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Baby in the house: Can you avoid the unwinnable argument?

Even the most prepared couples can find themselves taxed in new ways.

A new baby in the house can be tough on the marriage relationship: I have a friend – I’ll call her Jane – who was complaining about how much harder she works than her husband. “I do everything around the house, always do bath and bedtime, plus I work part-time! He has it so easy, and he doesn’t even know it.” Her husband, the one who has it easy, is a lawyer who commutes and puts in long hours in an attempt to make partner.

At brunch at their house, Jane vented loudly as she loaded more bottles into the dishwasher, baby on her hip, “It sure would be nice to have Saturdays off after working all week, like he does.” At the table, he muttered to me, “Yeah, a baby may be stressful, but she’s conveniently forgotten all the stress that comes with a high-pressure job. I’m so fried by the weekend I can hardly function.”

Welcome, my friends, to what I like to call the “Unwinnable Argument.” It starts with a seemingly straightforward question brewing in each person’s mind: Who is working harder here?

This contentious query can cause a real rift between partners who once felt they were on the same playing field, and now find themselves living wildly different lives that the other person doesn’t seem to understand nor appreciate – at least not enough.

Even the most prepared and solid couples, when they become new parents, quickly find themselves over-taxed and stretched in new ways. Combine new responsibilities, lack of sleep, surging hormones, conflicting feelings about altered roles, financial strain, and all the emotional and physical challenges of life with a baby and you can get a pretty dangerous cocktail … and I don’t mean the kind you used to enjoy in Belltown in your pre-pregnancy days. Before you know it, you and your partner may find yourself trying to one-up each other with how tough you have it. Always mentally keeping score, you can get so wrapped up in how much you’re doing that you don’t see the other person’s contributions at all.

“Who is working harder?” is a trap, and there’s no good way out of it. When a baby comes, it’s safe to say everyone is working harder and in different ways. But any sort of equitable balance is difficult to come by. If you’re both working outside the home, there’s likely one person logging more office hours and one who feels they’re doing more childcare. If someone is staying home, a different level of stress can build, with each person resentful that the other “gets” to go to work or “gets” to stay home. No matter what you mapped out early on as the best course, the day comes when you feel absolutely certain that you are the one with the short end of the stick. Suddenly, you can find yourself saying those fateful words, “You think you had a rough day? Let me tell you about mine!”

In these relationship moments – and we have all had them – the most important thing to remember is that this new life of yours is not a contest nor a race: you and your partner are a team, in a more meaningful way than ever before. And just like you will teach your toddler, it’s okay to have these feelings, but you still need to use your words. Rather than letting annoyance or resentment bubble unsaid until you hit the breaking point, talk about it in a constructive way. If you’re feeling put-upon, say so – but in a way that welcomes discussion and the possibility of a solution. Share your worries instead of lashing out.

Be generous and encourage each other to take breaks – not only from the baby, but from each other – by having a solo workout, an outing to a coffee shop with the paper, or even a walk around the block. Show each other that you’re committed to taking care of the grown-up relationship, as well as the relationship with your baby.

The simplest way to start this practice is to try, even when you’re not totally feeling it, to acknowledge each other’s efforts. That means not saying what might be sometimes on the tip of your tongue, like how that stressful meeting (with other adults! And hot coffee!) sounds like heaven. Or, on the other hand, that cruising Target with the baby sounds like a vacation day. Stop and consider the changes that each of you is going through, and how hard you are trying. On a daily basis, try saying those simple but powerful words: “I understand,” “I’m sorry,” and “thank you.” They go a long way toward defusing any situation and toward reconnecting you with the person you love.

Kerry Colburn is the author of “How to Have Your Second Child First: 100 Things That Would Have Been Good to Know… the First Time Around.”

This story was originally published in February 2011.

More about babies and relationships:

Newborn Baby in the House? A Reality Check!

Bringing Baby Home: Navigating New Parenthood with a Partner

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