Here's a scene that played out nightly during my first months of motherhood: My photographer husband returns home from a shoot, smelling of high-end catering and excitement. I greet him at the door, smelling of stale formula. A fight ensues. I resent that he got to escape the monotony of life with a newborn. He resents that I don't appreciate how hard he works to support us. Both of us resent the other for having what seems like the easier job.
Before having kids, my husband and I hardly ever fought. But after my son arrived, we suddenly turned into one of those couples on the Maury Povich show, screaming into each other's face.
Unfortunately (but reassuringly), this is normal. Researchers have found that relationship satisfaction takes a dive in the first five years of parenthood. Many of us live far from our extended families, leaving us without grandma to give us a few hours off. Many of us also may have started off very career-driven, so the shift to full-time motherhood or having to balance career with baby comes as a shock. And now dads are also expected to take a hands-on approach to fatherhood, shaking up traditional gender roles. All that makes for a messy transition to this new phase of life.
Between hormones, physical discomfort after birth, and a complete upheaval of your daily routine, it's perfectly normal to feel resentful of a partner who gets to walk about pain-free without breastmilk-stained shirts or a child clinging to his body. But there are things you can do to alleviate the resentment and work to make your relationship stronger in the long run.
1. Clarify your roles. Until you have clearly outlined who is supposed to do what, how can you know if your expectations are realistic? "Resentment is just an unmet expectation," says Christine Carter, PhD, a psychologist and author of Raising Happiness. To combat resentment, "sit down and say, 'these are the unsolved problems we have,' and then face the problem together."
2. Check in with your own emotions. Sometimes our own internal struggle can manifest as resentment even when our partner isn't doing anything wrong. After a difficult journey to motherhood, including two miscarriages, three months of bedrest, and having to pump in the public bathroom at work, Tracy Kreiss, a 40-year-old Californian mom of two found that "my baby wanted nothing to do with me." Instead, he bonded more strongly with his father, who stayed home to take care of him. Kreiss resented her husband because he hadn't suffered through the physical, mental, emotional issues she had. Plus, she was carrying all of the family's finances, and, says Kreiss, "my kid didn't like me!"
Sometimes just acknowledging these feelings can help you move on and find ways to work together. "Believe in yourself enough to put words to your feelings and [express them], simply and authentically, by attaching a feeling word to the word 'I,'" suggests Karen Kleiman, MSW, author of Tokens of Affection: Reclaiming Your Marriage After Postpartum Depression.
3. Encourage teamwork. Research shows that couples that approach problems as a team may be more likely to avoid marital dissatisfaction after having kids. This can be hard if one parent is carrying a heavier burden. Make sure your partner knows – and feels – like he is a coparent and not just an observer. If you're breastfeeding, ask your partner to be in charge of diapering and comforting the baby to sleep. And make sure that in your reallocation of tasks, he shares the emotionally rewarding parenting duties and not just the household chores.
"During our baby's first year, my sister pointed out that I was saying 'my son,'" says mom and blogger Anne-Marie Lindsay, of Grand Rapids, Minnesota. "That was a real turning point. Of course I wanted them to have a close bond! Of course I did not want to parent by myself. I learned to look at this new phase as ours."
4. Take control of what you can. Your husband can't spontaneously lactate. He may not be able to take sufficient paternity leave. He might be deployed, leaving you to manage things all on your own. "If the other person can't meet your expectations (due to situational circumstances), then the only thing you can control is your expectations," says Carter. But rather than mask your emotions (which Kleiman warns can result in "bickering, criticism, and irritability"), find ways to decompress.
Take a yoga class on the weekend when your partner can be with the baby. Join a stroller strides group to get some fresh air, company, and exercise. It may seem trite, but if there's really nothing you can do to change your situation, the best option is to increase your happiness in whatever small ways you can.
5. Focus on your friendship. Research suggests that couples with "strong marital friendship(s) are the most resilient to decline in marital satisfaction when they became parents." Hire a babysitter or have a friend or family member stay with your child – even if it's just for an hour – and spend some time remembering what you and your partner liked about each other in the first place.
It wasn't until my husband and I went to a Phish show – something we associated with our pre-baby lives – that we realized we'd barely touched each other in the six months since our son had been born. As we sang along to one of our favorite songs, he reached over and grabbed my hand. In the coming months there would be more arguments over who did what, more hurt feelings, and more petty anger, but in that moment it all fell away.
Now, when I'm angry with my husband, I force myself to listen to that song. It reminds me of what we had. What we still have, when we take the time to recognize it. It's not an absolute cure for resentment, but more a remission. And sometimes, that's enough to muddle through.