In June, Melissa* packed the U-Haul with everything that was hers and everything that was theirs — the Disney videos, the Littlest Pet Shop figurines, the ballet tutus, the Dr. Seuss book about the places they’ll go.
And she left.
Left the house in Jenkintown she’d been living in for nine years.
Left the man she’d been married to for eight of them, the father of her five- and two-year-old daughters.
Left the life that was nothing like she’d imagined it would be back when having kids was just a hazy someday-down-the-road plan, all “white picket fence and happy, happy, happy,” she says.
So she took the girls. And left. For good.
“I’m scared,” she says. Will she be able to make it financially on her own? Will the kids hate her for taking them away from their dad? Was this the best decision for them? Or was it simply the best decision for her?
Melissa, 36, was certain of only one thing: She couldn’t stay married to that man.
And she wasn’t the only woman she knew who was feeling that way. Of the 10 friends she’d met at the Moms Club she’d joined just after her five-year-old was born, half were now talking divorce. One had already split; one was about to file papers. Two were in last-resort couples’ counseling. And one had a five-years-until-divorce plan.
“I feel like I’m surrounded by people with little kids who are trying to get divorced,” Melissa says. She wondered if it was just a weird coincidence among her Philadelphia friends, a “divorce cluster.” But the more she opened up about what she was going through, the more stories she heard about similar couples all over the country. The news wasn’t entirely shocking, given the widely quoted 50 percent divorce rate in this country. Except for one tiny detail: The divorce rate isn’t 50 percent. Not for Melissa and her friends.
If they’d gotten married in the ’70s and were now calling it quits after 35 or so years, they’d be part of the only generation ever to hit that 50 percent failure rate — which is where that statistic comes from. But ever since 1979, the divorce rate’s actually been dropping, says Wharton economist Betsey Stevenson, who studies marriage and divorce. These days, according to Stevenson, very few people like Melissa — college-educated moms who were in their late 20s when they got hitched — are filing for divorce before they hit their 10-year anniversaries. Their divorce rate? Just seven percent.
So why, then, are Philadelphia’s marriage therapists seeing more and more new parents on their couches? Why are divorce lawyers hearing more dads and moms debate preschool drop-off in their custody arrangements, rather than college tuition? Why are more kids participating in elementary-school programs implemented to deal with “changing families”? Why are so many parents having affairs, like the one Melissa started when her youngest was only eight months old?
“More of my new parent-clients are saying, ‘This isn’t good, this isn’t for me, I’ve had it,’ and that’s it,” says Center City divorce attorney Dorothy Phillips.
This isn’t good was exactly what Melissa was feeling. For her. 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. 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.
“When he came back from a business trip, he owed me a night out with the girls,” she says. “If I went to the gym, he got to go to a Phillies game. We should have been doing stuff together. Instead, at night, I ended up watching TV upstairs, and he was watching it downstairs.” They had separate interests, separate friends — and no desire to talk to each other about anything other than the kids.
Eventually, he stopped watching TV and started surfing porn on the Internet. She began logging onto Facebook, where she reconnected with an old flame from high school, which relationship counselor Alyson Nerenberg is hearing about during counseling sessions all the time now.
“On Facebook, they talk about memories of an easier time, reminisce about when life was a lot more carefree,” says Nerenberg, who practices in Chestnut Hill but sees many Main Line couples who don’t want to risk running into their neighbors. “Instead of working on the marriage, they go to Facebook for validation.”
After a month of Facebook flirting, Erika came clean.
“So, I’m telling my husband that I have feelings for someone else, and I think he’s going to be really upset,” she says. “Then he turns around and says he has feelings for someone else too, someone he met at the gym. Neither of us ever consummated those relationships, but even if he had, I wasn’t sad. I wasn’t pissed. I knew the road we were going down.” Her husband knew it, too. They were finally on the same page.
In the same business-like tone of their marriage, they divorced (despite Erika’s baffled mom asking her weekly, “How bad is it? He’s not beating you. He’s not bad to the kids”). They had no arguments over arranging custody, child support or alimony. He still had a key to the house; she had a key to his new apartment. He even waited until she got a job to file papers, so he could keep her on his health plan. The first thing she did when she got her own insurance? Get on birth control.
