Diaper commercials, baby-shower cards, and your own relatives will tell you a baby is pure bliss, a heaven-sent bundle of joy, a gift worth all that sleep deprivation, all those dirty Pampers.
We do love our children. But what they can do to our marriages is another story.
A growing stack of research reveals that happy marriages take a nosedive when a couple becomes a family. Thanks to sleepless nights, new expectations, and the demands of bringing up baby while holding down a job, 30 to 50 percent of all new parents feel as distressed as couples already in therapy for marriage problems, say researchers from the University of California, Berkeley. Up to 70 percent of new moms say their marital satisfaction dropped dramatically. At least one-third of mothers and fathers experience significant depression as they become parents. And one in eight couples separate or divorce by the time their first babies are 18 months old. Generation X parents seem to feel the parental pinch even more acutely: A recent review of 90 studies involving 31,000 wives and husbands by San Diego State University researchers found that for young couples today, marital satisfaction plummeted 42 percent further after the first baby than it did for their own parents. And with each child added to the family, happiness dipped even lower.
The shift from lovers to parents can rock your marriage down to its roots. Suddenly you find yourselves taking on traditional, stereotyped roles that may clash with your thoroughly modern expectations: A working mom trades the office, wisecracking colleagues, and the gym for breast-feeding, bottle-washing, and mountains of laundry (and after just six to eight weeks of maternity leave, often adds an office job back into the mix). A husband faithfully attends childbirth classes, spends long hours in the delivery room, and cuts the baby’s umbilical cord, yet all too often feels shut out during the early years of child-rearing. Instead, he works longer and harder in his career in order to provide for his growing family, and feels more and more distant. You’re both doing more, communicating less, and feeling vastly underappreciated. Modern marriage makes matters tougher: You may be having kids in your late 30s or early 40s, when the fatigue factor is higher and job pressures are bigger than they probably were in your 20s. And there’s more to be anxious about than ever before in our kid-competitive society. Will your child get into a good preschool program? Can you afford this year’s $800 status stroller and $100 baby playsuit? Is your wunderkind enrolled in the right art, music, and tumbling tots class?
Small wonder, then, that Newsweek magazine decreed parenting “The Toughest Job You’ll Ever Love.” Or that the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University reached the chilling conclusion in 2004 that “children seem to be a growing impediment for the happiness of marriages.”
Happily, even newer research reveals something smart couples have always known: Parenthood can sweeten and strengthen your relationship. All you’ve got to do: Put your marriage first; appreciate each other instead of criticizing; get organized; and communicate, communicate, communicate. That’s a tall order for two sleep-deprived, baby-spit-spattered, shell-shocked people (who haven’t showered in days). We know. We’ve been there. And we’re here to help — whether you’re planning to start a family or have already embarked on the adventure of raising kids. Here’s how.
Despite all the hoopla surrounding pregnancy and childbirth, “there’s not much attention to how this baby will impact you as an individual and as a couple, or the 157,250 hours of parenting that comes next,” observes Pamela Jordan, R.N., associate professor of family and child nursing at the University of Washington and developer of the Becoming Parents Program, one of the nation’s first parenting classes to focus on a couple’s marriage, not just their child-rearing skills. Most couples, she notes, simply don’t have ready-made skills to help them safeguard their marriages in the face of the overwhelming stresses of parenthood. These steps can help.
Talk about what’s ahead. How will you split household chores and errands? Who’s going to earn money, and who’s going to stay home? What will you do for day care — and who will get baby Huey to and from the child-care center or sitter’s house? Who’s going to take the night shift? Who’s going to wash the bottles and/or sterilize the breast pump every day? Who will shop, cook, clean, and let the dog out? How will Mom — or Dad, if the two of you have opted for a Mr. Mom arrangement — get daily breaks to recover sanity and get a hot shower? These seemingly small details can loom large in your relationship once baby makes three.
Break the silence about parenthood’s downside. Yes, new babies are the cutest little bundles of joy in the universe. But caring for one (or multiples!) isn’t all kisses and cuddles. Feeding, changing, bathing, and entertaining a little one 24/7 can stretch your physical, emotional, and mental resources beyond the breaking point. Find time to talk together about your frustrations, fatigue, and even moments of anger. Be specific, be supportive, and dare to be honest. These feelings are normal — not a sign that you’re a bad parent. Admitting them, accepting each other’s feelings, and working together to solve underlying problems (e.g., agreeing in advance that if one of you is overwhelmed, the other will step in and take care of the baby for a while) can keep you feeling saner — and closer.
