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Your Love Life, Your Child’s Happiness

February 1, 2008 | The Main Dish | 9 comments

Christine Carter, Ph.D.

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As a working parent, I often feel guilty that I don't have loads of down-time with Fiona and Molly. We have an early dinner together shortly after we all arrive home, and then whip through the bath-book-bedtime routine. Both kids are usually sawing logs by 8:00. That means I'm often clocking less than three hours with my kids in the evening. Doesn't seem like a lot.

By the time the kids are asleep, I'm exhausted. I wake up at 5:00 am or sometimes earlier, and so I barely have time to walk the dog and open the mail before I'm also ready to hit the hay. (Don't tell the sleep training people this, but I often fall asleep cuddling with my love chunks as they drift off into dreamland. When that happens, the rest of my night is pretty shot, as I am loath to really rouse myself for, say, a nice evening jog.)

I am married to the children's father, in case you were wondering. Did you notice that "have meaningful conversation, then crazy sex" with my husband didn't make it to the end-of-the-day task list? Unfortunately, there is little time to even talk to my hubby other than what we can get in at dinnertime. Once I called him from my cell phone – he was at home and so was I –while I was walking the dog. No one told me before my princess-perfect wedding that marriage would be so logistically difficult. And certainly no one told me that dizzyingly fun weekends with the love-of-my-life would dissolve so quickly into a constant stream of negotiations. Are you taking the kids to school tomorrow or am I? Will you walk the dog tonight while I fold laundry? Are you going to clean the kitchen or, humph, shall I?

Maybe it is different for more traditional couples, who just do their "pink jobs" and "blue jobs," as my grandmother says, without daily negotiation. Or maybe it is different for couples where both partners do 50% of the childcare and housework—my friend with the best sex life of anyone I know always says that "foreplay starts at 4:00 – with him starting dinner." (Or maybe it is just different for Ayelet Waldman, who has four kids, a husband who does half the childcare and housework, a star-studded career, and hot-deeply-in-love-sex with her husband all the time.)

But if you are like Mike and me and the 67% of couples who have a big drop in relationship happiness and a "big increase in hostility," after kids arrive, you probably only have about 20 minutes to talk to your co-parent at dinnertime, and it is usually spent briefing each other on things like ear infections, school concerts, and carpool schedules—while cleaning up spilled milk and refereeing arguments (or as is the case in my house, nixing potty talk).

Unless we get in a fight. Then, somehow, we seem to find the time to share our innermost feelings. While the kids delay getting ready for bed, we argue in barely controlled voices over the kitchen sink. Which, finally, brings me to my point: parental conflict isn't good for children's happiness. And not having any time to connect in a routine way is a recipe for disaster – it makes a logistically difficult marriage an emotionally thorny one as well.

Even though I am loath to give up precious minutes with my children, research shows that working on my relationship with my co-parent (I'm married, but this is true even if you are single or divorced) can "have important and long-lasting payoffs" for children's happiness.

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"Studies of two-parent families have consistently found that when a couple's relationship is characterized by unresolved conflict and unhappiness, their children tend to have more acting out aggressive behavior problems, more shy withdrawn behavior, and fewer social and academic skills," say UC Berkeley researchers Phil and Carolyn Cowan. Furthermore, when couples aren't getting along, their irritation or anger with each other often spills over into their relationships with their children. "Some children get a double whammy," say the Cowans. They suffer the consequences of both the "heated or frosty emotional tone of their parents' relationship" and the frequent result of co-parent conflict: "harsh or ineffective patterns of caring and discipline." I know that when I'm fighting with my husband I have a hard time managing the powerful the negative emotions that surface (anger, disappointment, hurt) while trying to keep Fiona and Molly's bedtime routine on track effectively. And I can usually win all the awards for crappy parenting if I also need to handle a situation with the kids that requires calm, consistent discipline. When I'm already upset, I tend to discipline the kids in a way that is, uh, not calm or collected.

In honor of Valentine's Day, this month's postings are all about getting your relationship with your co-parent on track – in the interest of your children's happiness. Some conflict may be inevitable, but listen: conflict between parents (whether or not they are married) is a big problem for kids' happiness and functioning. Certain types of arguing with your co-parent can even effect your unborn fetus – Alyson Shapiro found that how a couple argues when pregnant can predict over half of the variation in the baby's ability to establish calm and focusing attention when it is three months old. (The good news is that the damage can be reversed with just a 10-hour workshop.)

Phil and Carolyn Cowan have been studying marriage and parenting for decades, and this is what they want you to know: if you improve your parenting, you won't necessarily improve your marriage. On the other hand, if you improve your marriage, you WILL improve your parenting.

John Gottman has also been studying strong marriages and healthy relationships for a long time, and he's identified the most important things that partners can do to improve their relationship over the long run. The two main things we need to do, Gottman says, are:

(1) handle conflict in a positive manner, and
(2) become better friends.

The good news is that the science is clear about how to fight so that it doesn't scar your children for life, which will be the topic of the next post. From there we'll tackle becoming better friends with your co-parent, and lest this whole parenting business gets too far away from how it started in the first place, my final post this month will be about putting a little va-voom back in what is, if you are like a lot of married parents, your paltry sex life.

Christine Carter, Ph.D., is a mother of two and the executive director of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley. Find more tips for raising happy kids at greatergoodparents.org.

