Contributed by MOTHERS volunteer and guest blogger Rosanne Weston.
Stephanie Coontz, a history professor and expert on historical and contemporary marriage, reported in an article published last week that at least 25 recent studies have shown children to be detrimental to marital health. That’s not children in general, mind you; it’s our own kids, our very own beloved daughters and sons. According to this depressing research, the time-honored match up between marriage and children looks less like a blessed union and more like one of your nightmare blind dates.
Of course that’s just the bold face headline. There are nuances. Soon-to-be presented research by Philip and Carolyn Cowan of the University of California, Berkeley, Coontz writes, indicates that most of this reported decline in marital happiness occurs among couples where one “gave in” to having children to please the other, or where both were ambivalent. When both partners wanted the child(ren), marital satisfaction often increased. Another predictor of marital well-being, they noted, is whether or not the parents engage in intensive parenting to the neglect of each other and/or revert to traditional gender roles with the wife leaving work to care for the kids and the husband working longer hours to compensate for the wife’s loss of income. The implication: avoid these traps and your marriage, with a little luck and a lot of hard work, will at least remain on an even keel.
I have no quarrel with any of this. Just as a mother cannot care well for others in her family if she neglects her own health, a relationship won’t thrive if not fed some nutritious food and set out in the sun from time to time. But the family does not exist in a vacuum, and to not look at the impact of societal expectations, norms and the resulting public policies is to ignore some of the biggest factors affecting family health.
Let’s start with the decision to have a child. Of course it’s true that the family has a better chance if the children were wanted and welcomed, but just about every person I’ve ever spoken seriously with about this has acknowledged some degree of ambivalence about entering into parenthood. This includes those who desperately wanted to have kids and who worked very hard to become pregnant or adopt. It is unacknowledged ambivalence, I think, that causes the problems. People who did not think they had the right to, who felt guilty about, any twinge of feelings beyond unalloyed happiness were often the ones who were bowled over by the reality of parenting. Buying into the blissed-out myth of unblemished joy or, for the mother, assuming the mantle of the superwoman who can deal with anything (remember that lady who can “bring home the bacon” and “fry it up in a pan,” all the while remaining sexy and alluring?) do nothing to prepare one for the exhaustion, isolation, economic pressure, unending demands and alteration of identity that parenthood brings. And I write this as someone who LOVED parenting my young kids. It takes more than just wanting children to make it through those years with self, let alone marriage, intact.
That’s why one of the dreams of the National Association of Mothers’ Centers is to have a Mothers’ Center program in every community. It is in these programs that women share the warts-and-all reality of their lives while listening to how others deal with theirs. Ambivalence is respected. Societal myths and expectations are questioned. The groups are settings in which to renew energy and expand thinking, to cut through isolation and self-doubt, to give women/mothers a chance to hear others and be heard. Over the years, the NAMC has developed programs to include fathers as well. And men, less historically inclined to this type of open exchange, have responded positively. Without support like this, even the best of marriages can weaken under the strain of ordinary, day-to-day challenges.
And how does one even approach the question of traditional gender roles’ relationship to marital satisfaction vis-à-vis who “works” and who stays home with the kids when people are struggling to simply hold onto their jobs and businesses? The very real need for a family-friendly workplace gets lost in this dismal economic climate, when almost any old workplace will do. Right now, women are poised to outnumber men in the workforce. This is not because women are doing well, but because men are doing poorly. No one’s boat is rising in this current. The cultural norm of paying women less for what has been considered traditional women’s work (or sometimes even for the same work as done by men) and the longstanding undervaluation of caregiving are putting more and more families at risk. One article featured a family where the man lost his $150,000/year marketing job while his wife has kept her own small child care business. Problem is, the wife’s business, a classic woman’s industry if there ever was one, brings in about $30,000/year and provides no benefits. The family is now greatly underfunded, and this scenario is playing out all over the country. We don’t need to be members of the Council of Economic Advisors to know what financial insecurity does to marital satisfaction and family wellbeing.
Prof. Coontz reports that the Cowans devised programs for couples to resolve their work/life issues, resulting in an increase in marital satisfaction. But individual strategies need the support of good public policy. Even though discussions of work/life balance, affordable child care and the value of caregiving may be muted right now, the issues are still of great concern to the social and economic future of this country. Veterans of the great change movements of history – civil rights, antiwar, women’s, mother’s – tell us that the true visionaries never take their eyes off the prize, even when the prize is far away or temporarily out of sight. It would be worthwhile for us to remember that.
One last thought. Writing this post has gotten me a bit down. Economic stress. Intensive parenting. Caring for aging parents. Work/life (im)balances. Let’s remember that next Saturday is Valentine’s Day and use that day as an excuse to carve out even a little bit of time to be with the adult person who is closest to us. Wait until the teenagers are behind closed doors with their cell phones and iPods. Wait until the little ones are in bed. Tell anyone else who counts on you to listen and advise that you’ll call them back tomorrow. Then find an unsticky part of the house to uncork the wine or sparkling cider, tip the glasses together and give a quiet little shout-out in appreciation of each other. You can take it from there.
And no sippy cups allowed.