MARRIED WITH KIDS
Rob Pascale and Lou Primavera
Parenthood is a true test of a marriage.
Nothing disrupts a warm and loving relationship like kids. While some may argue that children add to a marriage, the reality is most will go through a decline after the first child is born. But regardless of whether the marriage gets worse, stays the same, or in rare cases actually improves, there’s no denying it will be different.
Parenthood is such a radical departure from how couples had lived together before that it’s almost impossible to be prepared for it. Daily life is likely to take a turn for the chaotic, and many will feel stressed out and out of control. Couples can become more reactionary and arguments can become more intense because they’re both overburdened.
How well couples adjust to children can depend on a lot of factors. One has to do with how they cope with a changing personal definition. When we become parents, we are forced to adopt a new role. In most situations, when faced with a new role, we don’t immediately take it on. We change how we define ourselves gradually as we gain experience and get used to this role. In parenthood, the new role is thrust upon a couple literally from one day to the next, and they have no choice but to adjust.
Before children, partners are mostly concerned with each other. However, from birth the child becomes the most important person in their lives. So how they define themselves as a couple moves in the direction of a functional rather than an emotional connection, and they see themselves more as a partnership and less as a romance or friendship. Very often partners are not only coping with added responsibilities and workload, they must also learn how to put their relationship on the backburner.
Adding the parent role and changing the definition of the couple role becomes a balancing act. We have less time devoted to our other roles, and we can experience role overload or inter-role conflict as we try to manage our time between each role. When we feel we’re unable to handle all of our roles adequately, we can feel stressed and pressure on ourselves to find better ways to cope.
Our ability to adjust to parenthood also has to do with expectations. As we mentioned earlier, both husbands and wives might expect that the emotional side of their relationship would stay the same. That doesn’t happen, and the more partners are off with respect to how they thought it would be, the greater is the risk for resentment and conflict.
Not surprisingly, men and women differ in what they expect and how they manage when their expectations are not met. For wives, their expectations are straightforward. They presume their husbands will be supportive and take on some of the added home responsibilities. However, if they don’t receive much-needed assistance, or if they feel the labor split has become too lopsided, they won’t feel good about their husbands and their marriage.
Many men, in contrast, don’t expect their share of responsibilities to change much. There will be the occasional feeding and diaper change, but these won’t really interfere with their normal routines. They may also expect that their relationship with their wives will pretty much be as it was before the baby. Of course, that’s not realistic – with their time constraints and pressures, some wives don’t have the energy for more intimate forms of spousal interaction. Additionally, her priorities have changed from taking care of her husband to taking care of a child. When one of her roles has to be put aside, it’s likely to be as care-giver and lover to her husband.
That’s sometimes at the heart of marital dissatisfaction for men during the child-rearing stage – the loss of intimacy combined with the increase in responsibilities. From a husband’s perspective, he’s being asked to live with fewer rewards (less attention and affection) but at the same time absorb greater costs (childcare and more housework). Getting hit with a double whammy might make him feel his marriage has shifted out of balance against them.
How partners react to the disappointment of unmet expectations can range from emotional withdrawal to outright hostility. Again, men and women behave differently when their expectations are violated. If a husband feels good about his marriage, he tends to be more nurturing and involved with his children. However, he can be less so if he doesn’t feel his wife is loving and attentive. In fact, how a man acts toward his children can have more to do with how he feels about his marriage than his skills as a parent. That’s not how it works with mothers. They tend to treat their children the same regardless of how they feel about their husband or their marriage. Bad days are bad, but they won’t take it out on their kids.
For those who are struggling with the adjustment, first and foremost, be aware that the time demands of parenting can affect your perspective. If you’re feeling stressed out, it may be because of all the roles you’re trying to fill and the demands on your time, and not necessarily because of something your spouse has done or not done. Taking your frustrations out on your spouse will only lead to arguments that have little to do with why you’re stressed.
The better approach is for partners to discuss their issues, be supportive of each other, and try to address each other’s needs. Emotional support helps to relieve stress and makes it easier to handle overwhelming circumstances. So pay attention to your partner’s stress levels, and be prepared to intercede when help is needed.
If you’re overloaded and feeling stressed out, you might be able to help yourself by changing how you think about your various roles. We are talking about compartmentalizing and prioritizing. Those who successfully manage multiple roles learn to turn off thoughts about one when they’re in the other. Learning to think compartmentally can help you focus better on what you have directly in front of you. It won’t reduce your workload, but you will feel as though you’re managing it better, and that can keep your stress levels more in check.
As a side note, we should mention that men establish their housework patterns early on in their marriages and hold onto these patterns when they get older. Whatever amount they do at the beginning of a marriage will stay about the same when they get to retirement. Consequently, women may want to try to train their prospective husbands from the start of the relationship, even before taking vows. If he can’t be trained, a wife will at least have an idea of what’s in store for her. From there she can either adjust her expectations or negotiate for something she wants in exchange for her extra labor.