Bethenny Frankel in her new show Bethenny Ever After opens up about the trials of being married. In the season premier, she talks of how she feels “tortured” in her marriage. At the NBC Universal TCA Press Tour, she stated that, “I just turned 41, and to be perfectly honest, I unintentionally crammed everything in. I got pregnant. I got married eight months pregnant and now I sold my business.”
Wow. Bethenny definitely has a lot going on. But we know one thing is clear. She and her husband of two years, Jason Hoppy, just had a baby. They are now learning that parenthood changes…everything. Here are a few gems we heard along the way:
“I expected to add diaper, pacifier, formula to my new motherhood vocabulary—I didn’t think f*!# and s#*# would feature so prominently!”
—Lisa, married 5 years, 1 kid
“What I get from other women is what I need, and that is help. I don’t even have to ask other women for help, they just volunteer. What do I get from my husband? I get a sink full of dirty plates, a pile of dirty clothes on the stairs, and a child dressed for church in a football jersey.”
—Katherine, married 8 years, 2 kids
“My wife doesn’t understand how important sex is to me. Everywhere I go, sex is screaming at me. There are hot women in advertisements on billboards, and before I know it I find myself imagining Gina down in Accounts Payable wearing a nurse’s outfit.”
—Thomas, married 11 years, 1 kid
We are three women who love our children. We love our husbands, and they love us. Like Bethenny and Jason, we wondered, why on earth did we find ourselves so often at odds after the babies came home? Our pre-baby marriages were really good, maybe even great. So why weren’t we talking the way we used to? Why were we bickering? Why were we so infuriated at our husbands’ inability to find the sippy cups? Why were our husbands distraught that our enthusiasm for sex had dwindled to “folding the laundry” levels? Were we normal? Or was something seriously wrong?
Turns out we were totally, utterly (even slightly boringly) normal.
We figured this out because we started talking; first to each other, then to a handful of friends, and then, well, things got out of hand and we started writing a book about it. At that point, no one was safe. We accosted total strangers in checkout lines and captive fellow passengers on airplanes. We talked to legions of women who, just like us, dreaded their husbands’ Ten O’Clock Shoulder Tap. They wondered what had happened to That Whole 50:50 Thing and why the lion’s share of the domestic crap was falling on their plates. We talked to countless men and learned that, like our husbands, they despaired that their wives had pulled a Bait and Switch in the bedroom. They complained that no matter what they did to help with the kids, the house, and the bank balance, It Was Never Enough.
Through all the talking, it became clear that most couples, no matter how happy and secure their marriage may be, find the early parenting years a challenge (on a good day) or even seriously relationship-threatening (on a bad day).
In fact, if you read the latest studies, you’d think we have a national epidemic of miserable parents on our hands. A well-publicized 1994 Penn State study said that, “two-thirds of married -couples report a decline in their marital relationship upon the birth of their children.” Ten years later, things hadn’t improved at all. An August 2005 report from the University of Washington found the same thing. What’s more, a December 2005 study of 13,000 people published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior said parents reported being more miserable (“sad, distracted or depressed”) than non-parents.
How did so many of us wind up here? And, more importantly, can we do anything to avoid spending the next fifty years of our lives here? Parenthood changes us, and our lives, so profoundly. It changes how we view ourselves and each other; what we need from and are able to put into our marriages. Babyproofing Your Marriage is about understanding these changes and how we react to them. At its heart, it’s about keeping marriages on an even keel after the baby bomb arrives. It’s about the simple things we can do to stay connected as a couple after we have kids.
So, What Is Going On?
During our intrepid journey of marital discovery we learned—much to our relief—that many of the bumps couples might encounter along the way just can’t be helped. The emotional, psychological, and lifestyle upheavals that accompany parenthood are unavoidable. They’re nobody’s fault. We’re not necessarily doing anything wrong.
Topping the list of things we just can’t help is our DNA, or as we three aspiring evolutionary biologists like to call it, Hardwiring. It took having kids for us to realize that men and women are completely different animals and, as a result, we respond to parenthood in drastically different ways. Our genetically-programmed instincts are at the root of many of our modern-day frustrations. They affect our post-baby sex lives, how we parent, and our relationships with our families, often in ways we’re not conscious of. Secondly, there’s the inconvenient matter of planetary rotation. Our sixteen waking hours are not enough to do everything we have to do, much less anything we want to do. And finally, it doesn’t help that most of us are Deer in the Headlights. We’re basically clueless about how parenthood will make us feel. An iron curtain of secrecy hides the reality. No one, not even our own parents, will tell it like it is. (Remember those cryptic comments you heard before you had kids: “Don’t have a baby until you’re ready to give up your life”? To which you responded, “Huh?”) This Global Conspiracy of Silence means that most of us are ill-equipped to deal with the sea of change that a baby brings. No one prepares us for the Parenthood Ass-Kicking Party.
