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When Karen Ash and her husband, Gregory, had their first child, Alexandra, in 1999, Karen knew that parenthood would change their marriage. But she didn't realize just how much things would change -- especially when they added twin sons, Jeremy and Dylan, to the family a year and a half later. "When I see a TV show where the parents are really romantic or talk about 'having it all,' I laugh," says Ash, 39. "With all the energy you have to put into the kids, something has to give -- careers, romance, the things you do together as a couple." The Ashes used to scuba dive and ride motorcycles. But in order to care for their children, they worked split shifts at a Seattle-area construction firm -- and for a time barely saw each other. With fatigue and stress came the inevitable tension, disagreements, and hard feelings. "You're on an emotional roller coaster depending on how the kids are doing," Ash says. "If you don't have a strong relationship, being parents will tear you apart." Marital researchers, counselors, and other experts agree. Raising a family is perhaps the most powerful and pervasive influence on a couple -- affecting where they live, their careers, how much time they spend together, and how often they have sex. And while children are a blessing, parenthood can also accentuate a couple's weaknesses. "Having a child is an opportunity for two people to share a closeness that's a dream come true," says University of Denver psychologist Howard Markman, PhD, author of Fighting for Your Marriage. "The flip side? It's the toughest job they'll ever have." While polls show that most Americans see emotional fulfillment as the main reason to get married, we also love being parents. Roughly three-quarters of married couples under the age of 45 have children, and the average parent spends 43 percent of his or her existence with them, according to a 2003 study by the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University. Eighty-three percent of adults agree with the statement that children are "life's greatest joy," a poll by the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center (NORC) found in the early 1990s. But we're keeping our families smaller and starting them later. In 1972, 56 percent of Americans thought the ideal family should have three or more children, according to NORC. Today, 50 percent of us think the magic number is two. Tom Smith, director of the NORC General Social Survey, believes the high cost of raising children is one reason we want fewer of them. Middle- and upper-middle-class couples are most likely to have children; those with incomes of $50,000 or more make up more than a quarter of married parents in the U.S. -- triple the number of those below the federal poverty level ($18,400 for a family of four). But prosperity doesn't buy happiness. A recently published analysis of 50 years' worth of data revealed that upper-middle-class couples experienced a 22 percent drop in marital satisfaction after they had kids, compared with 7 percent for less affluent parents. (One possible explanation: Couples with money put more emphasis on travel and recreation before they started families, and miss those parts of their relationship more.) Because they're waiting until they're older, Americans also have a smaller window of opportunity to have children. Many Generation X couples (those ages 29 to 38) are hesitant to take the plunge, having lived through the painful aftermath of their own parents' divorces. In fact, 42 percent of men and women of reproductive age admitted they had postponed the decision to become parents, according to a 1999 survey in the Family Planning Perspectives journal. The result: The average age that a woman gives birth for the first time is around 25, compared with 21 in 1970. Birthrates for women ages 30 to 34 have risen 56 percent since 1976, nearly catching up to women in their 20s. Couples waited 41.8 months between births in 1970; by the 1990s, the average interval had stretched to 46 months. However long they wait, men and women have different reasons for starting a family. A 1994 study of married mothers and mothers-to-be in The Journal of Social Psychology found that the desire to have children was primarily emotional and that prospective mothers gave little thought as to why they want them. But men's priorities were clear: the first was emotional satisfaction, the second was continuing the family name, the third was the belief that child rearing would be fun or their parents expected it of them, according to a 1998 study by researcher Wade Mackey. Mothers tend to evolve into their role as parents more quickly than fathers. In an early 1990s study at the University of California at Berkeley, researchers Philip Cowan and Carolyn Pape Cowan asked couples to use pie charts showing the emphasis they put on work, friendship, and other parts of their lives. The pie slice that women allotted to motherhood grew from 10 percent in late pregnancy to 34 percent after their babies were born. Husbands allotted only 5 percent to being parents during their wives' pregnancies, and by the time their child was 18 months old, the number had risen to 21 percent.
