How to Thrive (or Survive)
after Your First Baby
Introduction: This topic is the fourth in a series dealing with a fair division
of labor during the first years of marriage. The other three are How to Thrive (or Survive) after the First Year of Marriage, How to Divide Domestic Responsibilities,
Part 1, and How to Divide Domestic
Responsibilities, Part 2.
It's tragic, but true, that the first baby often sinks a marriage. You'd think that it would be
the other way around, that a baby would draw a husband and wife closer together. However, there are very good reasons why children in general, and babies in particular, tend to make
marriages worse, not better.
It has to do with problem solving skills. Prior to the first arrival, a couple's ability to
resolve conflicts is not really put to the test. Peace and order usually reign in marriages
before children arrive. There may be conflicts, but they are few and relatively easy to
resolve. After the first child arrives, a couple is faced with conflicts they've never seen before,
and they often do not have easy answers.
Dear Dr. Harley,
I have a 3 month old son, who I love sooo much that I'm having mixed feelings about
going back to work full time. I'd like to find something part time or work at
home if possible. My husband is now bearing the stress of only one income coming into
the house and sometimes he drives me crazy with his constant complaining about money.
I'm getting to the point where I am starting to resent him. I want to know
if this is normal when you have one working partner and the other partner is currently
staying at home to take care of the baby. I lose my patience with him and I also get
mad that when he comes home, he only plays with the baby a little bit and then gives him
to me to hold or calm down. I've tried explaining to him that when he comes home, it feels
good for someone else to take care of the baby so I can do other things, like take a shower
or watch TV. I don't know if I am into a type of postpartum depression or what but I need
some input on why I'm starting to resent him.
Since you became pregnant with your first child, your life has completely changed. Your
goals have probably changed, your needs have probably changed and your resources have
undoubtedly changed. All these changes have required you and your husband to make
new decisions every day. And with every decision you make, there is a risk of conflict
between your interests and the interests of your husband.
Your new baby has forced you into a new lifestyle. He has been a 24 hour a day
responsibility from the moment he was born, and your life will never be the same. Your
letter reflects the stress you and your husband are under trying to adjust to your new way
Your letter also reflects a growing resentment. You feel abandoned by your husband when you need him most. Here you are faced with one of the most demanding and
stressful responsibilities of your life, and where is the man? Watching TV, no doubt. Then, to make matters worse, he is grousing about not having much money since you took
a leave of absence from your job to care for your baby. Why hasn't he been more
supportive of you during the first three months of your son's life? Why does he seem
distant at a time that you want him to be emotionally connected to you?
The answer to those questions is found in the way you and your husband make decisions.
With every problem you face, there are an array of solutions. You have solutions and your
husband has solutions. A reasonable solution for you may not be reasonable for your
husband. What may work to your advantage, may work to his disadvantage. When that happens, you have a conflict.
Conflicts are very common in marriage, but much more common when the first baby
arrives. That's because you become flooded with new decisions that must be made
quickly, decisions you've never had to make before. It is the first real test of your
The success of your marriage will depend on your ability to resolve your conflicts with
mutual consideration. That means whenever a decision needs to be made, the
feelings of both you and your husband must be taken into account.
Sadly, that's not the way most married couples resolve their conflicts. If you bear with
me, I'll first explain what most couples do to try to resolve their conflicts, and then I'll
explain what couples should do. Finally, I will give you some advice regarding
the care of your baby.
How Most Couples Resolve Conflicts
Most couples use one of three different strategies to resolve conflicts. The first and most
common is the Dictator strategy. This strategy assumes that one
member of the family (usually the husband) has the wisdom and compassion to make most
family decisions correctly. While other members of the family can lobby to have him (or
her) take their interests into account, when a decision is made, it is final.
Sometimes that strategy works. However, it usually doesn't, especially here in America.
For one thing, dictators have not been known to be all that wise or compassionate. They
tend to make decisions in their own interest and at the expense of their citizens. The same
thing happens in marriage. When one spouse is given the right to make all final decisions,
the other spouse usually suffers.
You may be a victim of the Dictator strategy. It sounds to me as if your husband has
decided that you are to take full responsibility for the care of the baby, especially since you
are not employed. It solves the problem from his perspective, but not from yours. That's
the downside of the Dictator strategy.
Those who have had bad experiences with a Dictator, often modify their approach to
problem solving by creating a second strategy, the Dueling Dictators strategy.
