Marriage Stress: You Take Him– and Go Away!

A couple of posts on this site generated quite a few comments recently, and I wanted to add a few of my own.

Specifically on a couple of paragraphs with Stephanie Coontz, who recently published an op-ed piece in the New York Times about the impact of kids on marriage:

“First, when a couple enters a marriage in an egalitarian way, expecting to share breadwinning and nurturing, very often what happens because of the lack of good parental leave and decent childcare, they find that both parents can’t afford to work and care for the child. So the woman who might have wanted to take a nine-month leave has to then quit her job. Then the man has to take on extra work hours to make up for her lost income. This often leads to a tremendous amount of dissatisfaction for both parties. The woman resents her isolation and the fact that her husband is gone more often. The husband feels unappreciated for the sacrifices he’s making.

From this article: Avoiding the Rocks in Marriage and we know:

“And the last danger spot is the stage at which the kids move into the prime age for the ‘concerted cultivation’ that middle-class couples do, where they start thinking that in order to give this child the very best experiences in life they’re going to enroll them in every enriching activity they can think of. They may initially approach that with joy, but at a certain point that kind of schedule – especially where mom and dad split off so one can take one kid to soccer and the other takes the other kid to ballet – it really cuts into couple time and alone couple time and leads to multitasking that is very stressful.”

First I want to say: Hello, the man can opt out of the work force as well. That’s what I did. *Sigh.* People still don’t even consider this as an option.

But both paragraphs ring many bells for the Daddy– alarm bells, mostly.

All around me I see it happening, especially to those I know with small children. Nora Ephron said “a child is like a hand grenade in a marriage,” and it’s true. A perfectly happy couple has a kid and ka-blam: suddenly they’re squabbling over the last thing they used to think about: domestic duties.

Who does what around the house, why do I always have to take the kid– or even more pertinently: why is it always assumed unless specifically discussed that I’ll take the kid?

That’s one I see a lot: it is simply assumed one partner (usually, alas, it is true, the woman, though I do know at least one exception) will handle the kids at all times, unless she asks for a reprieve, viz. “Will you take the kids from 3-6 tomorrow so I can get my hair done (or whatever)?”

It’s a mistake a lot of young parents make. The kid is born and at first you’re both all starry-eyed and like “Ooh, he’s so beautiful, I’ll take him,” “Oh, no, honey, I’d be happy to take him.”

That wears off, I’ve found, quite quickly. It’s a long story but thanks to an injury and postponement Ms. Daddy and I brought our first-born along on our honeymoon when he was quite little.

What a mistake! I remember being shooed away with him to sit alone (well, with him) in coffee shops, thinking: When did “Ooh, I’d be happy to take him” turn into a testy, on-the-edge-of-snapping: “You take him– and go away.”

On our honeymoon. But there are certain strategies you can adopt, my bloggies– strategies that, in our case anyway, amounted to no less than a solution.

The big mistake many couples make in the early going, I think, is not negotiating it. Not daring to, in some cases: “I hate to ask him to take the kids.”

Do not be afraid to negotiate. The older I get, the more certain I become that everything in life is a negotiation. you have your position, whomever you’re dealing with has theirs. Let the negotiations begin!

And if when the negotiations are concluded, neither party is happy– that’s when you know you’ve got a deal!

Never more true than with marriage, I think. Modern marriage particularly. Once upon a time the patriarch might have been able to decree “I have spoken,” and then would be the end of the story.

But those days are long gone, my bloggies. If I tried that, Ms. Daddy would just laugh. She and I negotiate everything, and in the early going of parenthood we always negotiated who took the kids when.

Even on vacations. Our friends used to laugh at us for having a whole weekend at a cottage, say, broken down to five-hour “shifts.” And if one of us was late for his/her shift, he/she would get a hard time.

Sounds kooky, but 12 years of happy marriage later I can say: it worked. Negotiate everything, my bloggies, break everything down into units of time, and if you can help it I have always felt it is wrong to ask ANYONE to look after small children for any length of time greater than 5 hours.

That’s a one-way ticket to the funny farm. Of course I know for some it’s impossible to avoid, but if there is any way you can swing it– grannies, nannies, a drop-in centre, whatever– I would say keep it under the magic 5-hour marker, when things start to lose focus and your mind begins to bend.

Another mental adjustment both parties should make, I think, is: no matter how hard you thought you were working as a non-parent, your life was essentially leisure-based; now it is work-based with occasional, fleeting moments of leisure. You are in harness now, essentially working all the time. The sooner you both accept that, the better for your marriage, I feel.

And remember: it doesn’t last forever. Nothing does. Mack’s kids are 12, 9, and 6 now, and I’m here to tell you they are a heck of a lot easier to deal with than they once were. Mack can type, or read– or even take a nap!– while “looking after” them, now.

A friend of mine came over with a little toddler the other day, almost at the end of her rope. I forgot what an endless stream of demands they issue. My friend and I tried to chat but every couple of minutes it was: I’m hungry. I want a drink. Can I have a banana? I’m cold, I’m tired, I want to play with Lego, etc.

Her husband wasn’t helping out as much as she wished, and I could see she was at the end of her rope. I gave the kid apples, bananas– but sheesh after a while it was tiring. I realized that, cute as they were at that age, I was so glad to be out of that parenting phase.

So as the French say: courage, my bloggies. There is light at the end of the tunnel. Around the time your youngest child turns three, things ease up a bit. Hang in there! Be nice to each other.

Remember: you’re a team. A team of two. It’s you two vs. the world. No fighting between team members.