All parents realize -- some sooner than later -- that children demand much more of their relationship than they ever had imagined. The Cowans, who studied hundreds of married couples, have found that 92 percent reported having more conflict after having a child. The problems often start quickly: Twelve to 13 percent of new parents became so divided by differences in the first year that they began to question their marriage, according to a 1980s study by Pennsylvania State professor Jay Belsky. Such doubts may be the first stage in what marital researchers call "disaffection" -- or falling out of love. An early 1990s study of couples on the verge of divorce found that 27 percent of them cited their partner's relationship with the children as a negative turning point in their marriage. Disillusionment is only on the rise. Data suggest that couples who became parents in the past decade experienced a drop in marital satisfaction nearly twice as great as parents in the 1960s and 1970s. Couples often expect that their marital equilibrium somehow will return naturally, on its own. That's not necessarily so. The number of wives who described themselves as satisfied dropped from 63 percent to 50 percent once they had kids, while contented husbands dropped only from 78 to 73 percent, according to a 1999 study by Boston College researchers Richard Mackey and Bernard O'Brien. The gap may have to do with the fact that women do much more of the work. The average mom spends nearly triple the time feeding, diapering, and bathing the baby than does the average dad in the first nine months, Belsky found. Husbands take up some slack over time, but typically women find themselves doing twice as much childcare as men. (The only measure where men outscored women was reading the newspaper and watching TV in the baby's presence.) Even when parents try to share the load equitably, there are other issues to pit them against each other. As recently as 1972, the father worked and the mother stayed at home in 60 percent of couples with children; by the late 1990s, both parents worked in 67 percent of such couples. A third of two-income couples with young children do "tag-team parenting" -- one works while the other tends the kids, then vice versa -- according to a recent study by University of Maryland sociology professor Harriet Presser. But that arrangement can wreak havoc on a marriage. Presser found that couples who work late-night shifts are three to six times more likely to divorce. "You're just tired all the time, and you really feel alone sometimes," says Karen Ash, who spent three grueling years working nights as a secretary at the same construction firm where husband Gregory worked the day shift as a supervisor. "Then, when you are together, it's too easy to take those frustrations out on the other person." But the gravest mistake a couple can make is to become so focused on their kids that they lose sight of one another. "People start thinking they can get their emotional satisfaction from their child instead of from their marriage," says Philip Cowan. "That may work for a while, but it doesn't work forever." Professor Pamela Jordan, PhD, who runs parenting education workshops at the University of Washington, is more blunt: "I tell people that if they make their child the absolute center of their lives, two things will happen -- your child will need a lot of therapy, and your marriage will end up on the rocks."
But it's important to remember that not all parents become unhappy -- or stay that way. Studies over the past several decades have found that though marital satisfaction decreases in roughly half of couples once they have kids, 33 percent of parents actually experience stable or increasing marital satisfaction. The Cowans' research has found that couples with kids actually had more durable marriages despite the stresses of parenting -- they divorced at a rate of 20 percent, half that of childless couples. "The qualities you need to be a good partner -- communication, flexibility, a sense of humor -- are similar to those you need to be a good parent," Dr. Markman explains. "The problem is that people may not be as motivated to use them in the marriage as they are in parenting. And that's a mistake." Marital experts say that supportive counseling can be a big help. The Cowans' research has found that couples who seek counseling are better able to maintain marital satisfaction, and a study at the University of Washington draws a similar conclusion. "It's not inevitable that relationships suffer," says study coauthor Alyson Shapiro. "It's inevitable that the transition will be a huge change, but the way it affects a relationship depends on how the couple supports one another." Dr. Jordan is a strong advocate of parental education courses, such as the Becoming Parents program she developed at the University of Washington, which consists of 27 hours of class -- 21 hours over six weeks during pregnancy and two three-hour booster classes when the baby is 6 weeks and then 6 months old. Coursework includes strategies for coping with fatigue and stress, and how to reach out to family or friends for help. Another key component is relationship-building exercises. "We're trying to get parents to think of themselves as teammates, not opponents," Dr. Jordan says. The classes are offered by community organizations around the country. Vicki Stolberg, 41, a former art director in California and mother to two young boys, says it's crucial to learn to appreciate a spouse's contributions to the family and the relationship, rather than dwelling on shortcomings. "He's very witty," she says of her husband, David, 42; the fact that he doesn't unload the dishwasher is something she glosses over because she knows he carves out time from his job as a writer to attend the school fund-raising events she organizes. For Melissa Hall, a 37-year-old psychologist in Lexington, Kentucky, and parent of 5-year-old daughter Sarah, the epiphany came the day she realized it was time to stop riding in the backseat with her preschooler and start sitting in the front seat again so she could talk with her husband, Steven, 37, who works for a computer-printer manufacturer. And when she learned her child's daycare center offered a Parents' Night Out service every other month, where staff members would babysit for a few hours on a Saturday, she signed up -- pronto. "We love our daughter," she says, "but we missed having time alone without a third party constantly interrupting." Karen and Gregory Ash have found that the pressures of parenthood do ease over time. Now that they feel comfortable leaving their children with a babysitter on occasion, they're starting to go out and are even thinking about pulling their scuba gear out of storage. "When the kids are little, you can get so focused on them that the marriage gets crowded out, and you lose each other," she says. "If you make a conscious effort to be a couple as well as parents, the bond between you can get even stronger."