It's the dirty little secret no one ever talks about at childbirth classes or baby showers: that little bundle of joy changes your marriage in ways that are often less than joyous.
While the arrival of a new baby certainly has its moments of pure bliss, the reality isn't always Hallmark perfect.
Studies show that when baby makes three, conflicts increase eightfold; relationships take a back seat; women feel overburdened and men feel shoved aside. By the baby's first birthday, most mothers are less happy about their marriage. And many marriages simply don't make it.
But now there's help.
In Seattle, and around the country, new programs are preparing couples for parenthood. Unlike traditional childbirth preparation classes, which focus largely on the day of delivery, these programs focus on what happens after D-day.
The transition to parenthood, and ways to prevent baby-induced marital meltdowns, are also the focus of academic research, including studies at the University of Washington, and a new book by a local author.
"Parenthood is really the beginning of the end of a marriage for many couples," said marriage guru John Gottman, University of Washington psychology professor and author of "Why Marriages Succeed or Fail" and "The Heart of Parenting." Gottman, who is best known for his ongoing research on marriage and divorce, is now building on his findings and turning his attention to couples who begin a family. "There are a lot tragedies that occur during this transition."
To the breaking point
Recent studies on new marriages have found that:
-- One in eight couples separate or divorce by the time their first baby is 18 months old.
-- In 70 percent of marriages, women experience a drop in marital satisfaction after the baby is born.
-- Divorce is most common five years into marriage, and then again at 16 years - roughly coinciding with the time when couples begin to have children and when their children enter adolescence.
-- Strained relationships only get worse after a baby comes.
-- More than a third of new parents are under as much marital stress as couples in counseling.
-- And mothers with kids under 5, and without a supportive partner, are at greater risk for becoming clinically depressed.
Pamela Jordan, author of "Becoming Parents: How to Strengthen Your Marriage as Your Family Grows," believes the problem has been overlooked for too long.
"The American family is in deep trouble and we really need to address it," said Jordan, an associate professor of nursing at the UW. "When I've talked to couples who are separated or divorced, I ask when did things take a turn for the worse. Typically, they say, `It's when we had our first child.' "
Karen and Greg Ash, of Bothell, know just how hard that transition to parenthood can be - and how helpful it was to have some training.
The Ashes were just settling into married life when they learned in July 1998 they would be having a baby. Although they hadn't planned to have children until later, they quickly warmed to the idea, and in April their daughter Alexandra was born.
Their life hasn't been the same since.
"Having a child was a big change," said Karen Ash, 35. "I never quite expected what it was going to be like, and it's nothing like what I thought it would be. I didn't anticipate being so tired and overwhelmed with the responsibilities of this new person."
The first few months were the toughest. Karen Ash was sick in the month after she gave birth. She also struggled with breast feeding and there were tensions with her husband over finances. Her husband, she said, "had to deal with a cranky wife and a cranky baby and work full time."
It hits the wife harder
The growing attention to the plight of new parents can largely be credited to academia, including studies done at the University of Washington.
"With most couples, pregnancy is the high point of marital satisfaction," said Alyson Fearnley Shapiro, who recently completed a study on new parents with Gottman.
In her research, Shapiro sought to define the qualities associated with partnerships that survive the arrival of a new child, and those that do not.
Shapiro examined the history of 43 couples from the time they were newlyweds to their child's first birthday. She also reviewed the relationships of 39 childless couples.
Once a child is born, it's downhill for many couples, Shapiro said. The interaction between partners overwhelmed by their new role becomes more and more negative, with the predictable result that they become less happy in their marriage.
"Parenthood is a huge life transition," Shapiro said. "It changes so much, not just the couple's relationship with each other, but also their relationship with their family, the people they work with, and their friends."
Not surprisingly, she found that it was the new mothers who experienced the most change - far more than their husbands.
"Parenthood is a bigger transition for a lot of women," Shapiro explained. "They're the primary caretaker. If they continue to work, they now have this second full-time job. Or if it's their only job, they're pulled out of the lifestyle that they used to have. The friendship groups change as they seek other parents or they become isolated."
Many fathers, meanwhile, get to sleep through the night, keep the same work routine and carry on with their lives largely unchanged, Shapiro said. As a result, men remained content in their marriages long after their wives became disaffected.
Mothers began to show dissatisfaction as early as four months after the baby was born, but their unhappiness was even more apparent by the time the baby turned a year old, Shapiro said.
Among new parents, marital satisfaction declined for 67 percent of the wives. By comparison, 49 percent of childless women were dissatisfied.
The husband's role
The key to keeping mothers happier, however, rests with their husbands. The study found that the men's behavior helped determine their wives' attitude toward the marriage.
Women with affectionate, understanding husbands are likelier to remain happier after parenthood. But couples who already felt that their lives were chaotic before the baby are likely to experience more problems when they become parents.
"The quality of marital friendship makes stressful periods such as the transition to parenthood either smoother or more difficult to navigate," Shapiro said.
In short, the study showed that if men learned to be better husbands, they could help build a sturdier marriage that could weather the start of parenthood.
That so many men fail to become full partners in parenthood is a tragedy, Gottman said.
