Steven D. Graham, PhD, DMin 

Steven D. Graham, PhD, DMin 

Plague #3: The Complications of Parenthood

(This article is from my newsletter and is part of an ongoing series called The TEN PLAGUES ON MARRIAGE. If you would like to receive my newsletter, please fill out the form on the page called Newsletter Signup.
"Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are sons born in one's youth"

(Psalm 127:4, New International Version).

Although King David wrote most of the Psalms, it was his son, King Solomon, who penned this one. While David may have been a tremendous leader, a gallant warrior, and even "a man after God's heart," his failures as a parent are legendary. A daughter, Tamar, was raped ... by her half-brother, Amnon. Amnon was killed by Tamar's full brother, Absolom. Absolom, disgusted with his father's management of this situation, rebelled against David, inciting a brief civil war in which Absolom was eventually killed.  To add tragedy to failure, one of his children died at birth. So, with three dead sons and one raped daughter as part of his parenting legacy, David was a diminished man and a broken-hearted father. It is not David who writes about the blessings and benefits of parenthood, but rather it was David's son, Solomon, who, with a unique vantage point from which to observe the struggles of his father and siblings, wrote Psalm 127 (cited above), proclaiming the promise and blessing of parenthood. What an optimistic perspective from one who witnessed firsthand that children can be trouble, and that parenting is difficult.

Babies change everything! From the moment a couple realizes the stork is on its way, nothing is ever the same. All of a sudden there is a "third," an other. Despite the obvious physiological changes over the course of pregnancy, and their accompanying impact on the soon-to-be-mother's emotions, the reality of the baby remains somewhat hypothetical until it fully announces its presence upon birth. We simply cannot know until we know! No matter how ecstatic a new mother and father may feel about this new person in their midst, profound changes in dynamics between them are well under way.

And … what about child number two? Or three? Or four? What happens to "us"—that once upon a time was just "the two of us"—when life seems to revolve around schooling, extra-curricular activities, sibling rivalry, and the all-consuming demands of being "Mom" and "Dad"? And in the midst of it all, what about the "me" that was before the "us" before the "us-plus-kids"?

Just to "kick it up a notch" (to borrow from Chef Emeril Lagasse), let us imagine that one or both partners has children from a previous relationship, and that one or both must participate in joint parenting with an ex-spouse. And let us imagine the strain of loyalties the children must navigate, not to mention challenges to their identities, their sense of safety, the "other" children, and their differing dynamics with parents, etc. Yikes! Imagine what that looks like from each of the children's—as well as the parents'—perspectives: messy, painful, uncertain, sprinkled with grief over loss, much of which is not spoken or even recognized. And the situation is further complicated when one or more of our children have physiological, cognitive, or psychological difficulties.

I must confess that it was a somewhat difficult choice for me to include children as plague #3. They are the innocents, after all. And I vividly remember the spiritual high I experienced in the delivery rooms where my children entered our world. To this day I grapple with putting words to that experience: something like a resurrection within me, or turning on a bright light in a dark room—a dark room that I did not know even existed.

Nevertheless, if I were to classify issues that stress and threaten to divide husband and wife, the role of parenthood ranks near the top. Every couple with children that I have seen in marital therapy inevitably has to discuss their children or at least the impact of children on their relationship. The following are some of the more frequent stressors:

#1: Fatigue

The weeks and months following a birth are defined by fatigue. Sleep is disrupted, schedules are scuttled, and exhaustion eventually wears down the adrenaline rush of having a new baby. This level of fatigue may be new and even fragmenting to one or both parents. If this is true with just one child, try adding more children, or blending a family, or dealing with one or more children with high needs. A climate of never feeling restored replaces the pre-children sense of relative calm.

#2: Rivalry

The old saying, "two's company, but three's a crowd," is another way of expressing the sense of displacement (or fear of displacement) when children enter the picture. It is not uncommon for one parent to experience resentment toward a child for the dominating role they have assumed in the other parent's life. When I see in therapy a couple that has a young child, I instantly wonder if the challenges between them have something to do with either the husband or the wife feeling bumped out of the “inner circle” by the baby. Freud's Oedipus Complex emphasizes this rivalry from the child's standpoint:  “I want Mom all to myself, but if I try to claim her for myself, Dad will cut off my ... it's too painful to put into words!" 

