The combination of exhaustion and stress, that comes from caring for an infant, can easily transform the happiest of married couples into the worst of enemies. It can make it so that Mom and Dad are yelling at each other; blaming each other for being the cause of the baby’s sleeplessness and discomfort. It can make it so that Mom is raising her voice at the baby saying, “WHY ARE YOU CRYING!?” I remember times, with both of my newborns, where I was so tired and frustrated that I had imaginations of hitting, smacking or shaking them so that they would stop crying in the middle of the night. (Thankfully I never acted upon those imaginations.)
I tell you these things to help you feel not alone if your experience of caring for a newborn isn’t always dreamy and cute. It can be very raw and emotional. Realize that raw and volatile emotions are a natural consequence of the exhaustion and stress. Realize that it’s okay to be exhausted and stressed. Realize that you might make mistakes in how you speak to your spouse or your baby during stressful times. Realize that it's normal for parents to be messy and imperfect. Realize that there are things you can do to cope with the stress and exhaustion.
Here are some coping strategies that I found helpful:
- Together with your spouse, decide that you are teammates and not enemies. Avoid blaming each other (when your baby is upset) by deciding that your baby’s stressful cries are no one’s fault. Decide that you will be supportive of each other no matter what happens in the middle of the night. Choose words that are encouraging, even when the baby’s response to your spouse’s intervention is not peaceful. Stay positive and optimistic when discussing how to respond to your baby’s cries. No matter how loud the baby is, no matter how many different calming techniques you try, no matter how many mistakes a spouse makes, the baby’s cry is no one’s fault. Crying is normal. Stress and exhaustion are unavoidable. So decide together that you’ll make this journey as fun as possible. Remind each other that you are in this together.
- Decide that you and your spouse are going to be okay with not having the immediate solution. Your child is going to have a thousand needs and it may feel stressful to not know how to care for any number of them. Relax, take a deep breath and remind yourself that it’s okay to not know how to handle all of them right away. Give yourself room and time to grow as a parent. Use the ‘Give It 2 Weeks’ principle. Let’s say, for example, that your baby is not going down well for one of his daytime naps. Instead of feeling immediately stressed, tell yourself, “Give It 2 Weeks.” Take time to try different solutions. Take time to talk to friends and/or doctors about how they would handle the situation. Let yourself have time to learn what to do. The ‘Give It 2 Weeks’ principle can help reduce the amount of stress you experience when you don’t know how to help your child through any particular situation.
- Each spouse should be transparent with how they are feeling. Talk often about how you feel physically, emotionally and spiritually. Verbalizing your emotions will help you and your spouse feel less stressed and more supported. If emotions go unprocessed, it can lead to additional emotional and physical exhaustion. Be in the habit of asking each other questions that allow you to explore what you feel in response to the circumstances you face. Try questions like these:
- “How are you feeling today?”
- “How do you think Baby doing today?”
- “Based on how it’s going today, what is being a mom/dad like compared to what you thought it would be like?”
- “Are there any things that are concerning/worrying you that I can support you with?”
- “What pressures are you feeling? What people/things most make you feel pressured or vulnerable?”
- After your spouse talks for a little bit about how he/she feels, in response to one of your questions, ask him/her, “what else do you feel about that?”
- Try to avoid the following thought: “I hope that my baby falls asleep so that I can _______.” Sometimes we want the baby to fall asleep so that we can finally rest, take a shower, be entertained, check social media...etc. Doing those things isn’t wrong. But you’ll be setting yourself up for frustration whenever you start wishing that the baby will do _______ so that you can get a chance to ________. You’ll experience frustration because your baby is getting in the way of something you value. When you start valuing something a lot (like sleep, entertainment, a moment of quiet) you’ll start getting angry at the things that get in the way. Avoid frustration by realizing that your baby IS your value. Remind yourself that this isn’t your stage of life for getting lots of sleep or long showers. Remind yourself that one of your main jobs/values is your baby. These reminders will help you feel less frustrated when your baby’s needs seem unending.
- When you discover that your spouse is particularly exhausted, offer to carry his/her responsibility load for a while. It could look like:
- offering to have your spouse sleep in a different room while you handle a night feeding on your own.
- offering to have your spouse take a walk in the middle of the day.
- suggesting that your spouse go out to Starbucks to journal how they are feeling while you try to calm a fussy baby even after he/she has been fed.
- suggesting that your spouse take a few hours in the evening to go out with friends so that his/her mind can be refreshed by taking a short break from the caring-for-a-baby routine.
- being creative. Create options for your spouse to be refreshed. A little extra help, in the middle of exhaustion, can go a long way towards encouraging and refreshing them.
- Ask for the help of friends and family. They can be a huge source of help to alleviate stress and exhaustion. Ask friends to bring prepared meals to your home. Suggest that you would be willing to do the same for them when it’s their turn to have a newborn. Ask a trusted friend or family member to care for the baby during a few hours of the day. A particularly caring friend/family member may even be willing to care for your baby for one night. It’s good, healthy and okay to ask for help. You may feel that you are imposing. You may feel that you should be able to handle caring for an infant on your own. Regardless of what you feel, don’t hesitate to ask for help. One reason God places us in relational community is so that we can be encouraged and helped by each other.
- Whenever Mom is physically able, start taking short field trips out of the house. It can be so refreshing to change your environment. Take a slow walk around the block. Sit out on the porch. Go out for ice cream. If it’s cold, take a car ride to the mall and watch people. Buy a little treat for Mom. Take pictures of each other with your newborn during your ‘field trip.’ These experiences will start helping you to develop special memories as a new, bigger family. Making these memories will help encourage your emotions.
- Don’t forget the romance. One of the things that may be overwhelming about becoming (or being) parents is the feeling that you’ll have to say goodbye to a romantic life without kids. This doesn’t have to be true. Be romantic AND be parents! In the middle of the stress and exhaustion of parenting, lighten the mood by being affectionate, playful, and fun. Compliment your wife on how beautiful she is and how proud you are of her mothering. Remind each other of your covenant, wedding vows: that you’ll love each other during candle light dinners AND midnight diaper changes. Do things to help each other laugh. Do things that remind your spouse that you are energetic and excited about being best friends, even throughout the baby stage.