That Baby Wants to Break You Up

by Claire Zulkey

“The baby is trying to break us up,” my husband announced. “And we have to work together to defeat him.” Once he put it like that, I actually felt better about the whole thing. While I was pregnant, I felt closer to Steve than I ever had before, and that was saying something. Together for 10 years, we’d always been best friends, and we looked forward to what lay ahead with a gratitude that we’d be going through it together. But once the kid was outside of me, that warm anticipation frayed away to raw nerves, irritability, and fear. I had always been so confident in my relationship with my husband, but now it felt like we were struggling just to get along, let alone be in love anymore. Plus, we had a healthy baby and supportive parents nearby; no real problems to speak of. What would happen if we confronted a real challenge? But once Steve put it that way, it made it seem like it was us against the world (or, in this case, a chubby-cheeked 12-pound nugget), and I felt a little better.

Here is what I’ve learned: Having a modern, equal, loving relationship before having a baby does not mean you’ll continue to do so once you have a baby. I can’t fathom how teenagers who barely know each other get through this, nor couples who figure that a baby will somehow solve all their problems (this seems like trying to cure your diabetes via hamburgers). Part cautionary tale, part search for commiseration, here are the ways that I’ve found that bundle of joy can make you and your partner feel like you’re more in a foxhole than over the moon:

Sleep deprivation will destroy you

Before the baby, Steve and I tried to treat each other the way we ourselves would like to be treated. We said “please” and “thank you” and paid each other compliments and divided up household tasks and did sweet little things for each other like leave cute notes or scratch each other’s backs. And I knew that you don’t sleep after you have a baby. I thought I knew sleep deprivation before I had a baby. I had been to college: I had crammed for exams and stayed up all night on coffee and pop and maybe one or two Adderalls. But it’s just somehow different with the baby. You start to understand how sleep deprivation is used as torture as there is that one hour in the night where you start to think, “I can’t do this. Time has stopped and I am going to die.” And then the sun eventually rises and you have to get through the day with the way you feel. Everyone knows that babies steal your sleep, but it’s impossible to prepare yourself for just how fundamentally this alters your persona and the way you treat yourself, not to mention your partner. All the politesse and civility and kindness that lived before seems as far away as showers and recycling and a full eight hours.

The baby doesn’t give a shit about you or your accomplishments

This might have been harder on me than on Steve due to simple biology and the practicalities of maternity leave, but all my achievements prior to having the baby — my good grades and good schools and the books I published and the half marathon I ran — all that meant dick when I was home taking care of the baby. For three months my job was to keep him alive and secondarily keep myself alive and perhaps tertiarily (or secondarily, with “myself” being tertiary) keeping the house going. Feeding, soothing, changing, laundry, dishes, cooking, cleaning, on and on. I lost myself. Steve would come home from work (and we’d have very little to talk about since I hadn’t been out doing much nor keeping up with current events) and I’d resent him for “getting” to leave the house and he’d resent me for “getting” to stay home, and the people that we were before, who worked hard and played hard and enjoyed it all lived on in another dimension.

The baby is stealing all your money

We were having a bad day that, for once, was completely unrelated to the baby. Neither of us had gotten any sleep. There were some in-law issues. A stomach ailment was involved. And then we got a $600 bill for the two nights the baby spent in the hospital due to a never-figured-out fever. Talking about money with your significant other is a drag whether or not you have a child, but tack on hospital bills, daycare expenses, diapers, formula, and everything on top of a mortgage and car payments and you’re stressed, all the time. You cannot afford to have any fun.

Not like you can have fun anymore anyway

Okay, truth be told, there is plenty of inexpensive fun to be had if you are creative and have friends/family nearby who are either willing to come visit or watch your little grub while you go out. But this involves some brainpower, and you won’t have any for awhile. So not only are you forced to be with this person who you suddenly realized is the source of all your troubles by going along with you and letting you acquire a child, you can’t even think of a reason to get out from under the same roof as him/her.

The person you’re with doesn’t know dick about this baby

It feels like every night since the baby came home with us, my husband and I have had this conversation:

“Should I put him to bed?”