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(Or maybe it is just different for Ayelet Waldman, who has four kids, a husband who does half the childcare and housework, a star-studded career, and hot-deeply-in-love-sex with her husband all the time.)
I was in the audience last spring when Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman were speakers at the Folger Library in Washington D.C. and got the impression that what they really have is a pretty ‘normal’ (whatever that is) family life with all the time pressures, etc. of co-parenting. Please don’t let anyone convince you that it is easy, achievable, or realistic to have “hot, deeply-in-love sex all the time” with four children in the house. It. simply. does. not. happen. This is a great couple, funny, smart, vulnerable and caring deeply for each other. So are Christine and Michael. http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/half_full/wp-includes/images/smilies/icon_smile.gif ))

MIL | 5:25 pm, February 1, 2008 | Link

 

Since our kids turned 3, 3 and 5 our sex life has become much more active and enjoyable (it was in serious danger of extinction less than a year ago); more so than pre-marriage or pre-kids. We think it is due to a number of things: 1) we both make time and find more time to exercise; 2) we were in love before kids and kids brought us closer; 3)my wife has her body back because of exercise and time since birth; 4) she is far enough removed from pregnancy and childbirth, and all that that involves, to feel like having sex again; 5) the kids usually sleep through the night and are less burdensome to care for in the day than when they were ages 0 – 2.5; 6) respect; 7) trust; http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/half_full/wp-includes/images/smilies/icon_cool.gif communication.
The message I have is that it is very hard for husbands to understand why their wife is not in the mood, but be patient and it will improve with time. No matter if you have one or four kids, kid(s) under 3 are taxing and demand lots of attention around the clock.  It is likely not just you or your spouse.

patrick | 5:42 pm, February 1, 2008 | Link

 

My husband and I couldn’t agree more with you.  He’s always telling our children, “I got you, but I chose mommy.”  We strongly believe that the foundation for raising happy, productive kids is a sound marriage. Thus, we tell them our relationship comes first.  And, it’s paid off.  Our daughters are 22,19 and 14 and I’m happy to report they are delightful, thoughtful, responsible and fun. They have brought and continue to bring us much happiness and few problems.

Pam Bone | 6:04 pm, February 1, 2008 | Link

 

Guess what grandparents are for? Babysitting. Make a weekly date with your spouse and——-

Sylvia | 12:34 pm, February 2, 2008 | Link

 

What an adorable bride!
Aren’t Chabon and Ayelet stay at home authors? That might make it easier to share housekeeping and child care duties?
I couldn’t agree with you more. A good marriage creates the best environment for happy and well adjusted children.

Can’t wait for next post.

Sylvia | 10:37 am, February 3, 2008 | Link

 

I like this post because you’re totally breaking the silence on what I’ve heard from different friends over and over, that the logistics of life and running a family are really draining, especially on one’s love relationship.  I have had several friends over time not call me back one evening because they fell asleep reading stories to the kids or putting them to bed.  What a good idea to have February be about this topic. And also, I’ll bet that this strand of research is less likely to be known by the average person.

Liza | 9:02 pm, February 4, 2008 | Link

 

We have access to a grandmother, so Sylvia’s suggestion is available for us (and don’t just use that grandparent for an evening – make it a whole night and extended morning if you can).
For those who don’t, you might use the trick my parents used when I was a kid.  They found another couple with two kids.  Once a month, my parents took the other couple’s two kids for the whole weekend – Friday night through Sunday evening!  And once a month, the other couple took my sister and I.  Kids love overnights, and each couple gets a full weekend of time to get things done, sleep in, go out to dinner, etc.
This is high on my list of things to line up when our son (and, one of these years, sibling) is/are ready.

Toby | 7:01 am, February 7, 2008 | Link

 

I thoroughly enjoyed this very timely and well-written piece as well as the thoughtful comments from fellow readers.  My husband of 18+ years and I just returned from a long weekend in Las Vegas.  Grandma provided food and shelter to the kids who are now old enough (17, 12, 10) to be more an asset to her than a burden. 
In addition to an occasional get-away, we have found that sharing home and volunteer committments as a family is a terrific way to bond and co-nurture.  My husband coaches our youngest daughter’s basketball team, our son runs the scoreboard for the school and I help out in the concession stand.  By the end of the season we are tired but share in our collective accomplishments.

Laura | 12:07 pm, February 20, 2008 | Link

 

The responsibility toward a human being you have actually created really should inspire at least as much devotion and love than the mate you have selected.  Your mate had a choice about whether to be with you; your child did not, and is stuck with you forever.  So, if you choose to not give your child the utter love and devotion owed to him/her by a parent, you are not fulfilling your responsibility toward that child.  Perhaps the drug fog during labor that Ayelet Waldman describes in her blog on this topic prevented her from properly bonding with her children — that is, on a basic, hormonal level.  Women do bond hormonally with their mates during orgasm, but if you deny yourself the opportunity to do this at the time of childbirth, or later, through breastfeeding, you probably do not bond with your child on the same level, hormonally and physically, as you bond with your mate.  I also cannot ever imagine uttering such a heinous statement to my daughter as, “I got you, but I choose daddy.”  My daughter did not choose to be here; her father and I chose to create her, and therefore her emotional and physical well-being are our first responsibility.  This absolutely means that my spouse and I love our daughter at least as much as we love each other, and I would be very concerned about the effect it would have on my child’s psyche if she thought — or was told! — otherwise.  I will also say that, if I felt I loved my spouse more than my children, I would not just say “I guess I’m a bad mother!” and go on living with such a grotesque flaw; I would try to figure out what had gone wrong in my relationship with my children, and attempt to fix it so that I could be a proper mother to them.  I realize it’s rampantly in style to be a “selfish mother”, and that this is supposed to be good for our kids.  Hey guess what, it’s not.

Unselfish Mother | 6:26 pm, May 9, 2008 | Link

 
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