Babies should come with a warning label that says: May be hazardous to your marriage.
Research tells us that the transition from partnership to parenthood is rarely easy. In fact, most new parents report a decline in marital happiness once a baby makes three. But at least one-third of new parents manage to maintain the same level of happiness as a couple, so it’s worth looking at the challenges of becoming parents and how to address them.
We all want to think that having a baby leads to joy and living happily ever after. But what happens when you have to get up multiple times during the night? What happens when you change diaper after diaper after diaper (and maybe your spouse doesn’t change so many)? What happens when the baby is crying and you don’t know why? What happens when the child runs a fever, or an accident occurs and one of the adults is blamed? What happens when you don’t see eye to eye on what’s best for the child?
Parenting brings a host of new problems for a couple to solve and tests the marital bond. Often an egalitarian partnership suddenly becomes a more traditional arrangement with a mother working less outside the home, leading to increasing financial pressure for the father. Spending more time at home may lead to social isolation, an increased share of housework and child care, which may be a recipe for frustration.
A demanding, dependent addition to the family means less time to focus on each other as romantic partners, leading to less sex and a possible loss of emotional connection. All of this may lead to unhappiness and the risk of depression, as I wrote about last month.
What’s a couple to do? First, acknowledge that the transition can be like a Category 5 hurricane, bearing down on your relationship and life as you know it. Realistic expectations can pave the way for a smoother transition. Expect that parenthood will take a higher toll on moms, which means that fathers need to be active parents and supportive partners.
One of the biggest traps for new parents goes something like this: Mom spends more time with the baby, becoming more competent and comfortable than dad, who may start to feel like a third wheel. If dad starts to feel unnecessary, he will withdraw emotionally and physically, perhaps spending more time at work. This absence makes an exhausted mom feel resentful and abandoned, which leads to unhappiness with the marriage.
So while it may feel awkward at first, dads must pitch in and moms must give space and support for this participation. For example, it might be tempting for mom to take over when dad struggles to console a wailing infant. But giving the father a chance to manage on his own, to develop his own parenting skills and style and a sense of competency, is beneficial for everyone. Appreciating and respecting the way each partner contributes to parenting is a vital part of co-parenting.
Sharing the day-to-day demands of parenting makes each partner feel supported and appreciated, helping to maintain the marital bond while taking care of the baby’s needs. And what about the needs of the grown-ups? Another trap couples fall into when becoming parents is neglecting their needs as partners.
Couples who navigate parenthood successfully make time for each other. While parents may feel guilty leaving a child at home, spending time away from baby is necessary. “Marital generosity” is a term that researchers use to describe small regular efforts to serve your spouse, such as making a cup of coffee for an exhausted parent who spent the night getting up every two hours. Being appreciative and thankful for what each individual does for the family – and saying so – goes a long way in promoting happiness.
And finally, it’s important to get the support you need from friends, family, parenting groups and professionals, if needed. Becoming parents can be overwhelming, but it is possible to combine marriage and parenthood successfully.
Nancy Andersen, licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, provides emotionally focused therapy for couples in her Loyola Corners office in Los Altos. For more information, call 833-9574 or visit nancyandersenmft.com.