The High Price of Parenting

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The Pressures of Parenting

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."

Continued on page 3:  Rekindling the Romance


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