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Beating New-Mom Stress

Rescue Your Relationship

"I didn't have any idea the birth of a newborn would be so hard on us," admits Pamela Cerrie, who says her husband, Joseph, 34, seemed to suffer from "displaced Dad syndrome." "He was upset at being bumped out of the number one spot, and I didn't handle it very well," she says. "I just told him 'Baby Joe is the only one in this house allowed to be a baby right now.'"

Joseph Cerrie's confusion over his role and Pam's anger are typical of what many couples experience postpartum, experts say. "You are undergoing such a time of change as a couple," says Toni Zimmerman, Ph.D., professor of human development and family studies at Colorado State University, in Fort Collins.

One key stressor is the increased family workload and the tendency of women, even those who were in equitable relationships before baby, to find themselves in charge of child-related duties. "If the father doesn't step up to the plate as a fully functioning partner from the get-go, that can be quite damaging to a marriage," says Zimmerman. Often, she adds, this isn't Dad's fault, it's just a gap in communication: "In general, fathers are well-meaning, but we socialize them to the sidelines."

New parents don't have to fall into these patterns, says Zimmerman. "Many of the changes that occur when you have a baby are magical. You can fall in love with each other all over again because you fall in love with each other as parents and share a common love that is quite intense." The solution is to address stressful changes in your relationship up front. "Be proactive, so you can enjoy the magic," she says.

Zimmerman says just talking, rather than fuming, is the first step to remedying postpartum relationship stress. "Couples have to talk about sharing work beforehand and during," she says. "They may never get it right, but they should be in constant communication to work toward that."

Family researcher Alyson Shapiro, Ph.D., at the Relationship Research Institute, in Seattle, Washington, has found that couples can not only maintain but improve their marital satisfaction after the birth of a child. In an article in the Journal of Family Communication, Shapiro details a program, "Bringing Baby Home," that she and other researchers have developed based on successful new-parent strategies. "The big take-home message from our research is that it's important for couples to treasure their relationship and foster fondness and admiration for each other," she says. Often, it's as much about attitude as strategies. Successful couples, she says, "approach stresses as challenges you can meet as a team rather than as something chaotic and out of control." Couples can think ahead to find specific ways that the father can be involved, says Shapiro. "If Mom is breastfeeding, maybe Dad can handle bathing and that can be his special father time."

Cerrie says things are going more smoothly now that her husband is taking her son to and from daycare and feels more involved. "It's been very good for them," she says. "Joey is very communicative and interactive, and since they've been enjoying this time together, Joe has been helping out a lot more around the house."

Parents should also try to cheerlead each other's efforts with the new baby, says Zimmerman, rather than criticize. She points out that a Dad who is told he can't put diapers on right may decide not to try. She also suggests new parents set up a weekly meeting to organize the practical side of running the family. Compare calendars, see what everyone's needs are, and divvy up the work. That way no one's suit ends up left at the dry cleaners the night before an important meeting, the household doesn't run out of toilet paper, and there are fewer arguments about who was supposed to call the sitter."But along with running the family, it's very important to find love within the organization," Zimmerman adds. With the tasks divvied up, new parents will find more time to spend reconnecting with each other (and Dad may be pleasantly surprised to find that Mom is less exhausted and more romantic if she's had a nap, a break from cooking, or an hour out). "It can just be simple time," she says. "You can play cards or walk the baby in the stroller when he's sleeping."

Tiffany Boone says she and her husband, who live in the country, love to put the girls to bed, and then sit out on the deck just listening to the crickets at night. "We can see so many stars where we live, and we just love to go out and look at them together."

Remember that "togetherness" is for talking about politics, music, the weather  -- anything but baby and household stuff. "Think back to when you were dating," says Zimmerman. "Sometimes you talked about deep things, and sometimes you talked about who won the ball game. If you talked about housecleaning and bills all the time, well, you wouldn't keep dating!"