The Challenges of Parenthood

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. How will this change the us that has been just the two of us? 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.

What about child number two? Or three? Four? What happens to the us when life revolves around schooling, extracurricular activities, sibling rivalry, and the all-consuming obligations of being mom and dad, when the marriage seems swallowed up by the demands of parenting?

Just to “kick it up a notch” (to borrow from Emeril Lagasse), let us imagine that one or both partners has children from a previous relationship, and that one or both of these partners must jointly parent 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, and their differing dynamics with parents, etc. Yikes! Imagine what that looks like from each of the children’s perspectives and from each of the parents’ perspectives! Messy, painful, uncertain, sprinkled with grief over loss, much of which is not spoken or even recognized. And should one or more of our children have physiological, cognitive, or psychological difficulties, often chronic, how does that impact the us that once upon a time was just the two of us? In the midst of it all, what about the me before the us before the us-plus-kids?

Children are the innocents, and I vividly remember the spiritual high I experienced in the delivery rooms when 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 room 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. So let’s explore some of the dynamics evoked when children enter a couple’s life:

#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 exploring 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 a couple with 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 patterns. As if fatigue and rivalry weren’t enough to overwhelm any couple, when the new family unit begins to resemble something uncomfortably familiar to one’s past, pain stored in the basement of one’s memories reemerges: memories of mom’s depression, of dad’s unavailability, 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 by my spouse,” and so forth.

And so, the precious man or woman with whom you fell in love becomes grotesquely obscured by the lens 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 reemerging 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, and may be lost in his or her unique world of the “new familiar.”

Financial strain is 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.

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 offspring. 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 challenges that hit a couple when they begin to have children. However, 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.