued in, I realised I was gatekeeping all the time, from criticising (‘hello, that’s not how she likes her cereal!’) to non-verbal disapproval, such as eye-rolling and sighing. This makes a hesitant father more reluctant to help, creating a self-reinforcing loop – so I forced myself to relax my standards and actively include him. If he dressed her in stripes and plaids or didn’t feed her a green vegetable, I told myself she’d survive.
Moving on, the next stage is the one I hear about most frequently from other mothers. ‘Simon didn’t lift a finger all weekend to help with the baby,’ says my friend Sarah on the school run. ‘By Sunday, I was barely speaking to him, but of course he didn’t notice.’ I can’t believe the hours I squandered doing the same thing – fuming, glaring, muttering. My resentment would build until I exploded. Then it dawned on me that Tom couldn’t read my mind. As relationship counsellor Terry Real told me, ‘It’s a truly nutty idea that an effective strategy for getting what you want from your partner is to complain about it after the fact. This leaves him nowhere to go.’ Real said I should stop playing the victim and tell Tom, calmly and specifically, what I wanted. How important is it to spell things out? Consider a large survey of divorcees** , which found that a quarter of men who were served divorce papers didn’t see it coming.
I also stopped ascribing a diabolical motive for Tom’s behaviour, something that Rising Strong author Brené Brown calls, ‘the story I am making up’. In my case, it was, ‘My wife is doing all the donkey work while I kick back’. Share it with your partner, Brown says, and you’ll be surprised at how comically incorrect your ‘story’ often is. My anger cooled a little when I realised he wasn’t being evil – just clueless.
Meanwhile, Tom was instructed by Real to banish the phrase ‘calm down’ (which inevitably produces the opposite effect) and sub in this: ‘what can I say or do right now to make you feel better?’ This magic phrase has been a game-changer: it forces me to focus on what I need, dials down tension and gives Tom agency to change the situation.
Our fifth stage of fighting was easily the most intense. Again and again, squabbles would erupt because I was simultaneously cooking, cleaning and minding the baby while Tom parked happily on the sofa. Psychotherapist Jean Fitzpatrick explains that this is because ‘women tend to be the ones who do time-associated tasks that involve deadlines, like school pickups. Their entire day is programmed to respond instantly.’
I had to break that dispiriting little pattern – and quickly. First, we sat down with a list and clearly divvied up chores. Then, I picked up the habit of negotiating time trade-offs: he could take a Saturday bike ride if I then met friends for coffee. Several marriage therapists suggested a weekly 15-minute meeting to hash out logistics. I won’t lie: I dread it every Friday night, but I was naive to think childcare and chores were going to somehow get done organically. As psychologist Guy Winch told us, ‘After a baby, everything is up for renegotiation. Couples should negotiate all the time.’
Our daughter is now seven and of course Tom and I still fight, but we try to do it like grown-ups, rather than two toddlers in a sandpit. It takes Herculean effort to remain calm, communicate your needs clearly (that’s been the hardest for me) and to remind yourself that your spouse isn’t out to get you. Whenever I still feel the urge to yell, I recall the words of my sister Heather, a perpetually exhausted mother of teens. ‘Get your marriage together now,’ she warned me, ‘because when your kid hits puberty, you’re going to cling to that man like a life raft.’
Jancee Dunn lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband, writer Tom Vanderbilt, and daughter. Her book, How Not To Hate Your Husband After Kids, is out now.