Her attention turned to secret texts and Facebook chats with a man who himself had a wife and young kids at home. She came up with excuses twice a month to run an errand, telling her husband she needed to pick up a prescription at Walgreens or drop off a letter at the post office, stealing away for a backseat quickie in a parking lot.
Her husband never found out. Every now and then she’d feel a tinge of guilt — Why am I doing this to him? Or I should stay with him and be miserable because it’s easier — but by then, there was no marriage left to save.
“I’d been doing it all already,” she says. “What did I need him for?”
Back in the 1950s, she would have needed him. Marriage was a different institution then. Couples expected much less from each other: Mom stayed home and took care of the domestic front, Dad went to the office and took care of the paycheck. Being happy wasn’t a requirement; it was a fringe benefit.
“The expectation that marriages should be happy, loving and fulfilling is a relatively new idea,” writes Tara Parker-Pope in her new book For Better: The Science of a Good Marriage. Today, people are no longer content with marrying “solid” partners who fit into defined roles. Both parents are expected to help out on every front: Mom works, Dad plays Candy Land. Plus, people are waiting to marry until they find fill-their-every-need soulmates. A spouse, then, has to be a provider, and a lover, and a confidant, and a therapist, and a late-into-the-night conversationalist, and a BFF. So when kids come along and so much attention gets filtered to the baby, this you’re-my-everything relationship has much more to lose than, say, Melissa’s parents’ relationship did. Add in that today’s parents are part of the Helicopter Generation, feeling societal pressure to be perfect moms and dads who raise perfect kids who make perfect soccer goals and get perfect scores on their SATs. As a result, these parents come home from their demanding, long-hour jobs and obsess over being with the kids every possible second, leaving no time to be with each other.
Is it any wonder, then, that new parents are twice as dissatisfied today as they were in the 1960s and ’70s?
“It is very worrisome,” says Berkeley’s Carolyn Cowan, who, along with her husband Philip, has conducted some of the most influential field research on parenting. “If there’s not enough time for parents to replenish their relationship, they get disconnected.”
For Erika, 41, in Cherry Hill, “disconnected” was an understatement.
“We were living entirely separate lives,” she says. After their twin boys were born five years ago, Erika decided to stay home and do the traditional “mom” role, while her husband took a more stressful, higher-paying sales job to bring home the Pampers. Their setup probably would have worked just fine 50 years ago. Instead, they started keeping score.