Sleep deprivation is nature’s way of taking issues partners have and blowing them the hell up.
Before I became a dad I thought a lot about what kind of dad I would be and how I would handle the responsibilities involved.
I thought about the kind of relationship I would have with my child, how I would be a firm but fair father who could be singing stupid songs with his kids one minute and wisely teaching them the difference between right and wrong the next.
I thought about the physical and emotional strain becoming a father would place on me, and the financial burden of dropping to a single income.
One thing I didn’t really think about was the impact it would have on my relationship with my partner.
Turns out, a hell of a lot.
We barely fought at all when it was just the two of us, but that changed dramatically once our little ‘bundle of
terror joy’ arrived.
One of the main drivers of this, I’m convinced, was sleep deprivation. It tripled the severity of how bad either of us messed up, tripled the frequency of said messing up, and tripled the intensity of each subsequent fight after messing up.
It’s not that we were fighting all the time, it’s just that, in the condition our bodies and minds were in, it felt like it was always a possibility. We were so exhausted that we were reduced to our primal instincts of fight or flight.
Here’s some things we learnt the hard way during our first month as partners turned parents.
Arguing whilst sleep deprived is like arguing drunk
Our arguments before baby would begin messily but quickly turn calmer and more focused on reconciliation.
Lots of “when you ______, I feel ______”. And “I can see your point of view, thank you for sharing”.
All that Oprah crap.
After baby, our conflict resolution became like two angry drunks yelling at each other in the streets at 2AM. These arguments would end only when we became too tired to continue.
No reconciliation, no deeper understanding of each other, just pure exhaustion to the point of no longer giving a crap about whatever it was that we can’t even remember we were arguing about.
The reactions won’t match the misdeeds
After I got sworn at for buying 90% and not 77% dark chocolate (“You may as well have bought fucking cocoa powder!”), I realised that for the first few months, we couldn’t rely on our reactions matching the misdeeds.
Her swearing at me was 10% what I’d done, 10% the baby poop under her fingernails and 80% the less than 2 hours sleep she had gotten 4 nights in a row.
It didn’t mean she wasn’t annoyed with me, it’s just that her reaction was 10 times overblown.
An annoyed shake of the head turned into a sarcastic insult, and a sarcastic insult turned into a character assassination so harsh it left me sobbing in a cupboard.
You need to know the difference
While it’s a good rule of thumb, be very mindful that ‘lack of sleep’ is not always the reason that she, or you, are angry. And you need to know the difference. For example:
You’re furious because she’s whistling that damn song again – You’re just tired mate.
She’s furious because you’re playing Call of Duty while she’s breastfeeding and making the dinner – You’re just being a dickhead mate.
How to get through it:
Unfortunately, for those first few months, sleep deprivation is an inescapable fact of new dad life. Nevertheless, here’s some tips to stop you tearing strips off each other because of it.
1. Recognise that you’re both exhausted
Each parent tends to think that they are the ones doing it more tough. New mums think new dads get more sleep than they actually do, while new dads think new mums are moodier than they really are.
It’s not a competition for who has it worse. However crap you’re feeling, trust that your partner is probably struggling just as much as you.
2. Reaffirm “We’re on the same team”.
Yes you may do the washing differently, yes you may notice what needs to be done at different rates, yes you may have different ideas about how to swaddle correctly, but you’re on the same goddamn team!
There will never be an exact, 50:50 split of duties and tasks. Just both do what you can, when you can, and don’t keep tabs.
3. Let it Go.
If you snapped at her because she put the TV on too loud – apologise, but don’t beat yourself up about it all day.
If she yelled at you at 2AM because you were snoring, don’t be pissy until you get an apology.
Silently forgive her and move on.
4. Small Gestures are Golden
Take one minute every day to step out of the craziness and do something to re-engage your courtship.
Find a flower in your yard (or pinch one from next door) and stick it in a vase, do a load of washing, fill in that chip in the wall that’s been driving her nuts, offer to do the grocery shopping, take the baby for a walk so she can have a shower – whatever your dad energy reserves can muster.
Just don’t do it expecting to be lavished upon with praise. Do it because you care.
5. End the Endless Arguments
If your argument’s stuck in an endless loop and you’ve lost sight of what you’re even fighting about, one of you needs to compassionately end it. This might mean relinquishing the last word, taking a time-out, and making up when calmer heads can prevail. But always make the effort to make up.
Sleep deprivation will win many battles in those first few months of parenthood. You must work together to ensure your relationship ultimately wins the war.