How Being the “Perfect Parent” Can Damage Your Partnership

It’s hard to overstate the impact that the transition to parenthood has on couples. Your free time, your finances, your physical intimacy, your identities – so much changes. The impact of the transition to parenthood is significantly greater than the transition from engagement to marriage, but it often catches couples off guard.

Our cultural norms don’t do much to help couples out here. Baby showers and doctor appointments don’t help couples to prepare for the impact on their relationship. On top of that, there are many cultural myths about the transition to parenthood that can make life much harder for couples.

Let’s unpack just one of those myths now – the very American ideal of a child-centered marriage. Specifically, how once you become parents, everything else takes a backseat to this question: What’s best for the baby? What’s best for our kids? The question of, “What does our marriage need to thrive?” starts to fade into the background.

Perhaps understandably so. Babies are inherently vulnerable and completely dependent on us.  They need so much, so urgently. The nature of this changes a bit as our babies become children, but children still need a great deal from their parents. This all becomes even more salient for those with children who have special medical or mental health needs.

It’s not uncommon for me as a couples therapist to sit with partners who describe not going on a single date night during their baby’s first year, or who haven’t been on a trip by themselves for over a decade. I don’t think these couples don’t care about their marriage (otherwise they wouldn’t be meeting with me). Parenthood nowadays is very intensive, and couples can feel judgment from others or their own self-judgment if they consider the needs of their relationship first (or at least as often as they consider the needs of their baby).

In the stress and sleep deprivation of caring for a baby, it can be easy to overlook the impact of this fact: most parenting advice is advice given in a vacuum. The impact of parenting decisions on the entire family, and particularly the couple, is often overlooked or given little attention.  When you are reading books or following Instagram accounts on the best way to parent, it’s important to remember that the author or influencer might not be thinking about the impact on your whole family. 

I don’t think there are right or wrong answers when it comes to parenting, but let’s take a few examples. First up– sleep. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that babies sleep in the same room as their parents for the first six months (and “ideally up to 1 year”). I’d encourage new parents to take in this advice, as it comes from a reputable source, and then ask themselves:

What are the upsides and downsides to us adopting this recommendation – for our baby, for our relationship, and for our whole family?

You might consider the impact that sharing a room with your baby for 6 months or longer will have on your own sleep. If you’re a light sleeper who also can’t fall back asleep easily, then being awoken multiple times a night might have a negative impact on your mental health or your ability to be patient with your spouse the next day. You might also consider the impact that sharing a room with your baby would have on your sex life – will you feel comfortable being intimate together with your baby in the room?  If not, how could you still find time or private space to experience sexual intimacy? To be clear, I’m neither suggesting that you follow the AAP recommendation or not follow it. I do want you to be aware that most parenting advice overlooks the systemic impact of certain choices.

Here’s another example: screen time. The American Academy of Pediatrics discourages screen time for children under two years old.  Again, I encourage parents to take in this advice, but then ask themselves – what is the systemic impact?  For some couples, the ability to have their child watch a TV show after dinnertime gives them the time to truly check in and ask each other how their day has been. Sometimes screen time might give a parent a chance to take a shower or simply sit and drink some coffee.

Another big decision for new parents is how they want to feed their baby.  There are lots of opinions and choices here, too many for me to address in-depth.  Whether you are exclusively breast-feeding, formula-feeding, pumping, using donor milk, or another option, you probably won’t forget to consider how your choice will impact your baby – plenty of opinions are available on that one. But you might forget to consider how your choice will impact your relationship. For example, if we choose to feed our baby in a way that only allows for one of us to do the feeding, then how will we rebalance responsibilities given the huge time commitment this requires of one person, or how will we ensure that the non-feeding parent has bonding time and other caregiving opportunities?

Here’s the bottom-line: you can’t be a perfect parent according to all the medical and popular parenting advice and still protect your relationship and personal sanity. Babies and children benefit from parents who enjoy each other’s company, get enough sleep, and have time to themselves on a regular basis.  Often this comes into conflict with the parenting advice you’ll receive. You have permission to consider the needs of yourself, your relationship, and your whole family. If you do, your kids might never thank you for it, but in the long run they’ll likely benefit just as much as you.

Curious to learn more about how to protect your relationship as you make the transition to parenthood?  Attending our upcoming Babyproof Your Marriage Workshop, created especially for couples hoping to start/grow a family, couples who are expecting, and couples with young children. 

Rebecca Freking, IMFT, is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in the states of Ohio and Pennsylvania. She received her master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from The Family Institute at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL.

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