When a couple has a new baby, they're likely to get all sorts of advice, including how to feed, dress and soothe their new bundle of joy. But what about the care and feeding of the marriage? How can husbands and wives survive the upheaval that is parenthood? Stacie Cockrell, Cathy O'Neill and Julia Stone are the authors of "Babyproofing Your Marriage: How to Laugh More, Argue Less, and Communicate Better As Your Family Grows." They were invited to discuss the book on TODAY. Here’s an excerpt:
Welcome to the Foxhole
It’s been said that having a baby is like throwing a hand grenade into a marriage. A hand grenade? Why the violent metaphor for such a precious, peaceful little thing? They’re so beautiful. How could anyone defame such a cutie? But it’s true. Those little babies just explode right into our hearts and lives.
Do you have a new baby? Congratulations! Do you have one or more small people running amuck in your home? How wonderful. Does that home now more closely resemble a bomb crater than it does a dwelling place fit for human beings? Are you picking your way through the debris — the rubble of strollers, bottles, dirty clothes, and talking plastic gizmos — that now litters your domestic landscape?
Welcome to the foxhole, friend. Here’s a helmet.
We know the feeling. The three (make that six) of us have endured seven major diaper-bomb assaults in the last five years and lived to tell the tale. Parenthood changed us, and our relationships, in the most unexpected ways. This is what they meant with the whole for better or for worse business at our weddings. Parenthood fills us with awe and humility and gratitude. It is also a soggy, uncomfortable, life-altering trial by fire. Babies are the great levelers. Like a drill sergeant who tears down his weak new recruits so he can rebuild them into soldiers, babies break us down and rebuild us into parents. They flatten everything in sight, and then make us better, stronger, and hopefully, wiser than we were before.
The Paradoxical Passage to Parenthood
It’s the ultimate paradox, having a baby. It is at once the happiest, most breathtaking moment of our lives and the biggest mess we have ever gotten ourselves into (and been responsible for cleaning up).
The Best of Times
Once that baby is placed in our arms, we pass over to the other side. Becoming a parent is, without parallel, the single most beautiful moment in life (even if we are too busy throwing up, cursing, fainting, or just enjoying the drugs to notice at the time). We know that our lives will be richer because of this little person. We can feel it in an instant. And we can never go back.
“It’s amazing how quickly the life before your baby fades. I think it took about two weeks. Then I couldn’t imagine life without her.”—Amy, married 3 years, 1 kid
The Worst of Times
It’s so wonderful, but at the same time, new parents can feel afraid, confused, and sometimes, downright miserable. How is it possible to stand there at the side of the crib, silently watching the rise and fall of your baby’s breathing, and feel such extreme, and diametrically opposed, emotions — pure joy and sheer terror — rise within you? How is it possible to share moments like these with your spouse and think, “Look at this miracle we have created together!” and “You’re nice and all, but you’re driving me crazy,” within the same synaptic flash?
We feel dazed, confused, and even demented. We are shell-shocked. We are wholly unprepared and painfully ill-equipped. It doesn’t matter how many classes we attend. It doesn’t matter how many books we read (in fact, in hindsight, most of them are a colossal waste of time and money). We are not ready. We never will be. Nothing prepares us for the baby torpedo.
Stage One: The Twilight Zone
This period is short, but it can be savage.
We’re amazed when they actually let us leave the hospital with little more than a shiny new car seat to show our readiness for parenthood. No certificate. No license. No nothing. Can’t they see we don’t know what we’re doing? Somehow, we manage to get home with no major casualties, but the minute we leave the hospital and its fleet of medical staff, The Fear sets in. We look with horror at each other and whisper, “I don’t think we’re going to be able to do this.”
We start our long vigil of “just checking to make sure the baby is breathing.” Our fears range from the rational to the irrational. Stacie, worried that her cats would suffocate the baby, strung elaborate mosquito nets over the crib (nets that Cathy bought for her .?.?. the fear is contagious). Julia cataloged every input and output; such was her angst that her baby was not eating enough. For a while, she was even afraid to leave the house. When kindly neighbors asked her husband, Gordon, how she was doing, “Hard to say .?.?.” was his reply. Men are just as scared as women, though. Cathy’s husband, Mike, admitted he harbored dark fears about baby snatchers.
