Modern parenthood is anything but simple. But that doesn't mean it has to be incompatible with conjugal bliss. In “I’d Trade My Husband for a Housekeeper: Loving Your Marriage After the Baby Carriage,” authorsTrisha Ashworth and Amy Nobile take an honest, humorous approach to the obstacles and benefits of marriage — targeting everything from balancing housework to trying to keeping the romance alive. An excerpt:
Chapter 2: Why Don’t We Have One of Those Hollywood Marriages (Expectations vs. Reality)
We realize that you might not be in dire crisis mode in your marriage right now, but if you’re like most women, you probably could be happier. In fact, of the over 300 married women with kids we interviewed, 240 said they could be happier. And nearly all thought they were the minority in their feelings. What’s more, they thought their unhappiness was their fault.
But after talking — and talking, and talking — to so many women, we noticed a trend: Of the 80 percent of women who wished they were happier in marriage, most started out with an unrealistic vision of what married life would look like. Particularly married life with kids. As we wrote in our first book, when our expectations aren’t met, unhappiness ensues. Never mind that our expectations were unrealistic in the first place and are never going to happen in a million years. We had a vision. We didn’t attain it. We feel like we failed.
Which leads us to the big question: Why are so many of us in this situation? While we can blame our parents, Hollywood movies, celebrity culture, the insidious development of the BlackBerry, the truth is we’re all complicit. We tend to blow a lot of sunshine up other people’s skirts. We tell our friends and co-workers how much we love being mothers, and put a pretty good varnish on our marriages as well. “I had heard a lot of girlfriends talk about how you fall in love all over again with your husband after you have a baby,” one mom named Christy told us. “How you’re on cloud nine 24 hours a day. And I kept waiting for that moment to come — more of that ‘over the moon’ feeling, when you just stare at your husband and say, ‘Wow!’ [But] I just didn’t have that.”
Sister, between the sleeplessness, spit-up, sore boobs, and constant screaming, who could possibly have that?
We’re not sharing this so we can all shed a big tear of pity for ourselves. We’re sharing this to open each other’s eyes. How’s anybody supposed to feel satisfied with their marriage, or even know what a good marriage looks like, if we don’t talk about marriage and motherhood openly and honestly? As one mom told us, “I didn’t talk to anyone about how we were having a hard time — not even my work friends. It’s an image thing. I wanted the world to think of me as a working married mom with a great family. It was painful — I knew that wasn’t how my life was.”
“People are actually less happy today than in the prior generation,” Joshua Coleman, Ph.D., author of The Lazy Husband, explains. “The first problem is expectations. Today we expect our partner to be everything to us. Our workout partner, our coach, our lover, our friend.” The next problem, Dr. Coleman says, is that we tend to enter into marriage with ludicrously overblown notions of what it will be like. We think we’ll have perfect communication; star-aligned value systems; great sex after kids; the perfect house; a long-lasting, healthy, best-friendship marriage... the list goes on and on. And while that’s all really nice, we need to get those visions out of our heads and start talking realistically about marriage if we want to be happy in it. Marriage and motherhood are difficult — but they can also be magical and worthwhile. Counterintuitive as it may seem, we’ve got to start acknowledging real marriage — flawed marriage — if we want to learn to enjoy the marriages we’ve got.
I THOUGHT WE’D COOK DINNER TOGETHER WHILE GIGGLING ABOUT OUR DAY
When we asked women about their expectations going into marriage, particularly expectations relative to marriage with kids, here is what we heard:
- Once we have kids, our roles will be interchangeable.
- We will have a 50-50 division of labor.
- We’ll make all of our decisions together.
- We’ll be even closer after we have kids.
- We’ll cook dinner together while giggling about our day.
- We might go through a rough patch sex-wise with the new baby, but we’ll get back to “normal” in no time.
- We will always take care of each other — mind, body, and soul.
- My husband stayed the same guy when we got married; he’ll stay the same after we have kids.
- We’ll adjust our lives to support each other’s goals.
- My husband knows me really well; he’ll pitch in when he sees I’m tired.
- We’ll talk openly and honestly about everything.
- We’ll have a lot of family time together.
- Even if life at home gets stressful, our family vacations will be relaxing and fun.
