Having a baby can be one of the happiest moments in your life, but it can also mean big changes to your relationships. Stephanie Coontz, a New York Times contributor and a professor of family studies at the Evergreen State College has this advice.
Does having children make people happier?
In the long run, people with children tend to have stronger emotional connections with extended kin and feel a larger sense of purpose in life than people without kids. But in the short run – and unfortunately the short run can last up to 15 years – they experience fewer positive emotions, and more negative ones, such as anger and depression than their childless peers.
And don’t even think about having a child to save your marriage. Somewhere between 60 and 80 percent of couples experience a drop in marital satisfaction after the birth of a child. It happens almost immediately after birth for women, starts up for men about 3 months later, and usually continues for about 15 years.
How can couples avoid that drop in satisfaction?
The first step is to plan for the baby together, rather than pressuring your partner to have a child to please you. Couples who equally want and plan for the baby are much less likely to experience such a drop. So if you want a child, either choose a partner who also wants one or wait until your partner is ready.
Second, remember that you’re partners in this project once the baby comes. Couples tend to slide back into traditional gender roles after a baby’s birth, even if they expected to share the parenting equally. Unless they make a real effort to appreciate what each partner is doing, resentments build. Mom feels isolated and exhausted, and Dad wonders why she isn’t more grateful for the extra hours he may be working. And if mom uses her head start to become the “expert” parent, the sense of exclusion and unfairness can mount for both, which is why it’s important for moms and dads to actively work on sharing more equally. Mom shouldn’t always be the default parent when there’s an issue to be dealt with.
But don’t let the parenting partnership consume all your couple time. Keeping your relationship healthy is probably the very best thing you can do for your kid in the long run.
How can parents keep their relationship healthy?
- Take time for yourselves, but not necessarily BY yourselves. Spending time with other people often replenishes a relationship by injecting novelty and breaking up routines. Unlike your mate, they’re likely to know new jokes and have interesting stories you haven’t heard before, or to introduce new information or perspectives into your lives. Studies show that one of the two activities most likely to elicit happiness is having dinner with others. So forget date night. Make it double date night.
- The second activity most associated with happiness is having sex. Schedule it if you need to. But be sure to schedule enough time to cuddle afterwards, because sometimes that’s just as important to happiness as the sex itself. Both having sex and being cuddled lower the blood pressure and relieve stress.
- Men, do more housework. Feeling that the division of housework is fair is one of the top predictors of a woman’s relationship satisfaction, right after whether her partner is emotionally sensitive to her cues. And besides, women feel more intimate and more sexually attracted to partners who do more housework and childcare.
- And women, let him do it his way, as long as it gets done. Don’t treat your husband as an unskilled assistant who needs managing when he does chores or take the baby. One of the top predictors of a man’s relationship is how little criticism he gets – and when you appreciate a guy’s cleaning or cooking or diaper-changing, even if it’s different from your own preferences, he's more likely to do things in the future than if he gets told what he did wrong or if you step in and redo it for him.
Why does something as natural as having children make us so anxious?
When you think about the varieties of weird parenting practices and contradictory instructions to parents over the years, it ought to make us a little less anxious about the little mistakes we all make. Plus, our children are safer now than they used to be. A parent in the 1950s was almost 3 times more likely to experience the death of an infant, twice as likely to lose a toddler or elementary school child, and a and a half times more likely to lose a teen.
Still, I understand why parents are anxious. First, we are so isolated in our-day-to-day parenting. Through most of history, new parents were surrounded by people they knew and who lived near them and who shared child care. In most foraging societies, babies are carried by someone other than their mom between a third and 60 percent of the time. Instead of pumping breast milk, you hand your child to another nursing mother if you have to go out and forage some stuff for dinner. As late as 60 years ago, most Americans raised their children in neighborhoods where the majority of other households were doing the same thing. So modern parents are on their own in a way they weren’t through most of history.
But at the same time as we get much less hands on support than we used to, we also get much more unsolicited advice – and if we tried to follow all of it, we’d drive ourselves crazy. I’ve had my students go through the advice books, 90 percent of which are not based on peer-reviewed evaluations of whether their advice actually works and the mixed messages are truly crazy-making: Don’t hyper-parent they say; let your kids be kids. And then in the next breath they talk about how babies’ brains are little sponges and the more we stuff them with information and experience the better our kids will do. Don’t over-stimulate. Don’t under-stimulate. My best advice would be to learn when you don’t really need any more advice.
If you would like to hear more from Stephanie Coontz, she is speaking this Saturday at 11:30 a.m. on “Love and Intimacy.” It’s all part of the free Parentmap “Baby Event” at the Swedish Cherry Hill campus.