There are endless places on the internet that will tell you how to prepare for a baby logistically. They will invariably sell you a mountain of supplies that promise to feed a baby more efficiently, convince you to invest in products that promise to help your baby sleep longer, or even diaper its bottom in a superior fashion.
There is also a huge industry dedicated to preparing for childbirth and going through pregnancy, the process that results in the eventual arrival of a baby and the birth of you and your partner as parents. Again, a necessary and important industry full of good and helpful information. I am not looking to expand upon those things at this time or reinvent that wheel.
Instead, I want to talk about how to prepare your relationship for a baby. The thing that so often is not talked about, but so dearly needed when you are bringing another family member into your home. I have come up with three equally important areas of discussion that you should explore before your baby’s arrival, along with some thought-provoking questions to open up this conversation with your partner in parenting.
First things first, let’s talk about how you will share decision making and your mutual responsibilities when it comes to caring for your child. If your knee jerk reaction to this topic is to simply affirm “we’ll be making decisions together!” I’d encourage you to take a big step back and really think about what this means and how you will achieve a more mutual care plan for your child. You can start by examining your current home life. Who decides what’s for dinner? Who then purchases the ingredients and makes that dinner? Who cleans up after dinner and washes the dishes? Who takes charge of the pet care routinely? What about in an emergency? Who takes care of home maintenance and repairs? Who stays home from work when someone needs to meet the cable guy or a plumber?
If the answer is the same person over and over, let’s explore that. Try to refrain from becoming defensive and explain away all the reasons that it’s easier for one partner to do these things simply because they are allowed to work from home or they are just so skilled at menial, annoying, mundane tasks. Instead, let’s make a plan for caring for your baby together, so that the burden of caregiving does not rest on the shoulders of one parent.
Women in particular often face becoming the default person for so many home-based and child-related tasks, sometimes even when a conscious effort is being made to try and divide labor more evenly. There are many reasons this occurs; one in particular being because more often than not, women are the ones home in the beginning of a child’s life. So they are the ones learning to care for the child, scheduling and attending doctor’s appointments, learning the size of clothing the baby currently wears and figuring out where and how to store it, and similar tasks.
Men are perfectly capable of performing these kinds of tasks too, however, and doing them helps each parent learn more about your child in a meaningful way. In order to embark on a more equal and collaborative decision making and parenting plan, it is necessary for each parent to actively care for the baby routinely. This often begins with taking leave from work to bond with and care for your child, regardless of whether you are the birthing parent.
Once the baby is born, many mothers are home for several weeks to months, and for many families, the baby will be breastfeeding, which means that making decisions about things like how the baby will eat, and when the baby will eat will easily become “Mom territory.” But that doesn’t have to mean that only Mom can care for the baby. Being intentional about having each parent care for the baby from the beginning will help set a precedent of parenting on equal footing. If you need some ideas on how to incorporate both parents in early parenting, check out this blog.
The next question is a little more abstract, but just as important. I want you each to think of a person who made you feel important, seen or understood when you were a child. It doesn’t need to be one of your parents or caregivers. It can be a teacher, an aunt or uncle, youth leader, grandparent, or family friend – literally anybody whose interaction with you made you feel important and seen for exactly who you are.
What was it about the way they spoke to, and interacted with you, that made you feel so important and loved? What lessons can you carry over from the person that come to mind? Share your answer with your partner. So much of what we do lasts longer, and speaks more loudly to our children than the things we say. Often people who make children feel valued do so because they see value in them, and behave in a way that values the contributions children make to the world.
What are some ways that you show each other love? How do you communicate to your partner that you value them and their contributions to the family? Have a conversation about how you will prioritize continuing to do these things for each other after you add a baby to the family, as well as how you will share these things with your children.