Compounding the problem, many of us assumed our husbands had these same rosy expectations of marriage. In reality, many did not. As Bill, a father of two daughters, told us, “I have two little girls, and their favorite stories are about princesses getting married! Guys have a much less romantic view of marriage. When guys talk about marriage, we buy into this idea of ‘giving things up.’ We’re doing our duty. We go into [marriage] automatically thinking the romance is out of it. And I didn’t know it at first. It was a running joke: “Welcome to the team,” and all that. Your pals make fun of you and tell you what it’s really like. And later on you go, ‘Oh, you meant it?’ It’s tough — it’s a lot of work! Guys expect to work. This is just another form of work.”
Women, however, tend to think that finding the right person is the hard part of getting married, not the beginning of a life’s work. As Dr. Pat Covalt, author of What Smart Couples Know, explained to us, “I think what happens is we women are totally unrealistic about love and romance in marriage. We get caught up more in the gown that we’re going to wear than what our conflict management style is.” The in love feeling women focus on can also lead to trouble down the road. “I don’t even use the words ‘fall in love’ anymore,” Covalt says. “Love dissipates. The romantic, jittery stuff — that ‘in love’ feeling — always goes away, [followed by] a mature level of love that is much less exciting but much more real. People say, ‘I love you, but I’m not in love with you, so I’ll end the marriage.’ We need to grow up and be more mature in [our] expectations of marriage. You should be this sweet little thing you always were... Well, I’m too tired to be sweet — I’m going to bed!”
I DON’T FEEL LIKE I’M IN LOVE, WITH DOVES FLYING OVER MY HEAD
Of course, in hindsight it’s easy to see how idealistic this all was. Falling in love is temporary insanity. And then you come back to your senses and you’re left with toothpaste all over the sink, a husband glued to the couch watching hoops for the entirety of March, and old buddies of his who come over and eat all your food. To put it another way, women wake up from falling in love to the realization that life is not one big romance. For men, that waking up often means accepting that the mother of your children doesn’t have sex on the forefront of her mind after a long day of getting pelted with Cheerios.
As we discussed in our first book, parenting seldom turns out exactly as we had imagined. The same is true for marriage. “I don’t feel like I’m in love, with the doves flying over my head and my heart skipping beats and all that,” one mom explained. “Sometimes when I’m angry at him I think, ‘Well, is it really supposed to be that way? Am I not feeling “in love” with him?’ When I’m not angry I think, ‘Maybe I really am in love with him,’ but I never know if my feelings are true.”
We’ve learned from our research that one of the main ingredients of a happy marriage is a shared, realistic vision of what that marriage is. As well as explicitly discussing what you each expect and the best way to get there. The men we’re married to are husbands and fathers in their own idiosyncratic ways. We can’t change them — not the bad singing to the car radio, not the way he likes to eat chicken breasts without using a fork — but we can change the pictures we carry around in our heads of what our unions are supposed to look like. Just connecting with each other, on a daily or even weekly basis, about the joys and difficulties in our days, about how we’re feeling as parents, can be a huge relief and pave the road for success. Do you think he expects you to stay home with the kids? Have you asked him? Does he know that the reason you’re so mad is that you’ve been waiting for him to get up with the baby in the middle of the night? Does he know that you’re always wearing shorts and running shoes at 5:45 p.m. because you want to go for a jog when he gets home from work? Have you talked about working out a schedule? Have you told him how fantastically turned-on you’ll be if he even offers to help you change the sheets?
I ALMOST KILLED MYSELF BAKING MY CHILD’S BIRTHDAY CAKE
In order to understand the pressures we feel in our marriage, we need to first look at the pressures we feel as mothers today.
While researching our first book, we interviewed over a hundred moms nationwide and found a startlingly common thread: their expectations of themselves were over the top. Most moms are carrying this idea of the “good mom” that’s completely unrealistic. And as a result, we had a lot of conversations that went like this:
Us: Tell us a little something about yourself.
Them: Well, I’m thirty-six, I have two kids, and I used to be a manager of a pharmaceutical company. I finally got a big promotion right before I had my first child.
Us: How are you handling motherhood right now?
Them: It’s amazing. I love it! I am so balanced. My husband is my best friend. I feel really blessed and extremely lucky that I have healthy kids and we’re able to provide a great foundation and a positive environment for our children.
