On good evenings, Belle used to dance on tables in between the empty tequila bottles and ashtrays. She and Ryan, her partner of three years, met on the dance floor and cemented the attraction over a line of coke on the toilet seat. They were both lawyers and their group of friends was wide and wild. They hooked up on a Friday night and the party only ended on Sunday afternoon.
Then she fell pregnant. “Just nine months and I will be back on the circuit,” she told her friends. She squeezed her ballooning tummy into increasingly sexier Lycra dresses, danced the night away in stilettos and billed ten-hour days.
The whole way through her pregnancy she maintained her only craving was for tequila. “Hold the lemon, I’ll do it straight-up the second he comes out,” she would cry as she passed on another round of drinks, in a late night club. She rode her pregnancy like a cowgirl on a bronco. Sexy, sassy and stylish, she was the epitome of fun. Nine months of clean living and she could not wait to get back on the party circuit.
Being a parent is revoltingly romanticised. Nobody told you having a baby was going to put serious strain on your relationship. Most of the advice we are given before we have children is about giving up sleep, or smug smiles and “wait and see” jibes. Nobody tells you that an explosion is about to happen in your relationship and that the two of you are going to have to work really hard to survive it intact. If truth be told, if many couples knew what becoming parents was really about, there would be far fewer children in the world today.
Let’s get this out of the way straight off: Having a baby does your relationship no favours. It is certainly no way to mend a rela- tionship. It may even be truer to say that, if your relationship is not open, honest and functioning, having a child creates a strong chance of destroying it. You’ve got a lot of work to do to keep it on track. That is, if you are still married after the hormonal thunderstorm that possessed your body during pregnancy. Well, hang in there, the rocky ride is not over yet. A power-play will emerge over the first few months of your baby’s life, that will see you fighting like … well, like your parents used to.
And let’s say it again now – your relationship will never be the same again. Never.
Things will settle down and you will find a new equilibrium, but your old relationship is gone forever and your task, as partners, is now to define a new one. Sounds exciting, gulp.
Take heart in that this is a necessary readjustment and it will probably emerge better, but there is no going back now. Your relationship has moved from that of lovers to parents.
What has changed?
Time: You are lying cuddling on a Sunday morning. The sun has not yet risen, but you have been up all night. He looks over at you tenderly. Your heart melts despite the night of rowing over who will pacify the tiny terrorist, bellowing for a bottle next door.
“Sweetheart,” he says.
“Yes,” you flirt back. Your pulse starting to race like it hasn’t in years.
“Let’s bring Connor through to cuddle.”
The spare time you had used to be spent with each other. Now you have two problems: You have almost no spare time and there is a third person who needs to share any downtime you do have.
You: You are both transformed people. You are parents.
Your family: Now you have one. You have a new person in the house who is not going to pass unnoticed. You have created an entire new being with its own personality, who is going to start to exert himself. This creates an additional dynamic in the family that will see a realignment of your relationship to accommodate this new life.
Money: Babies are expensive. If the initial setup with pram, car seat, nappies, clothes, bottles, dummies and squeaky toys you never get to use has not sunk you, the monthly maintenance costs of your small addition will add up and slowly erode what used to be a sizeable disposable income. Add the loss of your income to the pot and your relationship dynamic has changed. No more take out food and shopping at the deli's organic section, you are now lugging home bulk packs of instant noodles from your local wholesalers. Fortunately, you have less to spend your money on now that dinners out and glorious weekends out of town are hazy memories anyway. Even if you have more than enough to go around, the fact that you are not working leads to a power shift that is tough to get used to. Arguments over money are a certain in every relationship.
Gender bender: Last month you were too busy launching a campaign to even call to cancel dinner. Now you have left seven “What time are you coming home?” messages and it’s only 11am. God help him when he comes through the door. You are on to him like a tornado – flinging accusations and guilt. You will not stop, until he feels as bad as you do. Until he knows what a tough day you’ve had, just how lonely you are, and how little time you have had to yourself.
The only pants you will be wearing during this time are waist-high nylons, a very distant cousin of sexy French full-cut knickers. Forget about being the boss: this is not the time in your life when you will be the one steering the ship.
Your hip-and-happening relationship has just hit a time warp back into the Fifties. You are at home with a baby on the hip and your man is out working to support you. You are a walking cliché. Ouch, it’s gotta hurt.
The gender patterning that emerges in a new family is centuries old. It is primordial and it is largely inescapable. The care for the baby rests with you. You will take total responsibility for her – her food, entertainment, wellbeing and logistics. Your husband has become the breadwinner.
This is a big thing for a career girl who is used to being an equal earning partner in the relationship. This is a tough one. From having your accountant and lawyer on speed-dial, you are swept into a power shift that is unfathomable to a hip and urbane girl. You are becoming your own worst nightmare. If this were Fear Factor, they’d have discovered your weakness: being a needy, dependent and emotional woman. And you are now one of them. Worse. You are your mother.
