Here’s how you and your partner can show up for each other when life becomes all about someone else.
By Kara Hoppe and Stan Tatkin
Last updated on Sep 27, 2023
Photo: Anne Bacani, Gie Valdellon, vivanity from Getty Images Signature, via Canva
You’ve got a crib, strollers, diapers, and so, so many onesies. You have received advice from every birthing specialist you can and unpacked all your options from midwife to doula, Lamaze coach to traditional birthing plan.
But have you thought about your relationship? Do you have a plan to baby-proof your marriage?
Moms-to-be are offered tons of advice about what to expect when they’re expecting, but very few people talk about the predictable challenges to your relationship after the baby arrives.
Because when your party of two becomes a part of three, life is forever changed. Having a solid partnership is the foundation for becoming successful parents.
Just as they say it takes two to tango, it takes two to make an intimate partnership work.
Here are 3 impactful ways you can protect your marriage when you are expecting a baby together.
1. Make foundational agreements.
Couples who enjoy smooth sailing through early parenthood make agreements early on to set their expectations for each other and their relationship.
They take the time to define what they want for themselves and each other. They get clear about their expectations and stick to them or renegotiate them when that becomes necessary.
These foundational agreements can be in the form of marriage vows or something more informal.
For example, your agreements might sound like the following:
“We agree to have each other’s backs.””We agree to be equal partners.””We agree to take care of each other to the best of our ability.””We agree to share our deepest dreams and fears.””We agree to always find win-wins.”
How you word your agreements is up to you. Use language that speaks to you.
However you choose to state it, though, the purpose of your agreements should be to strengthen your relationship bond. It should clarify what you expect from each other. Then, whatever specific issues come up, you have a foundation from which to draw.
For example, suppose you’re in online moms’ groups, gathering intel about birth plans, baby registries, and more. You start thinking, “Where’s my partner? This doesn’t feel equitable!”
So you turn to your foundational agreement. You say, “Babe, all this info is overwhelming. We agreed to be equal partners, but I’m doing most of the parenting work right now. I’d like your help.”
And your partner says, “Absolutely! How about I take over the research for car seats, cribs, and daycare?”
2. But also be willing to reevaluate.
My husband, Charlie, and I made foundational agreements in the early years of our partnership that allowed us to function securely as a team, knowing what we expected of each other. And then things changed.
Our baby bomb arrived! As ecstatic as we were to welcome our son, we suddenly found ourselves tired, cranky, hungry, and overwhelmed.
In the heat and messiness of the moment, we lost track of what we expected of ourselves and each other.
One day, as we were struggling, it dawned on me that we were no longer holding tight to our foundational agreements. Or, perhaps, it would be fair to say we’d outgrown some of our original agreements.
So, I suggested that we make a new pinky swear to get ourselves back on track as a team. Charlie was immediately in.
Our renewed commitment to teamwork gave us the secure base we needed to start handling the day-to-day pressures of parenting.
But, as solid as that base was, it quickly became apparent that having a one-size-fits-all agreement, or even a set of such agreements, was no longer enough.
Every day, we faced new challenges as well as new opportunities to forge agreements — both large and small.
For example, we agreed to double down on caring for each other by being available to each other throughout each day, tracking each other’s highs and lows, being clear about what we expected of each other, and giving each other lots of hugs, smiles, and affection.
Doubling down like this really helped during my early post-partum haze, while my body was healing and I was feeding our son with it. I loved getting those extra back rubs and cuddles from Charlie.
In fact, part of my side of our agreement was to receive his care, gratefully and joyfully. Knowing I was in his care helped me get through a time when I needed more care than he did.
Similarly, you and your partner should consider how to best take care of each other throughout the expecting, birthing, and postpartum period.
You can recognize that, as the birthing mom, you need more care (both physically and psychologically), without making that into a deficit or cause for resentment or guilt.
During this time, Charlie and I also discovered how vital it is to continually show each other that we respect and live up to our promises. An agreement that isn’t backed up with mutual respect really isn’t an agreement at all.
As we worked on making and respecting our agreements, this turned into daily practice.
3. Make your foundational agreements a daily practice.
You and your partner need to view making and respecting your agreements as a daily practice. This doesn’t mean you need to sit down every day at an appointed hour to discuss stuff.
This means increasing your mindfulness, in general, so that any time you notice signs of trouble, you immediately stop and check in with yourself and each other.
To do this, you may find it helpful to ask 3 questions:
“Do we have a prior agreement that covers this situation?””If so, are we respecting our agreement?””If not, do we need a new agreement here?”
Don’t make the mistake of thinking the agreements you inked many moons ago will carry you through any situation.
Commitments are living, breathing entities that require active daily participation.
So, what do you expect from your partner when you’re expecting?
When I originally raised the question of what you, as a mom-to-be, should expect from your partner, you might have thought the answer lay in the specifics.
For instance, your partner should come to all the doctors’ appointments. Or your partner should change 50 percent of the diapers. Or your partner should pamper you a bit more during this time.
In fact, you might want to set all of the above as your expectations. But, that’s not the point.
I’m not here to tell you what expectations you should have of your partner. That’s for the two of you to figure out together.
Rather, I’m saying that, in addition to the crib, the strollers, the diapers, and the onesies, you need a conscious and intentional plan for your primary relationship that addresses your expectations.
And you want that plan to be in place as soon as possible and definitely before your baby arrives.
So, if you haven’t already done so, sit down with your partner and have the talk: go over your existing agreements, discuss your expectations, set any new agreements.
You won’t be able to anticipate all the twists and turns to come, but decide how you can work as a team to meet each new moment.
Kara Hoppe, MA, MFT, is a psychotherapist, teacher, feminist, and mother. Hoppe offers virtual retreats for parents and expectant couples, based on her book Baby Bomb: A Relationship Survival Guide for New Parents. She lives with her husband and son in Pioneertown, CA, and sees clients in private practice via telehealth. You can learn more about her at karahoppe.com.
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Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT, is a clinician, teacher, and developer of A Psychobiological Approach to Couples Therapy® (PACT). He has a clinical practice in Calabasas, CA, where he has specialized for the last 20 years in working with couples and individuals who wish to be in relationships.