On an average day, I wake up a little after 6 a.m., make myself a cup of coffee and prepare breakfast—oatmeal with bananas, or maybe eggs (followed by bananas)—for my 18-month-old boys. I sing to them, usually beginning my set list with “Seven Nation Army,” thumping out the beat on the trays of their highchairs.
By 8 a.m., I probably have sung four or five songs, danced for several minutes, and tickled both boys till they are red in the face. The tickling, these days, occurs in the circus tent we erected in our living room. And no, I am not kidding. There is a circus tent in our living room.
Given that my mornings revolve around silly games, open displays of affection and music, I was a little surprised to see a controversy erupt last week over a new set of studies, one of which concludes that childless couples are happier than parents.
Really? I asked, unable to wipe the smile from my face.
Of course, digging into the studies reveals a much more complicated picture than the click bait headline. (For instance, if factors like economics are excluded, parents and childless couples report the same levels of life satisfaction.) But because other outlets, including CNN, did a nice job of capturing all the permutations I’m going to cut right to the chase: The report that reflects poorly on parenthood is about satisfaction as a couple. It explores the question: Is the marriage more or less contented, with child?
The fact is that 18 months into having twins I would tell you that I am both busier and happier than ever. But I do miss my wife. Before the boys were born, Lisa and I planned our entire schedules around each other, with the shared goal of spending time together. Life isn’t like that anymore, and the study claiming parents are less happy captures the reason for this: Moms report that the most important people in their lives are their children; dads in the same study say the most important person in the world to them is their partner. Thought of this way, wives rebrand themselves, becoming moms, first and foremost; husbands stay husbands.
In fact, the single-most satisfied individuals in all the data are moms. So the idea that married couples are less happy is a bit of a red herring. If the data is to be believed, moms experience a joy that eclipses all others, including the more carefree life of the childless. And I can attest, this manifests itself in various unsatisfying ways: Lisa might spend several hours cooing and singing to the boys while only occasionally turning to me, in an emotionless (is she angry?) monotone way, to say something no more romantic than: Did you forget to use the diaper cream? Eli has a rash. And I admit, the disparity in treatment has cast me into a couple of profound funks. In fact, right after the holidays, when I stayed up late, working, and suffered from a sleep deficit and a lack of Lisa, I was downright depressed, with that little voice in my head intoning dark thoughts: I can’t do this. I don’t want to live like this. Oh Woe and Pain! Or words to that effect.
But here’s the thing: I got to bed early on night three, grabbed a little extra sleep, and woke up to find—as I mentioned—that circus tent in my living room. And two sweet little boys. I didn’t know anything about such studies at the time. But I approached Lisa and told her, “I miss you.”
We talked. I didn’t blame her. I even told her I might be oversensitive. But I felt like I needed some of the tenderness and enthusiasm she was directing at the boys, that these infinitely practical, business-like conversations were dragging me down.
I don’t really remember her specific comments, only that she seemed to take it in without throwing anything back. And in that moment, that was all I really needed.
Parenthood is showing me how true the clichés really are because, looking back, I bet it isn’t easy for Lisa, or any mom, to hear their husband say they need them to find some extra reserve of love and affection when in fact they are already dolloping so much emotion on their offspring. It might even be natural for a mom, either hearing this kind of talk from her husband or worse, seeing him sulk silently through the day, to start feeling less satisfied in the relationship herself. She’s already got actual children. A needy husband, in this context, is both impractical and unattractive. But we quickly rebounded.
After a really frantic week or two of job deadlines, we spent a couple of nights, after the boys went to sleep, in a tangle of limbs on the couch, watching television for an hour and enjoying being close. We talked through our schedules and found some time for us. The worth of some simple couch time like this is also reflected in these studies. A close look at the data shows that big, romantic date nights and the like aren’t the key to keeping parents satisfied in their marriage. Instead, little things count: Watch a show together, fix each other a drink, take even a few seconds to hug each other, say “I love you” in a manner that reflects the weight of those words.
The truth is, after I got some sleep and spent a little time with Lisa, the state of our relationship looked a lot clearer. We go through occasional stretches of feeling overwhelmed. But we do share such small moments—a lot.
Do I make these efforts more often than her? Probably. Or at least I think I do. But that’s all right.
These recent studies suggest men and women are simply wired this way. And I am already planning for the romance to come. As our boys get older and begin to seek their own independence, as they have sleepovers at a friends’ house in their childhood years or simply strut off to their bedrooms to read or listen to music their parents hate during adolescence, my wife will turn and find that I haven’t gone anywhere; that her husband is right by her side.
Until then, we’re living in another time: of songs and circus tents; of stinky boy feet and little boy attempts at giving their mom and dad their lives’ first kisses.
You can’t be happy with this?
Steve Volk is Philadelphia magazine’s writer-at-large. A new dad to twin boys, he blogs about the ups and downs of modern-day fatherhood on Be Well Philly.
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