“I don’t know … I guess?”

How irritating is that? At least one of us should know, “Yes, definitely! That is the thing to do!” But unfortunately, neither of us is an expert, which makes everything all the more difficult. Of course, on the flip side, sometimes one of us acts like we do know what we’re doing and the other thinks, “You are so full of shit.”

Sometimes you’re just full of bad feelings and have nowhere to put them but on the other adult in the house (i.e., you need to fight)

The baby was in the hospital for a few days due to a fever, and at the time it was terrifying. Steve and I buddied up and made it work and took turns and eventually got the kid home with a clean bill of health. It wasn’t until we got home that we erupted into one of our biggest fights ever in our relationship, over the topic of the rectal thermometer and whether or not Aquaphor was an acceptable lubricant. We yelled and stomped over an eighth of a teaspoon of jelly being inserted into one of the tiniest buttholes on the planet. And the strange thing was, it felt good. “This is about right,” I thought, as I seethed upstairs and sorted the toys the baby was still too young to play with. I think if you don’t fight, that’s how murder happens. You can’t sleep, you’re broke, you feel lost, and you’re supposed to be aglow and over the moon and cherishing these precious moments, so you just feel bad on top of feeling bad. Where are you going to put that negativity? Why, right on the closest person who can understand your frustration. Whether he lets the baby cry five seconds beyond what you can tolerate or let the food bits sit in the sink strainer or just said something in a weird way to you, it’s the perfect catalyst to lash out, because sometimes you just have too many bad feelings to keep them to yourself even though really there is no one to blame or punish. And then the next day (or hour), you’re the reciprocant.

You are stuck with this person

Steve and I fight and we’re on edge but the big D is not in the picture. There is no way in hell that would make either of our lives more pleasant or easier, so that’s not an option (and on a more positive note, it would make me very sad and I’d miss him). That’s good, I guess. But neither of us either really can pack up and take a nice little vacation to recharge and relax without the other one having a slight aneurism. I can’t even entertain thoughts of light suicide the way I sometimes do (I hope I’m not the only person who does this, who sometimes thinks “Well, I just might as well kill myself” in a darkly joking manner when faced with piling minutiae or ongoing tedium). Because if I killed myself, that would really inconvenience Steve and that asshole would be mad at me forever, so forget it.

I started writing this on a bad day and finished editing it on a much better day, and that’s how it goes (I hope). We eventually found small solutions as the baby slowly became more of a communicator and we slowly figured out what we were doing more and more. Getting out of the house helped while I was on maternity leave, and going back to work was a revelation. We started going back to church, more for the quiet time, the walk and the cheap way to spend an hour than any sort of dogma. For Steve’s birthday I packed up the dog and baby and spent the night at my parents’ so he could have an evening at home to himself.

But still, sometimes I get into a spiral of bad feelings and my dark mood brings tension to the relationship, and then the tension in the relationship makes me feel worse (“What do I have if I don’t have my relationship with my best friend?”). And then I feel worse because I realize that I need to get my head out of my ass and be grateful for all the things that are going right: We are all healthy. My parents live nearby. We are not in debt. We are both employed. So I’m working on the gratitude as Steve and I work on tweaking the relationship to fit the new reality. We make rules like you can’t talk about money woes right before bed or in the morning, and you can’t complain about how little sleep you got first thing in the morning, and let’s try to say what we really mean the first time instead of wasting any time being passive aggressive. We try to talk about our feelings as much as we can so that we don’t forget that’s what we were originally there for. “As long as he destroys both of us, we’re okay,” Steve joked, which means that as long as the baby takes us down the same number of pegs, as long as we can pull each other aside occasionally and say “Boy, this sucks sometimes, huh?” it will somehow be all right.

Previously by this author: Inadvertently Mocking the Dead

Claire Zulkey is the author of AN OFF YEAR, and is a television critic and contributor to the Los Angeles Times and AV Club. She lives in Chicago, where she hosts the literary humor reading series Funny Ha-Ha.