Let's clear up one big misconception right from the get-go: yes, having children will create new challenges for couples. People tend to think having a baby will bring them closer as a couple after they announce "We're going to be a family!," but it can be just the opposite.
Big expectations ... big let downs. Many parents arrive at my counselling office stating they have issues with their children, but quickly they start arguing, complaining and blaming one another for the problems at home. The underlying issue isn't the kids — it's actually the marriage being tested by the challenge of parenthood.
Perhaps starting a family should be thought of more like the TV show "Survivor" — a series of progressively frustrating challenges that you sometimes have to conquer solo and sometimes in teams. The dynamics between you makes the difference between conquest and happiness or misery and getting voted off the island.
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So, here's some advice to help ensure your baby doesn't suck your relationship down the drain instead of being the life-enhancing force you were hoping for:
1. Divide labour fairly
One of the most common complaints couples have is that one person is doing more than the other. Check in with each other and make sure you feel everyone is pulling their fair share of the weight. Sometimes a perfectionist or a critical partner inadvertently discourages their other half from stepping up and helping because they are berated for not doing it just so. If it's your partner's night to cook dinner, let them do it their way.
2. Appreciate each other
Raising kids, working, keeping the house together and all the other balls we juggle is an enormous task. Whose job is it to give you a pat on the back and say that it is deeply appreciated? Your partner.
One of the biggest dissatisfactions in a marriage is feeling unappreciated. Praise is the fuel in our gas tanks that give us the mojo to face another day of parenting. Remember to show your appreciation with simple statements like "You are so great with the kids," "I am amazed at how you work all day and still manage to come home and have time to pull such a nice family meal together," and "Awww, babe, did you wash the car? You are THE best."
3. Accept parenting differences
You are not going to parent exactly the same. If you did, one of you would be redundant! Expect differences and know that it is far better to accept them than to fight and hurt the relationship. Pick your battles. There is so much we could simply let slide off our backs instead of see as collective transgressions.
4. Keep the romance alive
Too often we get so busy with the grind of raising children that couples feel more like workmates than friends and lovers. So, take that clichéd advice to heart, remind yourselves of the person you fell in love with, and keep that spark alive by investing in your love relationship.
Date nights, weekends away without the kids, a dirty rendezvous at a hotel by your office on your lunch break, sexy text messages... knock yourself out and be creative. Romantic connection creates a flow of oxytocin (better known as the love hormone), which acts to keep your bonds or attachment tight.
5. Advocate for policy change
One of the biggest hurdles to our happiness is the restriction on our time and money. Family-friendly policies at work and through our government social systems make it much easier to conduct our relationships in healthier ways.
Longer maternity, paternity and family leave times; paid childcare, flexible work hours, better health plans, and higher minimum wages all help to remove burdens and barriers which then allow more of our bandwidth to be spent with the ones we love.
That only happens when we exert political pressure to bring these things about.
6. Seek counselling
Too often, couples delay coming to counselling until they are at the point of deciding on a divorce. Instead, consider coming in early, when you are at your first impasse and when things can be guided back onto the rails quickly.
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There should be no stigma in seeking professional service for relationship issues. In fact, it should be a point of pride for valuing your relationship enough to do everything you can to make it the best it can be.
7. Lighten up and laugh
We often are just too darn serious about everything. Lighten up and have a laugh about the ludicrousness of raising kids. They projectile vomit all over the sheets and carpet. They get into a jar of diaper rash cream and smear it on the walls. Ain't life wacky? What a roller coaster!
Have some equanimity about it all and every morning give your partner a hug and a kiss and repeat these words: "Together we are better. We got this thing."
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