This approach raises both spouses to dictator status, and solutions to problems are decided
by who is stronger or more determined. Each spouse proposes a solution to a conflict that is in their
own best interest, and the war begins. After the dust settles, one spouse wins the decision,
which means that his or her solution is put into effect. You and your husband may be
moving toward this strategy at this very moment.
Unfortunately, the Dueling Dictators strategy works well enough to make millions of couples unhappy. While this approach makes problem solving
unpleasant for all involved, at least there is a solution. And it seems more fair than the
Dictator strategy because the pain alternates between both spouses instead of being borne
by only one. With each decision one spouse wins and the other loses. The spouse that
suffers varies from decision to decision. Instead of one spouse being consistently
victimized, both spouses are alternately victimized.
If you were to make the mistake of adapting the Dueling Dictators strategy, you would try
to force your husband to care for your baby, whether he liked it or
not. You would pull out all the stops, and face fire with fire. You would threaten him,
keep him awake at night, withhold sex, and tell his parents what a terrible father he has
turned out to be. From time to time, your tactics would work, and he would care for your
son while you take a shower, watch TV or, better yet, go out with your friends.
The failure of the Dictator strategy and the Dueling Dictators strategy often leads to a third
approach to marital conflict resolution, the Anarchy strategy. This strategy gives
up on the idea that marital conflicts can be resolved, and takes the position "every man for
himself." A husband and wife each do whatever they feel like doing. This strategy has the
advantage of preventing either spouse from forcing the other to submit to their wishes.
That's because both spouses refuse to do anything that the other wants them to do.
This strategy, of course, is only one step away from divorce, but almost everyone faced
with failure to resolve conflicts tries it. An example of this strategy would be for you to
drop your son off at your mother-in-law's house and tell her that it's your husband's turn
to take care of him. He, in turn, would ignore his mother's telephone calls, and go on
with his life as if nothing happened. In other words, this strategy doesn't resolve the
conflict, it overlooks it.
There is a variation of this strategy that I call Limited Anarchy, where only one
spouse completely abdicates responsibility. In this case, your husband decides not to deal
with the issue of child care, leaving you with the complete responsibility to raise your
baby. In this scenario, your husband doesn't tell you what to do, he simply ignores the
problem. You, on the other hand, end up caring for the child because you have not yet
abandoned your responsibility. As is the case with total Anarchy, Limited Anarchy also
leads to divorce. In fact, it is the most common reason that women leave men (see my
article "Why Women Leave Men").
How Couples Should Resolve Conflicts
Thankfully, there is one more strategy left. It's the Democracy strategy. This strategy is
guided by the Policy of Joint Agreement (never do
anything without an enthusiastic agreement between you and your spouse). When this
strategy is used to resolve a conflict, a husband and wife do not make a decision until they
are both in enthusiastic agreement.
Unlike true democracy, where only a slight majority can impose it's will on the minority,
the Democracy strategy for marital conflict requires unanimous consent. Neither spouse
can impose their will on the other. Of course, that's because there are only two people
involved in every decision, and a slight majority for two turns out to be 100 percent.
The Democracy strategy is very different from the others. In the Dictator strategy, marital
conflicts are resolved by the decisions of one spouse (usually the husband), leaving the
other to suffer it's consequences. In the Dueling Dictators strategy, conflicts are resolved
by winning spouses imposing their will on losing spouses. The Anarchy strategy has no
winners or losers because neither spouse is willing to submit to each other's wishes, and
the conflicts are never resolved. In the Democracy strategy, conflicts are not only
resolved, but they are resolved with no victims. The outcome of each decision is in the best
interest of both spouses.
Why isn't the Democracy strategy used in all marriages, or even in most marriages? Self-centeredness is one answer. The most powerful person in a marriage may feel that if he
or she can always prevail in a conflict, why not? That puts the Dictator strategy into play.
Once it's tried, the other strategies I've mentioned eventually follow.
Another reason that couples don't use the Democracy strategy is that it requires more time
and skill than the others. As a quick description of what's involved, let me explain the
steps you should take when you use the Democracy strategy to resolve your conflicts.
1. Set ground rules to make negotiations pleasant and safe.
Before you start to negotiate, agree with each other that you will both follow these rules:
(a) be pleasant and cheerful throughout your discussion of the issue, (b) put safety first--do
not threaten to cause pain or suffering when you negotiate, even if your spouse makes
threatening remarks or if the negotiations fail, and (c) if you reach an impasse, stop for a
while and come back to the issue later.
Under no conditions should you be disrespectful or judgmental of your spouse's opinions
or desires. Your negotiations should accept and respect your differences. Otherwise, you
will fail to make them pleasant and safe.
