As well as bringing lots of joy, the arrival of children actually increases the stress on the parents’ relationship. While in the long term, parents can report that children bring them closer, the transition from being a couple to being parents together is fraught with problems such as dealing with the huge demands of a new baby and working out differences in your parenting roles.
Paradoxically, these challenges come when you have less time to talk problems through and much less energy to attend to and cultivate your relationship.
In an excellent and well-informed book – Babyproofing Your Marriage – the three female authors present a light-hearted and wise look at the challenges of becoming parents. A major strength of the book is how it presents the very different perspectives of men and women.
On the arrival of a new baby, fathers can be beset by a “provider panic” and feel pressure to support the new family and commit to their careers to provide stability. Mothers can suddenly be overtaken by the role of motherhood as if a “mummy chip” has been activated in their brains – all aspects of their lives become peripheral to the primary focus of caring for the baby.
Men can acutely miss the reduction of the sexual side of the marriage (and resent their partner’s lack of appreciation of this); women can feel burdened by the increase in domestic chores (and resent their partner’s lack of participation in this); and both can miss the loss of personal time and freedom.
These differences can lead to on- going conflict in agreeing childcare, domestic chores and the allocation of free time. This can result in “scorekeeping” and repeated “tit-for-tat” arguments over who is doing what and when, leading to major stress on the parents’ relationship.
One solution lies in becoming equal partners in the important job of parenting. This does not mean you have to do the same things (and each couple needs to work out their respective roles), but it does mean that you support and appreciate your partner’s efforts as well as taking responsibility for your own contribution.
For example, a common pattern is for mothers to feel resentful that the main burden of housework falls at their feet and that they ultimately have to shoulder the main parenting role.
This is borne out by studies that show that women (even if they are working outside the home) on average do the lion’s share of the housework.
While some fathers may be culpable for not taking their fair share of the domestic burden or for deferring to their partner on all childcare decisions, some mothers also co-create this problem by not giving up the main parenting role, not delegating childcare tasks or by micromanaging their partners when they do care for the children.
In Babyproofing Your Marriage, one of the most helpful ideas is for a “training weekend” for husbands, whereby the father takes full responsibility for caring for the children, including all domestic chores, for an extended period and for at least a weekend. This allows him to become a parent on his own terms, helps him appreciate his partner’s perspective and enables the mother to have personal time away.
Striving to be equal partners in parenting can have gains across the marriage. Marriage researcher John Gottman found that husbands who were willing to share in equal amounts of housework were likely to have a more active sex life with their wives. It is unclear which came first, but you can speculate!
It is clear that the increased pressure brought about by the arrival of children can cause the couple’s intimate relationship to be neglected.
Every couple says it won’t happen to them, but the romantic, sexual and fun side of the marriage that got them together in the first place can get lost over time when the children arrive. In Babyproofing Your Marriage, the authors argue that this is the most crucial area to focus on to preserve a relationship. Men and women can experience this loss differently. Women often report a lack of affection or less companionship and men can acutely miss the sexual side of the marriage, while both lament the loss of the physical closeness that they had before.
A common pattern to emerge is that men stop initiating sex with their partner in case they get rejected, and women stop being affectionate in case their partner misreads the signal as an initiation of sex. The overall result is a lack of affection, connection and satisfaction for both partners.
The key to a successful marriage after having children lies in making the fun, romantic and sexual side of your relationship central. Though you have less time and there are much more pressures when you are caring for children, you need to keep doing some of the fun things that you did before they arrived, whether this is getting a babysitter and going out once a week, or simply cooking a romantic meal at home when the kids are in bed. You neglect this side of your relationship at your peril.
When both partners are not satisfied in this area of their lives is when the serious strain is put on their relationship and they are at risk of drifting apart.
In addition, the health of your relationship with your partner is not only crucial to both parents’ wellbeing, it also provides important role- modelling for your children and contributes to their self-esteem and sense of security.
Another big challenge for parents is coping with the lack of time for personal goals and projects. Before the children arrived, you were happy to support your partner doing the personal things that mattered to them, whether it was pursuing a course of study, going on a golf trip with friends or attending a yoga class.
However, when the children arrive, it is a different story. There are so many domestic things to be done each week, meaning that all free time can get swallowed up. You barely think of what you want to do for yourself, let alone allow your partner time off to do something themselves.
Personal goals can lead to lots of conflict, leading to questions such as, “How could he/she think of going out and leaving me to put the kids to bed again?” However, to preserve your own and your partner’s wellbeing in the long term you need to support both your personal goals and projects in the short term.
The secret to doing this is good planning and to seek “win-win” solutions. Rather than squabbling about whose needs are the most important, identify what projects are important to you both individually and then think how you can get a little of each of them met in a short space of time.
Planning is the key. You need to plan the week so you have time for yourselves individually, as well as time together as a couple and time being parents and managing a household.
Though your relationship is stressed on the arrival of children, there are a lot of simple things you can do to make a difference. Understanding your own and your partner’s needs and the different ways men and women cope with the transition is crucial.
A little bit of self-awareness, communication and a good sense of humour can go a long way to make the difference and successfully move your marriage onto a deeper and more intimate footing.
3 TOP TIPS FOR HAPPY MARRIAGES AFTER CHILDREN
Be equal partners in the responsibilities of parenting:
Being equal does not mean you have to be the same, but it does mean that you make equal effort, doing what you do best and appreciating what your partner does best. For example, for fathers this could mean sharing and taking over a number of domestic chores from their partner, and for mothers this can mean allowing your partner to have a relationship with the children on his own terms and in his own way. Concretely, this can mean:
a) Dividing up and delegating the different domestic chores (laundry, feeding the kids, groceries, etc).
b) Allowing each partner to have specific times in the week when they are solely in charge of the children and all the parenting tasks (while the other has some time off).
Prioritise the romantic/fun/sexual side of your relationship
You can’t put off attending to your relationship until a future date when you will have more time. A neglected relationship can’t be healed by grand gestures or a future holiday. The relationship needs to be prioritised on a daily and weekly basis, and fitted into a busy schedule. This can include simple things like:
a) Preserving a daily “talking time” together.
b) Ensuring daily affectionate gestures, especially on greeting and leaving.
c) Having at least one night a week that you keep special for you as a couple.
Prioritise your own and your partner’s personal goals
Be aware that both you and your partner will need some personal time of your own each week and have personal projects and goals that need attention. The key is to understand what is important to both of you and to make sure to include some of these in a busy week. Planning can be key:
a) Make a list of what things are important to you and your partner.
b) Do up a weekly plan and make sure time is given to each of your important personal projects.
c) Aim for a “win-win” so you both get what you need.
Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times, July 2010. John writes in the Irish Times Health+ every Tuesday.