Twenty-two minutes later:
Us: Sounds like you have real balance in your life. A lot of women we’ve talked to seem to have a hard time finding that. How do you do it?
Them: Ummm, well, maybe “balance” isn’t the right word. [Long pause.] Umm, actually, I haven’t taken a shower in three days. And, OK, my husband and I haven’t had sex in three weeks. And, well, my laundry is piled to the ceiling and my house is a mess. My five-year-old daughter could also use a serious attitude adjustment. I really wish I had time to get a haircut. And I hate to admit it, but my son’s first word was “Shrek.”
Us: OK, things aren’t perfect. But overall, are you happy?
Them: Umm, wow, happy? Well, yeah. I mean, yeah, I’m happy. Well, I wouldn’t say totally happy. You know, I have an MBA. Why can’t I do this? [Long pause.] I feel like such a bad mom sometimes. This isn’t really what I expected.
Wondering why so many mothers are feeling overwhelmed, stressed, guilty, and stretched? Wonder no more. We judge ourselves, we compare ourselves to others we think have it all together, we feel out of control. We have more “bad mom” days than “good mom” days. We’re struggling to find balance, and we’ve lost sight of our identity. One mom told us an all-too-familiar story. “I remember when Ellie was turning one, I wanted to make her cake. I had gotten the Martha Stewart Baby magazine, and it was all about making the first birthday cake special, being made by you. So I almost killed myself making this cake and decorating it, and screwed up the monogram on top! I was so stressed out that I started screaming at my husband and we got in a huge fight.”
We also tend to feel alone in this particular brand of insanity because so few people are talking honestly about how they feel in motherhood today. We expect the world of ourselves, and we think everyone else is just bearing up under the burden better than we are. As another mom, Marissa, told us, “I’m dumbfounded on a daily basis as to how you’re supposed to maintain your house and all that entails, maintain and raise your children, have a great marriage and relationship, keep yourself healthy and balanced, and be interesting and have great friendships. I’m totally flabbergasted. Women are doing this all around the world? I totally don’t get it.”
HE LOOKS AT ME CROSS-EYED AND THINKS I’M CRAZY
Of course, our motherhood pressures affect our husbands, and ultimately our marriages. This usually takes the form of our husbands assuming we’re crazy. After all, when he married you, you probably didn’t obsess over having the perfect skirt to wear to your son’s third birthday party in your immensely important role as Mother of the Birthday Boy. You probably didn’t have all of these insane “shoulds” swirling around in your head, making you completely exhausted and overextended, and liable to snap if anybody so much as suggests, last minute, that you invite the neighbors over for dinner. As Lisa so nicely put it, “[My husband’s] aware that most women are nuts. He’s seen firsthand some other mothers and other women, and scratches his head. When he comes home at night and I’m ranting like a loony person about the mom politics I’ve encountered during my day, he just looks at me cross-eyed and tells me I’m completely crazy.”
I WISH I HAD ‘THAT GUY’
Some of this is timeless, and some is unique to our generation. We were raised to believe that we could and should do it all. That if we picked the right combinations of coulds and shoulds, our lives would work out perfectly. We’d have great husbands, great relationships, great kids, great careers.
The idea that we can (and should) succeed at anything if we just put our minds to it has contributed to the difficulty we have admitting hardship in our lives. We made our own choices, right? So we should be able to shape our outcomes. And if we don’t succeed in creating perfect happiness in our lives, it’s not that life is hard and perfect happiness is a fantasy — it’s our fault!
The result is that a lot of women don’t want to talk about reality, because reality looks like failure to them. Our marriages, our family lives, our careers are not turning out as we planned, because what we planned for was perfection, and what we got is merely good. We know this is sort of nuts, but we’re having a hard time letting go of it anyway. As one mom named Julia put it, “I know no one has this perfect fairytale husband who talks to you about your feelings and pitches in all the time, but I wish I had ‘THAT GUY.’
So, what we’re left with is feeling embarrassed and self-protective about our lives as we actually live them — and this only exacerbates the expectations problem! In a crazy feedback loop, we compare ourselves to the outward façades of other people’s marriages, not their real marriages. Then we assume our own marriage is not stacking up. (Maybe our husbands are onto something when they look at us cross-eyed.) “I do feel pressure,” says another mom named Jill. “I’m always comparing us to couples who don’t have problems, especially friends who have these great Hollywood marriages.”
