By Molly Ritvo
In her pivotal 2007 book Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence, Esther Perel explores the complexity couples face after having children. “Having a baby is a psychological revolution that changes our relationship to almost everything and everyone, from our sense of self and identity to our relations with our partners, friends, parents, and in-laws. The making of a family calls for a redistribution of resources and, for awhile, there seems to be less for the couple: less time, less communication, less sleep, less money, less freedom, less touch, less intimacy, less privacy,” she writes.
According to Perel, the addition of children brings less spontaneity, which poses challenges to a marriage. “Family life flourishes in an atmosphere of comfort and consistency. Yet, eroticism resides in unpredictability and risk. …Sex, a harbinger of loss of control, is fraught with uncertainty and vulnerability. But when kids come on the scene, our tolerance for these destabilizing emotions takes a dive. Perhaps this is why so often it is relegated to the fringes of family life. What eroticism thrives on, family life defends against.”
This constant tension of craving adventure in the face of a very drudgerious, tedious experience of caring for a newborn can leave happily married people in a state of tremendous stress. Dr. Bruce Chalmer, clinical psychologist and a former Montpelier resident and grandfather, agrees with Perel: “Maintaining intimacy can be especially acute for new parents, for whom there is suddenly a new person in the mix whose needs necessarily take precedence for a long time. For intimacy—by which I mean emotional honesty with yourself and each other—the skills you need aren’t at all about lowering anxiety. Rather, you need to be able to tolerate anxiety without freaking out.”
While hearing from experts is affirming, hearing from those in the trenches offers more comfort. As a new mother of an almost one-year-old, I can attest to the challenges that come with adjusting to a new normal, most significantly the lack of time to connect and the lack of sleep. Jessica Ticktin, a freelance writer, educator, and mama of four in Burlington, agrees that having children “can be a difficult time for many couples” and encourages new parents “to find ways to have fun to offset some of the heaviness that can settle into couples after having a baby, when both of you are feeling overwhelmed and exhausted.”
She also observes that having children can, in fact, make a marriage healthier. “Having kids made my marriage stronger,” she says. “It allowed my husband and me to give to each other and be really vulnerable and support each other. We also saw each other in a new light as we took on new roles and this increased our attraction to each other because we were so amazed by the other’s skill and compassion with our children.”
Holly Lane of East Montpelier, a nonprofit professional and mother of four, recalls that her marriage also changed for the better after having children. “Babies bring so much joy, but they steal away your sleep, your downtime (that was a thing once, right?), your money, your time to do anything but the essentials. At the same time, in the haze of exhaustion, for me, building our family made us more of a team. Humor became a shared coping mechanism; we had our inside jokes and our shared quirky sense of humor to help us through the questioning, philosophizing, and compromising that parenting demands. And then there’s the challenge of figuring out how to balance taking care of our own needs while taking care of each other while also, together, taking care of the small people we created together—and that’s a shape shifter of a task, but I absolutely cannot imagine doing it with anyone other than my husband.”
As for me, watching my husband become a father has been such a joy. He is tender and loving with our daughter and cherishes making her laugh and watching her grow and change. I’ve also deeply missed the times when we could just hang out together without being exhausted or always listening to the monitor and creating the weekly jigsaw puzzle of daycare pickup and dropoff. We’ve also grown a lot together—and individually—over the past year. We’re better at prioritizing the endless demands and do our best to help the other, and we’ve become great at finding an hour for a walk outside together in the middle of a hectic day.
Becoming a family is not easy, but it holds a promise for so much joy. “I think of having children as the beginning of becoming a family, not just becoming parents,” Lane remarks. “A first baby is like a crazy trust exercise; if you’re lucky, you have a trusted partner alongside you. Hold on to the humor. Watch for the wonder. Be kind to yourselves and to each other. Embrace the challenges. It’s always hard, but always worth it.” Ticktin agrees, noting that it’s more important than ever to find enjoyment in the haze of new parenting: “I teach birth classes to expectant couples, and when we cover the postpartum stuff I always tell them to find ways to connect with each other even if it means bringing the baby with them. Try doing something together that’s fun and gets you moving. Fresh air and getting out of your house is key.”
I’ve also taken solace in reminding myself that this is just a chapter. Dr. Shara Brofman, a clinical psychologist specializing in the psychology of family building, reminds new parents that it’s important to look at the bigger chapter: “When couples are struggling, it’s important to take a step back, take a breath, and think about what has worked in the past to manage stress. You already have skills that can help. Although people may have the sense that they’re starting from square one, it’s usually not an accurate or full picture. Keep in mind that this is also a particularly difficult time, and that things may become easier in certain ways in the long run. You’ll likely need to make adjustments and process the loss of what was, but it doesn’t mean that something new can’t at times be wonderful, or even just fine.”
As Valentine’s Day approaches, this is the perfect time to bring a little more love and romance into our lives, with or without a baby. And to remind ourselves that although happily-ever-after may be a product of Disney movies and fairy tales, finding pockets of joy in marriage with children is something always worth celebrating.