Starting and raising a family is certainly a soul-shaping, world-altering experience – but first it's a marriage-shaping and relationship-altering experience. No marriage is ever the same once children come into the picture.
"When a baby arrives, everything changes," says family researcher John Gottman. "Parents must adapt to the 24/7 care of a new, vulnerable infant – an enormous task. Not surprisingly, 40 to 70 percent of couples experience stress, profound conflict and drops in marital satisfaction during this time."
Children can bring significant challenges for couples who married with the hope of spending their lives enjoying a soulmate connection. "Most Americans today don't marry in order to have children," writes author and researcher Barbara Dafoe Whitehead. "They marry in order to have an enduring relationship of love, friendship and emotional intimacy." But therein lies the rub. Whitehead explains:
Achieving this new marital ideal takes high levels of time, attention and vigilance. Like new babies, contemporary marriages have to be nurtured and coddled in order to thrive. The problem is that once a real baby comes along, the time, the effort and energy that goes into nurturing the relationship goes into nurturing the infant. As a result, marriages can become less happy and satisfying during the child-rearing years.1
Contrary to popular thought, however, your marriage can survive and even thrive as you take on the mission of a family. In fact, having children has the potential to deepen and mature a marriage.
Marriage therapists today often seek to correct the myth that having a baby will make a couple happier. They point out correctly that infants can add tremendous new stress to a marriage and aren't a good prescription for turning a bad marriage into a good one. What couples don't hear enough, however, is that letting their love spill over into a new life can give them a fresh sense of purpose in their marriage. Parenting requires couples to adjust expectations about their sex life, their sleep patterns and their ability to embark on last minute dates, but the parenting mission can mature and sweeten a marriage over the years when a couple commits to do it "as unto the Lord."
"[T]here is no substitute for the contribution that the shared work of raising children makes to the singular friendship and love of husband and wife," write Leon and Amy Kass in their book Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar. They go on to explain the unique distinction of that shared work: "Precisely because of its central procreative mission, and even more, because children are yours for a lifetime, this is a friendship that cannot be had with any other person."
A very old book about marriage and family offers a vision for how couples can grow through the process of starting a family. The book Home-Making, written by J. R. Miller in the late 1800s, uses some language we don't hear much anymore, but provides a vision that is timeless:
It is a new marriage when the first-born enters the home. It draws the wedded lives together in a closeness they have never known before. It touches chords in their hearts that have lain silent until now. It calls out powers that have never been exercised before. Hitherto unsuspected beauties of character appear. The laughing heedless girl of a year ago is transformed into a thoughtful woman. The careless, unsettled youth leaps into manly strength and into fixedness of character when he looks into the face of his own child and takes it in his bosom.
Yes, having children will change your marriage, but you can trust that God designed your marriage to grow and deepen through that change. The marriage ceremony in older versions of the Book of Common Prayer explain that marriage was ordained for "mutual society, help, and comfort," but it also says that marriage was ordained "for the procreation of children." God didn't design those reasons for marriage to contradict each other. With His grace and wisdom, you can have both kids and a great marriage.
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