Monday, February 14, 2011

Your Marriage on Toddlers

A few months ago, my family was having a nice barbecue with another family with two children around the same age as my own.  After a few glasses of chardonnay, the children began playing well by themselves (or we stopped paying them attention) and the other mom and I were finally able to sit down and have an actual conversation.  She had recently given birth to her second son and was in the midst of a typical argument with her husband.  "Rhiana," she explained, "my husband is my soul mate, but right now I can't stand him."  She didn't need to elaborate, I understood her perfectly!

Before we had children my husband and I lead a much different life.  We lived in Tokyo, sang karaoke and drank Kirin Ichiban until the wee hours of the morning.  We went on exotic vacations to Thailand and Vietnam, and regularly ate at restaurants with actual table cloths and no crayons in sight.  We never had to schedule a date to have sex, and we could spontaneously decide to see a non-animated movie on a Saturday afternoon.

However, that was over four years ago, before the birth of our first daughter.  My how we have changed!  Nearly every aspect of our home lives now revolves around our two daughters.  Maisy and Elana dictate when we eat, sleep, wake up, and play.  We feel grateful to have two child-free hours before we ourselves can rest our weary heads.  Unfortunately, far too often, this time is spent in separate rooms- Ted watching sports or working in the office, me watching Bravo or writing in our bedroom.  Most days we are too exhausted to have a meaningful conversation, let alone lock the bedroom door.  And, I am embarrassed to say, we only eat about three meals together a week.

A few months ago an old high school friend was beginning to ponder starting a family and asked me my opinion.  I took her question seriously, and may have provided too frank of an answer.  Having children changes everything.  You both will be more tired than you have ever dreamed you could be.  Endless night wakings and teething troubles will result in the two of you bickering, nit picking, and becoming way too worn out to even think about make-up sex.  Even as the children age, sleep remains an issue.  Night feedings are replaced with nightmares and bed wetting.  As one wise mother eloquently stated, "Sleep is the new sex." 

You will resent all the time he gets to spend at work, away from the monotonous job of raising the children, and he will resent his absence of down time.  Long gone are the days when either of you could come home from work and lie on the couch with a drink and quietly watch the local news. (Even though I have by no means been an avid newspaper reader, I have never been so uninformed about current events since the birth of my children.  There may be a nuclear holocaust in Europe, but unless they interrupt the regular scheduled programming on Sprout, I won't have a clue.)

The emotional stress of parenting (the tantrums, the dreaded bedtime rituals, and the dreariness of playing endless imaginative games with four-year-old) all add up to a life that is completely dictated by the children.  Every moment the children are awake, and even most of the hours they sleep, the kids control what you do and how you do it.  Sure, we love them, and it truly is a love like nothing we have ever experienced, but it is work, terribly hard work.

According to a new study by the Norwegian Institute of Public Health a woman's general satisfaction level increases from the birth of her child to six months after, then slowly declines until it reaches it's lowest point when the child is three years old.   Likewise, the woman's satisfaction with her partner is at it's lowest when the children turn three, proving that toddlerhood is one big miserable era.

Other studies have found that a couple's happiness level decreases considerably after the birth of the first child, and diminishes more with each additional child.   It only rises once the youngest child has fled the nest.  One study states that childless couples report being as much as seven percentage points happier than those with children.  According to Robin Simon, of Florida State University, "Parents experience lower levels of emotional well-being, less frequent positive emotions and more frequent negative emotions than their childless peers." 

What's more is that each new generation of parents seems to be more unhappy, and more stressed, than the generation before.  According to a Newsweek article many factors come to play.  First, the cost of raising children has increased dramatically, not just counting for inflation, placing an extreme burden on many overly-strained, and overly-worked, parents.  Second, with many people delaying child bearing into their thirties and forties, many gain too strong a taste for the luxury and freedom of their single days.  The relief felt when finally getting the cranky baby to sleep does not compare to the thrill of a promotion, or the excitement of a first kiss.  Additionally, families are more isolated than ever before.  Long gone are the days where the grandparents live just around the corner and children venture alone down the street to play with the neighbor children only to return at sunset.  No, now every play date must be carefully scheduled around music and gym classes, and visits to grandma require an airplane ticket, or a long drive.

