If you choose to parent in a way that doesn’t align with Western cultural values, you probably receive a good deal of unsolicited advice. This can shake your confidence and add to worries about doing things “right.”
With a stranger, a friend or even a relative, you can use humor or change the subject to deflect criticism, knowing that you can end the conversation if needed. But what if it’s your partner who disagrees with what you are doing, particularly if that partner is also your co-parent?
Partners sometimes have differing opinions on feeding, sleeping, holding, etc. If partners discussed certain parenting practices during pregnancy, the birthing parent is often surprised by how intensely they feel about doing things differently once baby is born. It’s easy to get defensive when you feel strongly about responding to your infant or toddler’s biologically normal needs and your partner doesn’t agree.
Sometimes, the non-birthing parent is worried that their baby isn’t “normal” based on Western ideas of what a baby “should” do – sleep alone in a crib, eat at regular intervals, not be held constantly, and so on. They may compare parenting practices with friends or co-workers and feel that something is wrong with their baby – or their partner. Other times, a partner may be concerned that responding quickly to an infant’s needs will keep them from developing independence.
It’s important for the birthing parent to acknowledge that these beliefs are common in Western society, but also to inform their partner about biological norms for human infants. You may want to share my previous blog posts or some of the resources at the end of this one.
However, this sometimes doesn’t resolve the conflict, because the deeper issue may be that your partner doesn’t feel their own needs are being met. Before a child is born, partners concentrate their love and affection on each other, and it’s difficult to maintain that level once the focus shifts to the baby. Even if your partner understands that an infant’s needs come first, they can still experience a sense of loss and even loneliness.
The non-birthing parent may not even be aware of these underlying feelings or may blame their partner for devoting too much time and energy to the baby. The birthing parent often feels caught between the fierce biological imperative to nurture their child, the demands of their partner, and their own needs.
If you are caught in this sort of conflict, it’s important to have a heart to heart talk with your partner. What are his worries? Is she missing the closeness you once had? What do they need? Take as long as you need to hear them out, then validate those concerns and share your own. Your feelings and opinions are just as important as your partner’s and need validation too.
During this discussion, you may be able to come up with a compromise that meets both your needs. For example, if your husband wants baby or toddler out of your bed, it could be that he misses cuddling with you at bedtime. Maybe you could slide your baby into a sidecar crib once they are asleep and then cuddle up to your partner or you could nurse your toddler to sleep on a mattress on the floor in a childproof room so the two of you have time together before your child crawls into bed with you.
It’s also vital to emphasize that making you choose between the baby and your partner is going to make you resentful of the relationship. There are ways to stay connected while still honoring the intense need for attachment in an infant, a toddler and even a young child.
Is time alone as a couple essential?
Many “experts” today rightly maintain that nurturing a loving partner relationship is good for the children. But some of these same couples counselors insist that partners must spend time away from their children – a weekly date night, a weekend away – almost from infancy. In itself, this can lead to conflict, with the birthing parent hesitant to leave a child who protests separation and their partner insisting it’s essential for their relationship.
This idea that it’s critical to have adult time alone is a new concept in Western society. In most cultures, parents have time together in family groups or with children playing nearby. Even as recently as the first part of the twentieth century in the US, most parents rarely traveled without their children, let alone left an infant with a babysitter while they went on a weekend alone.
Small things often
There is another way. Noted relationship therapists John and Julie Gottman talk about “small things often” as the key to successful relationships. When you find yourself feeling resentful, remind yourself of why you fell in love with the other person and act on it.
A quick shoulder rub, a brief hug, even just a smile and an “I love you” done several times a day goes a long way towards nurturing a loving relationship. Instead of criticizing your partner for leaving clothes on the floor – again – pause, take a breath and thank her for changing the baby’s diaper without being asked (oh, and by the way could you throw those clothes in the hamper?).
Figuring out you and your partner’s love language(s) helps enhance the effect of these small gestures. Does your partner feel more loved if you tell him he is a great dad or if you two just spend time together? Give her a hug or bring her a glass of water? Maybe they love receiving a little gift, like a chocolate bar or some flowers from the garden?
Regardless of their primary love language, a meal out or coffee with your partner is always a good way to connect, as long as the birthing parent isn’t worried about their child crying at home without them. What about going for a walk in your favorite neighborhood around naptime with baby or toddler in a soft carrier, stroller or pram? When your child falls asleep, you can stop to get a drink or a snack outside (one benefit of these pandemic times) or even bring your own picnic and thermos. Even if baby don’t nap, take the time for (semi) uninterrupted conversation.
What about sex?
Finding a place and time for intimacy often requires planning and preparation – spontaneity tends to take a back seat for a while. Babies and toddlers have knack for waking up just as parents are sneaking off for a little time together. Plus, limiting sex to the master bedroom at bedtime is boring!
Let baby get used to a sitter or relative while you chat during a few visits – once baby or toddler is comfortable with the caregiver, you can send them off for a nice, long walk while you two get busy. If you spend time with other families, your child may soon be familiar enough with their home that you can drop them off for an hour or two.
If you really want a weekend away, bring your child with you – plus a sitter! A trusted friend or relative may be happy to tag along and can spend time with baby or toddler while you two have time alone, just as long as you are back for bedtime. This can also work well for weddings and other events – caregiver takes bubs for a walk or playtime, bringing them back when it’s time to nurse.
Just remember that patience and compromise are essential. Baby may be experiencing separation anxiety or one partner may not feel up to it or one of you may need take matters into your own hands, so to speak. The exhaustion that come with child raising is a particular libido killer – cleaning the kitchen or doing the laundry is sometimes the best foreplay!
Stay connected even when there’s conflict
Will all this guarantee a happy, peaceful relationship free of strife? Of course not. Arguments will still happen – they just won’t come from a place of simmering anger and resentment that hovers just beneath the surface of your daily lives.
The Gottman’s book, And Baby Makes Three, is essential reading after the birth of a baby, outlining ways to handle conflict and stay connected as a couple. There are even Bringing Baby Home workshops available based on the Gottman approach – some available online.
If your partner refuses to discuss compromises and insists you choose them over the baby, it might be time to pursue couples counseling. The Gottman Institute website has a directory of therapists – it’s is a good place to start looking for a counselor who understands how to balance a couple’s needs with those of their children.
Babies need happy, loving caregivers, whether they are raised by a single parent, a couple or in another family structure. There are ways to stay connected even when your child is at their neediest – it just takes a little creativity. Remember that kids are only little for a short time, even though it can seem like forever some days. You will have time alone again – and will miss those baby snuggles!
And Baby Makes Three by John & Julie Gottman
The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman
The Risks of Not Breastfeeding for Mothers and Infants https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2812877/