The High Price of Parenting
All in the Family
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.