When your three-year-old climbs onto your lap and asks, "Do you love me the best, Mama?," what do you say? "Well, yes, but not as much as I love your Daddy?" I don't think so.
And yet, when I got pregnant I received some not-so-gentle advice from the older women in my life: "You're going to love this baby more than life itself. Just don't tell your husband," said one. "You don't want to neglect your husband, dear. Let him know he's still the most important person in your world," said another.
But, I didn't take their arguably sage advice. Here's why.
Since the 1980s, at least two-dozen studies have posited the idea that the quality of a marriage drops once the couple has kids. These studies say that marital dissatisfaction comes from parents' loss of freedom and their childless status quo. And when kids leave the nest, studies show that parents are happier than any other time in their relationship. Although they miss their kids, they revel in their new freedoms and revisit old marital activities, sometimes ones they haven't experienced since before the first child was born.
All this should have terrified my husband and I when we started The Talk—the one about trying for a baby. After all, I'd heard for years that kids could break a marriage. But instead, my husband and I talked about money. My biggest worry was that the mounting cost of diapers would revive our old checkbook quarrels, so we agreed not to fight about spending on the baby.
Research shows that parents who plan ahead avoid the relationship-ruining discord the old studies talk about. A recent study by professors at the University of California at Berkeley found a flaw in the bulk of the "kids ruin marriage" studies: they didn't take into account parental mindset before baby made three.
Parents who disagreed about making a baby, parents who were complacent about the process and parents who never had the chance to plan (the so-called "oops" pregnancy) were much more likely to struggle post-birth.
Professors Philip and Carolyn Cowan report that parents who walk in with their eyes wide open and all their wits about them are in for a pleasant surprise. Planning parenthood makes for happier parents, in other words.
When I gave birth to my daughter, we weren't looking to fix our marriage with a baby. We weren't on two different pages, one of us baby-hungry and the other just going along for the ride. We—both of us—wanted to be parents, which left us both open to falling in love; this time that all-consuming love you have for your child.
And while we loved—and still love—each other, when we looked at the little bundle placed in my arms in the delivery room, we were—as a couple—hopelessly, totally gone. We love each other as two best friends who have shared passion and triumph and had a meeting of the minds. In the other, we found our other half, and we were fulfilled.
And we love our daughter, too. Fiercely. And in ways that we can't love each other. It's partly because we created her—although I firmly believe that parents who adopt have as strong a claim to the love of a child as we do. It's also because we chose her—we actively made a decision to become parents.
Since our daughter was born, love is Saturday mornings when I stay in bed while he gets up to turn on cartoons and pour cereal in bowls; it's the Sunday mornings I let him doze while I cuddle on the couch with our toddler and a pile of books. It's a kiss and a hug on the way out the door to work . . . followed by a high five, as directed by the three-year-old who gets the same routine. And I love him all the more for letting her play cruise director.
My husband and I became parents because we want to give everything we have to our daughter, and the reward will be watching her walk down a graduation aisle, get married, have children of her own. When she makes a mistake or lets us down, it doesn't decrease the love, it makes us work harder.
But perhaps the biggest difference lies as much in the past as it does in the future. With a child, you will always be her parent. Without me, there is no her. With a spouse, there is still that life before you met, the period of time when you were two distinct people. I am still me without my husband. Our daughter isn't.
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