The High Price of Parenting
Rekindling the Romance
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."