I also question whether our generation is less happy with parenthood because of the ever increasing expectations placed on parents.  When we are constantly struggling to provide the best possible childhood for our children, we allow ourselves little room for mistakes.  With each new BabyCenter article we learn one additional way we are failing at parenthood.  In addition, the demands of modern parenting has taken quite the toll on our ability to care for ourselves.  While spending the days  breastfeeding on demand until the child enters elementary school, co-sleeping until early teenage years, and chauffeuring the kids to their various enrichment lessons, when do we find the time to take care of ourselves?  Many days it feels like in order for me to be a model mother, I must renounce nearly all aspects of my own life.

Some people find all these studies depressing and discouraging.  I actually find solace in them.  It comforts me to know that I am not alone with my struggles as a mother and wife.  When I look around at all the smiling and exuberant mommies playing with their children at the playground, I sometimes wonder if it is just me that secretly longs for a month vacation from all things maternal and all things marital.  No, I am not alone, and I appreciate knowing that most parents understand the paradox that is my life- That I can love my children and husband deeply yet still mourn my single days.

So, why do people ever bother to have children?  There are some benefits of procreating.  Parents do report feeling a greater sense of purpose and a more meaningful existence.  It seems that nature gives many of us the need to create life, just not the ability, nor foresight, to deal with all the consequences.  There is a reason little kids are so physically adorable; it camouflages the mass of destruction they bring.  In addition, as I mentioned before, the love one feels for her child is truly indescribable.

So, while acknowledging all of the difficulties that children bring to a marriage, and to one's own satisfaction level, I wanted to offer practical tips to reduce the ill effects of parenthood, and raise our own happiness levels.  I scoured the Internet and came up with a list of my favorite relationship and parental fulfillment advice:
  1. Create daily rituals with your partner.  Once the children are born, a "Goodbye Kiss" and a "Welcome Home!" greeting are often tossed out with the dirty diapers.  This special time that the two of you can share is critical in keeping a relationship intimate. 
  2. Regular Date Nights.  Trade babysitting time with a neighbor.  We have developed a great routine with another couple up the street from us.  Nearly once a week they drop their daughter off at our house and head out for a night of dinner, drinking, and live music.  We put the girl to bed in our spare bedroom, and they come and collect her whenever their night ends. They then return the favor the next night.
  3. Learn to fight (productively, of course).  Keep the lines of communication open and try not to store resentment and anger towards your spouse.  Learn to voice your needs and work through your marital issues.
  4. Put your children to bed early.  Children need lots of sleep, and parents need alone time, so get the kids in bed as early as possible.  I know that this is difficult for working parents that may not get home until 6 PM (or later).  Remember that your and your partner's needs are important too.
  5. Surround yourself with adults.  Schedule regular (even daily) play-dates with other parents you enjoy.  The isolation of parenthood can only add to our dissatisfaction with both ourselves and our relationships.
  6. Allow the kids to play on their own. Do not become a helicopter parent that manages each moment of the child's day.  At the end of the day, relax on the couch with your partner while the children keep themselves entertained.  Remember that it is healthy for the youngins to see a positive example of marriage.
  7. Do not play "Good Cop/Mom".  Kids quickly learn where their parents do not agree and eagerly play up those opportunities.  Take the time as a couple to discuss and agree upon ways to raise and discipline the tots.
  8. Find your own, separate, creative and intellectual outlet.  Discover and nurture the part of you that exists beyond the children and spouse.  
  9. Try not to take the role of parenting so seriously.  Learn to laugh at your and your spouse's many mistakes, and know that we are all just doing the best we can.
  10. Have frequent sex.  I know that you are tired, feel bloated, and generally just don't have the drive, but sex is an extremely important part of a marriage.  I like to think of it like going to the gym: You may really not want to go, but you never regret it once the workout is done.

4 comments:

  1. I liked this a lot.
    Well said!

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  2. I really needed to read this today. Thank you for sharing. I, like you, am relieved to find I am not the only one who dreams of a very long vacation. Preferably at a beach.

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  3. This is a great post. Have you read Judith Warner's Perfect Madness? a must read, cheers.

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  4. Thank you for this wonderfully true article. A good read.

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