March 7, 2000 (Santa Fe, N.M.) -- It's probably always been a struggle to maintain emotional intimacy with one's partner while taking care of young children, but according to new findings at the University of California at Berkeley, putting the two together is becoming more and more difficult.
Carolyn Pape Cowan and Philip Cowan, University of California at Berkeley psychologists, have been studying young parents -- two-job families -- since 1979. In the latest edition of their book, When Partners Become Parents: The Big Life Change for Couples (January 2000), results of recent research following 100 families who had 4-year-old children show that the risk of marital strain for such couples has increased in the last 10 years, while the level of support has fallen.
"Parents are more stressed now than were parents in the mid-90s, and as a society we don't take very good care of the parents in our communities," says Carolyn Cowan. "Then we wonder why there are problem children and why so many couples split up." She cites increasing work pressures and fewer provisions for health care among the stresses felt by the families she studied. Since these families have two incomes, says Cowan, the assumption might be made that they have no problems. "But such couples often have little time together."
"They are tired, and isolated," Cowan says. "The danger is that stress seeps into their relationship as couples; then the children feel it and tend to have more behavior problems or worry about things being their fault, or get depressed, even aggressive. And that adds to the spiral of family tension." In these circumstances, an event such as a child's starting a new school or a parent's job change can trigger a family meltdown.
The Pressure-Cooked Family
Consider one young pair of hard-working attorneys, married five years, with a 3-year-old daughter who had been attending a fine day care center with extended hours where she was blissfully happy. But when the day care owner abruptly decided to close, the parents soon found themselves arguing late at night, and their daughter would wake up crying. They hadn't realized how tired they were, or how vulnerable, says Cowan. Also cited in the study was a new father who found himself receiving a cigar in the boss's office on a Friday just after the baby's birth. "But just don't forget," the boss reminded the happy dad, "I still want that report on my desk by Monday. "
Overwhelmed parents constitute a national crisis, says veteran family therapist Braulio Montalvo, co-author with Marla Isaacs and David Abelsohn of The Therapy of Difficult Divorce. "There is so much talk of recent prosperity, but it doesn't drip down to where the support is needed," says Montalvo. "The family in this country is besieged, and it is an inter-institutional problem. We need quality day care for workers with young children and enlightened corporate policy supported by the federal government. People think we are at the top of the world, but we have a lot to learn."
Cowan, too, says the working world makes few concessions to families these days. "These couples need parental leave, flex time, time off when children are ill." But despite the booming economy, parents don't feel they can bargain with employers. And, says Cowan, most parents feel alone in their problems. Single mothers suffer too, of course. "They are tired, often not emotionally available to their children after a long day at work, and many of them worry about leaving their children in substandard day care."
Sarah Davis, who teaches a course in stress management at Santa Fe Community College in New Mexico, knows about women with young children working on a survival level. "It describes most of my class. Several of them even have two jobs, and all of them worry about the kind of day care their children are getting." Davis has seen a healthy camaraderie build as people in her class share and discuss problems. Although it might not remove the obstacles, just being heard eases some of the stress.
The Road to Survival
The Cowans make a case for professionally guided support groups and counseling -- where they say even a little help can make a difference. In the original study, a group of new parents picked at random met with psychologists over a six-month period to discuss issues from raising children to relationships with their own parents. After three years no divorces had occurred in this group, while the families without such support had a 15% divorce rate.
Carolyn Cowan says it's important for stressed parents to know they are not alone. "Most people don't know that. The tendency is to blame their partner: 'You're not here enough, and I'm doing more.' " She urges parents to keep in touch with each other as best they can despite the obstacles. "Our results make it clear that mothers and fathers in satisfying adult relationships are more effective with their children. Don't let the marriage go onto the back burner, make time for it, time to connect with your partner. Don't get so distant that you're living in separate worlds, not appreciating the stress in each other's lives."
Some couples find it helpful to find 10 minutes a day for an uninterrupted conversation just to check in. This may mean setting the alarm 10 minutes early or stepping out onto the porch to talk, or grabbing a few minutes after a toddler drops off to sleep at night. If time permits, an evening out together can be a wonderful way to reconnect. And if you need professional help, by all means get it. "Do it for your children," says Cowan. "You will reap the rewards."
Jeanie Puleston Fleming writes frequently for The New York Times and other publications.