Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Babies are bad for marriage

I just got this press release from the Council on Contemporary Families:

Old News: Having a Baby Will Save Your Marriage

New News: No, After Having a Baby, Satisfaction With Marriage Goes Down for Most Couples

New New News: Having a Baby Won't Improve a Poor Marriage, but Couples Who Plan the Conception Jointly Are Much Less Likely to Experience a Serious Marital Decline

And Really Good News: Couples Who Establish a Collaborative Parenting Relationship After the Child Is Born not Only Have Happier Marriages but Better-Adjusted Children

In the mid-20th century, marital counselors often advised couples that parenthood would increase their marital satisfaction and adjustment, and polls showed that most Americans believed that true marital happiness depended on having a child. But over the past three decades, a series of studies, including two by Philip and Carolyn Cowan and another 25 studies in 10 industrialized countries, have discovered the opposite. On average, satisfaction with marriage for men and women goes down after the birth of a first child and continues to fall over the next 15 years.

Today, conventional wisdom seems to have swung the other way -- holding that babies bring trouble to their parents' marriage. A recent New York Times article by Tara Parker-Pope (Jan 20, 2009), quoting from the most recent studies, points to the time bind facing new parents and the burden on women resulting from increased household work as factors in reducing marital bliss. She holds out hope to her readers by reporting the finding from a 50-year longitudinal study of Mills College women that couples are likely to re-connect once their children leave home.

For parents of young children, that's a very long time to wait. And it's not good news for the children either, because children are more likely to have social, emotional, and academic problems when their parents' marriage is in distress.

But many of these findings on marital distress in the early childrearing years are based on the uncritical use of averages. More in-depth examination reveals that the averages hide considerable variation. The Cowans' detailed interviews with 96 couples, followed for 6 years after their first babies were born, revealed four different pathways that couples take in deciding to become pregnant and carry the pregnancy to term. First are couples who agree about when to begin trying to become pregnant (about half of their sample). Then there are the couples who "find themselves pregnant" and decide to "accept fate" and go ahead (about 15%). Another set of couples (about 20% of the sample) are still ambivalent when they reach the 7th month of pregnancy. Finally, for some couples who are at serious loggerheads about the decision, one spouse agrees to become a parent only because the other threatens to go it alone (about 10%).

The Cowans found that the average decline in marital satisfaction was almost completely accounted for by couples who (1) slid into having a baby without planning; (2) were still ambivalent about becoming parents in late pregnancy, or (3) disagreed about having a baby but went ahead and conceived without resolving their difference. About half the planners showed increased marital satisfaction or maintenance of their initially positive level in measurements taken when their babies were about 18 months old. ALL the couples where one partner had given in (usually the man) were either separated or divorced by the time their first child entered kindergarten.

Other studies conducted by the Cowans in the 1980s, 1990s, and the first decade of the 21st century, involving 1000 families, identified another important contributor to dissatisfaction with the couple relationship after childbirth, even when both partners equally wanted the child. After the birth of a child, most couples become much more traditional in their approach to housework and childcare. No matter how much they think the tasks will be shared, most women wind up doing more housework work than they did before the birth, and more of the childcare than they expected. The discrepancy between what the couples hoped for and the reality of wives having to take on a "second shift" at home leads to feelings of tension, depression, and sometimes anger in both partners.

To alleviate this source of dissatisfaction, the Cowans have been working with couples in groups, allowing parents with children around the same stage of life (making the transition to parenthood, sending a first child off to school) to share the fact that all are struggling to balance the complex demands of being parents, partners, and workers in today's society, and to get past blaming each other for their stresses. Follow-up assessments show that the couples who meet in the professionally led groups are more likely to maintain a positive view of their relationships, to work together more effectively to resolve disagreements, and to be warm while also setting limits with their children than couples without this resource. Not surprisingly, their children are also faring better in both the preschool, elementary school, and high school years, according to their teachers.

Given these findings and the challenge of having a baby, the Cowans say, it isn't wise for an eager spouse or would-be grandparents to pressure couples to become parents before both partners are ready. In light of the long-term consequences of the transition from being partners to becoming parents on the quality of both adult and parent-child relationships, the decision to start a family should not be rushed. Partners need to start by having a discussion or a series of discussions -- not by making a decision. If both partners can express both sides of their feelings, it is less likely that one partner will carry all the ambivalence for the couple.

When both partners feel they are part of this major family decision, they are more likely to be able to meet the challenges of balancing the needs of both partners in terms of work and family. All this bodes well for their developing relationship with each other and with their child -- and ultimately for their child's sense of security and well-being.

The bottom line? When men and women work together to plan when to have children and then establish a collaborative approach to parenthood when children are young, it's a win-win situation for the couple and for the children.

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