When my husband Tom and I were expecting a baby, we would take long walks around our Brooklyn neighborhood, excitedly planning for the big day. Hours would slip by as we debated different baby names and planned the décor of her room (ducks or bunnies on her crib sheet? Ducks! No, definitely bunnies!).
Unfortunately, that was about as deep as our conversations got. How I wish I had known that Tom and I could have avoided countless post-baby battles if we had simply sat down and had some frank dialogue while we were still lucid — before we became deranged from sleep deprivation.
We didn’t have a single discussion ahead of time about everyday logistics, such as who will diaper and bathe the baby. Instead, I had breezily assumed that Tom and I would work things out organically, as we always had. Wrong! In the tumult of those first few months, we couldn’t seem to catch our breath to work out much of anything. As the months progressed, the only thing that seemed to work itself out “organically” was that virtually all aspects of childcare and housework defaulted to me.
Things would have been vastly different if we had hashed out the following issues, which I recommend every parent-to-be consider before the baby arrives:
Will we take turns waking up with the baby in the night? (If a woman is breastfeeding, her partner can still bring the baby to her from the crib.)
Will we allow co-sleeping?
Who will stay home with our child when she is sick?
How much time on gizmos will we allow?
How do we feel about vaccines?
When do we start saving for college?
Will religion play a part in her life? (This one is especially important. Many couples I know were lax about religious matters until they had children, then wanted to return to tradition.)
In retrospect, I realized that many of our arguments arose because our roles and perspectives weren’t clear. I could have avoided a lot of hurt feelings on my husband’s part, for instance, if I had proposed that we just take sex off the table for the first two months as parents.
We had never had a single conversation about discipline, either. I learned the hard way that when your toddler is having a meltdown in the supermarket because she wants to wear a bunch of bananas as a hat, it’s not the ideal time to discover that your partner thinks time-outs are useless.
There’s a helpful exercise that psychologists John and Julie Gottman have couples do in their workshops for new parents. They ask participants to write down three to five things they liked about how they were raised and plan to include in their parenting, and three to five things they did not like and plan to avoid. The way we raise our own offspring is, of course, a direct reaction to our own upbringing — both the good and the not-so-good. This sort of exercise drills quickly down to your values, some of which you may not even realize are important to you until you talk about them. I was raised by strict parents who had me complete a long list of chores every week. I loathed doing them at the time (I remember writing in my diary that being a kid means you can’t do what you want, ever), but the chores instilled good habits in me that I have maintained into adulthood, so my daughter will take responsibility for similar tasks.
Of course, there are plenty of issues that can’t be worked out in advance, no matter how prepared you are. But clarity is the key to keeping both partners firmly on the same team. After a few night feedings, you’re barely going to know what day it is, so getting as many issues sorted ahead of time is crucial. If I’d had these conversations with my husband while I was still pregnant, I could have avoided a lot of tears and tantrums. Not my daughter’s — my own.
Jancee Dunn is the author of How Not to Hate Your Husband After Kids.