Let Parenthood Strengthen Your Marriage

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.

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