For most parents, bringing home a newborn is a happy occasion they've been anticipating for months. But, as new moms and dads soon find out, caring for their bundle of joy is also a 24-hour-a-day job where feedings, diaper changings and other needs can seem never-ending.
Those demands can mean a frazzled, exhausted reality for Mom and Dad that can strain even the best relationships, says Beverly Talan, a clinical psychologist and marriage therapist.
"It's a very common thing," says Talan, who also runs weekend couples and parenting workshops. "When couples come in with conflict issues, I'll ask them when they started. Often, they say with the first baby."
A 2009 study by the University of Denver and Texas A&M found that 90 percent of couples experienced a decrease in marital satisfaction once their first child was born. The study, which followed 218 couples for eight years, found that while most married couples experienced diminished marital quality over time, having a baby accelerated the deterioration.
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Going from husband and wife to Mom and Dad plays a part in marital strain, as does the uncertainty that comes with the new roles, says Katherine Gold, an assistant professor with the University of Michigan's family medicine and obstetrics/gynecology departments.
"It's very hard to imagine the ways in which your life is going to change," says Gold, who's also a master social worker.
Jeffrey Watters, 38, a strength and conditioning coach in the Detroit area, says that's what he and his wife, Dori Freeland-Watters, 33, an orthodontist, experienced after the birth of son Gage, 2. The couple's second child, Austin, was born March 31.
"We felt like we lost our identity a bit because our roles changed so dramatically," says Watters. "You get focused on being a parent and forget to take care of each other."
The effects of sleep deprivation on mood and energy levels are also underestimated, says Gold. She recommends working out a way for each parent to get two to three hours of uninterrupted sleep per night.
That's what Watters and his wife did after first getting up together to share in Gage's nighttime feeding and changes.
"We initially tried to do everything together," says Watters. "If he needed a diaper changed or a feeding, we'd both be there. We finally talked and said, 'This is crazy. We need to start taking shifts.' Once we did that, our stress level went down quite a bit."
Making a schedule is a great way to handle sleep issues, says Talan, adding that a spouse who has gone back to work can offer to get up more on the weekends with the baby.
With children in the picture, couples often forget to take time for each other, says Gold. One of the best ways to fix that is by scheduling a date, even if it's only for a half-hour instead of the whole evening.
Watters said taking their son to a family member's home once a week so they could just take a drive or go for a walk helped him and his wife connect.
"We found we couldn't be in the moment with each other because we were always listening in the back of our heads for the baby crying," he says. "Just being alone together was heaven."
If there are no family members nearby or you're on a limited budget, Talan suggests co-op baby-sitting or play groups, which are often available through community centers, churches and schools.
Finally, remember things will soon get easier, says Gold. "New parents don't realize the stressful period doesn't last forever. Parents who have more than one child know that."