Contemporary depictions of marriage would have you believe that a baby will push your spouse away, but that isn't necessarily the case
Must parenthood make your marriage miserable? Contemporary depictions in the press and popular culture might make you think so. Jennifer Senior's much discussed New York magazine piece, "Why Parents Hate Parenting," last year documented the apparent legions of affluent urban parents who find themselves with everything they dreamed of -- an educated, attractive spouse; fulfilling careers for wife and husband; and one or two healthy children -- who nevertheless experience parenting as a burdensome chore and a profound obstacle to a happy marriage. "Why Parents Hate Parenting" was replete with art photos of a beautiful young wife and handsome, shirtless husband in a retro-chic home with their healthy infant twin boys ... and everyone looking miserable in every shot. Similar depictions can be found of the challenges of combining marriage and parenthood can be found on television shows like Up All Night and movies like Flirting With Disaster.
Some women apparently decide that parenthood and a happy marriage are so incompatible they would rather strike out on their own as a single mother rather than settle for a hum-drum marriage and family life. Lori Gottleib's opening salvo several years ago on the pages of this magazine declaring that having a baby with no man underfoot solves the dilemma of late-thirty-something professional womanhood was one contribution to the evolving narrative that a baby is a woman's reward after decades of dedicating herself to a career, that adult relationships are often unstable or unappealing, and that marriage need not precede motherhood. In a recent Slate piece, single mother of two Katie Roiphe writes of sensing jealousy among her academic colleagues because she has managed to achieve the blessing of two children without having to "pay ... the usual price [of] ... Thai food and a video with your husband on a Saturday night." Recent movies like The Back-Up Plan starring Jennifer Lopez and The Switch starring Jennifer Aniston lend plausibility to the idea that it is easier to go it alone as a parent.
These modern day portraits of parenthood raise vital questions: Do women and men today experience parenthood differently depending on whether they are married or unmarried? And, if they are married, is parenthood itself an obstacle to a good marriage?
In a new report "When Baby Makes Three: How Parenthood Makes Life Meaningful and How Marriage Makes Parenthood Bearable" (PDF), just published in the latest issue of the State of Our Unions, we examined nationally-representative survey data, including a new, nationally-representative study of more than 1,400 married couples (18-46), to respond to these questions.
Contrary to the celebratory pieces on voluntary single motherhood by journalists like Roiphe, we found that married parents generally do experience more happiness and less depression than parents who are unmarried. For instance, among women, 50 percent of married mothers report that they are "very happy" with life, compared to 39 percent of cohabiting mothers and 25 percent of single mothers, even after controlling for differences in education, income, and race/ethnicity. The transition to parenthood is hard, but being married helps soften the blow.
We also found that the impact of parenthood is not negative on outcomes such as marital stability or whether one perceives one's life to have meaning. In fact, married parents -- especially women -- are significantly more likely to report that their "life has an important purpose," compared to their childless peers. For instance, 57 percent of married mothers reported high levels of a sense of purpose, compared to 40 percent of childless wives.
Yet the picture is somewhat more complex than that. Readers may be familiar with recent debates among scholars and in the media about whether having children negatively impacts the quality of marriage. Much was made of Harvard professor Daniel Gilbert's book, Stumbling on Happiness, published in 2006, which concluded, based on a review of recent studies, that "marital satisfaction decreases dramatically after the birth of the first child -- and increases only when the last child has left home." In 2009, at the New York Times' Motherlode blog reporter Lisa Belkin shared a British researcher's summary of existing studies in the U.S. and Europe which found, on average, that parents have lower levels of happiness, life satisfaction, marital satisfaction, and mental well-being, compared to non-parents. Likewise, we also found that parenthood is typically associated with lower levels of marital happiness among contemporary couples.
But we also found something that surprised us. A substantial minority -- about 35 percent -- of husbands and wives do not experience parenthood as an obstacle to marital happiness. These couples seem to navigate the shoals of parenthood without succumbing to comparatively low levels of marital happiness. What is their secret? We identified ten aspects of contemporary social life and relationships -- such as marital generosity, good sex, religious faith, thrift, shared housework, and more -- that seem to boost women's and men's odds of successfully combining marriage and parenthood.
Our findings go beyond the tired, old debates about gender roles and marriage. In the 1960s and '70s, in part as a consequence of the feminist movement and the therapeutic revolution, many wives understandably rejected what was then a heavily-gendered ethic of marital sacrifice and instead took a more individualistic approach to marriage, focused on meeting their own needs. But if the 1970s divorce revolution taught us anything, it was that heavy doses of individualism and a good marriage aren't very compatible.
Our report suggests, in contrast, that in today's marriages both wives and husbands benefit when they embrace an ethic of marital generosity that puts the welfare of their spouse first. That is, both are happier in their marriages when they make a regular effort to serve their spouse in small ways -- from making them a cup of coffee, to giving them a back rub after a long day, to going out of their way to be affectionate or forgiving. So the lesson here is not for wives now to throw off an other-centered ethic as a relic of an ancient era, but rather for contemporary husbands to embrace this ethic for themselves and their families.
Today, a growing proportion of young adults in the United States worry that having both a good marriage and a happy family life with children is unattainable. And their worries are mirrored in much of the commentary, television shows, and movies that dwell on relationships and family life in America.
But we have good news for these young people. By embracing some new values -- like date nights, shared housework, and an ethic of marital generosity -- and some old values -- like commitment, thrift, and a shared faith -- it appears that today's parents can dramatically increase their odds of forging a stable and happy marriage. This means that couples need not despair after the arrival of a baby. If one-third of today's married parents can successfully combine marriage and parenthood, surely many more can flourish when baby makes three.