Many people get a soft landing into parenthood, as friends and grandparents line up to get a piece of the action. Hungry? Here comes a parade of people with hot meals. Tired? Just give little Sweetpea to Grandma and take a nap. Clueless? There’s someone within shouting distance who can cast some knowledge on the matter at hand. How about a golf round for the proud new Dad? Here’s Grandpa with his set of clubs. It’s no big deal because, hey, Grandma is there to pick up the slack.
Unfortunately, the parade doesn’t last long. Most of us are struck with abject terror when the grandparents and other supporting players leave. We are petrified at the thought of taking care of a newborn without backup.
“My mother-in-law was with us for a couple of weeks and, yes, I was relieved to see the back of her. But when I actually saw the taillights of her car, I thought, ‘Shit, no one in this house has raised a kid before.’?”—Gabriel, married 5 years, 2 kids
You Will Never Sleep Again
We hear rumors before the baby arrives about the impact of sleep dep-rivation, but no one can prepare us for this kind of pain and suffering. As Gordon put it, “In many countries, sleep deprivation is used as a form of torture.” Continuous sleep deprivation can make the most sane, level-headed -people irritable, irrational, or just plain crazy. We all turn into zombies. It is a cruel irony that we are expected to deal with one of the most difficult challenges of our lives on a wing and a prayer and a thirty-minute nap. Couldn’t Mother Nature have arranged things a little bit better?
“I was so tired I actually tried to breastfeed Bob’s arm one night.”—Louise, married 4 years, 1 kid (FYI: Bob is her husband, not her baby.)
Our general cluelessness compounds the fear. We really and truly don’t know what we’re doing. How could we?
• “I thought it would be easier to take care of a baby than a new puppy. I figured, hey, at least you can put a diaper on a baby.”—Margaret, married 5 years, 1 kid
• “I thought the baby would be born with teeth. How else was it supposed to eat?”—Alex, married 3 years, 2 kids
• “I asked the nurse at the hospital, ‘How will I know when the baby is hungry?’?”—Steve, married 8 years, 3 kids
• “I said to my husband, ‘Gosh, since Nina and Brian had little Natalie, they seem to be bickering all the time, even in front of us. I’m glad that won’t happen to you and me, Honey, because we communicate so well. . . .’?”
—Bethany, married 6 years, 2 kids
First Runner-Up in the Cluelessness Category: Gordon, who, during a three-month hiatus between jobs, suggested that he and Julia spend that time taking a backpacking trip through Asia with their fourteen-month-old in tow. “We’re really lame if we don’t take advantage of this time off. Why can’t we be more adventurous?”
And the Booby Prize goes to: Cathy and Mike, who actually forgot, temporarily, that they had a baby:
“One Friday night, a -couple of hours after I’d put our two-month-old, Kate, to bed, Mike asked me if I wanted to go get a video. ‘Great idea,’ I said. We both got in the car and drove the less than five minutes to the video store. As I got out, I suddenly remembered that (a) we had a baby and (b) we had left that baby at home. I was in a blind panic and close to tears. How could I have forgotten about Kate? Mike, however, thought that we should still get a video. ‘It’s not like she can get out of the crib and we’re already right
here .?.?. ’ I just left him there and high-tailed it back to the house. Of course she was still asleep and oblivious to our supreme negligence.”
The New Job
Meet the new boss — a tyrannical (albeit cute) despot whose demands are incessant and often indecipherable. Whatever freedom we once enjoyed is gone. If we try to make ourselves a sandwich or, God forbid, sleep, that all-seeing, all-knowing tiny autocrat will yell his or her head off. And quite possibly take ours with it.
And how about that new job description — twenty-four-hour personal servant? We all know, or quickly learn, that the work required to keep our ten-pounder alive is astounding. They are truly phenomenal crying, eating, inputting, and outputting machines. All we can do is pitch diapers back and forth, go wash another bottle, and try not to lose our place on the assembly line. Just the thought of it makes us want to sit down and have a gin and tonic.
