You’ve just welcomed a baby. Along with the joy is the sense that your world has just been flipped upside down.
In the ideal case, your partner is right there with you as you try to make sense of diapering and feeding—because two sleep-deprived brains working together is certainly better than one.
But then, just when you feel like you may be getting the hang of it, your partner will probably go back to work: A 2014 study from Boston College found the average American dad took two weeks of paternity leave while a 2011 report from the National Center for Health found the average working mom takes 10 weeks off after baby is born. According to the Pew Research Center, another one in three women becomes a stay-at-home mom.
That means there are, on average, a minimum of eight weeks where mom is navigating the most demanding job of her life without backup at home.
That, says Erin Barbossa, LMSW, can be one of the most challenging transitions of all.
“Even though one partner is working outside of the home in a more typical work setting, the other is at home working too, but the job is brand new,” Barbossa says. “The tasks change daily before you can learn them, the boss only speaks in crying, and it’s mostly isolating. There is nothing normal about this new job.”
In her experience working with couples navigating the new parenthood, she says this regularly results in some resentment on behalf of the parent staying at home—and that can simmer long past the first weeks a parent is back at work.
As Barbossa explained, a new mom at home may envy that her partner knows what to expect out of his day or, at least, can go to the bathroom without company.
Barbossa’s professional experience is backed up by a 2011 survey that found 50% of stay-at-home moms reported feeling like they never got a break from parenting—while 96% said their partners got replenishing “time outs.”
With that kind of unaddressed disparity, it would be easy to let resentment build. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Here’s how to work through the new dynamics in your household:
1. Talk early and often
Before baby arrives, don’t just discuss the logistics of parental leave and who will return to work when—aim to also have honest conversations about the expectations for when that leave comes to an end. Then take the time to do that with every subsequent addition to your family.
“Every child is a massive recalibration of equality in a relationship,” Barbossa says. “The more you can front-load with each other about expectations, desires and values, the more you can prevent deep-seeded issues.”
2. Know that “fairness” is a moving target
Barbossa notes that just when you seem to attain “balance,” you should expect the demands to shift again. (Parenting lesson #1!) And just as you’ll go on to talk with your kids about how life isn’t always fair, that’s something that’s also essential for us to recognize.
What that doesn’t mean is burying your emotions until they feel overwhelming. Rather, Barbossa says to communicate your needs and “validate what your partner brings to the fairness equation.”
3. Work together outside of work
According to an October 2017 study, marriages suffer when moms feel like they are sacrificing their careers and doing more than their fair share at home. To counteract that, licensed marriage and family therapist Jill Whitney says couples should work together to strike their ideal balance of work and domestic responsibilities.
“Some dads deeply wish they could have more time with their kids,” Whitney says. “They may be envious to be missing out on family life.”
For some families, this may very well mean that dads scale back on work—or, at least, know they are the ones responsible for unloading the dishwasher at the end of the day.
4. Take care of “what’s on your side of the street”
If you begin to feel resentment toward your partner—who is likely just trying to do the best he can—it’s key to look inward.
“You need to get clear about your values and about when you’ve missed opportunities tell your partner what you’re hoping for and what you need,” Barbossa says. “At the same time, you have to walk the walk and find ways to appreciate him, if you are asking him to appreciate you.”
5. Speak openly, but kindly
Research from The Gottman Institute shows that when partners approach disagreements gently, they are more likely to find a solution. As Dr. Julie Gottman said, “Kindness doesn’t mean that we don’t express our anger, but the kindness informs how we choose to express the anger. You can throw spears at your partner. Or you can explain why you’re hurt and angry, and that’s the kinder path.”
When it comes to resentment stemming from changing responsibilities, this may mean remembering that your partner is also going through a big transition. And while he may be able to eat lunch on his own time, he’s also making sacrifices. With this in mind, it’s easier to approach your conversation from a place of mutual compassion.
6. Give yourself grace
Paired with wonky sleep hours and the other challenges of new parenthood, Barbossa says it’s common for moms and dads to feel like resentment is “the beginning of the end” or a sign the marriage is in trouble.
“These fears are a useful message that something needs to change, so don’t ignore them,” she says. “But at the same time, treat your relationship with compassion and know that you’re both doing the best you can, even when it might not seem that way.”
The early days after a new baby arrives are a big transition for everyone in the family—and your partner’s return to work is sure to stir up some big emotions. As long as you’re both committed to working through them together, you should feel confident you’re on the right track.