Excuse us — great Hollywood marriages? This is a recipe for misery. Most of our marriages are, or at least can be, pretty good, if not better than that. But we don’t all live on a soundstage in Hollywood, and we need to be smart about what and who we compare ourselves to.
DID I GET A LEMON?
Another compounding factor in today’s marriages is that, for the first time in history, staying married is completely voluntary, and that causes us to question whether we’re in a good marriage anymore. Divorce is so commonplace, and so many of us have divorced parents, that it’s accepted that we can leave our marriages at any time. This leads to some not-so-pretty consumerist questions in lots of women’s heads. How’s my husband functioning? Should I upgrade? Is he living up to his performance guarantee? Did I get a lemon?
We know he’s a human being, and we shouldn’t think of him as less than he was when we married him, but when we have fights, instead of just feeling sad, we feel buyer’s remorse. We yearn to try a different model. Exacerbating these feelings, there’s little social encouragement to stick with the status quo. A “disposable” attitude permeates our lives, almost always to our detriment. It’s one thing when the TV breaks and we throw it away instead of fixing it. But it’s quite another when we bring that mind-set into our marriage. We’ve probably never met him, but let us assure you: Your guy is not a lemon. You cannot, and should not, bring him back (well, not most of the time). Commitment really counts when times are tough. One mom we know reminds herself when her husband starts driving her crazy by making sausage in the kitchen on a Sunday afternoon which to her eyes and ears is pretty much the grossest-looking and -sounding thing imaginable — “OK, this is the part when you’re really married.” That “for worse” phrase is part of the marriage vows for a good reason. If you expect difficulties, and commit to working through them, your marriage will be stronger for it.
HE WANTS ME TO BE THIS COOKIE-CUTTER MOM
One good way to start unpacking the expectations of your marriage is to start thinking about your role models — what examples you’re trying to emulate or avoid, and what examples your husband is trying to emulate or avoid. As Meg Newcomer, a family therapist, explained to us, “When we look at our partner, we see three people — them, and our two parents.” (Scary, huh?) “How did we learn to cope with pain and difficulty, how did our family deal with conflict, show love, allow space for feelings to be expressed or not. You come into marriage with a suitcase of clothes, and you’re constantly trying to fit those clothes on your partner. And a lot of times they don’t fit at all! Or it’s a shirt from your mom!”
We heard from parents at both extremes — from “We tend to model our current and future lives on how badly our parents screwed up,” to those who are struggling to figure out how their own parents managed as well as they did. “I can’t entertain the way my mother did, I can’t have that house, I can’t have the marriage she did,” another mom told us. “And I’m coming to terms with the fact that we are the way we are, and that’s OK. It’s a daily struggle.”
Whatever’s the case for you — hellish parents or saintly ones — just thinking about your role models can go a long way.
- Are you trying to be as good a mother as your mother?
- Is your husband trying to be a better dad than his dad?
- Do you know more about what you don’t want your marriage to look like than what you do want your marriage to look like?
- Are you feeling conflicted about the role you’re playing in your marriage?
- Are you feeling guilty for not being the husband or wife you think you should be?
A lot of women told us they felt like guinea pigs, trying to navigate a workable path through marriage in a world where women’s roles have changed so quickly. Your husband’s mother and your own mother probably carried very different roadmaps for getting through their lives. “He grew up in a traditional home; his mom did everything and he expected that for us,” Sara told us. “Generationally, it’s not like that anymore. We as wives expect more of our husbands now. We expect them to pitch in more! As far as any other issues — the parenting aspect — we didn’t realize we’d come out on such different sides of the fence. He very much wanted a wife to stay home. He saw this cookie-cutter mom at home and wanted that [from] me.”
HE’S THE FUN DAD AND I’M THE MEAN MOMMY
This lack of current models has led to a lot of confusion over the roles we’re all supposed to play.
Some men and women told us they thought it would have been easier to be happily married (and to be co-parents) a generation ago, when gender roles were more strictly defined. Whether or not this is actually true is debatable. But it does seem to highlight the fact that roles within a marriage can be a big source of tension. Many of us come into marriage with unspoken views of what his role and her role is going to be. Sometimes our views are compatible with our spouse’s, and sometimes they’re not. And if they’re not, that can lead to a whole lot of tears and tension. One mom, Georgia, told us, “I do get angry. We argue about what our roles are. I say, ‘I’m not asking you to help me; I’m asking you to parent with me.”
