Marital conflict is bad for kids. While every marriage has conflict, especially after the first baby, persistent difficulties in the marital relationship expose children to increased chance of depression, poor communication skills, and conduct disorder later in life.
Cindy and Max came to see me after their daughter Sophie started pre-school and teachers called them in to discuss her inability to speak in class or to play with other kids. Cindy and Max thought she was just shy, but Sophie was diagnosed with a form of social anxiety. I learned that the couple, not wanting Sophie to suffer the anxiety of being left with a babysitter, had never gone out on a date after her birth. They were never alone together and had even stopped entertaining friends. At home, Cindy and Max spent no couple time, except perhaps when bickering about who was going to do certain chores. Most meals were eaten in front of the TV; when the family did all sit down at a table together, Sophie would be the focus of their attention.
Cindy and Max responded to these tensions by stonewalling. Conflict lingered without any closure. Sophie observed all this, of course, and her separation anxiety increased until she became mute in front of anyone but her parents. It was only the diagnosis of anxiety that spurred her parents to look at their unhappiness and how it was affecting their daughter.
The Best Way to Take Care of Your Kids is to Take Care of Your Marriage
The most important thing you can do is to stay good friends with your partner. Handle conflicts with gentleness and positivity; repair arguments when they become nasty. These seemingly simple things can create a climate that fosters intimacy, romance, and emotional engagement because these things grow out of a couple’s friendship and their ability to manage conflict.
Couples of today expect a lot from marriage; in previous generations when roles were more clear-cut, expectations were lower. People become partners because they value time together, but a new baby shifts the balance. Couple time recedes and baby time takes the lion’s share. For women, marital satisfaction goes way down, from 62% of childless married women reporting being very happy to only 38% of new mothers reporting feeling happy.
Please note: While many women get the “baby blues,” a relatively brief emotional letdown after childbirth, some 8 to 19% of women reported having frequent postpartum depressive (PPD) symptoms in a CDC survey. These symptoms include having scary or negative thoughts about the baby, worrying about hurting the baby, and feeling ashamed about not being a good mother. PPD is a serious problem that can not only affect the sufferer but also impair infant-mother attachment and the marriage. If a woman has this more severe depression, it is important she discuss her symptoms with her physician, who will refer her to a psychologist for counseling and a psychiatrist for medication evaluation.
Protecting Your Sex Life is One Way to Stay Connected When Children Take So Much
Having kids puts a damper on a couple’s sex life in several ways. Nursing shifts the hormonal balance by suppressing estrogen, increasing prolactin, and lowering testosterone levels. This combination results in vaginal dryness, which can cause pain during intercourse and lower libido. Breastfeeding is literally draining, and it’s additionally tiring to have sole responsibility to feed or even pump, especially on a newborn’s two-hour feeding cycles. Nursing does increase oxytocin, the feel-good hormone. With the baby meeting the mother’s needs for happiness, warmth, and intimacy, fathers can feel left out. However, fathers can experience rising oxytocin levels when cuddling their babies—they don’t have to feel left out http://www.livescience.com/10784-dads-hormone-boost-caring-baby.html. Many women, whether they nurse or not, feel “touched out” by the end of a day full of clingy young children.
While it’s not possible to change your hormonal balance, looking at what you can change will go a long way. Understanding that loss of desire is normal and that it will return is reassuring. It can also be reassuring to know that couples can maintain good sex lives without gymnastics. As Dr. Helen Fisher says, “If you want to start a very active sex life with your partner, don’t wait for your sex drive to get you to the bedroom. Just get to the bedroom.” Quickie sex releases all the feel-good chemicals of long gourmet sex. I tell my clients that meat & potato sex is fine (or gluten free.) Not every meal is gourmet. Even if you aren’t in the mood, the closeness you feel will increase warmth and affection when not in the bedroom.
There are many other ways to protect your relationship after having children. In future posts, I will discuss other important ways to take care of your children by caring for your marriage.