Now, let’s think about the other, less positive direction. Think about a time that you felt really misunderstood as a child. Maybe there’s a time where you felt embarrassed or deflated by the way a grown up interacted with you. What was it about the interaction that made you feel less than? How did it shape your relationship with the person who made you feel that way? Did they ever apologize to you? Were you able to repair your relationship with this person or did their ongoing behavior always make you feel small?
Being able to own our mistakes, and try our best to correct them without being shamed for them, is an important part of a healthy family dynamic. Knowing what not to do can be just as important as knowing what we should be doing. Talk to your partner about the way discipline was handled in your home growing up, and how it made you feel as a child, both good and bad. What kind of disciplinarian do you envision being in the future? Will there be an authority hierarchy in your family or do all members have equal input in family matters? Will you use punitive punishments to try and correct unwanted behaviors or utilize natural consequences?
This discussion is not just about reliving some of your best and worst memories from your own childhood, although discussing those things will certainly come up. This is more about beginning to think about defining your parenting style, and what your values as a family are. If I asked you right now to define what your most important values are as a family, what would you say? If someone asked your child in 20 years what their childhood was like, what would you hope they’d respond with? Discuss this with your partner. Consider writing down your responses in a journal and revisiting them at regular intervals.
Finally, I want to take some time to discuss conflict resolution. Take a moment and think about how you handle conflict within your relationship. When a disagreement or difficulty arises in your relationship, do you tackle that problem as a couple or do you each take sides? In other words, is it you and your partner against the problem or you and your partner against each other?
Think about the most recent major disagreement you had with your partner. How was it ultimately resolved? Did one or both parties compromise or set aside their original ideas? Were everyone’s feelings considered in creating a solution? Was an actual solution even achieved or was the conflict simply “swept under the rug” or put off, lying in wait to come up another time in a different manner?
How a couple handles conflict influences many aspects of family life. Many people have strong feelings about whether it’s appropriate to “fight in front of the kids” or not, and as with many things, the best course of action lies somewhere in the middle. No, it’s not healthy to live in a state of constant conflict in front of children. A constant state of conflict is not healthy for any kind of relationship, regardless of the presence of children. However, becoming conflict-avoidant is also not a healthy strategy towards conflict. It is really positive for children to observe healthy strategies in resolving conflict between grown ups and children alike.
Children model their behavior after what they observe from the adults whom they have formed attachments to. So if your child never observes you resolving a conflict, they will not have a frame of reference for handling conflict when it inevitably arises in their lives. Now obviously I am not advocating for allowing your children to witness every single disagreement you have with your partner. There will of course be topics of discussion that are simply not appropriate to hash out in front of the kids, and conflict too frequently will have the opposite and negative impact.
But simple, day to day things like “Hey, that hurt my feelings when you interrupted me, I wasn’t done talking,” or “Lately it feels like I am getting stuck with dinner preparation every single week night and that has been too much responsibility for me to handle alone,” are absolutely the sort of issues that you can and should resolve out loud in front of the kids. This will teach your children problem solving and conflict resolution skills. Not only that, but it will empower them to bring up their own problems, both inside of the family and when they experience interpersonal conflicts out in the world.
In case it has not become obvious by now throughout these discussions, one of the recurrent themes of utmost importance in a healthy relationship is honest and open communication, and a collaborative environment. Respect for one another is the cornerstone and foundation to a solid partnership, and thus, it is equally important to the foundation of a positive parenting relationship.
Hopefully these questions have initiated a meaningful discussion with your parenting partner, one that you can continue in the coming weeks and months as you adjust to life with a new family member. Perhaps this discussion has also unearthed some incongruencies in your ideas around parenting, or identified some opportunities for growth in your partnership.
If that’s the case, don’t worry! Now that you know an issue exists, you can work through it together. Two willing participants can make meaningful and lasting changes to the way you divide tasks in your home, how you make decisions for and about your family and its members that align with your family’s value system, and the way that you communicate about conflict in a respectful manner that aims to collaboratively solve and move through conflict, considering each individual’s thoughts, beliefs, and feelings.