Let’s just say it. Kids are hard on marriage.
When I make that statement, are you foaming at the mouth or fidgeting a little? Is it something you know but wouldn’t so much as whisper? Why are we so unwilling to acknowledge what most of us have experienced?
To say that children put a strain on marriage is to speak the obvious and to feel subversive. To express anything less than glowing sentiments about parenthood seems to be strictly VERBOTEN.
To do so flies in the face of our pretty view of the ideal adult life – love, marriage, babies, “happily ever after” – as reinforced by media (and likewise, friends).
Why Are Children Hard on Marriage?
Any parent knows that children require an extraordinary amount of time, care, and both physical and emotional effort. How could we NOT be impacted? How could our relationships not be impacted?
Babies wear us out with the blur of broken nights of sleep that may last a few months or go on for a year. (Dare I even mention the impacts of hormones?)
Whether we’re juggling a job outside the home or not, sleep deprivation alone will put stress on the marriage. And if the father isn’t helping enough, add conflict and resentment to the less than romantic feelings that are aroused.
Sex as emotional glue? A tougher sell, given the fatigue and the resentment.
And if an unbalanced sharing of parenting and household tasks continues, how many years might this situation persist?
From Babies to Little Kids
Once through the baby period – perhaps it’s three to six years, if you have more than one child, and you may hit your stride – a good one at that. You both adore your kids (I certainly cherish mine), but now you face the beginning of a long stretch that require a different sort of attentiveness. This includes the process of daily care (bathing, feeding) as you encourage their independence, along with teaching (everything), driving (everywhere), and striving to do your best by your kids.
Time, worry, and yes – joy – are all part of the package.
But raising kids is never without its bumps and challenges, even under the best of circumstances. Health issues, behavioral issues, educational issues, unrelenting schedules – sheer burnout dealing with arguing and competition – even the “routine” demands can be exhausting.
Hello, Honey? Are You (Still) There?
What happens when the reality of children reveals underlying differences in beliefs that exist with the other parent? Differences like approach to discipline, to eating, to activities, to schooling?
If we’re lucky, we find we are in sync with the other parent when it comes to these issues. Otherwise, we may be fighting over them time and time again, which obviously puts stress on a marriage.
Luckier still, if we have family around to provide us “the village” that enables a little more breathing room, we may be able to take advantage of both emotional and physical distance. Distance enough for a night out, for quiet moments with our partners, and the spotlight – even if only periodically – back on “us.”
And if no built-in village, oh for the money to afford a bit of help!
And the Research Says…
A variety of sources address the topic of “decline in marital satisfaction after children.”
Now, now. This isn’t sacrilege. It’s honesty. We all know that things change – with or without kids in the mix. And there are options for keeping a relationship strong even as the years go on. But wouldn’t it have been helpful to anticipate these changes to marriage with children, and therefore to have been better prepared?
Among the sources that cite research on marital satisfaction after kids is the Wall Street Journal. In “Kids Are Cute But Hard on Marriage,” the conclusions shouldn’t be a surprise:
… About two-thirds of couples see the quality of their relationship drop within three years of the birth of a child… Conflict increases and, with little time for adult conversation and sex, emotional distance can develop…
The good news? The WSJ article goes on to describe various programs (in marital skills) that have helped couples reorient after “baby,” to stay better connected. Now if only those programs continued into the next stages…
Money, Money, Money
Another source of conflict when kids come into the marital picture?
Right. Money. Children are expensive. Have you checked on the cost of raising a child lately, per 2014 government figures?
Even if both parents agree on how to raise their children, time together may be compromised in the efforts to afford the additional expenses. Maybe he takes on that second job or those extra projects that put even more stress on your schedules. Maybe you do.
Perhaps you relinquish nearly all your former nights on the town; that money is needed for childcare, clothing, after school programs.
And so you’re more tired, more worried, and conversations focus on money as well as the kids…
And no, this isn’t their fault. In fact, none of this is their fault. It isn’t about fault whatsoever. It is about realistically looking at the challenges to relationships when we find ourselves focused on caring for the little people we love, when that love, ideally, is what created them in the first place.
Marital Expectations, Parental Expectations
We may run into any number of articles and programs that address dealing with the post-baby adjustments to couplehood. But what about the 15 to 20 years that follow? What about a focus on strengthening relationships through those potentially grueling years? What about practical suggestions around childcare and education?
At the very least, wouldn’t it be helpful to admit we will face challenges?
Some would say that if you have only one child, parenting and maintaining a good marriage is easier. I can imagine all the reasons that would be true – time, sleep, logistics, money. And yet we nag at those who choose to stop at one child, and tell them they’re selfish if they don’t have two.
Do I love my two? Absolutely. (And truth be told, I would have liked a third.) That was before I hit the middle school stage, not to mention the realities of life after divorce.
What Could Help?
When I was still married, juggling a full-time job and two kids, I was often the “backup” for both married and single mother friends. By Year 7 of parenting, I worked primarily from a home office, and consequently had greater flexibility to manage a few extra children in addition to my own – while still getting my work done. And when I needed it, one parent in particular was able to add my kids to her household – so I could have a few hours to myself. This was essential to my sanity after divorce, and when she moved, her generosity was sorely missed.
As for practical pointers that could help us keep relationships intact and still be good parents, I found some in this article, “How to Save Your Marriage From Your Kids.”
There are good reminders (especially for mothers) that dads can be right, that mothering shouldn’t trump sex, that we should fight effectively, and that a strong relationship is a good model for our children.
Great. But that isn’t enough.
Truth is More Helpful Than Fiction
What if we went into parenting with even a modest amount of reality check, and a willingness to say aloud – this is hard?
What if we anticipated at least some disagreement as we raise our children, and make sure our communication skills remain carefully honed?
What if we looked to our (absence of) societal infrastructure – childcare, including beyond those first five years, and options that could ease our scheduling burdens? What if we said no to the myth of magically (and independently) “doing it all?”
I am encouraged when I read about more men sharing child-rearing responsibilities. I am encouraged when I see parents reach out to each other, providing community and logistical help. I am encouraged when we can at least say it aloud: We adore our children, but they are hard on marriage.
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