Other men and women thought it should be easier to be happily married now in that many couples start off down the aisle as equal partners, and equal seems like a really good position from which to create a shared life. But this, too, has its set of perils. Many marriages that strive to be equal partnerships often wind up looking like see-saws, with a lot of shifting of who is up and who is down (and a lot of bruised backsides and egos when positions change). Worse, some marriages that strive for equality start to look like tug-of-wars, with each spouse pulling hard to retain equal standing in a house that’s getting rocked by kids.
Believe us, we’re all for equality. We just want to raise the idea that “equal” is a goal, not a fixed setting on a thermostat. And it is maddeningly difficult to attain. “Here’s my take,” says Barry Schwartz, author of Paradox of Choice. “There’s been a lot of attention paid to the amount of work women do in the household. But it’s not really equal. I think what hasn’t been focused on is the emotional and mental work — namely, who makes the decisions. This is incredibly important: Even if the husband’s around, and shares the kid workload, who’s making the decisions about playdates, schools? The overwhelming, crushing responsibility of it all still lies with the mother. It’s a false sense of being equals.”
The emotional valences of different parents doing different chores can also interfere with equality. “He’s the ‘fun dad.’ It’s the weekend — it’s time for McDonald’s, playing baseball in the driveway — let’s go out for bagels,” one mom named Lisa told us. “I look bad, because I’m the mean mommy who has to feed them breakfast before school and not go out for bagels.”
MONEY MONEY MONEY
Money also impacts marriages in crazy ways, whether we want it to or not (and talking about this is one of the biggest taboos of all).
The stay-at-home moms we spoke to were surprised at how powerless they sometimes felt in their marriages, especially when it came to decisions around big-ticket items, like houses and private school. “We had this whole argument over schools — private versus public. And I felt powerless,” one full-time mom explained. “I felt like I couldn’t make the decision. He didn’t want to spend the money, and I thought my vote didn’t count as much [being] a stay-at-home mom.”
Families in which the mother was the main breadwinner also had their share of bumps. “There is nothing less sexy than your husband saying, You’re the breadwinner,” one mom admitted. “The pressure is on me. What about my choices? Why aren’t I the mom?” Another mom shared, “I had this conversation with myself this morning driving in the car: ‘Jennifer, you knew what you were getting into! You knew you would have to be the breadwinner! You knew that this would be the deal.’”
Another mom said, “It all sounded so wonderful: He would work, I would stay home. I remember my dad saying to me, ‘Money is power. You need to take care of yourself.’ In the next breath, he would say, ‘You need to get married and be taken care of.’”
‘PERFECT’ IS A DIRTY WORD
So, what can you do to help align your expectation of marriage with reality?
The first thing to do is to remember that there is no such thing as a perfect marriage. Sorry, it’s not going to happen. Same goes for perfect mother. You can drive yourself insane trying, but you’re still going to blow it sometimes. Perfection is a fantasy, not a reality. So stop torturing yourself. You’re a flawed human, like the rest of us. Welcome to the club.
It’s also important to remember that all marriages, including yours, need to be reinvented after kids. “We had to do that dance to find the new ‘normal’ of that life with kids,” is how one mom put it. We’re not the same people we were after having kids, and our marriages are going to be different as well.
Lastly, you need to talk to your spouse about what you expect from each other and what each of you wants from your married lives. It sounds mundane, and a lot of it is — “I want us to go to the beach together,” “Even if I’m sleeping I want you to kiss me goodnight.” But think of it as spring cleaning for your marriage. Every once in a while you really need to air some stuff out. “It’s something that we talk a lot about — how do you value your leisure time? How much weight do you put on keeping the bathroom clean? Sunday dinner? Taking the kids to church? Date night?” asks therapist Christine Ryan, M.A., L.P.C. “A lot of times couples are surprised at how different their answers are.”
This, however, is not necessarily a problem. The point of marriage is not to become identical twins. “You’re not going to share and love everything equally,” Ryan continues. “I think what’s important is to be able to identify what the other person values. Then you need to look at yourself and ask, What about me? What am I doing to enhance the marriage?”
