She knew her life would be better without her husband and even without her lover, who eventually decided to work it out with his wife. What she didn’t know was if it would be better for her two preschool girls. As she unpacked their stuff in their new room that she’d painted wisteria purple, in the two-bedroom condo she bought with help from Obama’s rebate, she prayed they’d see it this way: “Mommy is happier than if they stayed together. Why should Mommy stay with Daddy when Mommy’s not happy, which makes Daddy miserable because Mommy’s not happy? It’s living a lie.”
All new parents live a lie, and this is it: Kids make marriages happier.
It doesn’t matter that parents want it to be true, that parenting books and magazines proclaim it to be true, that it’s been declared from hospital nurseries near and far for as long as anyone can remember. Back in 1944, a Better Homes and Gardens editor put it this way: Once the first child is born, “We don’t worry about this couple anymore. There are three in that family now. … Perhaps there is not much more needed in a recipe for happiness.”
Unfortunately, it’s not true. At least, not anymore. Study after study now shows that when the first baby comes along, marital satisfaction drops in 70 percent of couples. While having kids makes moms and dads happier personally, it messes up their marriages big-time.
Researchers, though, are really the only ones talking about it. Parents certainly aren’t. Who in her right mind is going to casually mention at the next neighborhood block party, “Wow … having those kids really screwed up my marriage”? Blaming the kids? Who would admit to that?
So they don’t. They assume they’re the only ones who’ve connected the timing of starting a family with the onset of marital strife. Instead, they point fingers at acceptable targets—work, finances, spouses not measuring up.
Melissa did just that. Other than doing the dishes, her husband barely helped out after the kids came along. He started to complain about what lots of new dads complain about: They weren’t having enough sex; she wasn’t paying attention to him anymore. Eventually, they began spending the free time after the kids went to bed doing their own things — she did laundry and made lunches, he messed around in the yard. She felt alone. She went on and off antidepressants, wavering over whether or not she still loved her husband, or if she ever had. When she asked him to go to counseling, he said, “I don’t care what you or anyone else has to say. I’m not the one who’s changed, it’s you.”
In a way, it was true.
“I was a scared, meek little person before I had kids,” she says. “They made me stronger. They showed me that I had self-worth, that I had an important job to do.”
When she went away on a business trip two years ago and, a dozen tequila shots later, ended up in bed with a guy she worked with, she thought it was a one-hit wonder. It wasn’t.