"Mothers go through a profound change: The baby forces them to question the meaning and purpose of their lives," Gottman said. "About 85 percent of the mothers go through this, but only 35 percent of men do, and as a result they're getting less from the relationship."
The marriages that do well during the transition to parenthood are those in which the father undergoes the same philosophical shift in values that most mothers go through, said Gottman.
Often, fathers allow themselves to get pushed out as new mothers seek to be surrounded by other mothers. Unsure of their role, men pour their energies into their work instead, Gottman said.
Ultimately, the father's exclusion also hurts the marriage. Men feel that loss of intimacy, and they become lonely and displaced.
"The major tragedy for me is the disappearance of fathers from their children's life," Gottman said. "This society eases out the father and he's all too willing to leave. Fathers don't really know what kind of role to play once the baby is born. In the birth preparation class they play the role of coach, but what happens when the baby comes?"
Gottman added that studies show fathers make unique contributions to the emotional development of their children. It is from playing with their fathers that kids typically learn how to calm down, soothe themselves and have fun with others.
Although the findings of her study were bleak, Shapiro remained optimistic and argued that it was possible to learn from others' mistakes.
Prearing for after the birth
"I, for one, think the qualities that keep a marriage together are things that can be learned," Shapiro said. "Couples can build their marital friendship. Some couples have it naturally, so they don't need a workshop, but others really need to work at it."
Part of the answer is educating expectant parents about what they're in for, and giving them the tools to deal with problems and conflicts, Gottman said.
When they knew others were experiencing the same difficulties, couples were less likely to blame their marriages for the problems they encountered.
Until recently, though, information has been slow to reach new parents.
Some hospitals, recognizing the shortcoming of their parenting programs, have begun to broaden their curriculum, with classes that prepare couples for what happens after they take the baby home from the hospital.
Earlier this year, Seattle's Northwest Hospital launched Boot Camp for New Dads, a program that's focused primarily on new fathers. Evergreen Hospital Medical Center in Kirkland, meanwhile, began offering "Keys for Couples: An Intensive Marriage Enhancement Training (IMET) Seminar."
"We recognized that our couples needed to be prepared for more than one day in their life," said Ann Keppler, coordinator of Evergreen's education programs for expecting parents. "Those first months are enormously stressful for new parents. There's a significant increase in the number of divorces and stressed-out couples."
Despite these efforts, Jordan still believes there's not enough being done to help and educate new parents.
"When you consider that this is the most major life change people experience, there's precious little attention paid to it," Jordan said. Much of the education is still focused on the day of delivery. "That's 24 hours surrounded by more medical support than you'll ever have in your life, and after that they say bye and have a good life. There's not much attention to how this baby will impact you as an individual and as a couple, or the 157,250 hours of parenting that comes next just to get them to 18 years."
Training beyond birth classes may help stem the decline in the number of couples attending parent preparation courses, Jordan said.
"When couples are becoming parents for the first time, they're open to learning new things," she said. "I've never met a couple who hasn't been thinking: `What will happen to the three of us?' "
Dad's a third-stringer now
The Ashes, who attended Evergreen's Keys for Couples class, said the two-day session gave them the tools to cope with the stress they faced in the difficult months after the baby was born.
"We've always felt that we have to continue working on our relationship and that if we stop working on it, it dies," said Karen Ash. "So we try to do things that keep us aware of each other."
Steve and Melinda Moses signed up for the Keys for Couples course in June, a month after their daughter Jessica was born and just weeks before they moved from Kirkland to Massachusetts.
"We were going through a time of intense stress," said Melinda Moses, 39. The addition of a baby into an already chaotic situation only added to the strain and heightened existing conflicts.
At the root of the problem was their conflicting communication styles, Melinda Moses said.
"I think I tend to internalize stuff more," said Steve Moses, 31. "And Melinda seems to voice her concerns."
"I tell people what I think," she piped in.
During the course, Keith Robertson, who developed the workshop, took the class through a series of exercises designed to teach how to resolve conflicts.
In one, they talked about the impact their own parents had in shaping their behavior - a discussion they said gave them a deeper understanding of each other and of the lasting impact parents have on their children.
"I get frustrated with Steve when he shuts down and doesn't want to talk about stuff," Melinda said. "But I realized that behavior has his father written all over it."
"And when you get frustrated about my not opening up, you're reacting to your father as well," Steve said.
In another exercise, the couple talked about their deepest fears and feelings.
New parents often mourn their losses silently and separately instead of opening up to each other to create stronger bonds, Robertson said.
"The husband goes through enormous loss; the baby has just replaced him as quarterback, he's now a third-stringer on the bench. There's a loss of status and affection," Robertson said. "The woman has another set of losses: namely her life - she has no freedom and she loses her body.
"Couples need to realize that their relationship changes," Robertson added. "It's a whole new adventure and a dramatic change. They need to think about how to get the most out of it."
That lesson guided some of the choices Steve and Melinda Moses made after having their baby. Steve, for example, quit a job at Microsoft and eventually chose a new job and career that allows him more time with his daughter.
