As new parents, Laurie Cunningham and her husband are bickering more than before the baby. So is the key to a successful marriage staying childless?
A week before my one-year wedding anniversary, I emailed a friend who had been married many more years than I had. “Is it true?” I asked. “Is it true that marriage is work?”
During the first year of my marriage, it seemed like everyone wanted to tell me it was, like they were doing me a favor by bestowing ancient wisdom on a newlywed, along with the importance of good communication and never going to bed mad.
I had found the first year of our marriage uneventful—in a good way. But as the child of divorce, I worried that the other shoe just hadn’t dropped yet. Was I being naïve in thinking that marriage with the right person could be a breeze?
“Just wait until you have children,” the marital gurus said.
Well, two years later we do. One child, to be exact. And he’s just three months old. Yes, we’re new parents—the subject of dozens of studies that have found that a couple’s marital satisfaction falls off a cliff after the bundle of joy arrives.
In 2009, for example, researchers from the University of Denver and Texas A&M published a study that found that 90% of the 218 couples they tracked for eight years reported being unhappier in their marriages following the birth of their first child. Depressing, I know.
So has becoming a parent burst my marital bliss bubble? Yes and no.
The biggest change I’ve noticed is that my husband, Dave, and I definitely bicker more. We argue about what size diapers to buy, the proper way to wash baby bottles and how many ounces of formula to feed Owen in a day. We debate whether it’s too hot for socks, when to implement sleep training, and how long to let him cry during tummy time.
It isn’t the weighty, philosophical parenting issues like religion, education, and discipline that threatens to bring us down (for now), but the day-to-day urge to micromanage each other in how we care for our child. It’s like we can’t stop being backseat drivers when the other takes the wheel.
That’s been compounded by the fact that we were both home for much of my three-month maternity leave. Shortly before Owen was born, Dave had graduated from law school and spent the first few months of Owen’s life phasing in and out while studying for the bar. Once the exam was over and Dave was home all day job searching, we had a solid month of family togetherness—both a blessing and a curse.
Because women are the ones who get maternity leave and take on the bulk of childcare while their husbands return to work, they typically take the lead in parenting, particularly at the baby stage. That’s especially true when the mother is breastfeeding, which automatically makes the baby more dependent on mom and relegates dad to a supporting role.
For us, the circumstances have led to a more egalitarian parenting style. I was unable to breastfeed for various reasons, so we both do the night shift and feedings, as well as the bathing, diaper changing, and lullaby singing. I can honestly say it’s a 50-50 share.
It sounds ideal, I know, and in many ways it is. But it has also been a bumpier road in reaching a consensus on how to run our new household than it may have been if we had stuck to traditional roles. “I have opinions,” Dave says of Owen’s care. Yeah? Well, me too. And as progressive as I think I am, it’s hard to give up the notion that I know best, that I’m hardwired for this job, because I’m the mom.
The good news is that we’ve both had flashes of insight that have made us realize when we’re being jerks. We’ll interrupt one of our bickering sessions with a sarcastic, “Kisses! Love you!” and begrudgingly give each other a hug. “Do you still love me?” we’ll ask the other. “Um, I guess.”
When I take a step back I can see that we’re both responding to the anxiety of being new parents by trying to do it “right.” Because there’s no one right answer and plenty of expert opinions that often contradict each other, that leaves a lot of room for debate. But as we become more comfortable in our new roles, I suspect that our senses of humor, perspective, and respect for each other will continue to be our saving grace.
The married friend I had emailed pre-Owen wrote back admitting that yes, marriage is work. She and her husband have three children and she said it definitely gets more complicated when you add more people to the mix. But it’s not work in the sense that you are toiling away in a factory with no windows, she says. It’s more like weeding a beautiful garden where you can either focus on the bugs and how much your knees hurt or the intermittent cool breezes and the warmth of the sun on your face.
Laurie Cunningham is a former newspaper reporter and magazine editor who now works at an international law firm in Chicago writing about legal trends and teaching lawyers to use shorter sentences. In her spare time she blogs about marriage, pregnancy, parenthood and whatever else is on her mind.