Be frank about the losses as well as the gains. You’ve got the baby of your dreams, so why are you feeling so sad about your lost sex life or the elastic-waist jeans that have replaced your sleek, pre-baby size 8’s? New parents often mourn silently and separately about all the ways a new baby has changed their lives, creating marital distance and even a sense of shame. For example, a new dad may feel that the new baby has taken his place as number one in his wife’s affection. A new mom may feel sad or frustrated about the ways pregnancy, nursing, and the demands of child care have changed her body. These feelings are normal too. Sharing them will help you feel better and strengthen your bond as a couple.
Don’t blame yourself or your spouse for marital blips. Experts say the first baby is the biggest challenge your marriage will ever face. You’re both exhausted — and grappling with new identities, new expectations for yourself and your spouse, and virtually no time for personal pleasures. Your first fix-up step: Don’t feel guilty or personally responsible for the downturn in marital bliss — and don’t blame your spouse. It’s a given. You’re only responsible if you don’t do anything to turn it around.
Understand the new definition of a good marriage. When Ohio State University researchers tested the co-parenting skills and marital happiness of 46 couples, they found a revealing connection: Partners who admired, supported, and agreed with each other’s parenting styles when their children were babies had happier marriages 2 1/2 years later. Couples who criticized or even undermined each other’s attempts to parent their young child were less happy with each other later on.
“It may seem that a good marriage relationship would protect a couple, but parenting can change a lot in a how husbands and wives relate to each other,” says Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan, Ph.D., coauthor of the study and assistant professor of human development and family science at Ohio State University. “The issues you confront in parenting aren’t typically the kind of issues you confronted before you had children. That can make a big difference in your relationship.”
Dr. Schoppe-Sullivan says her study suggests that having a good marriage before a baby arrives isn’t enough to ensure that your relationship will thrive afterward. New rules seem to settle in as partners judge each other’s parenting abilities.
The fix? Admire everything you can about your partner’s parenting. And discuss areas where you disagree, such as discipline, rewards versus punishment, bedtime, meals, and TV time.
Weave a support network. Comparing notes with other parents of children of the same age as your own can provide emotional support and a reassuring sense that no matter how busy or how crazy things are, it’s probably just normal. You’ll be far less likely to blame your marriage and much more likely to find solutions — and feel good about what you’re doing together.
But finding support for dads as well as moms can be tricky: New moms have easier access to other women with babies or small children via mothers’ groups and simply through meetings at the playground, in the pediatrician’s office, or in activity groups for children. Dads typically have less access to other fathers. Look for couples’ groups for new parents at your religious institution or make an effort to cultivate friendships with other couples, experts say. In one California study of new parents, those who met as a group with a psychologist to discuss child-rearing issues had no divorces, versus a 15 percent divorce rate over three years for parents who didn’t meet with a support group.
Of course, you need more than emotional support. Gathering family, friends, or neighbors willing to help with meals, cleaning, errands, and child care is a lifesaver — and a marriage-saver, especially if your own families aren’t available to help out. Experts say it’s smart to put together a network before your baby is born, but it can help at any time. Say yes if someone offers to cook a meal you can pop into the freezer, do your grocery shopping, or watch the baby for an hour. List people who may be willing to help out in small or large ways. Don’t be afraid to ask. Include one or two people whom you can count on as emergency contacts, day or night, to care for your baby in your home in case you reach a moment of desperation (it can happen to anyone!). Another option: Hire help as needed. A weekly housecleaner, a teenage mother’s helper, a supermarket that will put together your grocery order for you can all take the pressure off you — and your marriage.
Expect the unexpected. No book, video, class, or tip from a friend can fully prepare the two of you for the enormous changes parenthood brings. Plan to give yourself some slack, to be surprised and even shocked. This too is normal. “I don’t think you can ever say you’re completely ready for it,” says Kimberly Jordan, a Spartanburg, South Carolina, mother of two young boys. “We planned so much out, but you’re still surprised in so many ways.”Parenting challenges your marriage no matter how old your kids are. These expert strategies can bolster your marriage and help you put it first, whether your children are preschoolers or high school seniors.
