The Progeny Effect

Till Children Do Us Part
Stephanie Coontz, NY Times, February 4, 2009

Do children supplant the things that make committed relationships so great? Or, conversely, can they strengthen a relationship by providing common goals, identity, focus and aspirations?

Women’s magazines of that era promised that almost any marital problem could be resolved by embarking on parenthood.

Now that’s just pure lunacy! Children who are either unwanted or whose parents were unprepared for them can devastate a relationship. Especially if that relationship is immature. The advice that a young couple should marry if they unintentionally conceive is irresponsible at best. Purposely having a child to improve a weak relationship is immoral. Few plans could backfire with greater frequency or consequence. The stresses of parenthood, especially to people who are emotionally immature, would surely be devastating to both parent and child.

…the average drop in marital satisfaction was almost entirely accounted for by the couples who slid into being parents, disagreed over it or were ambivalent about it. Couples who planned or equally welcomed the conception were likely to maintain or even increase their marital satisfaction after the child was born.

This should be fairly obvious. If it isn’t, you aren’t prepared to be a parent. Kirsten and I “dated” for nearly eight years before having our first child. We knew we liked each other and our relationship was strong. We talked a lot about children and how we thought we might raise them. And we felt a strong desire for children. It’s been complete bliss ever since. Having children has strengthened our relationship considerably.

Marital quality also tends to decline when parents backslide into more traditional gender roles. Once a child arrives, lack of paid parental leave often leads the wife to quit her job and the husband to work more. This produces discontent on both sides. The wife resents her husband’s lack of involvement in child care and housework. The husband resents his wife’s ingratitude for the long hours he works to support the family.

I think it’s important–Kirsten and I have discussed this at length–that a parent is there for the children when they are young. Two-income families hurt children and society. But children only require full-time care for a short time. When the child’s needs wane the parent who has been the primary caretaker must fill the gap productively.

Couples found some of these extra hours by cutting back on time spent in activities where children were not present — when they were alone as a couple, visiting with friends and kin, or involved in clubs. But in the long run, shortchanging such adult-oriented activities for the sake of the children is not good for a marriage.

Couples need time alone to renew their relationship. They also need to sustain supportive networks of friends and family. Couples who don’t, investing too much in their children and not enough in their marriage, may find that when the demands of child-rearing cease to organize their lives, they cannot recover the relationship that made them want to have children together in the first place.

As with everything else in life there needs to be balance. If children are desired and the perspective parents sufficiently emotionally mature, children can be a tremendous strength to a relationship and a welcome addition. If children are unplanned, unwanted, or the parents simply aren’t prepared, having children can rip a relationship apart.

Children can make a good relationship great or destroy a bad one. They are a magnifier. And the consequences are immense.

It would have been interesting if the article would have discussed the effects on a relationship of additional children. I would think after about three children there would be diminishing returns.

2 Comment

  1. They certainly magnify any cracks in the foundation of a relationship. Fortunately our foundation was excellent and we only marginally beat each other, leaving no discernable marks or bruises. And the kids turned out OK. Of course we made a strong, tough decision to make one income suffice until both kids were at least in the 3rd grade or better. This cost us in the long run…. …or did it? We are not so money focused as a lot of or friends. Our house, while nice by most standards and extravagant compared to anything my parents ever lived in, is small and not very “show worthy” compared to a lot of our contemporaries. Like I give a shit. People walk into our house and see the photos from Tanzania, the Galapagos Islands (where the theory of the Flying Spaghetti Monster forst “evolved”), Alaska, Hawaii, New Mexico and elswhere we have traveled with our kids and ask where we bought them. I just laugh. We chose to spend our money not on a stinkin’ mortgage or new cars but rather on travel and getting our kids out to see and appreciate the world. To this day, our kids love to travel, see other places and experience different cultures. Sure did enhance our love of each other!

  2. Excellent comment, Jim. I totally agree. Time and experience are far more valuable than material stuff. Because, like, who gives a fuck what kind of stereo you had ten years ago? But your kids will remember you taking them to the zoo.

    It’s basic stuff, really. Too few “get it”.

    You have a wonderful house!

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