Why I gave a random young couple advice on how to stay married

I am the sort of person who goos and gahs at babies all the time. Before I had my own. After I had my own. And even now, nearly 30 years after my baby was actually a baby. And there was this very cute baby at our local farmer’s market just gazing at me. Arms out of the baby pouch worn by the dad. One of those babies who makes you want to squeeze another one out, so utterly smoochy. After the necessary cooing noises, I turn to the mum and ask: “How’s it going?”

This is relevant to me because I was the very first one in my group to have a baby. My parents were both dead so I had no authorities. My sister was childless. In the end, my mother’s group coughed up the sainted Robin who has been the guide at my side for all these years. So I assume everyone wants to talk about baby life.

The who scrubs together stays together?Credit:Tribune

So yeah, I ask: “How’s it going?”

The mother replies that it’s great and terrific but she’s very tired (which, yes, a function of parenthood which never ever goes away even when the children have moved to the other side of the universe). Then I ask the dad: “How’s it going?” And he glares at his spouse and says: “She doesn’t think I’m doing enough housework.”

A normal person would have gone, ah, oh, hope it gets better, then make a quick escape. I’ve been writing about the distribution of household tasks for nearly 40 years so I thought I could bring some light to bear on the situation (hold on, this story gets worse). I said that this feeling (and reality) was often highlighted after the birth of a baby. I summarised a lifetime’s worth of research. I said, pretty much everyone feels like this. That it takes a lot of work to make relationships function well and then, wait for it, I suggested seeing a counsellor. “It worked for us,” I said brightly, gesturing at my husband of 36 years who developed a look of complete horror on his face, just before dashing off to the next stall.

I ask the dad: 'How’s it going?' And he glares at his spouse and says: 'She doesn’t think I’m doing enough housework.'

Counsellors are glorious humans. And those of you experiencing first baby mayhem can get immediate help by calling the national Relationships Australia hotline on 1300 364 277. Andrew King, the group programs practice manager for Relationships Australia, says the sooner you get help, the better. He explains that couples are making decisions about the whether their relationships can or will survive much more quickly now – it’s gone from seven years down to three years.

“People are deciding much much earlier,” he says.

But the risk of family separation can be mitigated by having a good long chat with someone who can look at it from the outside. I remember our counsellor, back in 1986, told us she’d be happy to hear us complain about each other but only briefly. After that, it was full solutions mode. King says counsellors talk about what it means to be in a couple with a new child.

“It changes many things. What are the options? What do you need to make decisions about?

“Major events create turbulence but being able to sit down together with a counsellor and work together to discover how to do this together can be really useful,” he says. People might just need help with how and what they talk about – and Relationships Australia also runs couples communication courses.”

The person who is managing the household has to be able to issue 100 instructions a day without the partner taking it as a personal affront.

The cost is calculated on a sliding scale, depending on the couple’s circumstance.

Says King: “Having your first child is a major tension.”

No kidding. And wait until both of you return to work. I ran into former lawyer Martine Beaumont at a party last week and recounted my story about being an interfering busybody. She is now a relationships counsellor after ditching the law and retraining. She said we often need help to understand how a functional relationship works.

“We learn how to be in a relationship from what we see around us but sometimes what we’ve seen is neither normal nor reasonable. We’ve seen generations of dysfunctional relationships.

“It’s good to develop some basic skills on how to listen, how to express emotion, just to get the sense of what’s normal and reasonable,” says Beaumont.

She’s been in practice for more than 15 years and says the most common themes are money, sex, and, you guessed it, housework. Beaumont has a favourite piece of advice for those struggling in the early stages of parenthood. I’ll paraphrase.

Basically, the person who is managing the household has to be able to issue 100 instructions a day without the partner taking it as a personal affront.

Wish I’d had that bit of information when I ran into that couple at the markets.

Jenna Price is an academic at the University of Technology Sydney and a regular columnist.

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