2. Identify the problem from the perspectives of both you and your spouse.
Be able to state each other's position on a conflict before you go on to find a solution. In
the case of negotiating for help with care for your baby, state what you would like to have
done, and what form you would like his help to take. Your husband should then explain
his reasons for having not helped in the past. Be sure you don't argue with him, just get
to know how he feels.
3. Brainstorm solutions with abandon.
Spend some time thinking of all sorts of ways to handle the problem, and don't correct
each other when you hear of a plan that you don't like -- you'll have a chance to do that
later. If you give your intelligence a chance to flex its muscle, you will have a long list of
4. Choose the solution that is appealing to both of you.
From your list of solutions, some will satisfy only one of you but not both. However,
scattered within the list will be solutions that both of you would find attractive. Among
those solutions that are mutually satisfactory, select the one that you both like the most.
These steps take time and thought, something that the other strategies do not require. The steps themselves will not only give you solutions to your problem, they will also
draw you much closer to each other emotionally.
Besides the conflicts you are having regarding care of your new baby, you also mentioned
financial conflicts, I will not address them in this letter, but instead suggest you read the
September 23, 1996 Q&A column, "Financial Conflicts."
I explain in that column how to apply the Policy of Joint
Agreement to your husband's "constant complaining about money." For the
remainder of this letter, I would like to discuss your baby.
How to Care for Your Baby
You love your new son, and love caring for him. So much so, that you want a job that
keeps you at home so that you can provide the quality of care you feel he needs.
But you also want your husband to share in your joy, and in the responsibility for his care.
You feel abandoned by your husband, because, when you need a break from the
care of your son, he refuses to help.
I made the same mistake when my wife, Joyce, and I had our first baby, Jennifer. I was a
full-time graduate student and had a full-time job to support our new family. I reasoned
that with all that work, Joyce, who quit her job to be a full-time mom, should take full
responsibility for our daughter until I finished graduate school. It seemed reasonable to
me at time, but Joyce still remembers how I didn't help her care for our baby.
It was the first time our problem solving skills were really put to the test, and I found
myself dropping into the Dictator stategy of conflict resolution. I told Joyce the way it was
going to be, and she accepted it, with resentment. If I had it to do over again, she and I
would have thought it through until we arrived at a mutually agreeable solution.
After considering the alternatives, Joyce may have enthusiastically agreed to take full
responsibility for the baby until I finished graduate school. If we had come to a mutual
agreement first, there would not have been resentment later.
Maybe she would not have agreed. She might have explained to me that my active
role in caring for our new baby was more important to her than my job or my schooling.
If that were the case, I would have needed to rethink my priorities, and reorganize my
schedule to accommodate caring for our new baby. Perhaps I would need to slow down
the pace of my education, or work a little less. I had incorrectly assumed that my schedule
was something I was doing for both of us. I was wrong -- I certainly wasn't doing it for
Joyce if my schedule had crowded out fulfillment of her emotional needs.
Your husband's help in caring for your baby is one of your emotional needs. Because
this is your first baby, you didn't know this until now. Now you've discovered that you need your husband to join you
in taking full responsibility for the care of your son. When he does that, he deposits love units into his account in your Love Bank, and when he doesn't, your frustration
withdraws love units. He doesn't realize it, but every
time he refuses to watch your baby so that you can take a shower or watch TV, you lose
a little love for your husband.
I squandered some of the love Joyce had for me when I didn't help her with our first baby.
If she had explained it to me in those terms, I'm sure that I would have adjusted my
schedule to accommodate her. But I didn't think it mattered that much. I thought she
would adjust to it. I was wrong, because you can't adjust to an unmet emotional need.
I suggest that you explain to your husband (1) that you need his active
involvement in the care of your new baby and (2) explain to him what he should do to
meet that need. All of his arguments about working to support you, and being tired when
he comes home doesn't negate the fact that he is not meeting your emotional needs right now. If he expects you to
continue to be in love with him, he must learn to meet this very powerful, but new,
Then, I would try to help him meet your need by explaining that you don't want him to
suffer when he helps you with the baby. You want him to enjoy meeting your need. So,
by discussing a variety of alternatives with him, you can create ways that he can
enthusiastically join you in the care of your son. That will require you to implement the
Democracy strategy to help you resolve this conflict. When you use that strategy, your
husband can learn to meet your emotional need with enthusiasm.
Quite frankly, that's the way he wants you to meet his needs, too.