Half a century ago, the conventional wisdom was that having a child was the surest way to build a happy marriage. Women’s magazines of that era promised that almost any marital problem could be resolved by embarking on parenthood. Once a child arrives, “we don’t worry about this couple any more,” an editor at Better Homes and Gardens enthused in 1944. “There are three in that family now. … Perhaps there is not much more needed in a recipe for happiness.”
So starts an editorial in the New York Times that goes on to detail the depressing statistics about marriage satisfaction after kids. Over 25 studies shows that marriage satisfaction goes down after babies, and doesn’t get any better after the kids finally leave the nest after high school.
All of us in homes with kids and spouses know very well what the issues are:
- Less time for intimacy between spouses. Kids and jobs make instantaneous demands and it’s easy to put off time with the spouse since he or she is still there day after day.
- Resentment by moms over changed career goals. Even moms who willingly quit their jobs to be with the kids often resent that they can’t do it all and that they are seeming slaves to their biological needs. Dads too feel this pressure as family needs often overwhelm career priorities.
- Increasing financial pressure. The early family years are often marked by pressures making ends meet and moms and dads both often fantasize about running away and being free again.
- Uneven workloads on housework and childcare. Whether by biology or culture, men and women often have different priorities for housecleaning and required chores. Whether it’s true or not, dads are often told that they don’t do as much as moms.
- Changing aspirations and perspectives after babies. We see this all the time. The mom who quits her job as a high-powered lawyer to be with her kids, the dad who takes a less paying job so he can coach soccer, and even the women and men who throw themselves even more deeply into their jobs after they have kids because they find themselves ill-equipped as child caregivers.
What can be done? The good news, as reported by the Times, is that moms and dads are spending more time with their kids today than they did 40 years ago. Even as more moms are in the workforce, a study done at the University of Michigan showed by 1997 that kids are getting six more hours with mom and four more hours with dad than they did a decade earlier.
As much as we strongly feel that kids need a lot of attention, love, and guidance. Modern marriages need a lot of nurturing as well. If moms and dads are going to have strong relationships that carry them through the stressful years of early childhood and beyond into the empty nest, they have to work to find time together to enjoy each other the way they did before kids.
- Take time away from the kids to spend time as adults with other adults. And make time and find ways to get away by yourselves even for a night. While new parents, especially, often feel guilty about this, think how important it is for your kids to have two loving and relaxed parents.
- Don’t take anything for granted; not your sex life, your relationship, or your marriage. Couples get into trouble when they forget about the needs of the other person and the need for intimacy whether sexual or otherwise.
- Get counseling. You’re lucky if you still have good health insurance that covers couples counseling. Even if you don’t, churches and other groups have programs to help couples learn to talk and communicate. If you’re still suffering from the idea that therapy is for sick people, get over it. Couples therapy, especially when undertaken when things are going well. means that you can quickly use it during crises. Most marriages fail when the call to a marriage counselor comes as a last resort when a divorce is already being discussed.
Parents who ignore these issues because they just don’t have enough time in the day, or because work and kids come before the needs of the person lying next to them eight hours a day may, and usually do, suffer the consequences.