The New and Different Ways We Communicate
The Big Leagues (Cover Baby’s Ears)
At times, we feel like we are under siege, and the pressure can take its toll. Remember when it was just the two of you and your biggest arguments revolved around whose turn it was to pick the restaurant, or who left their underwear on the bathroom floor? Friends, that was just battling it out in the sandbox. Caring for a newborn puts you right up there in the big leagues. It’s a whole new ball game. At best there are testy exchanges: “What do you mean you didn’t buy more diapers yesterday?” But often things get downright nasty. Doors are slammed and sofas are slept on.
Our friend Steve recalls feeling overwhelmed by the baby’s cries and yelling at his wife to “Get the f*#king diaper!” He later asked her when she thought her mom-instincts would kick in, to which she quickly replied, “How the f*#k should I know?” They are among the many new parents who simply cannot avoid expletives in these crazy early days.
“My husband had the unfortunate experience of telling me I should nap when the baby naps. I told him, ‘F*#k you. You’re at work. You take a nap.’?”—Helen, married 11 years, 3 kids
This period of extreme parenting can cause severe Scorekeeping. “You’re too tired to watch her for a couple of hours? Too bad. I haven’t showered for three days. Just suck it up!” We’ll talk in detail about Scorekeeping in the next chapter, and how it can set the stage for ongoing marital conflict.
Even if we aren’t fighting, our conversation just isn’t what it used to be. The day-to-day care of a newborn ushers in new and fascinating repartee. Now all we talk about is .?.?. the baby and how to care for the baby — when to feed the baby, how much to feed the baby, whose turn it is to feed the baby, who’s going to wash the bottles, when to change the baby, who’s going to change the baby, when should the baby take a nap, when should the baby wake up, what should the baby wear, it’s too cold, no, it’s too hot, he needs a blanket, no, he doesn’t, he threw up a few minutes ago, his poop was a weird color, he didn’t poop today, we need to track his poops, why has he been crying for 3 hours. It’s endless.
Fun and Games
New parents resort to all manner of fun and games to keep themselves amused during this difficult time. Here are some of our personal favorites:
Midnight ChickenAlso known as Who Will Blink First? It goes something like this: It’s 3:00 a.m. The baby is awake (again) and crying (again). You are both awake. You both hear her. But nobody moves. Women are tacitly calling in their chit (Surely he knows it’s his turn this time?), but men, the masters of this game, simply play dead (maybe they throw in a little snoring). They can’t hear the crying because they are sound asleep. Who will cave in and get up first? Needless to say, it’s usually Mom.
Our friend Charlotte, however, plays a mean game of Advanced Midnight Chicken: “I used to nudge my husband when the baby would cry and say, ‘Hey, you’re up. I got her last time.’ But there really was no last time.” She’d been asleep all along, but he didn’t know it. So don’t get too comfortable there in the bed, Daddy-O.
Tricks to Dodge the Poop
Then there are the guys who cringe at the thought of changing a poopy diaper and will say or do anything to avoid it. We know we women have a heightened sense of smell, but come on—that toxic-waste diaper passes your Smell Test? And how about Kyle, who has never changed one because, he claims, “It would make me throw up.” How clever.
John actually slips away from work an hour early just so that he can surreptitiously have a quick drink with his best friend before he heads home:
“I feel like I’m having an affair with my best friend. I try to see him once a week before catching my usual train for the evening. Don’t tell my wife. If she finds out, she’ll insist I come home an hour earlier and I’ll never see Pete again. It’s just nuts.”
The Fake Business Trip
Things can get so bad that some fathers resort to elaborate gamesmanship to survive, or more accurately, to get away from the baby-induced mania. The clear champion of this game is a new father, whom we’ll call Ron, who got a little desperate:
“When our first daughter was born I was so exhausted I couldn’t keep it together at work. I thought my boss was going to come in and find me passed out on the keyboard. Things got so bad that I told my wife I had to go on a business trip to Chicago. There was no business in Chicago. But I took a day off work, flew to Chicago, checked into a hotel, and got a full night’s sleep. It was heaven. I’m not really proud of lying to my wife, but it was a question of survival. I just couldn’t take it anymore.”
By the way, we absolutely and emphatically do not endorse this “solution,” although we know husbands everywhere (our own included) are secretly in awe of Ron’s ingenuity.
Huh? No one is having sex during this period (and if you are, it’s nothing short of weird). Women have to heal, no one has any energy, and if there is any extra time, you are sleeping. Next.