Why do so many of us come to blows with our partner after the baby arrives? Martha Alexander finds out
When does Robin have her afternoon bottle?” is a question that sends me into orbit when the asker is my husband. I lurch from lukewarm exhaustion to white-hot rage in a second: “Is that a joke?”
Huffing and puffing about how he should be ashamed not to know the timings and quantities of our daughter’s daily milk intake, I tell him I’d love to get on the Bakerloo line, shroud my face in a stranger’s armpit, and go into Soho to spend a day simply being good at a job, a paid job, stopping for Vietnamese pho and a read of the paper at 1pm. How lovely. How relaxing. What a treat.
For his part, my husband says he misses our daughter all day (“and you!” he always adds) and he wishes he could be at home, and he hates the Bakerloo line. But he gets the best of both worlds: the job he’s brilliant at and a daughter who dotes on him.
Meanwhile, I’m working freelance and being mother – two roles which are entirely new to me. Sometimes it seems we’re trapped in a never-ending game of one-upmanship. It’s as if respective points of view are eclipsed by a baby-shaped moon, blocking each other’s light, leaving both feeling misunderstood.
I’m not alone; the above is just a slice of my own embittered little pie. Others all have their own tales of woe. The frustrations of parenthood are myriad. Why do both parties feel they have the thin end of the wedge?
“Relationships get into dire straits when they enter territories that are wholly unchartered,” says psychologist Emma Kenny. “You’ve entered mortgages and marriages before, but you can get out of them. With babies, firstly, it’s forever. Secondly, you inextricably join yourself with the human that you have chosen to have the baby with.”
The reality of domesticity bites hard for first-time parents, who, like me, harboured a romanticised idea of childrearing. The feeling of being unappreciated seems to be, across the board, the biggest bugbear for the partner who stays at home with the baby. When essential tasks like washing up, feeding pets, playing with baby and writing thank-you letters go unnoticed, tempers begin to fray.
Sarah, who has two children under two, admits she feels her husband is indebted to her and therefore should act accordingly.
“He doesn’t seem to appreciate that pregnancy was a period of time I had to give up things I love including drinking, coffee and riding my bike, and so am owed many pink tickets,” she explains. “Instead, I find the balance of chores and lifestyle always seems cruelly favoured towards him.”
There is also the not-insignificant matter of confidence. When one parent swaps a full-time career for an entirely new, largely solitary role, it is entirely disorienting.
“By staying home all day, my confidence in the world, my sense of who I am in it, ebbs away,” agrees Bea, who has an eight-month-old daughter. “I feel disconnected and stupid – my only contribution being ill-formed opinions based on articles I never have time to finish.”
Tellingly, the only woman I spoke to who said her relationship has barely been affected by parenthood has a husband who works for a company that allowed him to have a six-month paternity leave, fully paid.
“When partners do it together they learn important lessons,” says Emma. “In that six months he will have seen how much pressure a baby brings. Being together is so bonding.”
One can’t help but think this is a depressingly sexist issue – with most of the women I spoke to admitting they feel some things are just expected of them.
“When men become fathers they are often completely unaware of their sexism,” agrees Emma. “Because they have been marketed to all their lives, being told, ‘you are going to be the breadwinner and she is going to stay at home being a mum’ – even though it’s wholly untrue in our society.”
And what do the men say? “I feel whatever I do is wrong,” says Thom, whose daughter is two. “I try to help but I’m always messing up: I dress her in the wrong clothes, feed her the wrong food – I can’t win.”
So, how to prevent the rows? One way is not to ever pledge to carry on ‘as normal’. This is Emma’s top piece of advice for new parents – and she urges couples to articulate their expectations before the baby arrives.
Emma also bans rows (“They don’t resolve anything”) and instead suggests grievances are written in a book, and at the end of the week both parties must remember what they wrote before discussing it: “Most people forget the petty things and focus on the real problem.”
For me, I’ve realised the arguments between my husband and I are fairly common. Although I am exasperated at the change in my life, this isn’t his fault and I have accepted that for all my frustrations we occupy a calm sea interrupted by choppy waves when one of us is railing against not being able to do exactly what we want there and then.
“When a partner does what they want first, this gives a message that their needs matter the most,” says Emma. “Having a peaceful partner who comes home, who sticks to plans, who is reliable in the mundane tasks as well as in bigger commitments gives consistency, continuity and a sense of security. The way they act demonstrates their main priority is their family and that is massively attractive.”
The bottom line is, when you have a baby, you don’t come first anymore.
Stay on track: Emma Kenny’s rules for a happy relationship
• Don’t think you can carry on as normal once a baby has arrived – things will change.
• Don’t row. Write your grievances down in a notebook and discuss the things that still bother you at the end of the week.
• Ask your partner for help if you need it.
• Just say how you feel: most of the time hinting doesn’t work.
• Make use of apps, such as Mama Social, to meet new, like-minded friends.