“I have enough guy friends to ‘take care’ of me if I need them,” she says. “People are very up-front: ‘You want to have sex? Okay.’ Some are also going through divorces or are already cheating on their spouses. Some appear [on Facebook] to be in perfectly normal marriages and say, ‘When I’m in Philly, I’ll call you.’ But I’m not going there.”
It was one of the most organized, calculated jobs he’d ever had — hiding his affair from his wife. Mike, 34, would set his cell alarm to ring like a phone in front of her so he could pretend a client was calling, and thus go out and meet his girlfriend. Or he’d tell his wife he had to go to Harrisburg for work, then head off on a plane for a secret trip with his mistress to Atlanta, obsessively checking the weather in central Pennsylvania in case his wife asked when he called to say goodnight. His girlfriend even bought a rope ladder for her second-floor apartment, so he’d have a quick escape on the off chance his wife figured it all out and came knocking.
But Mike was pretty sure she wouldn’t find out: “Having a kid made my wife brain-dead,” he says. Where was the woman, he wondered, who was smart and engaging, the sexy, fun one who could carry on a conversation with anybody about anything, not just rattle on about the latest milestone passed by her one-year-old baby girl?
On top of that, becoming a dad was nothing like he expected it would be.
“I had no clue how to interact with a baby. I was surprised I felt that way. I didn’t want to be around her,” he says. “It was all shocking to me.”
So he did anything he could think of to avoid coming home to their Fishtown rowhouse. For the most part, his life was exactly how he wanted it to be — he could hang out with a woman he was really in love with while his wife raised his child, and he didn’t have to get divorced, so his wife wouldn’t have to go back to work.
Until, of course, that one inevitable mistake, that one day when he forgot to sign out of his Hotmail account on the home computer, exposing two years’ worth of romantic e-mails between him and his mistress. At his office, he got the phone call he’d worked so hard to evade: “How could you do this to me?” his wife asked.
The timing couldn’t have been worse.
Mike wasn’t really sure why, exactly, but he’d started feeling differently about the “married with kids” thing. Maybe it had something to do with his wife mulling going back to work, which would have given her more than a three-year-old to talk about. Or maybe it was that three-year-old herself, who was starting to talk and tell stories and develop this delightful personality, which made him now want to be around her all the time. In fact, he’d started cooling things with the girlfriend in order to be home more. “I didn’t know if the marriage was going to work, but I thought it might be able to,” he says. “Suddenly I was thinking, ‘This can make sense. I want this.’”
Except it was too late.
By the time divorce attorney Dorothy Phillips sees clients, it usually is.
“More than half of the matters in my office are parents in their 30s and early 40s with young kids, and boy, I did not see that five years ago,” she says. She thinks life post-9/11 has something to do with the rise. “People realized, ‘You get one bite out of this apple, and I didn’t bite it right and I’m outta here.’” Relationship counselor Nerenberg believes Facebook is nurturing an illusion that there’s greener grass out there. Center City attorney Randi Rubin thinks that if not for the economy, the number of new parents divorcing would be even higher. Some people “simply can’t afford to live separate and apart,” she says.
Mike attributes his failed marriage to something much simpler.
“I really wish someone had told me it would get better as the kids got older and started being ‘people.’ I probably should have known that. But I didn’t,” he says.
How could he? The fact that satisfaction with marriage drops in almost three-quarters of couples after kids come isn’t relayed in parenting magazines. His wife’s ob-gyn certainly wasn’t passing along those research numbers during the third-trimester ultrasound. There are month-long birthing classes to prepare new parents for one day in their lives, but nothing to prepare them for the days, weeks and months that come after. So of course new parents expect to magically experience that 1950s mentality that kids make marriages happier. There’s nothing that says otherwise.
And as a result, Mike never heard about those other studies that suggest life starts to look a little brighter when kids hit three years old, and that many marriage troubles start to ebb during the preschool years.
“Somebody should say, ‘For the first five years, don’t cheat on each other. Do not lie to each other more than you absolutely have to, and just stick it out.’ Someone should say that: ‘Wait those five years,’” he says. “Because now that I actually want to wake up with my kid crawling into bed and want to spend Saturday in the park with her, my marriage is over. And there’s really nothing I can do about it.”
*Names and some identifying characteristics been changed.