All we need are these two dynamics and boom! Accusations fly back and forth: “I feel like I have two children. First, I have to service my baby, then I have to turn around and satisfy my husband. I feel literally sucked dry!" Then, "I don't seem to matter anymore. I feel like I am just the meal ticket for my wife and kids. All she does is complain about what I don't get done because she is so tired. Forget about the fact that I feel incredible pressure to provide financially because it is not just the two of us anymore. So much is on my shoulders!"  As each feels less understood by the other, each feels more alone and less partnered. Fatigue + rivalry = hurt feelings and defensiveness.

#3: Familiar pattern

As if fatigue and rivalry weren't enough to overwhelm any couple, when the new family unit begins to resemble something painfully familiar from one's past, pain stored in the basement of one’s memories re-emerges: memories of mom’s depression, of dad’s preoccupation, of their fighting with each other, of scary and unexplainable feelings. Sometimes, experiencing your child at a certain age resurrects the powerful sense of what life was like for you at that age. With these “new familiarities” come accompanying vows: “I’ll never feel like that again,” “I swear I will never treat my child like I was treated,” “I will never let my child be treated that way,” and so forth. 

And so, the precious man or woman with whom you fell in love becomes grotesquely obscured by the lenses of the past, the personification of the abusive, inattentive, controlling, depressive, always anxious, always helpless, never listening, or seemingly absent parent (or sibling) from childhood. Battles that could never be won in childhood may find themselves being waged in a new time with a new family, this time with a new resolve.

Often, a spouse does not know what to do with these re-emerging states of mind. You may feel confusion in the midst of this unconscious reenactment. Rather than the battle being waged directly, it may instead take place within: you may withdraw, feel resentful, and interpret relatively benign spousal behaviors through a more malignant frame. You may attribute evil intent to your marriage partner, watching the horns sprout before your very eyes. Your spouse, rightly, may have absolutely no idea what is going on between the two of you, and may be lost in his or her unique world of the “new familiar.”

#4: Financial strainis

another trial that confronts many new parents. It is costly to have and raise children. What now? These negotiations can be tricky. Will Mom quit work and stay home? Will Dad work more hours? If Mom continues working, how will the housework be divided up “fairly” (fairness is more perceptual than actual, it seems)? In the glow and novelty of the baby, deals are struck between Mom and Dad (formerly referred to as husband and wife) that seem reasonable and doable at the time, but do not take into account that in life, things change. Mom may tire of not working; Dad may grow weary of being the sole income provider; what was once a fair distribution of housework no longer seems to be. Add to this the vicissitudes of life—job loss, illness, house repairs, car repairs—and it is easy to see how financial issues quickly become the hotbed of marital distress.

#5: Grandparents

Further, it is one thing to have parents-in-law; it is quite another when they become Grandma and Grandpa who feel like they have claims on your child. The dynamics that emerge with your parents or your spouse’s parents once you have a baby can be unpredictable; everyone seems to have expectations. You may expect Grandma and Grandpa to be free babysitters only to find that they are happy in their independence from such domestic responsibilities. Surprise. They may be overwhelmed by their own life situation. Surprise. They may expect to see your kids at least weekly, sometimes coming over unannounced. Surprise. Comparisons between which grandparents are more involved, caring, giving, or respectful become grounds for, well, interesting discussions between you and your spouse. You will be reminded of your parents’ intrusiveness, abandonment, rejection, unavailability, preoccupation, and other painful experiences from your childhood. Often, because they have grown, mellowed, or simply have more time and less stress, they may be able to offer to your children that which you wanted so badly for yourself. 

Fatigue, rivalry, familiarity, finances, and grandparents are only five of the many challenges that hit a couple when they begin to have children. But none of these issues, either separately or in combination, has to rip away the intimacy between you and your spouse. In fact, it has been my experience working with couples that as we put into words these very stressors and begin to think about the possibility of renegotiating and working toward a “win/win” position, that hope often returns, and with hope, the sparkle of love.