Turn down the criticism; turn up the admiration. New parents often feel they’re doing endless amounts of work that their partner’s not giving them credit for — creating tension and resentment. Even if you feel you’re the one doing the most, stop often to praise your spouse. Appreciation breeds appreciation. You’ll also probably start noticing all the ways your spouse is helping out.
Kimberly and Gary Jordan realized that their styles didn’t always mesh when it came to parenting their sons, Isaiah and Zachary. “I came from a single-parent family and was raised by my mother,” Kimberly says. “My own brother is so much older than me that I never really saw how my mother handled parenting a boy. I’m very protective with the children, and I’ve had to learn to release some of that. And at times I thought Gary was being too strict, but the boys would really respond to his tone of voice when they didn’t always respond to mine. I’ve had to learn to roll with the punches with boys, whether it was their interests in snakes and rocks and dirt or potty training.” Adds Gary, “Kimberly’s helped me to understand how to talk with the boys, to bring out what’s going on inside, emotionally. We’re close.”
Go team, go! Many couples lose their essential sense of “we” when a child enters the picture — that sense of unity and oneness that is the hallmark of a happy couple. In its place, “me versus you” conflicts can take root. You each think you’re right, the other’s wrong, and, what’s even more toxic, you’re tempted to simply solve the dilemma du jour on your own. The baby won’t sleep through the night? Your three-year-old shows no interest in graduating from pull-ups to underwear? Your toddler would rather guzzle milk than eat broccoli and peaches? You can’t possibly get to work on time if you attend the morning tea for parents at the child-care center? You could try to solve these problems alone, but it’s worth finding the time and energy to involve your spouse. Researchers say that couples who approach child-care issues with a positive attitude (less “Oh, no!”; more “We can solve this!”) and as a team are more satisfied with their marriages than those who tackle problems as individuals.
Brush up on calm conflict resolution. Your marriage will benefit — and so will your kids. When researchers from the University of Notre Dame and Catholic University of America tracked 226 mothers and fathers and their 9- to 18-year-old children for three years, they found that parents whose conflicts revolved around personal insults, defensiveness, marital withdrawal, sadness, or fear had kids who displayed more depression, anxiety, and behavior problems. In a related study of 232 parents of kindergarteners, they found that parents who engaged in “dirty fighting” triggered emotional insecurity in their sons and daughters. “When the marital relationship is functioning well, it serves as a structurally sound bridge to support the child’s exploration and relationships with others,” says researcher Mark Cummings, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Notre Dame. “When destructive marital conflict erodes the bridge, children may lack confidence and become hesitant to move forward or may be unable to find appropriate footing within themselves or in interaction with others. This study is a warning to strongly encourage parents to learn how to handle conflicts constructively for the sake of both their children and themselves.”
Disagreement isn’t the problem, Dr. Cummings says. It’s how the two of you handle it. “If everyday issues are addressed in a productive or constructive way, children benefit,” he notes. “I talked about the harm that destructive types of conflicts can cause. Some of the most destructive types of conflicts occur when partners withdraw from one another, stonewall, or show disrespect. Children are very sensitive to the emotional quality of the home.”
Schedule a private powwow about discipline. Presenting a united front, whether it’s about your 8-year-old’s allotment of TV time or your 17-year-old’s use of the family car, will help you avoid a major source of ongoing marital conflict. It will also help your kid feel more secure. If you find yourselves in disagreement about how to handle a child-rearing issue, work out a temporary rule and tell your child that you and your spouse need to consider the issue together before laying down the law. Then discuss the issue when you have a private, kid-free opportunity.
“We had to negotiate between ourselves about what the ground rules would be for our four children, especially when the eldest first became a teenager,” says Susan Vogt of Covington, Kentucky. “We definitely had disagreements. One of us would think it was fine for our son to do something, and the other wouldn’t. We weren’t too far apart, but it still took a lot of debate to work things out, and the stakes got higher when they were teenagers. The positive part of working it out was that going with just one parent’s viewpoint could make things too permissive or too disciplinarian. You need both opinions, melded together.”
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