“Imagine you are drowning, and then someone hands you a baby.” This is how funny man Jim Gaffigan famously describes the experience of having his fourth child. But for many newlywed millennials, this pretty well describes how we feel about having our first.
According to recent research, women in their twenties have been slower to have children than any previous generation, contributing to a drop in overall birthrate between 2007 and 2012. While a desire to be financially ready for love, marriage, and the baby carriage is part of the reason for postponement, the delay might also stem from a fear of how marriage and starting a family could strain a romantic relationship. A recent Washington Post article highlighted the higher risk of divorce in the first seven years of marriage for couples with children:
Respected psychotherapist and marriage researcher John Gottman studied couples from the newlywed period through the transition to parenthood. He discovered most couple breakups within the first seven years were because they became parents. A staggering 67 percent of couples in the study reported a decline in relationship satisfaction after the arrival of the first baby.
These kinds of statistics can pit children against the marriage, but this decline in relationship satisfaction doesn't have to be the case. I'm living proof. If anything, I would say that the work and sleepless nights that accompany each baby manage to make our family, and especially our marriage, better.
Instead of being scared off by failure statistics, consider these five ways that raising children can be great for your marriage.
01. Kids give you LOTS of opportunities to laugh.
The other night my husband came home late after what was, for both of us, a long and stressful day. Our sweet—but sometimes sassy—4-year-old came downstairs to give a tearful and rather long-winded apology for her bedtime shenanigans and overuse of the term “whatever.” My husband and I held it together long enough to see her back to bed and then collapsed on the couch in laughter over our spunky little lady.
Our kids are just plain funny, and the many laughs that my husband and I share over their absurdities is often just what we need after a hard day. My husband and I see our kids not as people who divide and distract us from our relationship but rather as precious catalysts for growth in our love and deepening our marriage bond.
02. Babies help you appreciate alone time.
A wonderful perk of marriage is the countless hours of unplanned time you have together, but this perk can easily be taken for granted. Numerous articles, books, and seminars offer advice to couples on how to keep the spark alive, but nothing reminds you how precious one-on-one time is like tossing a few kids into the mix. Trust me, we’ve tossed in four!
I’ll never forget the first time my husband and I went on a date after having our first daughter. We were like giddy teenagers, rolling down the windows and turning up the music as we rode off into the sunset. Well, it was a little more like driving off to the local Italian joint five minutes away, but after our whirlwind introduction to parenthood, our few hours alone certainly felt like some exciting sunset adventure. Even at home, a sleeping baby is a cause for celebration. The novelty can actually cause a couple to spend those precious baby-free moments together rather than on laptops at opposite ends of the house. There is a thrill that only new parents can feel when, worn out from those first few blurry weeks with baby, we finally get away for some couple time.
My husband and I make sure to budget in money for a babysitter and dates out every month. We also utilize single siblings, willing grandparents, and babysitting swaps with other couples to help defray the cost of date night. The important thing is to make sure you plan that date. I normally figure out the babysitting, while my husband comes up with the actual date plan. Sometimes parents can put each other on the back burner during those first few months, but a thriving marriage truly is the best gift that parents can give their children. In fact, studies from the American Enterprise Institute show that children of intact couples often achieve high levels of education and income. So book that date night!
03. Babies diffuse tension.
People often talk about how babies can strain a marriage, and, yes, lack of sleep and added responsibility can lead to shorter fuses, but all couples—whether they have kids or not—experience friction. More often than not, a really cute baby can actually diffuse the tension in a relationship. I remember beginning to air some petty grievance with my husband one day, and just as I turned to start my monologue, I realized that he was holding our 6-month-old son. Our little guy happened to be dressed in a baby chick costume at the time, and I just couldn’t stay mad. Scientist Konrad Lorenz actually calls this phenomena “baby schema,” and his studies found that the cute features of a baby’s face is an evolutionary function that elicits caretaking and promotes human survival. Babies conjure up hormones that increase compassion in a parent, and this compassion for the baby can spill over to the other spouse as well.
Because my husband and I know how babies pick up on tone of voice, facial expressions, stress, and the overall emotional health of their parents at a very young age, we often find that we work out disagreements in a calmer and more polite way for the sake of our babies. My husband and I actually took a course on constructive communication in marriage, and we try to read books that will help us communicate with greater love and effectiveness.
Even awkwardly hugging your spouse in a semi-forced way for the sake of the kids’ peace of mind can turn into genuine affection for each other if you let it. As our kids get older, their even greater desire to see mom and dad reconciled often helps us make up faster than we might have done otherwise. Working on conflict resolution for the sake of our children makes our marriage stronger, too.
04. Babies provide opportunities to serve each other in new and creative ways.
The brilliant Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky once wrote, “The soul is healed by being with children.” The vulnerability of a newborn child increases our own capacity to love unconditionally, and as our hearts expand into the role of mother or father, we become better spouses as well.
This spirit of service needs to be mutual, ebbing and flowing with the changing needs of the relationship. My husband and I always joke about how we secretly play chicken with each other when we hear a child cry out in the night, each hoping that the other will spring out of bed. Inevitably, one of us always stumbles out of bed and lets the other—the one who most needs a break—pull up the covers and get some more rest. When two adults usher an innocent and helpless little soul into the world, they cannot help but become more self-giving.
I often want to call Gary Chapman of The Five Love Languages fame and tell him that the sixth love language is actually sleep. But in all seriousness, a baby offers a couple many new ways to serve—such as letting your spouse sleep in!—and those little acts of service salt a couple’s love with the rich flavor of self-sacrifice. Everyone is tired and a little emotionally fragile in the newborn stage, and the herculean effort that spouses put in to placing the needs of the other before his or her own can increase mutual gratitude and trust. A day in the life of a parent provides a million opportunities to be generous with your spouse: diaper changes, baby baths, sending the other spouse out for a night with friends, or even a nice long run. Even these small gestures can show your spouse how much you love him.
05. Babies teach us to cherish our spouse.
No one but my husband has spent day in and day out with me in the trenches of parenthood. Like comrades on the battlefield, our shared sacrifices bind us together and leave a lasting mark on our marriage. My children—their faces, their eyes, their little personalities, and all the good things I hope they will bring to this world—are the breathtaking fruits of our love. The unspeakable gratitude I have for my husband has only increased as I’ve watched him relentlessly serve, guide, and love our children.
One day when I am sitting in my rocking chair sipping G&Ts, I will look back on these crazy, hard, wonderful years with deep love. Then I will hopefully look over to my wise and wizened husband with an even deeper love and thank God for the whole mess of our life with all these crazy little people.