"The workshop was really great," Steve said. "We talked about a lot of things that we hadn't addressed before, and we talked about our happiest memories of our life together - things that you take for granted or don't think about during stressful times."
From diapers to support groups
Boot Camp for New Dads, an offshoot of a national program, has also drawn praise for inspiring new fathers to take an active role in their newborn's life.
On the second Saturday of each month, the program brings together experienced dads with fathers-to-be for candid talks about what to expect when the baby comes. They cover everything from diapers, to changes in their relationships with their wives, to the importance of having a fathers' support group.
But the bottom line that the instructors stressed: When it comes to your child, don't let others shove you aside.
"The more confident you are in your role, the more confident others will be about you in your role," said Gene Ringhouse, one of the group facilitators.
Tim Farrell, a Navy recruiter whose twin son and daughter were born in mid-August, said the workshop made him a confident new dad determined to give his wife, Kimberly, the support she needed.
Farrell fully shares in the care of his son and daughter and gets up at all hours of the night to help in their feeding and diaper changes.
"I wasn't even sure I was going to like being a dad," Farrell said. "It turns out I like being a dad. It's fantastic."
Already, other programs for new parents are in the works.
This December, Gottman will lead a workshop at Swedish Hospital as part of a three-year study to see if relationship classes will actually help couples. If it's successful, Gottman hopes more hospitals will add similar workshops to the birth planning curriculum they now offer expectant parents.
Jordan, meanwhile, has developed a class for expectant parents that's based on a marriage counseling program developed at the University of Denver's Center for Marital and Family Studies.
"If you want to be a really good parent, the best way to do that is to love your partner and take care of your relationship," Jordan said. "That relationship sets the tone for the whole family." Ferdinand M. de Leon, whose own transition to parenthood began last December with the birth of his daughter, can be reached at 206-464-2741; his e-mail address is email@example.com. ------------------------------- Four warning signs of a marital meltdown
1. The relationship is more negative than positive. In marriages headed for divorce, things may be only slightly more negative than positive. But marriages that are doing well are at least five times more positive than negative.
2. You fight dirty. UW professor John Gottman calls these the four horsemen of the apocalypse: criticism (attacks on your partner's character), defensiveness (making your partner feel he or she is the problem), contempt (putting your partner down) and stonewalling (withdrawing during a fight).
To fight criticism, complain without criticizing. For defensiveness, try accepting some responsibility for a part of the problem. Contempt is best subverted by appreciation and pride in your partner. And the best way to handle stonewalling is by soothing yourself and taking a break.
3. Feeling emotionally flooded: hating the way your partner raises complaints and feeling unappreciated, misunderstood and overwhelmed by negativity. Gottman says it's the start of people withdrawing from the marriage. You can fight it by being soothing and calming, and taking a long break.
4. Attempts to make things better fail. Most couples have disagreements at some point, but they can fix things up. When repair attempts fail, that's a bad sign. One way to change that is by refusing to escalate fights.
(Source: John Gottman, University of Washington) -------------------------------
Calling all parents:
If you're a new parent, or if you remember way back to what it was like to be a new parent, tell us about what you and your spouse did to make your relationship a priority even after the arrival of your bundle of joy. (Or tell us what you didn't do or wish you had done.)
Call us at 206-464-8455; write us at Bundle of Joy, c/o Scene, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111; e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org; or fax us at 206-464-2239. Be sure to include a daytime telephone number.
"Becoming Parents: How to Strengthen Your Marriage as Your Family Grows" ($24, Jossey-Bass Publishers) is a user-friendly manual based on Pamela Jordan's parenting workshop. Jordan, an associate professor of family and child nursing at the University of Washington School of Nursing, wrote the book with Scott Stanley and Howard Markman, co-directors of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver.
"The Transition to Parenthood: How a First Child Changes a Marriage," by Jay Belsky and John Kelly. The book is out of print, but is available at some local libraries. Published in 1994 by Delacorte Press, the book features case studies from a seven-year longitudinal study by Belsky, a Penn State University professor who followed 250 couples over a period of nearly four years.
"When Parents Become Partners: The Big Life Change for Couples," by Carolyn Pape Cowan and Philip A. Cowan. Published in 1992, this book is being reissued in an updated edition this year. Amazon.com lists the book as available for special order, but price information wasn't available. The book, which is academic but accessible, is based on a 10-year study of new parents by the Cowans, who teach at the University of California, Berkeley.
The Gottman Institute is looking for volunteers for its three-year transition-to-parenthood study that starts in December. Interested couples about to have a baby or have recently had a child can call the University of Washington at 206-543-5372 or 206-543-4195. For more information on the couple counseling workshops offered by The Gottman Institute, call 206-523-9042.
Boot Camp for New Dads meets on the second Saturday of the month at Northwest Hospital, 1550 N. 115th St., Seattle. For more information, call 206-368-1784. The workshop, which costs $10, is for men only. Or check out the program's Web sight: http://www.newdads.com.
Evergreen Hospital Medical Center's Keys for Couples workshop will be held Nov. 12-13 in Kirkland, 12040 N.E. 128th St. To register, call Evergreen Health Line at 425-899-3000. The cost is $147 per couple.