Americans are quick to describe parenting as the most rewarding experience of their lives, but research suggests that the reality is more complicated, especially when it comes to maintaining a happy marriage.
A 2003 Journal of Marriage and Family analysis found that new parents, particularly mothers, are far less satisfied with marriage than their childless peers, a trend that only increases as the family expands. The study cites parenting role conflicts and lifestyle restrictions as the main sources of unhappiness.
Jackie Lindsey, a stay-at-home mother of two, saw the risks of marital strain, and she and her husband, Steve, weren’t taking any chances.
“We made a commitment early on to change together, not separately, and that really stayed front-and-center as we navigated the waters of parenthood. So after our first child was born, we really helped each other find the way into parenthood.”
The majority of American parents have not found the same balance as the Lindseys, as evidenced by a 2016 study that compared what researchers called the “happiness gap” between parents and non-parents in 22 European and English-speaking countries. Not only were Americans the most miserable, but parents in countries like Norway and Hungary were actually happier than childless couples.
Why do moms and dads feel worse?
So, why do American moms and dads feel so much worse? According to Dr. Alicia Walker, assistant professor of sociology at Missouri State University, it has a lot to do with our brand of parenting. “We’re in this very strange cultural moment,” she says. “Unlike previous generations, we were almost accessories to our parents: We fit ourselves into our parents’ lives, whereas now, our lives are built around our children.”
Dr. Walker also points out the conflict between societal pressures to have children without the social resources to support parents—paid maternity leave and affordable childcare, for instance—that may exist in other countries. “When both parents are working tirelessly on day-to-day tasks just to keep everyone going, they can become very businesslike in their relationship.”
The daily grind and living up to social ideals can erode even the most loving marriage according to David Ezell, clinical director of Darien Wellness, a counseling and mental wellness group in Darien, Connecticut. “I see a lot of couples who are completely burned out because they are comparing themselves to a fantasy.” The fantasy, he notes, includes perpetually optimistic, levelheaded parents who have successful careers, a great marriage, and never lose their cool.
Striving for perfection is exhausting, and the result is overtired and cranky parents who don’t take time for themselves or their relationship. A Care.com survey found that 30 percent of couples haven’t had a date night in more than six months, despite 85 percent who say they would like more time alone together, an issue the Lindseys are still mastering.
“Four-and-a-half years have passed since our first child was born, and we still struggle to find time to just be us,” Jackie Lindsey said. “At the end of the day, dishes need to be washed, laundry needs to be folded and Netflix needs to be watched, and often both of us just want some quiet.”
In addition to limited time, guilt plays a major role in U.S. parenting standards and what Ezell categorizes as the “child-focused marriage,” a choice that he says is the biggest mistake a couple can make. “Children eat up so much bandwidth, and couples are completely ignoring their marriage,” he says. “And you know, if you raise children correctly, they’re going to leave one day.”
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And what will be left when they do? Dr. Walker emphasizes the importance of maintaining a strong marital connection during the early parenting years to ensure long-term happiness, a position supported by a worldwide study. The results found that while parents under 40 were generally less happy than childless couples, their life satisfaction eclipses them from age 40 and beyond, regardless of family size. Of course, becoming a happy older couple requires focusing on and solving today’s conflicts.
What does it take to stay connected as a couple? While Ezell doesn’t discount the financial and societal pressures parents face in the U.S., he believes husbands and wives can benefit greatly from weekly one-on-one time, even if it’s a simple walk around the block without the kids tagging along.
As for parents who claim they are too busy or overwhelmed to work on their marriage, he remains firm. “We have time to do what we want to do. No one was ever late for dessert.”