Babies don’t have to ruin your marriage
Your Relationship is your First Priority : During the first year, there is an overwhelming protective instinct and you know that your baby comes first. This is a damaging blow to a relationship. It means you are putting your child before each other. This will change and needs to change but it may take longer than a year to start taking effect. There will come a time when you need to realise that you and your partner must come first. Your relationship was there before the baby arrived and it will be there long after he has left. You need to protect it. Your child is a product of your relationship; he or she cannot replace it.
A Child cannot Destroy Your Relationship : Only you can do that. Children are simply out there, in the world, being themselves. They are needy, demanding and want to be perfectly loved. They will fill your house for a few years, and then they will move on and have their own families. They have no role in your relationship and can neither strengthen nor destroy it. It is your inability to renegotiate you relationship that can destroy it.
You are Responsible for your Own Happiness : Nobody can ever fulfill you but yourself. Not your life partner, not your child, not your friends. A marriage is a place in which you have the space to go on your own journey. Work to understand more of yourself, to become more of yourself.
There is no such thing as forever : Being in a relationship is a choice you make every day. Sometimes you don’t know why you have made that choice. You are there because you have chosen it and it is part of your journey. If you do want to end a relationship, be sure that overcoming this hurdle is not part of your journey, in this relationship. Nobody is perfect – that would just be boring.
It is very easy during the first year of having a baby, to find yourself in a very lonely place. This is worse if you stop work. Your life now revolves around a small baby and you are spending most of your time alone. Sure, friends call and stop in, but they have to leave again. Even busy career girls feel the crushing isolation and loneliness that comes with having to put your baby first. Having family around lessens the blow, but you are still the one holding the reins, long after everyone goes home. If you do not have family you can rely on, the first year can be one of the most achingly lonely times of your life.
How do I make friends?
Join a club: Thought this advice was only dished out to desperate wallflowers with wire braces and library memberships? Think again. Fortunately, there are lots of groups that cater for cultural snobs like you. If the idea of singing “Humpty Dumpty” along with twenty other boisterous moms brings on a panic attack, try yoga, play-groups, post-natal tea groups, swimming classes for babes, baby massage classes. You need to be proactive. You will be surprised what fab girls you will meet. Why, they are just like you!
Networking: Women en masse scare me silly. I have a picture of organised girl get togethers that is a nightmarish scene from Steel Magnolias, but we are all wearing shower caps. My first bout of pregnancy nausea came during antenatal classes when a fellow scholar excitedly shared how she and her friends babysat each other’s children and breastfeeding was included on the menu. Call me an ice queen, but I am not ready for the nipple kibbutz quite yet.
I am a reformed girlfriend. I cannot get enough women in my life right now because I have learned, the hard way, that if there is one resource you cannot live without with children, it is a network of friends with babies.
It is absolutely critical to start building a support network of friends and family for yourself. This is going to become more and more critical as your child grows. So start now.
Ask for help: Friends do actually want to help out and be a part of your child’s life. It’s your turn to trust them and include them in your new life. Pick up the phone to a friend with a baby of a similar age and make a date. Make yourself supportable.
Be supportive: Offer support back. You know what it’s like, so make a plan with a friend along the lines of: “You take Brian on Saturday afternoons and I will look after Rupert on Wednesday mornings, so you can go back to yoga.” This is new territory for you. You have been so busy crawling around in self-pity, you may have forgotten you can also lend a hand to someone else.
Initiate contact: Realise that other moms out there could be feeling the same way you do. If you bump into someone and strike up a good conversation, invite them somewhere: “I am having a whole group of new moms for tea and a chat on Monday. They would all love to meet you. Let me email you the details”, or “A whole group of us are going to start baby swimming lessons. Why don’t you join?” You could have a fantastic new friend there.
Make peace with yourself: You have a gorgeous baby to spend lots of time with. Stop wishing you were somewhere else. In a few years she or he will be off to school and have no time for you and you will be hankering after these lonely days alone with her or him. Your social life will return, preschool and school will present you with a social life you would pay to outsource. Enjoy this lonely time.
In-laws and grandparents
Few things can sour your mood as quickly as a visit from in-laws.
No matter how well you connect with your in-laws, there are going to be moments when you want them dead. This is new terrain for all of you. You have borne their grandchild and, love you as they may, they are going to love him more. His wellbeing is their utmost concern and there are times when they think you are not doing the right thing. The first few months are going to be the toughest. They have had children, you are new to the game, and everything you do is going to be “corrected”.
It is important to remember that they can be both right and wrong. First, they have a wealth of personal experience and that rates higher than book knowledge or ideas. They are sharing what worked for them in the hope that it will work for you too. There is a strong chance that some of the tips or methods they offer you may be valuable and it is certainly worth considering. Second, their knowledge comes from at least twenty years ago. A lot has changed since your husband was a baby, certainly science has moved fast and many new facts have emerged. The best bet is to measure up their methods against knowledge you have gained and then choose the course of action you are most comfortable with.
But the most important thing to realise is that your in-laws are your greatest babysitters. They love your baby, they (mostly) know what they’re doing and they’re free!