What Having a Second Child Can Do to a Marriage in the First Year
By: Rhona Berens, PhD, CPCC
My wife, J, is 8.5 months pregnant. She insists that the 0.5 matters when you’re the one carrying the baby, and I believe her. (As anyone who has lived with a pregnant woman knows, believing /agreeing with her is imperative to everyone’s wellbeing.)
Both of us have always wanted kids, plural. We’ve held on to that desire, despite my infertility and despite the physical, emotional, and financial demands of J getting pregnant the first time. Our fertility doctor still refers to S, our daughter, as a “miracle baby.” We couldn’t agree more.
Like a lot of life decisions, our visions of the future—what we want as much as what we don’t want—play their part. As the youngest of six close siblings, J couldn’t imagine S not having a brother or sister. As a pseudo-only child growing up (don’t ask), I’ve yearned for a sibling who shares my family history. Plus, we’re both in our 40s—well into them in my case (J says she’s not yet well into hers and I believe her)—and we know that, no matter how we slice it, S will be relatively young when we die. While a sibling won’t prevent that, we imagine that sharing that loss will be helpful.
Of course, there’s no guarantee that S and her brother (yes, we’re having a boy) will get along. The focus on sibling rivalry in a lot of parenting books suggests they might not. Yet, we’re optimistic and prefer to believe those studies that indicate that, by their mid-teens and adulthood, if not sooner, most people really value their sibling relationships.
It’s not as if we didn’t talk about the real or imagined downsides of having a second child before J got pregnant again. We discussed exponentially increased (not just doubled) childcare demands, expanded household tasks (e.g., more laundry!), even less alone time for us individually and as a couple, increased financial demands, more pressure on work-life balance, higher stress on our relationship, and so on.
As a coach who specializes in helping couples stay connected after they have kids, I’m keenly aware of the research on this topic and the fact that most new parents report a major decline in relationship happiness after the birth of their first child.
Interestingly, studies focus overwhelmingly on new parents, leaving the impact of subsequent children mostly to speculation, which often goes something like this: Though we haven’t studied the effect of additional children on relationship satisfaction, we anticipate it’s even stronger (meaning, worse) than with the first.
Those few studies that have looked at the impact of more than one child (e.g., by Arlie Hochschild or Rebecca Upton) reinforce the claim that >1 child = yikes! Specifically, as Jennifer Bingham Hull, author of Beyond One, notes:
The birth of a second child commences the most difficult year in a marriage.
Individual happiness, too, seems to suffer, at least for moms. According to Hans-Peter Kohler, a sociologist at University of Pennsylvania, a first baby positively enhances individual happiness for mothers and fathers, while a second child has a negative impact on Mom’s individual happiness (and a neutral effect on Dad’s).
Of course, given the heterosexual bias of this study (and most existing research on the impact of kids on individual and relationship happiness), I have no idea if this spells double-trouble for two moms and double-joy (or no biggie) for two dads.
Assuming for the moment, that subsequent children are not a boon to personal satisfaction, and considering research that suggests a mother’s relationship with her first-born deteriorate after having a second child, why would we, informed parents and spouses devoted to relationship happiness, still have another child? How did we weigh these compelling negatives against possible positives?
In truth, we didn’t, insofar as life decisions like whether or not to have a 2nd or 3rd or 10th child are leaps of faith (unless, of course, religion is what compels us to have kids).
After all, how can we fully evaluate pros and cons when the outcomes are so unknown?
We won’t truly know how much a second child impacts our relationship satisfaction—negatively or positively—until after our son is here; we won’t know if our son and daughter build a lifelong connection as siblings until they’re older; we won’t ever really know if our relationship with our daughter suffers due to the birth of our son, given that we won’t be able to gauge how she would have fared developmentally during that same period without his presence…
We’re willing to take these risks because we believe that, for us, the perceived benefits outweigh perceived downsides. We’re also willing to leap because we’re committed to mitigating at least some risks, like relationship stress, for example, by booking regular date nights as quickly as possible after our son is born.
One of the things I always discuss with expecting couples is the presumption that, no matter how many friends we’ve seen experience relationship trouble after the birth of a child, most of us assume our experience with our spouse will be different.
No doubt, my wife and I are guilty of that, too. But there’s something else at work for us and for all couples who take time to better understand their own desires for growing their families, and the potential risks in doing so:
We’re going into this with our eyes, not just our hearts, wide open.
Our expectations of what might occur include the risks, as well as benefits. Studies by family life researchers, Philip and Carolyn Cowan, suggest that pre-baby expectations—yes, for new parents—are 1 of the top 3 factors affecting a couple’s satisfaction levels after they have a child. In other words, the relationship fallout for our transition to parenthood is more challenging if we have inaccurate or unrealistic pre-baby expectations.
Hopefully, having somewhat realistic expectations of the impact of a second child will also ease our transition to becoming parents for the second time. At the very least, we hope our perspective will if not lessen the challenges of having another kid, then, allow us to navigate them with some degree of grace, and the knowledge that we’ve chosen our family, risks and all, whole-heartedly. That alone warrants our joy and gratitude.
Rhona Berens, PhD, CPCC is an Individual & Relationship Coach, and Founder of Parent Alliance® (www.parentalliance.com), a relationship resource for expecting couples, and parents of young children, who want their relationships to stay joyful and connected after they have kids.
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