To some extent, we new parents are at the mercy of millions of years of evolutionary biology, the twenty-four-hour day and pure ignorance. These three factors set the stage for the various post-baby disconnects we’ll describe in this book. Add in the facts that (a) we aren’t very nice when we’re tired and (b) we think we can get our lives back to the way they were before kids, and we can find ourselves facing some serious marital struggles. No matter how good our intentions are, most of us encounter some, if not all, of the following issues:
1. How We Behave as Parents. Those hardwired instincts we just mentioned, the ones we never knew we had, kick in when a baby arrives. A woman’s Mommy Chip is activated and she gets compulsive. “Is this sunscreen strong enough? Do we have enough bananas in the house?” Meanwhile, a man’s first instinct upon gazing into the crib is Provider Panic: “Gee, I better go make more money.” She thinks he just doesn’t “get it.” He wonders why she’s turned into a control-freak, bottle-wielding shrew.
2. The Post-Baby Sexual Disconnect. His sex drive doesn’t change. She wants to shut down the factory while caring for the most recent offspring. To be honest, the three of us breathed a sigh of relief when we learned that ours were not the only marriages with some supply and demand issues. It was comforting to learn that like us, most women’s libidos had also gone MIA after the kids arrived. Men, however, told us they still wanted sex just as much as they always had, baby or no baby. We were amazed at the level of anguish men felt when they were rejected repeatedly by their wives. When we heard guys like Thomas say, “It’s humiliating and painful when you are rejected at your most vulnerable, when you’re naked. And when that happens three times in a row, it’s soul-destroying,” we rushed back to our own husbands to ask them if that assessment was accurate. Their response: “AbsoF’nlutely.”
3. The Division of Labor. It’s hard work, and there’s a mountain of it. Dishes, laundry, feeding, changing, picking up toys, and keeping a job—every day is Groundhog Day. Not surprisingly, couples end up fighting about who does what, or rather who’s not doing what. We keep score. No matter how spectacular the Scorekeeping, however (and the three of us have been fairly spectacular), no one wins.
“Am I supposed to gush over what a fine job he did emptying the dishwasher? What does he want, a gold star?”
—Leslie, married 8 years, 3 kids
“What’s the score? Ha. The score is always zero when I walk in the door at the end of the day.”
—Nick, married 7 years, 2 kids
4. Family (aka: The In-Laws and Outlaws) Pressures. Before we have kids, our extended families, for the most part, stay on the sidelines of our marriages. Have a baby and it all changes. Our parents and in-laws all jockey for a piece of the kid action. Their desire to be involved is another evolutionary imperative; each set of grandparents wants to leave the biggest mark on the child for all posterity. And plenty of us cheer them on. We want to make sure that our families have as great, if not a greater, influence than our spouse’s.
No matter how wonderful and helpful they are (and for the record, all of ours are fabulous . . .) balancing the time spent with, and the respective influence of, our extended families is a challenge for most couples. Meddlesome in-laws can provoke an “If I have to spend one more weekend with them, I’m seriously going to hurt somebody” response from even the most tolerant of spouses. And some of us infuriate our other halves with our exceedingly poor job of Cutting the Cord (“When Danny’s mother is here, he turns into a complete lazy ass.” “Why does my wife want to move back near her family all of a sudden?”) as we don the new and unfamiliar mantle of grown-up-with-kids-of-our-own.
5. Who Gets to Sleep In or Go for a Jog on Saturday Morning? Naturally, “me time” takes a big hit after we have kids. We quite rightly give our children the time and attention they deserve, but doing so means the days are full and our tanks are empty. We often end up fighting over the precious scraps of free time that remain.
“I really resent that he wants to take off for five hours to play golf on a Saturday, then he expects me to be oh-so-grateful because he watches the kids while I go to yoga for an hour. Big friggin’ deal.”
—Jane, married 9 years, 2 kids
When we don’t find the time for the activities that recharge us, we get testy, and our spouse’s habits—once “cute and quirky”—become infuriating. A little bit of self-neglect can actually spell trouble for our marriages.
6. What Happened to Us? After kids, because we’re so busy, it’s easy to neglect our relationship. There are no more “deep and meaningfuls.” Instead, it’s “time to make the donuts” . . . every single day. When we don’t spend time together, our marriage can slip into Autopilot. Destination: “Who are you and what are you doing in my bed?”
“The people I know whose marriages are breaking up now have ignored their relationship like a houseplant that never gets any water.”
—Mark, married 11 years, 2 kids
Ultimately, we all want what’s best for our kids. We’ll do pretty much whatever it takes to make them happy. Many of us, however, overlook the fact that a husband and wife’s relationship is the linchpin of the family. When it falters, a child’s world is unhinged. We know that can seem counterintuitive when we’re heading out for a date with one toddler clamped to our leg and another pleading for a bedtime story. But nurturing our marital relationship is central to our children’s sense of security and happiness. Being a good spouse and a good parent are not mutually exclusive.
What Can We Do About It?
The dark, looming abyss that seems to separate us after we have kids is an impediment, but it is not insurmountable. We’ve learned that there are many things you can do to improve your relationship, and quite frankly, most of those things aren’t really all that hard. So check out Babyproofing Your Marriage. You may find a solution or two that can make a difference. Or better yet, you may read the side-splitting quotes and stories of over 500 people and realize, hey, we are NORMAL.
Bethenny and Jason, let us know if you’d like us to send you copy.
* Image from http://www.gossipcenter.com