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July 22, 2016

Disagreements over how best to care for baby are common between couples, particularly when you’re both new to the job. Anna Murray explains how to handle the tension.

There are a lot of things a couple prepares for when they are expecting their first child.There’s the nursery to decorate, the house to baby-proof and the hospital bag to pack.  Mothers-to-be are told to ready themselves for an onslaught on their bodies and both parents are warned about the upcoming assault on their sleep patterns.But what about preparations for the potential minefield that is agreeing on how to raise your new bundle of joy? Few couples sit down before their baby arrives to discuss what they imagine the day-to-day care will look like.  It’s often not until they’re in the thick of nappy changes and major sleep deprivation that parents discover their partner has quite different ideas about how things should be done – and it can be an abundant source of tension.

Auckland mother-of-two Megan* says she and her husband often found themselves at odds when it came to a daytime routine for their first baby. “[My husband] was very rigid on the routine, whereas I wanted a bit more flexibility, so we used to have some real screaming matches over what time she should go to sleep.” Megan says she distinctly remembers how she felt when she went to a baby development class where the facilitator asked the group to describe how their relationships had changed since becoming parents. “The three women before me all said ‘Oh, we’re so much closer, I have new respect for my partner,’ and I had just had the biggest fight with my husband that morning.  I had stormed out in tears to go to this class and I was sitting there thinking ‘Oh my God, it is just us, my marriage is doomed.’”

But it wasn’t doomed. According to Michelle Melville-Smith, a psychologist at Triple P New Zealand, this kind of tension in a relationship, born out of disagreements over how to raise children, is very common. “Generally speaking, across the board, most people will disagree about parenting at some point,” she says, adding it’s a particularly common problem for first-time parents. “It’s the first time they’ve probably dealt with or really talked about how they want to manage things. It’s very rare for people to discuss their parenting ideas and values before they have a child. It’s not until you’re in it that you start talking about it.”

Thirty-year-old Rebecca* admits she didn’t discuss any parenting ideals while she was pregnant, and presumed she and her husband would largely agree on what to do with their now eight-month-old son when he arrived. And while they did have similar ideas on most things, frustrations boiled over when the time came for sleep training. “I found I had more success with the sleep training during the week while my husband was at work,” Rebecca says. “While I didn’t enjoy listening to my baby cry in his cot, I knew that he’d only be squawking for a few minutes before drifting back to sleep. “But then the weekend would come and it felt like all my progress on the sleep front was being undone, as my husband would go in and ‘rescue’ our baby as soon as he started to cry.  I used to get so worked up about it. Plus it made me feel guilty, like I was the ‘mean’ parent for letting our son cry for a little bit.”

Michelle says that situation can be a common dynamic when one parent is doing more of the caregiving at home. She says usually that person is developing more of the routines or doing things in a way that works for them. Then when the other parent comes home and is trying (with good intentions) to assist, it can feel like they’re not on the same page. But Michelle advises against trying to direct your partner in what to do. “One of the key things is to be able to communicate with your partner about what you’re thinking, what you’re feeling, what your ideas are, and making them more like suggestions, rather than ‘It should be like this,’” she says. “So, for example, say something like ‘I read this book’ or ‘I tried doing this rocking and it seems to work for him, what do you think?’ You’re trying to phrase it in a way that you’ve come to this joint decision as partners, as opposed to saying ‘I’ve rocked him, we’re doing it this way.’ “Rightly or wrongly, if we say it in a way that’s directive, the other person is going to feel like their role is undermined or diminished, whereas it’s really important that both partners feel as if they have an equal say.”

Michelle says it’s also important to note that both parents are usually learning on the job, something Kim*,  a mother-of-two, realised soon after her son was born. “I read lots of books and asked lots of questions and freaked out about how [looking after the baby] would work and whether I would do it right, whereas my husband didn’t worry about it at all,” Kim says. “He wasn’t afraid to try a new way when we were struggling. I would get stuck on trying to do things the ‘right’ way and then disagree when he was suggesting something new, because I’d read all the books!”

But she says she worked her way past that. “I remember hearing stories from my friends about being frustrated by their partners’ attempts to help and even though I didn’t co-parent the babies perfectly with my husband, I remember thinking that some guys have it tough. They are damned if they do, damned if they don’t sometimes. So I remember thinking to try really hard to just accept that my husband was helping and that I was lucky he was so hands-on.”

Michelle says it’s important both parents are given an opportunity to try things, otherwise they don’t learn how to care for their child. “It’s about being more patient and tolerant of the fact there could be different ways of getting things done. The question to maybe ask yourself is, ‘Does this really matter if it’s done differently?’ There might be some things that are quite important for parents to do similarly, but there might be some things where, actually, it’s not going to make a big difference if they do it slightly differently.”

How to get through

Regardless of what couples argue about when it comes to looking after their children, Michelle says it’s important to normalise this sort of tension. “If people are having disagreements with their partner, it’s kind of like, ‘Okay, this happens.’”

But she says it’s also vital to find ways to manage the situation and ensure that the differences in opinion don’t affect the relationship. One strategy she suggests for getting back in sync over parenting is thinking about your own behaviour rather than your partner’s. “It’s very easy to think about things that our partners are doing that frustrate us, but that’s not in our control.  It’s much more useful to focus on what is in our control.

“For example, if we’re feeling like we’re getting angry with our partner quite quickly, we can think about ‘How can I have this conversation better?’ or ‘What do I need in order to make myself a bit calmer at the moment?’ If both people are doing that, then usually that can become quite a productive situation.”

Michelle also advises couples to work out how they’re going to share the various parenting duties. “How can you both be involved in that parenting role in a way that works? Maybe have a conversation about how you want to do this. What would it look like? Does one parent take over and do things like the bathing when they come home from work, for example? It comes down to that communication again, talking openly with your partner about your ideas.”

Michelle also says expectant parents can benefit from similar types of discussions before their baby arrives. “It’s hard to know what’s going to happen and what you’re going to be like once you have a child, but I think it can be really helpful to have some of those conversations [ahead of time].

“Talk about what your expectations are. Once the baby arrives, people might say, ‘I expected you to come home and help and you’re not,’ but there was never a conversation about it. People, without realising it, have an expectation or perception about something and they just haven’t communicated it. Communication is just such a key thing.”

*Names have been changed.



1. Communicate, communicate, communicate.  Psychologist Michelle Melville-Smith says while it can be hard to find the time and energy to discuss any parenting disagreements, it’s important to speak openly about how you’re feeling and what you’d like to do.
2. Express your parenting ideas as suggestions rather than directives.
3. If there is a dynamic where one parent is doing more of the day-to-day caregiving, allow the other parent to try some things - in a safe way - where they can also learn how to look after their child.
4.Discuss how both mum and dad can be involved in parenting roles.  Michelle also suggests couples discuss how to share some of the other household tasks.
5. Try to focus on your own behaviour, rather than your partner’s. 
6. Take care of your relationship.  Michelle says new parents need to try and find time to be together as a couple.  It may be as simple as turning off the TV and talking about something other than the children. “Obviously, you’ve got this little baby who needs their parents, but there is also a need for your relationship to still have that connection.


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