I always knew I'd end up in marriage counseling, even before I met my husband. Let me explain: I am a child of divorce, so my older sister, who's been married for over 20 years, provided me with the most solid relationship example. She and my brother-in-law have had a healthy, happy marriage — one which they've been transparent about having its own bumps. They'd always been very open about going to marriage counseling, and they both stressed that it was important for maintenance. Because of them, I've always viewed therapy for your relationship as a positive, proactive thing, and not a red flag — not something you only do when you're trying to save the marriage. Speaking of timing, one thing my sister always told me about marriage counseling is that you need to go every time you have a new baby, no matter what.
It makes sense: a baby adds a complicated new dimension to your relationship's dynamic, while specific issues like the lack of sleep and questions about the division of labor add to the strain. So when my husband and I had our daughter, I knew counseling was coming (and weirdly, I almost looked forward to it).
I would say that we have generally great communication, but when you're both suffering from sleep deprivation and are having sporadic meals because there's no time to sleep or cook, your attitude is pretty sh*tty. Communication suffers, and ours definitely did — it was hard to keep annoyance and sharpness out of our tone. We'd wait too long to eat and then snap at each other about dinner suggestions. He'd started going back to work, so when he'd get home and I'd been with the baby all day, I'd do the old automatic hand-off to get a break, causing us both to resent our new situation. We'd b*tch at each other in hoarse whispers in the middle of the night over getting up with the baby. When we had a particularly terse exchange one day (after another too-recent terse exchange), I suggested it: counseling. My husband has a similar attitude toward therapy, so he agreed that it would probably be a good idea.
That agreement left me instantly relieved. Not only was the therapy itself helpful, there was an unexpected upside before we even sat down on a couch across from our wise-seeming female therapist: we started being more patient with each other. Once we had hit the point of even talking about therapy, we both knew our communication had to change. We didn't wait for a professional to tell us exactly what to do, we started being kinder to one another in the week before our first session. We made small changes — taking a beat before snapping at the other one; I'd give him a few minutes when he got home from work, while he happily took the baby off my hands when he did.
Saying things out loud, like how we'd both try to be more patient with each other, crystallized those new rules for ourselves.
At therapy, we both offered our side, and found ourselves talking about how we understood why the other person was tense/stressed out/resentful in any given situation. Talking it out with a third party helped us to vocalize what we already knew we needed to do. Saying things out loud, like how we'd both try to be more patient with each other, crystallized those new rules for ourselves.
Though our well-meaning therapist gave us a few pieces of predictable advice (I should join a mothers' group; we should plan meals in advance, or be better adults about getting hangry), she gave us one tip that I wasn't expecting: periodically check in with each other about our parenting journey. It sounded pretty cheesy when she said it, and I will admit that it sounds cheesy typing it out now, so much so that I doubted we'd put it into practice.
But it was a wonderful piece of advice. In our little steps to communicate better and treat each other kinder, we never would have thought to ask the other one, "Hey dude, how is this whole parent thing going for you?" So we did. And we both learned a lot. He called parenthood intense, and admitted to feeling surprised at his own lack of patience for our baby. I opened up about the anxiety that I dealt with in nearly every aspect of parenting, and realized that I talked about the baby all day every day, even when she was asleep. Of course, we discussed how much we loved our child, and how much we still loved each other. But until therapy, we weren't talking about it.
I can pretty much never ask the question with a straight face, but it's OK, because we take the answer seriously.
Months after that visit, we still do the check-in every once in a while, always fighting the awkwardness or silly feeling of broaching it so we can get to a real place. I can pretty much never ask the question with a straight face, but it's OK, because we take the answer seriously.
Checking in with each other on how you're feeling about being parents is the advice I'd give to any other new parents. And it's not about checking in on how you feel about your baby — you both know you love the wild little thing. Your feelings about parenthood are important and deserve their own introspection, and if you're lucky enough to have a partner to share that with, that's even more important.