Just to be clear, we’ll say it again: Contrary to popular belief, marriage is not about two people becoming one. You don’t need to be mirror images of each other (and would you really want to be?). You just need to fit together. One mom we talked to told us she thinks the most important thing in marriage is to keep walking in the same direction. “I’ve finally made peace with the fact that our differences work really well together,” another mom, Hannah, said. “He’s probably more patient than I am, but I thought it would be the opposite. I’m more the perfectionist — wanting things to be a certain way. I’m more uptight. It’s really great to have a partner to balance you out.”
6 WAYS TO KEEP YOUR EXPECTATIONS IN CHECK
Ask yourself what your expectations are for a good marriage. Do these expectations match those of your partner? Are your expectations realistic? What expectations do you have of each other as a husband and a wife? Sit down with each other and talk about them (you may be surprised at how many expectations are imaginary). Take a step back and assess where your expectations of each other come from. Did you watch your parents live together, happily married, for thirty years? Did you watch them live unhappily for thirty years? Did you watch them divorce? Most importantly, are the expectations created by your parents’ example fair? Consider how your expectations of yourself as a mother are impacting your relationship with your spouse. Remind yourself why you got married to your spouse in the first place. Stop thinking about what your marriage should look like. Redefine what a “good marriage” means to you, for this moment in life.
MEN: THEIR PERSPECTIVE, THEIR PRESSURES
Husbands and fathers today face a lot of pressures that we don’t necessarily understand, or ask about, or give them credit for. We’re so wrapped up in all that we need to do — our whole “perfect mom” trip — that we fail to appreciate that they, too, might be feeling overwhelmed. Like us, our guys feel obligated to do it all, and do it all well. As Meg Newcomer, a family therapist, explains, “Men feel unappreciated sometimes. They think ‘I’m providing, so why am I getting yelled at? I would rather be at soccer.’ There’s a lot of talk about Supermom, but what about Superdad?”
The truth is, the same stuff that keeps women off balance and anxious in motherhood has made fatherhood difficult for men. They have no roadmap to show them how to be a good husband and a good dad. They feel pressured to provide. They feel pressured to be “present.” Men feel so many pressures from so many different places that many are caught off guard when their wives start insinuating that husbands today are getting the better deal. So if you haven’t clued into this already, it’s time you do: Many contemporary fathers are feeling lost, unsure of who they are and even who they’re supposed to be. For our guys, too, gender roles are less clear-cut than they were a few decades ago. That leaves our husbands bumbling around, getting banged up by all the demands they put on themselves, and making up their roles as spouses and parents as they go along.
ARE WE DONE YET?
In most marriages, at some point, it becomes a big bone of contention: Are we going to have more kids?
It’s a huge decision, of course, and most people bring mountains of baggage to the discussion. Many moms and dads we talked to said they had an image in their heads of what their families would look like, including how many kids they’d have. So it really helps to take the time to ask each other some critical questions in order to make more conscious choices about your families. Remember, make the choice that’s best for you; we’re all going to have different answers to these questions.
- Why do we want more children?
- Do we both feel the same way about it?
- What are we looking for in having another child?
- How will having another child affect our current children?
- How will having another child affect our marriage?
- How will having another child affect our finances — both short-term and long-term? (Consider everything from vacations to schooling to housing needs to childcare)
- Where do I fit in this? Will I be able to maintain my identity and sanity?
- Will having another child make us happier? Will we be happy without another child?
It’s also important to be really honest with yourself about whether “good mom” pressures are coloring your decision-making process. It’s crazy, but many of us had to consider whether we thought having another child made us look like more successful moms.
At the same time, we need to validate the idea that preserving and nurturing a marriage is a sound, smart reason to not have more kids. As one husband named Ben told his wife who was pressuring him to have a third child, “Don’t think about it as not having another child... think about it as gaining a husband.”
Finally, remember that you have to live with your choices, and no one else outside your family cares how many kids you have. Whether you have one child or four, make a choice that’s right for you and your spouse. Life is full of serendipity and surprise anyway. So plan to have the number of kids that seems best for you.
Excerpted from “I’d Trade My Husband for a Housekeeper: Loving Your Marriage After the Baby Carriage,” by Trisha Ashworth and Amy Nobile. Copyright © 2009 Reprinted by permission of Chronicle Books.