Married with Children

By: Gregory Popcak

couple dreaming

I hear it all the time, “Children change everything.”  There is a popular notion that marriage can be divided into two epochs; B.C. (“Before Children”) and A.D. (“After Diapers”). The B.C. marriage is allegedly a time of wanton romance and joy; candlelight dinners, violins, dancing ‘til dawn, and all the things that “true love” entails. The A.D. marriage, by contrast, is what happens when people settle down, get responsible, boring, and old. According to popular culture, the A.D. marriage is the beginning of the end of the passion. This is the time when the couple starts paying exclusive attention to raising the kids (and paying for them) and becomes too busy, too tired, and too distracted for anything like romance.  But it doesn’t have to be that way.  Many couples actually have stronger marital friendships because they have children together. Many couples actually grow in love with each other because they have added children to the family. What gives these couples the strength to buck the conventional wisdom? It would seem that it is largely up to the husbands.

Husbands: Effecting Change through  Heroic Generosity  

Too often, husbands leave romance up to the wife. In many marriages, the wife plans date night, the wife makes the plans for the romantic dinner or that special event, the wife makes sure they take time for conversation, for prayer, etc., and the husband is the passive beneficiary of his wife’s loving effort. Then along comes baby and all of a sudden, the woman is pre-occupied with a little person who can’t take care of himself–and no, I don’t mean her husband. In the presence of this reality, the husband may respond in one of two ways; he can react with jealousy, or he can respond in love. The first option is the less desirable one. If the husband chooses jealousy over love, he will respond to the baby as a threat. The more involved the mother is with their child, the more he may act as if he feels himself to be an outsider. He may intentionally withdraw from childcare as a way to protest her “betrayal.” He may begin insisting that she make time for dates or sex before it is even physically possible or emotionally prudent. If she is anything but wildly enthusiastic about his proposals, then he may act like a pouting child who has been disciplined unjustly. If this pattern keeps up, the wife come to see her husband as “another child” whom she has to “take care of.” She learns to view romance, and especially sex, as “one more chore.” Barring a dramatic change, these marriages can devolve more and more into a brother-sister relationship that is tinged by resentment as neither the wife nor the husband is getting their own needs for intimacy and support met.

The second option, the more preferable one, is for the husband to step up to the plate and take advantage of the opportunity for love that has been presented to him with the birth of this child. In this scenario, the husband sees it as his responsibility to take as good care of the wife and marriage as she is of their child. He compliments her on her mothering and actively looks for ways to support and encourage her in the tiring job of tending to the baby. He reminds her that she’s beautiful but not in a way that implies that her beauty makes her an object to him. He reminds her that, in addition to being a mother, she is a woman with a mind and heart and soul, but he is careful to do this in a way that does not give the impression that he is taking care of her so that he can get something out of her. In other words, the parenting role calls both husband and wife to different forms of a very selfless kind of loving. If the husband responds to the wife in this manner, the wife will come to see her relationship with her husband as a safe haven, a retreat, the one place she can go to rest and feel cared for and recuperate from her long from her long day of caring for another. As she relaxes in her husband’s arms at the end of a long day, her romantic response to him will emerge as a logical response to him having loved her first and loved her well and self-donatively.

The Proof Is In the Research

I have found that it is in this kind of environment — one in which husband and wife truly see themselves as partners in the raising and caring of the children — that a truly loving openness to life will grow. This is also why it is so common for NFP couples to keep having children after they have the societal norm of two or three kids.  When I first asserted this observation in my book Parenting with Grace, I was criticized in some circles as having unrealistic expectations for husbands and being too pie-in-the-sky about life after kids, even though what I wrote was based upon my clinical observations of couples. Flash forward several years, and the Gottman Institute, the country’s premier research institute on marriage, published a major study saying essentially the same thing.     Gottman’s study, Bringing Baby Home, found that when husbands were as emotionally clued-in to the marital relationship as their wives and, as I described in the second option above, actively engaged in infant care, those couples actually become more intimate as their family size increases. Why? Because these couples see the parenting role as one more thing that draws them together, and the wife comes to be grateful to the husband for his loving, selfless attention to her, which then gives her the emotional peace and security she needs to be the point person for a great deal of the direct care of the baby.

In two career families, the husband’s active role is even more critical. In her book, Second Shift, sociologist Arlie Hochschild notes that despite society’s talk about equality of roles, most women who work outside the home are still responsible for the lion’s share of domestic chores and childrearing. In this dynamic, the marriage and the sexual relationship suffers horribly as the wife comes to see taking care of her husband the chore that is last on the list. By contrast, research shows that in two-carreer marriages in which the husband is an active partner in child-rearing and chores, the marital intimacy also increases because, rather than in spite, of children.  Of course, the idea that marital intimacy should increase with the advent of children completely gels with Catholic teaching. We are told, for example, that the family images the Trinity who, beginning as a powerful and intimate community of love, creates new life, brings that creation back into itself, and then is inspired (in a sense) by the now greater community of love to create more life and so on, and so on. The family images the Trinity in that it too is, ideally, an ever-expanding example of love which gives life, brings that life back into itself and is inspired by the intimacy experienced within that community to create more life, and so on, and so on.  Clearly, science and the Church agree. When husbands take their godly place as leaders in their home, acting like men who can love and care for their wives and be intimate partners to their wives, instead of becoming children who must be placated and pacified by wifely attention, marriages become stronger as the family increases.


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