When our first baby arrived, I was overwhelmed with joy and gratitude. I was also just plain overwhelmed. Meeting the needs of a newborn on top of managing the housework, while weathering hormone-fueled feelings typical to new mothers but foreign to me, including the ambivalence I felt having put my career on hold to do endless piles of laundry, seemed impossible.
All this stress — exacerbated by sleep deprivation — led to countless arguments between myself and my husband.
Instead of carving out the time to work out the logistics of parenting and talk through the feelings that came with it, we blew up at one another in moments of stress. These spats often occurred in the middle of the night, when our newborn wouldn’t stop crying and everyone was exhausted. It was then — at four in the morning, Oscar screaming his head off in the other room — that we’d find ourselves airing old resentments, clumsily expressing our feelings, and attacking one another’s parenting styles. I felt resentful, misunderstood, and alone. By the end of my first year as a full-time mother, our marriage was in crisis.
Jancee Dunn, journalist and author of “How to Not Hate Your Husband After You Have Kids,” can relate. Struggling to cope with the impact that becoming parents had on her relationship, Dunn turned to the latest relationship research, and solicited counsel from some of the country’s most renowned couples and sex therapists in order to figure out a way to resolve her and her husband’s larger issues and fix their family while there was still time.
While there’s no quick solution to the marital discord brought on by parenthood, Dunn says, there was one simple and concrete idea suggested again and again: the family meeting. It’s a solution my husband and I have also learned to rely on.
Like the meetings you hold at work, a family meeting is a dedicated time and place to delegate work and disseminate information.
“It’s a meeting held regularly where you talk about what’s coming up on the calendar, general logistics, plans for the weekend,” Dunn says. “It’s also a kind of emotional check-in: Is everyone okay? Does anyone have issues? Anyone feeling burnt out, neglected, overwhelmed?”
While my husband and I’d held “family meetings” back when we first moved in together, we’d somehow stopped the practice just when we needed it most. Looking back, the stress of early cohabitation and planning a wedding was nothing compared to the challenges that hit us after the birth of our first child. By the time Oscar was nearly a year and a half, we’d fallen back into poor communication patterns.
Just by reinstating the idea of a family meeting, we saw immediate results. When Arran gave the baby a third cookie before dinner, I held my tongue and made a mental note to bring it up at the family meeting. Instead of arguing over an unexpectedly high heating bill, we tabled the conversation until Saturday. These days, when things get tense, he and I have learned to pause and add the issue to next week’s agenda.
In my home, we start each meeting by discussing the family budget. As for many families, talking about money can be touchy. It’s easier, though, when all parties in the conversation are mentally and materially prepared. Instead of guessing what our bank balances are and the expenses we’ve got to pay, the bills are in a pile in the center of the table and my husband and I both have our computers in front of us, open to our online accounts.
We follow money stuff with any issues related to our son. For a long time, “sleeping” and “feeding” got their own line items. These days, it’s discipline, daycare, and upcoming doctors appointments, including prenatal appointments, followed by anything else related to baby number two (that’s right, we’re pregnant!).
After that comes the business of maintaining the house. Is it time to clean the gutters and have the chimney inspected, or can that wait until next week? Who’s responsibility is it to get the dishwasher fixed, and when is that person planning to do it?
Then comes “new business” — upcoming birthdays, holidays, family trips, unusual work obligations, and anything else left to discuss.
While the practice may be particularly valuable to couples struggling to cope with the impact becoming parents has on their relationships, experts say that all families can benefit from family meetings.
“In my years of practice,” Barton Goldsmith, PhD wrote in Psychology Today, “this has proven to be one of the most effective and bonding things families can do to create greater harmony and experience more depth and connection with those they love.”
A family meeting gives individuals the power to make decisions, and a feeling of involvement and investment. Whereas I’d become the “momager,” and had taken on a disproportionate load of the work, at that first and subsequent family meetings, my husband and I were able to even out our responsibilities.
Beyond expressing my own feelings about parenthood, family meetings have given me a better sense of how my husband’s life has changed as well. During our Saturday sessions, he too is able to articulate his feelings and stressors, and I can better recognize the responsibilities on his shoulders as well as the sacrifices he’s making for the sake of our family. My job as a mother is still difficult, but it no longer feels impossible — and I no longer feel alone. I walk away from our family meetings with a renewed confidence knowing my husband and I are working as a team.
This article was originally published on Business Insider.
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