The Best Advice I’ve Gotten: Marriage Edition

This is Kim, Robin’s sister-in-law. I have two amazing daughters and another one on the way. In my 4.5 years of being a mom, I’ve read a fair amount about parenting and have gotten some really great (and some really terrible, uninvited, and/or borderline-criminal) advice along the way. I thought I’d share some of the highlights with you from time to time.

So, for my first installment, I thought I’d talk about marriage after baby. From the outset, I must say that I’m very lucky to have a husband who enjoys helping around the house and who wants to do his “fair share.” That doesn’t mean that everything is super easy, though, or that I didn’t need some good advice for navigating our new relationship once baby arrived.

Kim and familyMarriage after baby is a tough one. Especially immediately after baby. I wasn’t sleeping, I was hormonal, and my decision-making abilities were at Snookie/Lohan-type levels. To sum it up, it was stressful. Then I had to add being a wife to the mix, as if I didn’t already have a full plate. Personally, for the first few weeks, I think it’s not the time to “work on your marriage” or really do anything other than survive. I tried to remember my spouse was a person with feelings who had his own issues going on. I promised him (and myself) that I would be sensitive to them as soon as I learned how to function in this new baby-fied universe.

Once I could tell my ass from my elbow with some degree of accuracy, I felt ready for the marriage advice, so here are my top ones:

1. Go out by yourselves and DON’T talk about baby.

One of the things I’ve figured out since being a parent (both working and staying at home) is the difference between a physical and a mental vacation. Even if I’m out of the house without the kids, if I’m still thinking and talking about the baby the whole time, then I’m still pretty much on the clock. I learned I needed to mentally clock out and relax with my husband. At first, it seemed really hard not to talk about the baby - especially when I hadn’t done anything other than take care of the baby the whole day. Sometimes I had to resort to current events, weird threads on moms boards I’d read, or even gossiping about our friends’ personal lives. Whatever it took to get the ball rolling. But once we started talking about non-baby things, it really did feel like I could be myself as a person - not just as a mom - which was absolutely necessary for my sanity. Plus, while physical intimacy wasn’t super high on my list right after baby, I can guarantee you that long in-depth discussions about poop consistency or an argument over who got less sleep last night puts absolutely no one in the mood...

2. Don’t keep score.

God bless my mother-in-law, who told my husband that if he thinks he’s doing 80% of the work, he’s probably just about pulling even. Her point was that you can’t possibly know everything your spouse does to help out so you shouldn’t presume you’re doing more than your fair share. More generally, though, I’ve found keeping score is really pointless and only creates drama. It usually plays out in one of two ways: 1) I throw it in his face and get all self-righteous because I feel I do all the work and he doesn’t do anything. The response? He gets pissed at me because I don’t appreciate all the things he’s doing. And half those things I did he could care less about anyways. Final result? Two pissed people. Maybe some silent treatment. Or everyone’s favorite - passive aggressiveness! 2) I don’t actually say anything but just make a mental note every time I think I do something and he doesn’t do anything. The response? Likely, he doesn’t notice and I continue my simmering rage until one day I explode and scream at about cleaning the bathroom two months ago while he looks at me confused. Final result? General confusion and anger. I have yet to find a case where keeping score results in my husband happily contributing more. Man is it hard not to do! But it just flat out doesn’t work. A much better plan? If I want something done, I just ask. Specifically. If he doesn’t do it, then we need to have a talk about our priorities and how things are going to get done - in a civil way. And then if my spouse does it, I am genuinely effusively thankful. You know who loves praise? Everyone.

3. Remember: My spouse is not me.

This one is #2’s evil stepsister. If you thought not keeping score was hard, try not expecting your spouse to do things exactly as you would do them. This one is definitely the hardest for me, but also the one that causes the most conflict in our house. It’s in my nature to want to control things. I have a vision of how I want something done - whether it’s cleaning, cooking, or child rearing. But I also understand that I can’t do it all; i need to delegate. Thus the conflict. I constantly need to remind myself that my husband is not my employee. Contrary to the belief of some, when he watches the kids, he’s not “babysitting” and when he cleans up after dinner he’s not “helping me.” He is also a parent and a member of our household. He has responsibilities, and he’s entitled to do things in the way he thinks they should be done. So, if he wants to clean the kitchen instead of the bathroom, then I need to be appreciative of him cleaning the kitchen - and if I am crazy about cleaning the bathroom, then I should clean it myself. One of my favorite songs about parenting is “Gracie Girl” by Ben Folds, where a father sings to his daughter. He tells her, “There will always be a part of me that no one else is ever gonna see.” My kids are so unbelievably blessed to have a father who wants to be involved in their life, and they will share a special bond that is theirs alone. But it will be a lot harder for them to forge that bond if I think it’s my job to micromanage their every interaction. I need to trust him to be their dad in his own way. This doesn’t mean that “anything goes” in our house, but it does mean I have to remember that I don’t make all the decisions about how we run our house, and my husband deserves an equal say in how we do things.

This advice has definitely helped me make it through these stressful years raising young kids with my husband. Basically, they boil down to having respect for myself, respect for my husband, and respect for our relationship. Sometimes I feel as though I give so much of myself to my kids that I’m almost resentful that I need to spend any time working on my marriage. Who is my husband to have needs when I’ve been wiping butts and drying tears all day? But the fact is that my marriage is the foundation on which our entire family life is based. I need to keep it strong.